So right now, we’re in a massive societal lockdown, which means that all of us are sitting at home and trying to find things to do. It also means that our usual spring distractions and entertainment have been canceled or altered. There’s no NCAA Championship, and no professional sports. Now, I’m bummed that I wasn’t able to fill out a March Madness bracket and watch tournament games during the day, but I didn’t realize how much I would be missing baseball.
I’ve written about my long-standing and oft-frustrating Mets fandom over the years, and that hasn’t changed. I remain loyal to the team even though there have been large chunks of time in the last two decades were I have checked out and stopped paying attention. And I can say with some confidence that there are enough highlight compilations on YouTube to keep me entertained and remind me of what I’m missing, but the thing that has reminded me of the joy of baseball the most has been Bases Loaded.
Released by Jaleco in 1988, Bases Loaded is a Nintendo game that was one of a few games that stepped up that year to take advantage of the dearth of quality NES sports games. Yes, the system had an entire sports category when it premiered a few years earlier, and those games were playable, but the overall quality left something to be desired. Golf and Ice Hockey were probably the better of the selection with the football game 10 Yard Fight at the bottom and Baseball somewhere between. I mean, we played the hell out of that game, but it was a glitchy mess–outs would not be recorded and players would walk off the field at random, so we called it “Gitchball”–but it was the only thing going.
But then I got the first issue of Nintendo Power and that proved to be a–no pun intended–game changer. Really, the whole magazine was, and I’m not alone in saying that it was a landmark moment in the 1980s. For baseball, it was important because that issue featured a preview of three new games: RBI Baseball, Major League Baseball, and Bases Loaded.
This article–which had an accompanying poster (it’s on the back of the overworld map for the second quest of The Legend of Zelda)–was easily the most important thing I read in 1988 because not only did it advertise three different baseball games, it analyzed and compared them. My friend Tom and I spent the entire summer watching the Mets cruise through the NL East and collecting a ton of Topps baseball cards, so finding out that there was not just one new baseball game but three out there was mind blowing and we knew that choosing which one to ask for was going to be incredibly important.
I can’t say much about either RBI Baseball or Major League Baseball except that I played the latter a few times and remember it being a better version of Glitchball and the lineups used actual player names. But Bases Loaded looked completely different, closer to the game Hardball that we had seen on the Commodore 64 (and if you’ve seen The Princess Bride, you have seen it as well), which meant slightly more realistic-looking players. When Tom got the cartridge, we saw that each team had been programmed with strengths and weaknesses, and instead of having to write down our team record if we were trying to play a season (something we’d done the previous year with Glitchball), there was a password after every game. Even at the start, this was awesome, and when we got to the actual game, we were completely blown away, so much so that we immediately sat down and chose teams to play for an entire season.
Now, if you actually know the game, you know that’s quite a task. Bases Loaded has a 132-game “pennant race” one-player function (and a one-off “vs mode” two-player function), although you can clinch the pennant early by winning 80 games. But the trials of life ha not taken over for us as fifth graders and neither had most of the trappings of adolescence, so in 1988 we were ready to go the distance. Tom chose Jersey, the team closest to use geographically; I chose D.C. because their uniform’s colors were blue and gray and therefore as close to the Mets as I would get. The D.C. team had solid pitching and one superstar hitter by the name of Fendy, whose stats on the game were a .356 average with 50 home runs. But Jersey was something else because they had Paste.
With an unreal .467 average and 60 home runs, Paste was the power-hitting first baseman whose shadow loomed like Babe Ruth any time you had to face Jersey in a game. The team’s pitching was marginal at best, but that didn’t matter because you could always count on Paste being able to smash the ball. Many a time, I watched Tom get a runner or two on the bases and then settle in for some sort of monster at bat from his team’s star player, a pixelated baseball god whose home runs were the type that you knew were out of the park the moment you heard the clink of the 8-bit bat. I mean, I could get Fendy to hit a homer or two, but nothing compared to a Paste home run.
That’s not to say that he carried the team. Jersey had a deep order, including Bay, who batted cleanup after Paste and sported 30 of his own home runs, and a bench that had more than just your average schmos. It wound up being a boon to Tom, as he won every game we played in the season, although I don’t think we got past the twenty game mark before our interest faded. I do remember one time he had found some passwords–where he got them from, I don’t know–for both Jersey and D.C. that put us at game 36 or 37 and while Jersey remained undefeated, D.C. had a losing record. I was pretty pissed off about that and vowed to continue playing on my own, eking out a few wins and a couple of losses before finally giving up and throwing in the Ice Hockey cartridge so my fat guy could score 30 goals against Sweden.
The reviews of Bases Loaded that I found online are not particularly kind to it. They mention the superiority of Hardball, how slow the game play is, and how the fielding is quite terrible. All of those are valid points, but I don’t think that matters to a generation who gets instantly nostalgic when they see the word “Jaleco” on the spine of a Nintendo cartridge. For many of us, Bases Loaded was the first time we felt that we were playing a real baseball video game.
Glitchball was a good afternoon distraction; Bases Loaded was a commitment. To win at that game, you had to manage your team and those of us who didn’t have the luxury of a Commodore 64 were excited and impress by the different stances and body types of the hitters (plus the different skin tones) and the throwing styles of the pitchers (I never really got the hang of those Dan Quisenberry-type underhand-style throwers). Plus, your pitchers got tired as the game went on, you could pinch hit, and the game would cut to the Diamond Vision when a home run was hit, showing the pitcher holding his head while the batter pumped his fist behind him. And there was also a bullpen car and when you hit a batter with a pitch, he might charge the mound and we’d see a fight play out on the scoreboard. I am sure that better games came along after or were available for other systems, but to us it was the crown jewel of NES baseball games.
It still has the magic, too. I sat down last week and began a season, this time as Jersey because Tom’s not here and I have my own cartridge, so I can pick whatever team I choose. I swept three games from Boston, the third of which climaxed with a three-run walk-off homer by Paste. Sure, Boston put up a bunch of hits on my pitchers and even 32 years later, I can’t field anything cleanly. But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve got endless time at home and a TV in the basement that I can use for 40 minutes a day until I see what’s at the end of the season, and know that Paste’s moon shots are going to be one thing getting me there.