Monday, November 20, 2023

Dai Yakyuu! - The 8-bit Explosion of Japanese Baseball Video Games

Baseball & Famista '94

Baseball (Yakyuu) has had a long history in Japan. Imported from the United States before World War II, Japan built leagues and fielded players that have maintained the popularity of the sport more or less ever since. When video games became accessible to the Japanese in the late 1970s, they tried to mimic a wide range of human competitive activities, not unlike American consoles. Judging by the Famicom's game library, baseball would have been the most popular sport played in Japan by far. Dozens of baseball games were released during the decade of the Famicom's active commercial development, let's take a look at some games and some trends in these titles.

Baseball games preceded the Famicom in Japan. There was at least one dedicated baseball console, Epoch TV Baseball. There were two baseball games released for the Epoch Cassette Vision and for its successor, the Super Cassette Vision. The SG-1000 boasted Champion Baseball and the Mark III Great Baseball. In short, if you did not want your console to be a laughingstock it had to have a baseball game (and golf and soccer games helped too).

Nintendo's Baseball

The Famicom began modestly enough with Nintendo's Baseball, released on December 7, 1983. It was the eighth game released for that system and would be a launch title for the Nintendo Entertainment System's launch in October, 1985. Baseball would be the seventh best-selling Famicom game, easily selling well enough that it got a picture label cartridge release after Nintendo retired the pulse-line, text only cartridge labels.

Baseball is a small game, only 24KiB, but despite its small size it set several standards which would be used in later games. It fields the correct nine positions. The batter can adjust his position within the batting box, and there are boxes for both left and right handed batters. Players on base can steal bases and pitchers can attempt to throw them out. Runners can advance a base. Bunting is possible. Popups can be automatically caught by fielders. Using Right, Up, Left and Down throws to First, Second, Third and Home plate, respectively. Holding Up and Down on the D-pad when pitching throws a slowball and a fastball, respectively. 

Baseball's graphics were utilitarian, the music was limited to a few jingles and the sound effects were simple. There were no team or player licenses, no season or all-star games, no real team player stats, no ability to manage lineups or trade players, just a one player and a two player mode. Nonetheless Baseball was one of the first Basball games to put almost all the core mechanics in place. 

Baseball also received the honor of a Vs. Dual System release. The Dual System version had different views for each player. The player at bat saw the view of the regular cartridge but the fielding team saw the view from a 180 degree viewpoint. While some later games would adopt a behind the pitcher view, this is more of a bird's eye view than that. It made fielding very confusing because that too used the same bird's eye view, just zoomed out. There some very rudimentary speech samples added to the calls for this version.

Namco's Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium

After Nintendo's Baseball no further cartridge-based baseball games were published for the system for three years. Then on December 19, 1986, Namco had a grand slam hit in Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium. It was the ninth best-selling Famicom game, selling over 2 million units. Family Stadium '87 & Family Stadium '88 also sold over 1 million cartridges. At 96KiB, Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium was four times the size of Nintendo's Baseball. What did that get your Japanese baseball fan starved for the Greatest Game? Quite a bit.

Compared to Nintendo's Baseball, Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium brought basic statistics for players. You can judge a hitter on how well he hits with his batting average and home runs. The pitchers have an ERA which suggests how well he controls the ball and the speed of his fastball. The pitching/hitting screen featured much larger player sprites and the fielding screen scrolled. You can select from four pitchers and because pitchers get tired, you can replace the current pitcher with one of the other three. Namco went for a cute, chibi-like style for the player sprites. Music plays during the game and there is a much wider variety of jingles and themes. 

Pro Yakyuu Family Stadium Original & '87

Famicom Baseball Teams were notable because they sought out licenses for teams and leagues from Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium onward. The public wanted more than nameless, faceless players and made-up  teams, they wanted to play their home team and field their favorite players. Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium had a mix of real teams from Nippon Professional Baseball and fantasy players and teams. Eventually the series would have them all and other games would also license the teams and players.

In Japan Nippon Professional Baseball holds the same place in the national play as Major League Baseball does in the United States and Canada. It consists of twelve teams divided into two leagues of six, the Central League and the Pacific League. During the Famicom's lifetime, the Kintetsu Buffaloes would have been one of the teams, but their spot in the Pacific League was taken over by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2004. Several of the teams changed their names and team colors during this period and some changed them after 1994 when the last licensed Famicom cartridges were released.

