Little Things: Super Baseball 2020

I’m pretty sure that Super Baseball 2020 is my favorite sports game. That’s probably because I’m not really into sports games on the whole. I have nothing against the genre, but I suspect that a prescient part of my young mind knew I was too fixated on video games—and so it decided to at least ignore sports games and spare my future self a scrap of obsession. It couldn’t keep me from getting into Super Baseball 2020, which served as both an early Neo Geo showcase and a woefully optimistic prediction of the future.

Conceived for quick arcade satisfaction, Super Baseball 2020 presents a high-tech stadium where heavily armored men, revealingly armored women, and seemingly headless, tank-tread robots play a slightly modified version of the sport. Landmines appear, home runs only count when hit straight behind center field, and you’re free to upgrade your human and mechanized players alike. Everything is kept light and arcade-friendly; team customization is limited, and with only six clubs per league there’s not much variety to playing an entire season. The original Neo Geo version doesn’t even have a boss. It fell to other console ports to add a new, pennant-game team with players named after prominent members of the Nazi party. That means something.

I started playing Super Baseball 2020 for silly reasons. I was a dopey pre-teen loaded with hormones, and I was fascinated when GamePro ran a shot of Super Baseball 2020’s women players and openly asked if the game was “Too sexy, too sexist?” I just had to find out the answer for myself.

Yet I’ve grown to enjoy Super Baseball 2020 legitimately over the years. Each time I revisit it, I appreciate something else: the sleek designs of the Cyber Egg stadium, the way the players spin and flip when they make a fantastic catch, the little concession stand shown only when a foul ball wanders back into the glass-shielded bleachers, the way the robot umpires repeatedly warn you that NOW they’ll set the cracker mines, and the way a game’s MVP gets a Class A Citizenship or a robot bodyguard, which implies that this game’s vision of 2020 is hardly a utopia.

One neat little detail arises when the players leap or dive to catch a ball. The game switches to a brief close-up of the man or woman or robot, and the scaling sprites were a real technical feat back in the early 1990s. These cutaways also boost a team’s funds, letting you buy more power-ups. They let you see that the robots actually have eyes on top of their heads. And of course, they showcase a female player’s cleavage. Like I said, I started playing this game for silly reasons.

Even now, however, I’m impressed by these scenes. The developers went through the trouble of creating different views: one for jumping, one for diving straight-on, and a third just for diving diagonally. Granted, the diagonal catch is just a slightly altered version of the head-on view, but I was astounded at the time that the game paid such close attention.

This seems archaic now, but in 1993 these details were the eye-catching hallmarks of an arcade spectacle that no console (except, of course, the actual Neo Geo home system) could replicate. I picked the Super NES version of Super Baseball 2020 as my big Christmas gift that year, and the first thing I noticed was that the diving catches were static images. The Super NES port did a fair job of mimicking the Neo Geo original, but it also made me realize how important the small stuff was.

SNK went on to craft gorgeous sprite art on the Neo Geo, perhaps peaking around 2000 with sights like that fiery backdrop from The Last Blade 2 and the inching Ohmu bugs from Metal Slug 3. Yet it was Super Baseball 2020 that first impressed me and sold me on a Neo Geo.

Well, I shouldn’t say that it sold me, since the Neo Geo cost $600 in the 1990s (or a cool thousand once adjusted for inflation) and that was beyond the reach of a kid who needed three years of good grades and begging to get a basic Nintendo. That made me want one all the more, of course.

A Neo Geo isn’t quite as expensive these days, but I’m afraid nothing is cheap in this age of game collectors who’ll outspend the Pentagon’s annual operating budget on a sealed copy of Boogerman. If I ever manage to convince myself to acquire a Neo Geo, however, at least I know what game I’ll get first.