With certain sports, making an “extreme” version for a video game is less of a stretch of the imagination than others. NBA Jam makes sense because of the vertical nature of basketball, so it wasn’t hard to exaggerate features like monster dunks and players being able to hit from anywhere on the floor once they get hot. NFL Blitz works because of the violent nature of football, so why not have freakishly large defenders suplexing ball carriers and quarterbacks launch passes deep enough to qualify as international flights? Ready 2 Rumble Boxing worked because…um…on second thought, lemme get back to you on that…anywho, baseball is a little more difficult to imagine in extreme form because of the staid, bland image of the game, but in the summer of ’93, Tradewest put together a pretty memorable reimagining of stuffy ol’ baseball, set in the dystopian future of five years from now, it’s Super Baseball 2020.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice is that the field itself has been rejiggered a bit from your normal ballpark. Foul territory has been scaled back considerably, now cutting off along first and third base instead of extending all the way down the left and right field lines. In the shallow outfield on both sides are stop zones, which kill any ball that lands on it dead, allowing infielders to catch up with screaming line drives before they turn into extra bases. Balls clear the fence into the stands with regularity, but only shots to straightaway center field can be home runs, otherwise, they’ll hit an invisible wall several rows deep and bounce and carom back into the field of play. Even balls that look like sure thing home runs aren’t guaranteed, either, as home run territory is guarded by a jump zone that allows fielders to skyrocket into the air to rob batters.
That being said, this is an arcade port, so everything controls fairly smoothly. Pitchers can make the ball move after releasing it, while batters have pretty much free reign to move around the batter’s box, and can full swing, check swing, and bunt. Fielding is manual but not too terribly hard to get used to, although there’s no radar to tell where your fielders are or markers to tell where the ball will drop, the computer does a pretty competent job of pointing them in the right direction until they come on-screen and pass to your control. In fact, the only real problem I had fielding was trying to snag balls at the jump zone, as your fielders have a nasty habit of trying to guess where the ball will land instead of where it will clear the fence and getting hung up on the wall.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of SB2020, though, is the upgrade system. Over the course of the game, players can earn money for good plays, hits, diving catches, and such, and lose money for bad plays, getting out, plunking opposing batters, and giving up hits. You can then use that money to upgrade individual players’ abilities temporarily, such as hitting or pitching, so if you have runners on base and want to juice up your batter to make sure you get something out of the inning, or if you’re protecting a slim lead late and want your pitcher to have a little extra oomph on their fastball, you can do it, as well as being able to change regular human players into robots, which provides a huge boost, albeit shortly before they go back to human mode. Also, to spice things up down the stretch, in the seventh inning, both teams are given a boost to their hitting power, which can flip the game dramatically.
Wait, did I just say robot players? Yes, as a matter of fact, there are robot players on display here, including a couple of teams (the Mechanical Brains and Taiwan Megapowers) comprised almost entirely of robots. To be fair, though, it’s not quite as much of an advantage as you think, as robot players are capable of fatiguing and breaking down entirely, eventually blowing up and turning a rusty gray color. I do give the designers some credit for trying to make teams stand out from one another; aside from the robot-heavy squads, there’s also an all-female team that seems to get incredibly lucky and is a total pain to play against, and of course, the American team that only seems to be good at cranking balls over the fence and not much else. Each team has ratings in hitting, pitching, and fielding, but they don’t seem to mean as much as the specific emphasis labeled next to the ratings, so when the American Dreams’ ability is “HITTING”, they’re not fooling around.
This being an arcade port, it’s not the deepest game, to be sure. The main mode is the one-player league, where you pick one of the two divisions, either the Exciting League or the Fighting league, and play through a 15-game season, with a decent-sized password after each game to save your progress. True to baseball at the time, there’s no interleague play, you’ll stay within your own division throughout the season, and stats are not kept up. The relatively short seasons and password system make it feasible to actually finish a season without having to invest months of time in the process, and there’s also a two-player exhibition mode, as well as a computer vs. computer mode, but it requires a special code.
Graphics-wise, SB2020 acquits itself nicely, especially given its age. Though I’ve not seen the arcade version to compare this to, the SNES version features large character sprites that are pretty well-animated, especially the robots, who look like giant beer kegs and run the bases with their arms stuck out like zombies on tank treads. Everything’s quite brightly colored, from the bright green of the field, to the red and blue uniforms of the American Dreams, to the helpfully-marked “JUMP” zone guarding deep center field. Certain plays, like diving catches or bang-bang plays at a base, throw to a dramatic shot of the outstretched fielder cradling the ball or the robot umpire making his calculations as to whether the runner is safe or out and highlighting his decision. Each player type also has their own home run celebrations, complete with the pitcher’s reaction in the background. Sounds are also pretty solid, from the metallic thwack of bat on ball, to the umpire barking out his calls, to the clink of the ball bouncing off the upper decks. There’s a few pieces of background music, depending on what’s going on, and while none are particularly memorable, they’re not annoying and kinda sound like the backing music for a futuristic Sportscenter highlight.
Super Baseball 2020 is a pretty creative little spin on baseball, on the whole. The revamped field adds some new possibilities, the cash and upgrade system allows for some different strategic moves, and let’s face it, robots playing sports is always a pretty strong selling point. It’s not the most immersive game, as an arcade port, but anyone can jump right into it and have fun, which is always a positive, and for a game so old that we’ve almost reached the year it describes, it all looks and sounds fine. I’d recommend SB2020 for anyone looking for a new way of looking at baseball or anyone who just likes arcade sports action at all…but be warned, I doubt the Hall of Fame is going to induct players guilty of taking performance-enhancing robotics.
Enough difference from regular baseball to feel somewhat fresh, nice graphics and sound, upgrade system can help tilt things one way or the other.
Pretty shallow arcade fare, fielding, especially trying to rob home runs, can take some getting used to.