Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders have nothing on Mario and friends. Who knew the Italian plumber and his buddies were such versatile athletes? Between star turns playing golf and tennis, as well as cameos in a street basketball and soon a snowboarding game, it seems there isn't a sport the Mushroom Kingdom characters can't play. The crew takes to the diamond in the newest Mario sports game, Mario Superstar Baseball. While the game successfully melds Nintendo's signature charm to America's pastime, a couple of fundamental gameplay gaffes keep it from being the exceptional arcade hardball game that it could be.
Mario Superstar Baseball takes a lot of its core gameplay cues from old NES baseball favorites, like RBI Baseball and Baseball Stars. The default pitcher-batter view gives you a look at the action from above and just behind the plate. As the pitcher, throwing strikes is merely a matter of getting the ball across the plate; you needn't worry about height, only how far off the plate you are left or right. Pitches can be thrown with some break to them, as some characters (like Princess Peach) can put a ton of lateral movement on their pitches. Meanwhile, others (such as Yoshi) tend to pitch fairly straight. At first glance, this makes things pretty simple for the batter. You can shift left and right or forward and back in the batter's box, so you only have to worry about your positioning and timing to hit the ball. It sounds a lot simpler than it is, though.
The game imparts depth in pitching through charged pitches. Hold down the A button for a while before releasing your pitch, and you'll uncork a fastball. Get the timing perfect and you'll fire a Roger Clemens-like heater right down the pipe. You can also throw a changeup, which looks graphically like a charged fastball but goes a lot slower. This can be effective at throwing off the timing of human opponents who are trying to anticipate a fastball. Rounding out your choices as a pitcher are the special "star pitches," which unleash magical-looking pitches that are all but unhittable. Donkey Kong's pitch makes a sweeping, banana-shaped hook as it zooms across the plate. Bowser fires off a knuckling Bullet Bill that bobs and stutters unpredictably before sliding across the plate. The inclusion of these wrinkles in the pitching game is fun, and they help add a surprising amount of depth to the pitching strategy in Mario Baseball.
As the batter, you can also charge up before taking a rip at a ball. This adds more power but also narrows your margin for error in the timing of your swing. In practice, we found that charged swings simply resulted in a lot more fly-ball outs than extra-base hits. You really have to get the timing down perfectly to benefit. There are also "star swings" that you can execute, which are simply more-powerful charged swings. Like the star pitches, expending star swings will deplete your supply of stars, which can only be replenished at random intervals throughout the game. Though it might seem that a baseball game where pitch elevation doesn't matter would be easy to hit in, it can be surprisingly difficult to make contact in Mario Baseball because of the tricky timing. This keeps the scoring realistic, for the most part, and it makes home runs fairly rare...at least for those of us who are used to BALCO-enhanced Major League Baseball. But when you can string together several base hits in a run-scoring rally in Mario Baseball, it's very rewarding. And actually knocking one over the fence can be very exciting.
Pitching and batting are just two facets of the game, of course. Defense is another big part of baseball, and unfortunately, it's also where Mario Baseball begins to falter. Once a ball is struck, the camera view shifts to an overhead perspective, and the nearest player to the ball is put in motion toward it. In the case of a fly ball, you'll see a large circle target where the ball should land. Simply run to the center of it and you'll make the catch. If it looks like you won't quite make it, you can rapidly press B for a speed boost--at the expense of control (this works for baserunning, too)--and then you can press A at the last second to attempt a diving catch. For grounders, you'll have to determine the best cutoff path yourself, which can be tricky with the varying speeds, heights, and fielding abilities of the different characters. A bouncing ball that a big player like Waluigi might catch on one hop may very well bounce right over the head of baby Mario. That's not actually as bad as it sounds, as it's part of the flavor of a Mario sports game. The problem with Mario Baseball's defense is that when the camera shifts, it's not made very clear which character you're controlling. For example, on a sharply hit grounder up the middle, it can be ambiguous whether you'll be put in control of the second baseman or the shortstop, both of whom will run for the ball. Should the ball leave the infield, your control will suddenly and automatically shift to the center fielder, who's also charging forward for the ball. But getting used to when these control shifts happen can be irritating, and the process steepens the learning curve for the game a bit.
