Today’s sports video game landscape is pretty established at the top. “Madden NFL” has a virtual football monopoly, “NBA 2K” is as dominant as cover athlete LeBron James and the Heat, and “MLB: The Show” routinely outpitched “MLB 2K” before 2K Games gave it the hook.
Instead, competitors often have resolved to revive dormant franchises from the past, especially from the 1980s and ’90s. And, rather than take on sports simulations directly, the revamped games often go for an old-school, often arcade-y approach.
The latest such attempt comes in the form of “R.B.I. Baseball 14,” reactivating a title that hasn’t featured a new iteration in nearly 20 years. The new “R.B.I.” arrived for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and iOS devices on Wednesday and will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Android devices later this spring.
“R.B.I.” is in good company, as these three franchises did well after being reactivated.
The boxing game first hit arcades in 1984 with two display screens — kind of like a huge Nintendo DS — but most gamers know this franchise thanks to the NES’ “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!” that came out three years later. After several sequels that no longer featured the former heavyweight champion, the series went dark until its revival for the Nintendo Wii in 2009.
It didn’t pretend to be a rival to video game boxing kingpin “Fight Night,” and instead stuck to the series’ basic formula of solving the opponent’s pattern. Critics loved it, giving an score of 86 on ratings aggregator Metacritic, and it was one of the 10 best-selling games during the month it was released.
The pinnacle of arcade sports games, “Jam” by Midway (the “Mortal Kombat” guys) ate quarters by the fistful when it was released in 1993. Iconic lines from the in-game commentator (“He’s on fire!” and “Boomshakalaka,” to name a few) resonate even today. Alas, the series eventually strayed from its two-on-two format to compete with NBA simulation titles and fell flat, disappearing in 2003.
EA Sports acquired the rights to the game and brought it back for the Wii in 2010, returning “Jam” to its fantastical roots and letting players once again dunk a flaming basketball after leaping 30 feet in the air. After earning a 79 Metacritic score, the game was released for the other consoles and even mobile devices. It even got a sequel, “NBA Jam: On Fire Edition” a year later.
Just as “Madden” was tightening its grip on the pro football game market, Midway tried to recreate the “Jam” formula on the gridiron with “Blitz” in 1997. Gamers ate up the stripped-down format that played more like backyard football with real NFL players in it. Its bone-crunching late hits were a blast, too. The last NFL-licensed “Blitz” hit consoles in 2003.
After two iterations without the NFL branding, EA Sports once again acquired and released it’s own vintage “NFL Blitz” game in 2012. Although the late hits were stripped away in what was likely a concussion-conscious move, the gameplay still held up and earned scores of 80 (PlayStation 3) and 78 (Xbox 360) on Metacritic.