The Man Behind The Man - The Story of Ninja Baseball Bat Man
Drew Maniscalco is the creator and copyright owner of the characters utilized in Irem's arcade videogame Ninja Baseball Bat Man. This interview was conducted by former GameRoom magazine publisher, Tim Ferrante, in 2010.
Tim Ferrante: How did you get involved with Irem America?
Drew Maniscalco: I was working with former Atari executive Frank Ballouz at Fabtek. Fabtek's name was derived from Frank's initials, F.A.B.-tek. We had a few hits such as Cabal, Toki and Blood Brothers. We were approached by Irem's president, Yuki Takashima, who was very fond of Frank. He'd mentioned he was considering opening a U.S. office and asked who would be the best person to run it. Frank's response was us! So in 1990 we opened Irem America in Redmond, WA. Frank ran both companies while I managed the coin-operated game sales for both companies.
TF: How did Ninja Baseball Bat Man come to life?
DM: I was reading an article in USA Today about the top grossing movies of that time. One was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the other was one of the Batman movies. Inspired, I set out to create my own superhero. I liked the word 'ninja' it just sounded very mysterious. He needed a weapon, and a baseball bat came to mind (maybe an influence from the original Walking Tall movie starring Joe Don Baker) and he was a man. So there it is -- Ninja Baseball Bat Man!
Now that I had the name, I need to develop his universe. I knew that baseball was the national pastime in Japan and being a baseball fan myself I started to draw the Ninja Baseball Bat Man character in a baseball uniform with his weapon being a baseball bat. After I finished, I needed to think of his enemies, that's when it really started to roll. Enemy #1 Double Header (a bad guy with two heads), #2 Bat Boy (a Bat wielding two dangerous bats), #3 Spit Ball (a baseball spitting fire), Pinch Hitter, Fowl Ball, Screw Ball, and on and on. So I incorporated Baseball terminology to the characters and the framework for the game was complete. I submitted my character sketch to Irem Japan, and to my surprise they liked it. I was then asked to develop a storyline. I developed a plot in which a criminal breaks into the Baseball Hall of Fame and steals 7 valuable artifacts. The Commissioner of Baseball hires Ninja Baseball Bat Man to get them back. He will do this by completing several levels in the game and after each level return the stolen items.
TF: Who programmed the game?
DM: I'm not a programmer. The actual game was programmed by Irem Japan. The characters and Boss's that were used in the game were my concepts. I enlisted the help of artist Gordon Morison whose primary claim to coin-op fame is his artwork for D. Gottlieb & Co. pinball machines. The artists at Irem also did some of the characters, but the idea for the main characters and boss's were mine. The videogame characters are Japanese versions of the ones I submitted. Mine were more comical than the ones they used.
TF: Was it always envisioned as a fighting game?
DM: My original game idea was to make it an adventure game similar to Super Mario. I liked that type of game as a kid and wanted to do something in that genre. However, since this was a coin-op/arcade project, we decided that a two-player alternating game would not be able to compete with all of the multi-player games that had become the norm. We added two more characters and made it a four-player scrolling fighting game.
TF: How did you come up with the player names?
DM: When it was a two-player, I was going to use Mickey (Mantle) and Willie (Mays) who were my childhood baseball heroes, but when we decided to make it a four-player I decided to use current names of popular players. They were Ryno (Ryne Sanberg), Jose (Canseco), Roger (Clemens) and Straw (Darryl Strawberry). I felt these names would be more familiar to the young players in the arcade at that time.
TF: How well did the game do in the arcades? Was it a swing and a miss or a home run?
DM: The game struck out in the domestic arcade market, despite good reviews! We sold only 43 units which is a disaster. However! It did chart in Japan where they sold 489 units. It did even better in Asia where 510 units were sold. The grand total was 1042 worldwide which was somewhat respectable. I did get one kit as part of my deal!
TF: Your brainchild seems to have found new fans on MAME. Were you surprised by this?
