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Video Games: A Cultural History - #7 Cultural Imports and Patriotism In 'Ninja Baseball Batman'

by Tim Clare

Let me make this clear straight off the bat - the Dark Knight does not appear in Ninja Baseball Batman. Not even fleetingly. At first, I thought I'd stumbled across some epic video game crossover Omega Point, but no - sadly I'd just parsed the title incorrectly. What we have here is a game starring a team of four baseball bat wielding ninjas, who are also men.

This is the only disappointment in a game which turns out to be unfeasibly good. The plot sees your quartet of homerun-hitting heroes heading to America to retrieve a collection of stolen Japanese baseball trophies. Your team comprises a prime selection of beat-em-up archetypes. There's the all-rounder captain:

The weak but nippy one:

The slow, powerhouse one:

And the lanky, long-ranged technical one:

The game sees you progressing through different parts of the USA, walloping the crapola out of boggle-eyed baseballs, giant mechanical gators, and tommy-gun toting doggy mobsters. The animation is slick, the controls are intuitive, and you're afforded one of the widest spreads of attack moves I've ever encountered in a side-scroller - there are few events in life so satisfying as grabbing an enemy minion, winding back with your baseball bat, then slugging them clear off the screen.

Baseball came to Japan in 1872, but it wasn't until the 1950s, with American occupation and the founding of the NPB, that baseball grew to become one of the predominant national sports. With the prohibitions on National Shintoism and its militaristic trappings, business and sports became the pre-eminent expressions of national pride, leading to a golden age for Sports Manga. Japanese cultural commentators are usually quick to emphasise what they see as the country's fierce patriotism and quirkily unique character created by protracted spells of isolationism, but this relies on assembling a very selective historical digest - the reverse is probably closer to the truth. To quote Clyde Grant's Rising Sun: Japan - Then And Now*, 'culturally, Japan rinsed the ever-living fuck out of every nation it came into contact with'.

By the time of Ninja Baseball Batman's release, Japanese baseball had become a victim of its own success. Heavy subsidies from commercial sponsors meant that teams tended to be associated with a brand name rather than a place, such as the Nippon Ham Fighters, with their ham-hock-headed (and now sadly retired) pink pterodactyl mascot, Fighty:

Despite substantial investment and generous player salaries, Japanese teams could not hope to match the bulging war chests of their MLB counterparts, meaning that fans had to watch as American dollars systematically lured away many of the country's best, most popular players. As a result, gate returns took a hit, and the domestic game suffered.

The 'twist' of Ninja Baseball Batman is that the Commissioner of Japan's Baseball Hall Of Fame was himself responsible for pinching the trophies and carting them off to the States. After you've battered a giant golden Babe Ruth golem into submission, the greedy Commissioner begs your forgiveness - but it's too late. The Ninja Baseball Batmen knock him out of the park, all the way to the American-owned Moon, where he'll have time to think about what he's done.

* Not a real book.