Namco and many other developers used the first letter of the last part of the team name and the team colors to identify the teams. These are the names of the teams which were active from 1986-1994:

Central League Teams 

G = Yomiuri Giants

D = Chunichi Dragons

C = Hiroshima Toyo Carp

W = Yokohama Taiyo Whales

S = Yakult Swallows

T = Hanshin Tigers

Pacific League Teams

L = Seibu Lions

Bu = Kintetsu Buffaloes

F = Nippon-Ham Fighters

H = Nankai Hawks/Fukuoka Daiei Hawks

B = Hankyu Braves/Orix Braves/Orix BlueWave

O/M = Lotte Orions/Chiba Lotte Marines

Teams other than the canonical twelve in the Pro Yakyuu series are made up, something not unique to Namco. Funny enough, Nintendo's Baseball had teams with the letters C, D, G, S, T & W and it changed those letters for the US release. . .

Namco's Pro Yakyuu's success opened the floodgates for baseball games. Almost every major publisher had their baseball game or series thereafter, but Namco's series sold the best. In 1989 the series was renamed to simply Famista and would have yearly releases until 1994. Famista '92 began to use team logos instead of letters to identify the teams. Famista '94, would be the last Famicom baseball game to be released, on December 1, 1993, almost ten years after the first Famicom baseball game was released. Only thirteen licensed Famicom games would be released after Famista '94. Pro Yakyuu: Family Stadium would be the standard by which future Famicom baseball games would be measured. Some were shameless clones, but others tried to do something different.

Jaleco's Moero!! Pro Yakyuu

The Moero!! Pro Yakyuu series is notable for a few reasons. "Moero" means "fiery" or "burning" in this context. First, these are the only baseball games released for the Famicom which contain their own speech chip. The speech chip (which also handles some sound effects) sounds much clearer and more realistic than what the NES got when the series was ported over as Bases Loaded. It was not the first baseball video game with this idea, the Intellivision's World Series Major League Baseball with the Intellivoice module predates it by four years. The NES's cartridge slot did transmit audio from cartridge without making a connection on the unused expansion port, so Jaleco had to use the DPCM channel on the NES's APU for those speech samples. However, the speech chip can only output one sample at a time, so when the crowd is cheering, the umpires cannot call the plays.

Second, the original Moero!! Pro Yakyuu game was a bestseller but notoriously buggy. It took Jaleco four revisions to work out enough of the bugs to make a playable game. Early adopters were treated to a slip of paper in the box identifying the variances between this game and a normal baseball game. The stats do not necessarily align with the players' abilities, especially the pitchers' ERA and the batter batting averages. Usually the fielding automatically catches pop up fly balls, but it is not infallible. Strikes are called that are the result of pitches flying too close to the player to be fairly hit. One head-slapping bus is if a player hits a foul ball, the next pitch will be called a strike no matter how far from the plate the ball travels. Each team also has one batter who is so good at bunting that he can bunt one right out of the park at times!

Moero Pro Yakyuu - Original & Revised Releases

Moero!! Pro Yakyuu originally came in red cartridges and these tend to be the buggy ones. That is a record for revisions of a licensed game. The black cartridges should have the bug-fixed ROMs but my red cartridge is a final revision. Moero!! Pro Yakyuu '88 - Ketteiban offered new voice samples but these samples were used for the remainder of the Moero!! Pro Yakyuu games.

Moero!! Pro Yakyuu and its first successor tried to distinguish itself from Namco's series by using a behind-the-pitcher view instead of behind-the-batter. It also added season play, so you could become a champion by winning 82 games. You could save your progress with a password save. Shin Moero!! Pro Yakyuu represented something of a departure from traditional baseball mechanics with its first base line view and the result was an awful game. Even though the game sold well, Jaleco returned to a more traditional presentation for the final games in the series. 

Taito's Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium

Taito devoted some of its not inconsiderable resources to its own 8-bit baseball series. It's title can be translated as "Ultimate Enthusiasm Stadium", which does not immediately call to mind a baseball game. Taito's series appears to be the first baseball series to use battery backed memory for saving season progress. It also can provide long passwords so you can play your team against a friend at his house. The series is notable because it allows you to improve your players after you win a game. You can improve their power, accuracy and fielding. The game also has a home run derby mode and a female softball team. All games in Taito's series had battery backed memory, unlike Namco (who only sprang for a battery once with Famista '90) and Jaleco (never). 

Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium Original & New Data Releases

This game included pre and post-match commentators. It must also be noted that unlike previous games, there is a different perspective for batters and pitchers in the 1-player mode, but when the ball must be fielded, the perspective changes back to the batter's perspective. In a 2-player game, both pitching and batting use the batter's view.