Where Mario Baseball really lets you down is with the baserunning artificial intelligence. If you have runners on base, they will always break at the crack of the bat. This can be very frustrating on obvious fly-ball or line-drive outs when your runners constantly get doubled off their bases because they left when they shouldn't have. You can manually control all your base runners at once, or individually, and you can send them back if it looks like you're going to take a fly-ball out. But this feels very unwieldy, and in the case of infield line-outs, you often don't have time to send your overeager runner back to base before you're doubled off. While there is an option to turn on automatic baserunner control, this creates more problems than it solves. The baserunning AI glitch is easily the most glaring and annoying flaw in a game that otherwise plays great.
Getting back to the positives, the fields in Mario Superstar Baseball are a definite highlight of the game. Each of them has unique landscape features that add a certain amount of randomness to the game. Blocks hang in the air above Peach's Garden, for example. This makes playing routine fly balls anything but, as once in a while a ball will carom off a block and force you to scramble to make a play. Piranha plants litter the outfield in Yoshi Park. These plants will catch fly balls hit near them and will spit them off to the side, turning fly-ball outs into extra-base hits and turning surefire doubles down the lines into harmless foul balls. The other fields, like Wario Palace, Donkey Kong Jungle, and Bowser's Castle, all have their unique nuances too.
Mario Baseball offers a number of different gameplay types, including minigames. There's a nice variety of different minigames, each of which can be played with up to four players. One of them is a standard home run derby game, where you try to smack bob-ombs into the sky for points. Another is a baserunning game there you try to collect gems around the basepath while avoiding a chain chomp that's tethered to the pitching mound. Another game, called "toyfield," has you on a fantasy field with three other players, and you take turns hitting, pitching, and fielding, earning coins when you do well. Most of these are actually pretty fun whether you play them alone or with friends. You can also play a regular game of baseball in multiplayer, but only against one other person.
The primary single-player game mode, aside from playing single exhibitions, is the challenge mode, which is sort of a lite baseball role-playing game. You'll begin by choosing a team captain between Mario, Peach, Wario, Yoshi, and Donkey Kong. You'll then find yourself on a board-game-like map where you can walk to several different stations. You'll start with a team of only three or so special characters and a bunch of generic fill-ins, like shyguys or toads. You must walk around the map, challenging the other four team captains to games. Once you've defeated all of them, you'll unlock Bowser's stadium, where you can play Bowser's team to beat the stage. There are other tasks you can do on the map, such as play minigames for coins that can be spent at a store on team power-ups. You can also play the other teams as many times as you wish, and if you complete special tasks within each game you can get the other characters to join your team. Then you can upgrade your existing players. All of this will help you defeat Bowser's all-star team. Completing the challenge mode doesn't take more than a few hours each time you do it, but you'll unlock characters, minigames, and stadiums as you beat the various skill levels.
Mario Superstar Baseball offers excellent presentation values. The graphics, while not particularly astounding from a technical sense, are vibrant and colorful, imparting a true Mario style to the game. The animation is also pretty good, and different characters offer special animations to fit their personalities. Yoshi will make tough catches by extending his tongue, for example, while Birdo "throws" the ball by shooting it out of her snout. The star pitches also have a flashy pizzazz. Important moments in the game are highlighted by brief showdown cutscenes. The sound effects in the game are also great, for the most part, whether it's the crack of the ball hitting the bat, chain chomps knocking the ball around, or characters grunting before they swing the bat. There's different music for each stadium, and each track has that signature Nintendo flavor, so it's catchy but transparent enough to fade into the background as you concentrate on playing.
If not for the baserunning blunders and some misadventures while playing defense, Mario Superstar Baseball might have been yet another in a long line of superb arcade sports games from Nintendo. As it is, the game is still a lot of fun and offers plenty of charm to offset those gaffes while still presenting itself as a great pick-up-and-play baseball game. Depending on how many innings you set each game for, contests can go for 10 or 15 minutes, making Mario Superstar Baseball an ideal choice if you want satisfy a quick hardball fix.