You ever hear about something, and think to yourself, "That sounds really amazing, I need to check it out sometime"? Maybe it's a classic movie you never saw, or a neighborhood restaurant that a friend recommends. Sooner or later, you watch the movie, or visit the restaurant, and it's not quite as good as you had hoped. Most of the time, things we experience don't live up to the hype. I am happy to report to you, with great confidence, that this week's Co-Op Classic, Ninja Baseball Bat Man, is not this way; it's every bit as good as it's stellar reputation.
I know what you're thinking. "Ninja Baseball Bat Man has a stellar reputation? How come I've never heard of it?" The game was first released by Irem in 1993, and barely topped a thousand units sold worldwide. That's bad enough, but only forty-two of those were sold in the United States! There aren't too many arcade games that are more rare than Ninja Baseball Bat Man. According to the Killer List of Videogames, only ten collectors own the game, and all ten own the circuit boards only. For rarity alone, Ninja Baseball Bat Man is unusual.
But that's not the end of the story. In the late 1990s, the arcade emulation scene really began to grow. People everywhere where building cabinets with authentic arcade controls that housed computers running countless arcade games via emulation. As a result, many arcade enthusiasts now had access to games that would have been nearly impossible to find "in the wild", much less own privately. As people explored the thousands of games that could be emulated, Ninja Baseball Bat Man was quickly identified as a unique game that stood out in many ways from its contemporaries, a hidden gem of sorts.
First of all, there's the title. Ninjas had long been popular arcade characters, and the superhero Batman had a few arcade games under his utility belt, too. Of course, baseball, being popular in both Japan and America, was the subject of many a game as well. But the title alone didn't make much sense. What did ninjas have to do with baseball? And was it "Baseball Bat" Man, or "Baseball" "Batman"? Confusing, and intriguing, any way you look at it.
It turns out that the heroes of the game are ninjas, who happen to wield baseball bats as weapons and who wear a strange hybrid of ninja gear and a baseball uniform, cap and all. The names of the four protagonists should be familiar to those who paid any attention to baseball in the early 90s, referencing Jose Canseco, Ryne Sandberg, Roger Clemens, and Darryl Strawberry, popular players of the time. The characters all played and looked quite different. Captain Jose was a balanced fighter, Ryno sped around the screen with two lightning-fast bats, Roger was big and slow but packed a huge punch with his giant baseball-shaped club, and Stick Straw was tall and lanky, with a lengthy reach. All four were animated differently, too, giving them a distinctive personality and character.
In standard 90s brawlers, you had a relatively small number of attacks. A punch, a kick, maybe a throw or a hold, and that was typically it. Apparently, a big part of the training to be a Ninja Baseball Bat Man includes learning a ridiculous number of crazy moves. Each character could perform a dash attack, plus a self-damaging area blast, but they all had a handful of unique moves on top of these. Inspired by fighting games like Street Fighter, these special moves required specialized joystick and button movement combinations to pull off correctly. Jose could call down meteors, while Ryno could summon lightning, for example. This was a brilliant twist to the rather repetitive gameplay of the genre and only added to the games charm.
Ninja Baseball Bat Man's storyline involved the theft of several golden pieces of equipment from the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Commissioner (of baseball, not Gotham City) has asked the titular quartet to recover them before they are lost forever. The journey takes players from Seattle to New York and many cities in between. Along the way, a truly bizarre horde of enemies must be struck down. Enemies vary from city to city, but include evil catcher's mitts, walking playing cards, and humanoid baseballs of many different colors and varieties, including punk rock.
Bosses are equally as trippy, ranging from an anthropomorphic biplane (fought in the huge interior of another airplane), a cyborg alligator with a tail that fights on it's own when cut off, and the "Ghost Buffalo", a collection of haunted house decorations animated by a poltergeist into a bull-like form. It's easily the strangest set of enemies in any brawler I can remember; think the dream sequence level in The Simpsons, but for an entire game, and it's Honus Wagner who's having the dream.
I have played many co-op brawler through the years, many of them in the past decade or so. Time has not been kind to many of these games, perhaps even most of them. But I didn't feel this way about playing Ninja Baseball Bat Man at all. It was a sheer delight from start to finish. The incredibly creative imagination behind the game is second to none. Who would have thought that ninjas and baseball would combine together so effectively? I loved the heroes, with their traditional ninja powers and almost magical abilities. And, in truth, literally batting around man-sized baseball creatures is a unadulterated hoot. I can't really say enough good things about Ninja Baseball Bat Man; it's become one of my favorite old school brawlers, and I can't wait to try it again.
I owe a special thanks to Gameroom magazine for publishing an interview with Ninja Baseball Bat Man's primary creator, Drew Maniscalco in the September 2010 issue. It was this interview that made me aware of teh epic awesomeness that is Ninja Baseball Bat Man. Maniscalco now has a website, where you can check out an interesting image gallery filled with concept art, and read the entire Gameroom interview. It's definitely worth checking out for any fan of classic gaming. I hope to have a gameplay video for you to check out in the next video edition of Co-Op Classics!