ASCII's Best Play Pro Yakyuu

ASCII's Best Play Pro Yakyuu series was notable that all, except Special which had 4x the normal RAM, supported using ASCII's Turbo File for saving progress to a device other than the cartridge. This allowed you to bring your progress to a friend's house without writing down an excruciatingly long password. All the Best Play games supported saving to cartridge battery backed RAM. IGS's Battle Stadium: Senbatsu Pro Yakyuu also had cartridge battery backed RAM but supported backing up data to the IGS Battle Box. 

Best Play Pro Yakyuu Original & New Data

Now you might ask why this series supports save RAM at the beginning, as opposed to other series which did not save or used passwords? That is because Best Play brought a more cerebral approach to the baseball video game genre than its contemporaries. The first game in the series was not going to compete with Namco or Jaleco in terms of graphics or gameplay, all the action is almost contained on a single screen like Nintendo's game. But Namco's game had no season mode, little control over the lineup, the teams or trading players.  The Best Play series has you playing as the manager with limited control over how the games play. You can direct a runner to steal a base, a batter to bunt or a pitcher to walk a batter and they might follow your lead but you have about as much control in this game as you do in Populous. This kind of simulation was nothing new for personal computers, games such as Micro League Baseball and Strat-o-Matic Baseball were around, but for the Famicom or any cartridge-based console for that matter, Best Play came first.

"New Data" Re-releases

One rather questionable practice during the Famicom baseball boom of the late 1980s is to re-release games with updated statistics. Pro Yakyuu - Family Stadium '87 is essentially the same game as Pro Yakyuu - Family Stadium with updated team statistics. Even the cartridge artwork is identical except for the '87 sticker slapped on the later version. There were a few graphical changes to the '87 game and it had more teams, so it offered a little more gameplay than its predecessor, but not much.

Best Play Pro Yakyuu Shin Data literally is Best Play Pro Yakyuu except with "new data" in the form of updated team statistics. The new data version was released three months after the first batch of cartridges sold out. Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium had an identically unambitious new data version six months after its first game. Moero!! Pro Yakyuu '88 - Ketteiban did not reinvent the wheel in comparison to its previous edition but it did significantly more than either Best Play or Kyuukyoku Harikiri. If you wanted the benefit of the year's updated stats, you had to buy a new cartridge at new release prices. 

The "Famicom baseball boom", where everybody wanted a piece of the action, began in 1987 and generally ended in 1990 as Japanese gamers were increasingly spending their time and money on newer consoles, the PC Engine, the Mega Drive and the Super Famicom. Baseball video games continued to be popular in Japan, although only the Super Famicom came close to the Famicom in terms of the number of baseball cartridge games released. 

Nantettatte!! Baseball

Eventually all those "new data" re-releases and yearly releases with little improvement over the previous year's game would wear the patience of the gaming public thin, at least Sunsoft thought so. Sunsoft had the bright idea to lower the costs to the consumer by making a baseball game that could be upgraded with new stats inexpensively rather than pay full price for a new cartridge every year. 

Its Nantettatte!! (Oh my God!) Baseball cartridge played a complete baseball game but had a slot in the top of the cartridge to accept a small PCB with an additional ROM chip. This ROM chip would provide new statistics and two such expansion cartridges were produced. They cannot add new features. The first expansion cartridge was an "all-star" cartridge including teams made up of all-time great players. The second expansion cartridge updated the regular team  rosters for the 1991 season.

The idea of expansion cartridges was not something Sunsoft invented, Bandai used it for the two expansions to its Karaoke Studio "game". Unfortunately this system was not successful and the expansion cartridges are very rare and pricey these days. Also, Sunsoft put a security chip on these expansion cartridge boards, so you cannot simply put a EPROM chip on a PCB and get the expansion data working. Finally, using an expansion cartridge or changing the cartridge deletes the save memory for the game that was previously saved to the cartridge.

Non-traditional Baseball Games

Sammy's Aa Yakyuu Jinsei Icchokusen and Capcom's Pro Yakyuu Satsujin Jiken!? are not traditional baseball games. 

Sammy's game is a sugoroku game, it has you train a baseball player trainer by overseeing his skill progression on a board-game like map and making choices based on the options of the space on which you land after a dice roll. Think of The Game of Life with a child-to-adult baseball player wanting to make it to the big leagues. There are some baseball-like mini-games. 

Capcom's game starts out more like Dragon Quest in its presentation but is a murder mystery RPG-like adventure game with a baseball theme. You can play a regular game of baseball at the end of the game.

How Many Baseball Games were Released for the Famicom?

Here is a list of all Famicom Baseball games, given by publisher and then release order. I have noted the games which were ported to the USA by putting the USA tile in parentheses.