DM: Yes! I was shocked reading the many positive reviews Ninja Baseball Bat Man has received! It seems to be very popular with the MAME guys and I think that's very cool. Here it is 17 years later and people are still interested. On Youtube: BigBangBlitz, ranks Ninja Baseball Batman as the #2 Criminally overlooked game of all time! Google Ninja Baseball Batman, there are pages and pages of links with reviews and fan art, It's amazing!
TF: Why do you think it wasn't well-received back in the day?
DM: Lack of Direction! Ultimately a game either sells or doesn't sell because of the earnings! That being said, Irem had just become a Nintendo licensee and most of our resources were put towards the Super Nintendo and console games. So the coin-op division became an afterthought. It was difficult for me because I had Ninja Baseball Bat Man in development and now the company's focus was directed toward the home console market. By the end of 1992 the Irem America office had some management changes, Frank left the company
and Coin Op was no longer a priority so I decided to leave the company. At that point, Ninja Baseball Bat Man had no direction and fell through the cracks!
TF: It's conceivable that Ninja Baseball Bat Man fell victim to poor marketing due to the company's new direction. What happened after you left Irem America?
DM: Even though I was leaving Irem America, all of my marketing plans for Ninja Baseball Bat Man stayed behind. I had big plans for the release of the game, beautiful full cabinet art package, a great sales brochure, promo items ... you name it. They had everything they needed to promote the game, but nothing was used! As a matter of fact, when I saw the completed game at a trade show, I was very disappointed. Not only was my name omitted from the on screen game credits, the game did not 'show' well. Gordon Morison had designed a gorgeous art package for the cabinet, but it was replaced with generic Irem stickers. It looked terrible. The attract mode storyline went by so quickly that no one could read it. Players had no idea of what the mission was! It was a textbook example of no one really caring about the important details. The brochure says it all. The Japanese version on the left is much more exciting than the uninspired US version on the right.
TF: I heard the game was extremely difficult to play.
DM: That's absolutely true! The gameplay was way too hard and set for Japanese players, not the American audience. If a paying player can't get through the first level after a dollar's worth of coin, chances are you'll lose that player. Most players never got to see all of the levels. It's my belief that the game did not get the proper testing and tweaking needed to become successful domestically.
TF: It was a tough market at the time, wasn't it?
DM: The coin-op market was very competitive back then. We were going head to head with Sega, Namco, Data East, Capcom and others. Ninja Baseball Bat Man was up against a lot of competition with similar gameplay. However, a game that earns a lot of money will sell no matter how bad the market is or how many similar games are on the market.
TF: You said that Irem was a licensee of Nintendo. So why no home version of Ninja Baseball Bat Man?
DM: Oh, there were discussions with Nintendo, It just never happened. It is licensed as part of the ever-expanding game library that's loaded onto Arcade Legends, an upright videogame designed for home gamerooms. It's sold by Chicago Gaming Company and Ninja Baseball Bat Man may be available for that system in 2011. Arcade Legends and other great home arcade games are available through WWW.PINBALLSALES.COM ask for Jack!
TF: We discussed its success on MAME -- why do you think that is?
DM: Simply put, it's fun to play! The programmers did a great job! The game is now being played for free (unlimited lives), so players are getting past the first level and can't wait to see what's next. In addition, there are fans of the game like Parrothead and others who are very active in promoting the game on sites like Youtube and Wikepedia.
TF: Who owns the rights to the characters? Any truth to the rumor that a Ninja Baseball Bat Man 2 is in the pipeline? And I heard whispers of a possible cartoon series ...
DM: IREM JAPAN has the rights for all Video game content for Ninja Baseball Bat Man and I have the rights for all non-video game products. Just recently, I sent a letter to Japan to confirm my rights and they agreed! As for Ninja Baseball Bat Man 2 for Xbox or PS3? That would be up to the guys at Irem Japan. I think it would be great, of course. As far as a cartoon, I have a few meetings lined up with some key animation studios so I'll keep my fingers crossed. You never know!
#© 2010 Tim Ferrante. All rights and wrongs reserved. So there.