Once again, Street Fighter II ruined everything.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at SNK's Super Baseball 2020, released for the Neo-Geo in 1991.]

In the years just before sports games came to be dominated by authentic rosters, realistic visuals and the terrifying visage of John Madden, there briefly flourished a school of titles that looked to the athletes of the future. Simultaneously cynical about human nature and optimistic about technology, they envisioned worlds where the public was entertained by brutal robot linesmen and exploding soccer balls.

Few of these games made a mark; Mutant League Football remains a cult favorite and Bill Laimbeer’s Combat Basketball may live forever in infamy, but no one really remembers Namco’s Powerball, Sofel’s Klash Ball or Bitts and Triffix’s odd Space Football.

SNK’s Super Baseball 2020, however, is better known, partly because it’s a Neo Geo game. Specifically, it's a Neo Geo game that hit 1991, just when SNK was ferociously promoting the system as real competition for the Super NES and Genesis. That idea met with a quick death, but SNK’s marketing attempts won Super Baseball 2020 the sort of attention paid only to a new console’s first wave.

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Set only three decades or so from its release year, Super Baseball 2020 isn’t terribly radical in its changes to the sport: humans wear jetpacks and armor while playing alongside robots, but the positions and rules are tweaked only a little. The Cyber Egg stadium (the 2020 version of Tokyo’s Big Egg) has a narrower zone for home runs, and would-be homers instead bounce off the shielded stands and hit the field below. Yet the real innovation lies in the game’s power-up system, which allows teams to earn money and spend it on armor that enhances fielding, hitting, or pitching abilities. Unlike SNK's fighting-oriented Soccer Brawl, Super Baseball 2020 doesn't stray too far from what it's supposed to be.

Presuming that the entire world will one day enjoy baseball instead of soccer, the teams represent international names, such as the Naples Seagulls and Aussie Battlers, as well as presumably borderless outfits like the Metal Slashers and Tropical Girls. Each includes a different mix of the game's three character types: The men are fully armored grunts, the robots are cute headless things that roll around on tank treads, and the women are busty, long-haired amazons who wear lipstick, shorts, and cleavage-baring vests, and they celebrate homers by blowing kisses to the crowd. In other words, they were uncanny predictions of SNK’s future female characters.

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Overt sexism aside, the game’s easy to enjoy. An arcade quarter-muncher at heart, it doesn’t bother with elaborate statistics or customization, borrowing much from SNK’s Baseball Stars series. The controls lend an action game's simplicity to pitching, hitting, stealing bases, buying power-ups for players, and using jetpacks to jump for fly balls or slide for last-second catches.

For these special moves, the game shifts into quick close-ups of the players, who, for all of their simple animation, looked impressive back in 1992. The rest of the game’s visual design is the same: striking by the standards of 16-bit baseball games, but strictly adequate today. At least the soundtrack’s still catchy.

And Super Baseball 2020's just so darned cheerful about everything. In sharp contrast to the mechanical violence of Konami’s Base Wars or Atari’s Cyberball, the Cyber Egg stadium of 2020 pulses with life, as crowds surge beneath protective domes and fouls fly over concession stands manned by bubbly, swimsuit-clad clerks. The players aren’t terribly serious either, not when they’re breaking electric bats across their knees or, in the case of the robots, tumbling to pieces when a batter gets a homer off their pitch. Nor do the rosters play it straight, with robots called Johnny-6 and ED-309, and a team of end bosses apparently named after leading members of the Nazi party.

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In fact, the cast seems to have fun even when they’re tossed into the air by landmines. The game’s only real hazard, “Crackers” crop up on the diamond more and more as the innings wear on, though it’s rare that fielders actually run into them.

Aside from some strange oversights (such as the basemen/basewomen/baserobots never leaving their posts), the only real problem is that the baseball of 2020 isn’t goofy enough. Once you strip away its robot umpires, power-ups and jetpacks, Super Baseball 2020 really isn’t all that different from Baseball Stars.

And that killed it. SNK released Baseball Stars Professional 2 the next year, making Super Baseball 2020 the second-best sports game on a system where games cost $200. It was ported to the Genesis and Super NES in 1993, but no sequel arrived, perhaps because Pallas, the company that co-held the game's copyright with SNK, dropped off the face of the earth. The developers, known as Team Galapagos, moved on to the Samurai Shodown series before fragmenting, and rumors now place their former members everywhere from Capcom to Yuki to Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear team.

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Yet perhaps a sequel wouldn’t have been right. Super Baseball 2020’s ideas beg more for different sports: hockey, tennis, football, soccer or perhaps even a beach volleyball game that would have conveniently justified sticking female players in revealing uniforms.

The gaming market of the early '90s would have allowed anything short of a lacrosse spin-off. Mutant League Football begat a hockey-themed sequel and an unreleased basketball game, and the Turbografx’s mediocre TV Sports series spanned the same territory. And yet SNK, drunk on the possibilities of aping Street Fighter II, simply wasn’t interested in more than one sports franchise in the early ‘90s. Indeed, as the decade continued, the company wasn’t interested in much beyond fighting games and Metal Slug.

As with all but the worst Neo Geo games, Super Baseball 2020 has a number of fans, and it’s a shame that they’ll never get to body-check robots in a brightly futuristic hockey arena or power up a quarterback so she can throw a 250-yard Hail Mary. But they’ll always have SNK’s foray into the future-sports genre, and a hint of a franchise that could’ve been an upbeat, robot-filled alternative to boring old realism.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]