Nihonichi no Mei Kantoku

Best Play Pro Yakyuu
Best Play Pro Yakyuu '88 Shin Data
Best Play Pro Yakyuu II
Best Play Pro Yakyuu '90
Best Play Pro Yakyuu Special

Meimon! Daisan Yakyuubu

Battle Baseball

Mizushima Shinji no Daikoushien

I Love Softball

Culture Brain
Choujin - Ultra Baseball (Baseball Simulator 1.000)

Data East
Pennant League!! - Home Run Nighter 
Pennant League, The - Home Run Nighter '90

Famicom Yakyuu Ban

Emoyan no 10 Bai Pro Yakyuu

Major League

Moero!! Pro Yakyuu (Bases Loaded)
Moero!! Pro Yakyuu '88 - Ketteiban (Bases Loaded II - Second Season)
Shin Moero!! Pro Yakyuu
Moe Pro! '90 - Kandou Hen (Bases Loaded 3)
Moe Pro! - Saikyou Hen (Bases Loaded 4)

Battle Stadium: Senbatsu Pro Yakyuu

K. Amusement Leasing
Koushien (Little League Baseball - Championship Series)

Exciting Baseball (Famicom Disk System)
Ganbare Pennant Race!

Nantettatte!! Baseball
Nantettatte!! Baseball + Nantettatte!! Baseball - Ko-Game Cassette - OB All Star Hen
Nantettatte!! Baseball + Nantettatte!! Baseball - Ko-Game Cassette - '91 Kaimaku Hen

Pro Yakyuu - Family Stadium (R.B.I. Baseball)
Pro Yakyuu - Family Stadium '87
Pro Yakyuu - Family Stadium '88
Famista '89 - Kaimaku Ban!!
Famista '90
Famista '91
Famista '92
Famista '93
Famista '94

Baseball (Baseball)

Baseball Star (Baseball Stars)

Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium
Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium - '88 Senshu Shin Data Version
Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium - Heisei Gannen Ban
Kyuukyoku Harikiri Stadium III
Kyuukyoku Harikiri Koushien

Gekitou Stadium!! (Bad News Baseball)

Tonkin House
Softball Tengoku (Dusty Diamond's All-Star Softball)

Baseball Fighter
Super Real Baseball '88

At first glance, the list above comes to 47 games. However there are many issues with this list.  First of all, the "Shin (New) Data" versions are debatable if they were new games or revisions of existing games. When a cartridge game is released and has more than one ROM revision, the revised ROM is not advertised in later reissues of that cartridge. It is not unheard of for a cartridge to launch with two revisions of the software already released. ROM chips were expensive to produce, so a publisher would usually let the older revisions sell out, even if they are being released alongside new revisions.

The New Data games had distinct cartridge labels which differ from their predecessors.  I am counting them as distinct games from their originals. I am not counting the Nantettatte!! Baseball expansions as distinct games because they cannot be used without the base cartridge. An argument could be made that if you had three Nantettatte!! Baseball cartridges, two of which had the expansions, then you would have cartridges functionally identical to the New Data versions. 

Exciting Baseball is a Famicom Disk System game, it cannot be played with just a base Famicom. If you subtract that game, the expansions and the two New Data cartridges, you are left with 41 distinct baseball games. RndStranger has reviewed every Famicom game on his YouTube channel and he has plenty of insight on the various strengths and weaknesses of these games.

Unlicensed Baseball

While the NES had no less than three unlicensed baseball games (plus R.B.I. Baseball's re-release), the Famicom does not seem to have had any during its commercial lifespan. After the Famicom's commercial lifespan was over, its hardware was used to bring baseball beyond full-circle in gameplay terms. Strangely, World Championship Baseball for the Intellivision was ported to NES-on-a-Chip based hardware and sold in several Plug 'n Play devices. That baseball game is less advanced than Nintendo's Baseball, and like other Intellivision to NES ports, is as dull as as watching paint dry.

What is even more strange is that the game on the Plug 'n Plays tried to replicate the Intellivision's less sophisticated graphics, the port was given no less than three known graphical updates and a variant game that looks somewhat different from the canonical World Championship Baseball. The final update uses the more advanced graphical capabilities of the VT03 hardware but still plays like the original Intellivision game.

There are at least two other Baseball games found on more modern Plug 'n Plays, they use the VT03 hardware for improved graphics and sound but both use the same basic engine. The game with the digitized players is from Nanjing, the more cartoony one is from Waixing. Their gameplay is extremely basic. There is no real fielding, the batters are not shown, the screen does not scroll when a ball is hit. Even the concepts of balls and foul balls may be foreign to these games. 

All cartridge scans taken from the NES Cartridge Database.

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