Baseball: The Hits, The Steals, The Double Plays

When I was a kid I loved baseball. Loved it.

Well, I loved the idea of loving baseball, anyways.

What I actually did was get swept up in my uncle’s love for baseball, which was unbridled and infectious. I did play a summer or two of Little League, but otherwise most of my fandom was due to the collectability of trading cards (I once wrote to Topps and received a pamphlet about their history), the mental gymnastics and memorization of statistics on said cards (a precursor to my love of role-playing games) and a Tiger Electronic handheld game I absolutely adored. I never watching any MLB games or kept up with their rankings, that was too boring; I found myself immersed in a world without ever actually immersing myself in it.

These days I love watching my son play America’s greatest pastime; his love for the sport is unbridled and infectious. Watching his games are way more fun and intense than anything on television, which I imagine is part and parcel with the fact that I have a horse in the race, as it were. There’s something visceral to its simplicity, a team sport whose ebb and flow are dictated by individual feats. I enjoy it for the same camaraderie some probably get out of professional ball, but with a more personal community of friends, family and neighbors.

Booting up Nintendo’s Baseball is an interesting study in how you can satiate your nostalgia but also connect with your present. I grew up loving R.B.I. Baseball, but this take scratches that same itch to play 8-bit ball. It shares the same candor; it’s not muddled by any kind of statistical angle, instead content with letting you focus on the main tenets of batting, pitching and fielding.

I don’t know what baseball video games were like prior to this, but I have to imagine that it never even came close to being as intuitive. The d-pad is a perfect analogy for the bases; each cardinal direction being the corresponding bag from your viewpoint. It also allows you to move your batter in the box in order to get the type of hit you’re going for and gives you a healthy selection of pitches to choose from as well. The A button does all the main actions you can think of and B is for more advanced maneuvers once you get the basics down pat. Baseball looks rough by today’s standards, but it controls live beyond its presentation.

Fielding is a bit of a dark cloud to an otherwise solid outing; the controls are dictated by A.I. circa the early eighties and not by the player. It’s only noticeable if you’re playing against the computer, whose outfield plays with the utmost efficiency and catches every pop fly, grounder and foul ball that comes within their vicinity. In a glowing example of dirty design, your team bumbles around as balls soar or roll past them and slowly toss them back to the infield in what is most definitely a deliberate choice to screw you over.

All this is mitigated by playing Baseball the way it was intended – with someone else. When both teams make Abbott and Costello style mistakes the playing field is most definitely evened. Like most video game representation of sports it’s just infinitely more fun with a healthy dose of competition and fellowship with someone sitting next to you on the couch. Even with other options available to him, my son likes to come back to Baseball because it’s so easy to pick up and play. Sometimes his ambition and thus his mouth gets in the way, but then his dad quickly reminds him of a home run win he made and maybe posterizes it for him to hang on his bedroom wall.

It’s cool to be able to get wistful about relics of my past while making new memories with my son. I think my kids have a knack for looking past the archaic nature of classic games so long as the foundation is still solid, and Baseball definitely still holds up. Observing their reactions is always entertaining, but doubly so when we get to play something together.

Baseball may not be 1939 Yankees, but it’s definitely like the Bad News Bears.

  • DEVELOPED BY: Nintendo
  • PUBLISHED BY: Nintendo
  • RELEASED IN: 1985
  • PLATFORM: Nintendo Entertainment System
  • PLAYED ON: Nintendo Switch (Nintendo Switch Online – Nintendo Entertainment System)

Tetris 99: Ninety-Nine Problems But a Brick Ain’t One

I think I’m finally an adult now; I’m ready to admit that I love Tetris.

Growing up I knew full and well that Tetris was a phenomenon, not just in the scope of video games but in the general cultural zeitgeist at large. My mom of all people loved it. Your parents probably loved it, too. Maybe even your grandparents did. Hell, there’s a picture of Hillary Clinton playing it.

But my mom did in fact love it, therefore I could not.

At 11 or 12 my interpretation of cool was probably questionable, but the clinical presentation and lack of pop, along with the fact that, again, my mother enjoyed it, meant that Tetris was anything but cool. What makes that hang-up even more annoying is that I knew Tetris was good and actually had fun playing it the handful of times I did, but it had this air of adulthood to it that drove me away from acknowledging that fact.

I’ve dabbled in a lot of Tetris spinoffs (get it?!) from the rotund stylings of Tetrisphere to the abundantly nostalgic Tetris DS and everything in between. While they are fun and diversionary at best, the truth of the matter is that the core mechanic of Alexy Pajitnov’s seminal classic is so strong that it’s hard not to get drawn back to the simple but addictive game play of the original. I’m always open to new ideas, but will eventually pine for merely surviving for as long as possible while the pieces drop quicker and the music picks up the pace and my anxiety level.

The only other mode that gets a free pass is multiplayer. It’s interesting because it very much feels like solo play but with just enough extra abstraction to keep it interesting. You can go about your business without worrying about what the other person is doing while in the back of your mind knowing that if they clear four lines or make a miraculous save…you’re going to get your board pushed up on you. It’s hard to get too upset over winning or losing because the fun is in this extra layer of challenge presented in this than in the actual act of winning.

Again, feeling like an adult right now.

This all comes into play because Nintendo and Arika brought us Tetris 99, bringing back a milieu we all thought was lost back in 1989. More importantly it brought back competitive multiplayer in a form that feels familiar at first but reveals its true intentions quickly.

Tetris 99 is basically an interpretation of the popular battle royale genre in puzzle form. It’s you against, well, ninety-nine other players to see who can play Tetris the longest. At its core everything is mostly the same: you can hard drop pieces, hold them by pressing a shoulder button and even t-block spin – it’s all there and how you remember it. When your opponents do well clearing their board, yours gets pushed up. Its par for the course and that does the game a huge favor; it’s as engaging and inviting in the clichéd “easy to learn, hard to master” train of thought as it always was. What sets it up as its own beast and such an amazing game in its own right is how you interact with other players.

You can play Tetris 99 like you have since time immemorial and find success, but to survive regularly and finish at the top (as second place is still the first loser) you have to play a meta game in which you decide how you interact with everybody. The right analog stick serves as a lever that you adjust to plan out where you’re sending garbage blocks. You can set it to knock out players that are close to the top or to take out top players. You can specify that they’ll go to those out to get you, or roll the dice and just let it go randomly. It sounds stupid, but it’s weirdly gratifying to dictate how you play against ninety-nine other folks. Again, it’s just enough of a change that it makes the whole thing thrilling without betraying the core conceit of the game.

When you look at Tetris 99 from afar there’s this realization that it is a very bare bones experience. And maybe with time they’ll add some more nuance or modes to round it out. Beyond playing old out-of-print games, this is the first instance where I’ve made continual use of my Switch’s online subscription. More than Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, more than Splatoon 2, more than Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. What’s more is that I have to share with my wife, so intriguing and beguiling Tetris 99 is. The game does a good job of bringing me back thanks to its themed weekends in which you can unlock new skins based on the original game or Splatoon.

It took me thirty years to realize it, but my mom was right — Tetris is pretty damn cool.

  • PUBLISHED BY: Nintendo
  • RELEASED ON: February 13th, 2019
  • PLATFORM: Nintendo Switch