Mario and his crew comes up big in deep baseball throwback

By Sean Ahmed

As videogame systems have grown more powerful, sports games have stumbled over adding limited-fun complexities. Mario and Co. decided to take a decidedly retro stab at the American pastime on the Nintendo Game Cube, and they end up with an extra-innings winner on their hands.

If you remember RBI Baseball on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, then you already have an idea of Mario Superstar Baseball’s play mechanics. Hitting and pitching basically involve timing contact on a single plane: You can move your pitches inside and outside and change speeds, but hitters need only worry that the pitch be over the plate rather than its height. Hitting can be handled with a single button press (that gloriously large A button the Game Cube controller), or powered-up swings can be executed by holding A just before the pitch is delivered and letting go to make contact. Control is responsive and makes for a fast-paced yet flexible game. If you want to work counts, bunt, and hit little singles, you can. If you would rather just swing away and try to crush anything you can find, go ahead but at your own popup- and strikeout-filled peril.

Sprinting and “diving” after struck balls in the field is just as easy. Rapidly pressing B will get your fielder scurrying, but the dust clouds come at the expense of control. If you need to lay out or climb the fence, you can stick your tongue out (Yoshi), flash your magic wand (Magikoopa), or just belly flop forward (Wario). Watch out, though, for Mushroom Kingdom traps strewn across six of the seven stadiums. Barrels take out anything in their way in DK Jungle’s creeks, and wind storms will vault flyballs up, up, and away from your outfielders in Wario Stadium. All stadiums are rendered with impressive detail, and the TV-style cutaways produce the right amount of tension that a Mario vs. Bowser matchup should.

The twist comes from Star Skills, which allow your pitchers and hitters to reach back for a little extra. While your small guys like Goomba and Koopa Troopa only get a minimal ratings boost, superstars like Mario get game-changing powers. As a pitcher, the plump plumber can rear back and unleash a scorching fireball, while as a hitter, he’ll tag a pitch with the same fiery passion and burn anybody who tries to catch it. Donkey and Diddy put banana spins on balls, and Wario and Waluigi split baseballs into bombs. You have a limited cache of star points, and you’ll use two of a maximum five for every non-captain skill you use. Replenish your stock by winning the specially designated batter-pitcher battles over the course of the game (i.e. a hit gives a star point to the batter and an out gives one to the pitcher).

While the gameplay is, of course, top-notch fun, Mario Superstar Baseball stretches doubles into triples by going to the extra mile that no other Nintendo sports game has. Unlike the tennis, golf, and upcoming soccer iterations, baseball has an unbelievable roster of over 30 players. We all knew that this game needed a lot of players for nine-man rosters, but thankfully Nintendo avoided just duplicating Koopa Troopa 10 times.

What’s even more impressive is that each character is unique, playing differently with drastically varying abilities. I’m not talking about the simple Donkey-Kong-is-slower-and-stronger-than-speedy-Yoshi variation we see in most Mario games. Mario Superstar Baseball actually has players who field, hit, and pitch differently. Whereas the rumbling, bumbling, stumbling Donkey Kong powers balls out of the park by pulling and punching them high in the air, lightweight Diddy Kong excels in tree-sticking low line drives to the opposite field (and pops up almost anything else). Donkey has little to no control over his trailblazing, sidearm pitches, while Diddy can curve the ball and stop it on a dime against all laws of physics. While Diddy runs faster and can slide about 30 feet to make diving catches, Donkey can just reach his long arm out or block balls with his lumbering body.

Taking things a step further, lineup selection matters in Mario Baseball because characters play differently depending on their chemistry with each other. Placing Diddy in center field and Donkey behind the plate will allow Diddy to fire boosted throws to try to nail someone at home. Mario, Luigi, and Peach handling the infield positions will result in the most potent double-play combination since the Cubs’ Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, and Mark Grace. But if you dare have Mario at third throwing to Wario at first, you’ll see the wimpiest lob throws that even Bowser could beat.

The same goes for the offensive end, where a player’s performance can be altered depending on the base runners. Nothing is so dramatically affected that the player has to go in and micromanage lineups (and there is a randomization feature), but our multiplayer games have been made a lot more fun by seeing who can put together the most cohesive lineup. Not only will you be drafting your players according to who’s best but also based on who can play the positions and roles you need.

That depth helps make this a more substantial one-player affair as well. Instead of the simple Cup-style tournaments that made Mario Tennis and Mario Golf simple, linear trails, Mario Baseball’s Challenge Mode has you brandishing your own top nine and taking on the Mushroom Kingdom’s best for both bragging and player rights. That’s right: Depending on your performance, you’ll be able to pick superstars and role players off your opponents’ teams. Of course, you’ll have to get rid of some of your own to do so, and you’ll risk messing with your finely tuned chemistry as you do it. Finding players and passing achievement thresholds will get you even more characters to use in multiplayer games.

With games that last about 20 minutes for a nine-inning game, Mario Baseball is a perfect two-player party game. Depending on how you play, games can either be slugfests or pitching duels; for an arcade game, Mario Baseball does reward approach. Four-player minigames like Bob-omb Derby and the target-based free-for-all Toy Field throw in even more variety if you want a quick doubleheader.

Ultimately this game has flat-out character. From the little details like characters using different methods of throwing and hitting balls to their strikeout animations, this game was clearly a labor of Nintendo nostalgia for the creators. It shows in a game that has more heart than any MLB game ever released.

Mario sports games are always top-notch, and Mario Superstar Baseball proves that the crew still has a lot of deadly pitches in its aresenal.

Bottom Line: If you’re looking for a fun multiplayer game for gamers of all skill levels, thetn you never need look further than the Mario sports series. Mario Superstar Baseball, however, stands head and shoulders above any effort we’ve seen so far, drawing upon influences from the best of sources: old NES baseball games and Mario franchises. There’s more depth—from a dugout full of characters, stadiums, animations, skills, and modes—than in many simulation games. An incredible easy-to-learn, tough-to-master game that screams fun.

Final Score: A-