Regardless of the race of their major-league namesakes, the virtual players in R.B.I. Baseball resembled obese snowmen. Whenever they were called out, they scampered across the screen with tears squirting from their pen-dot eyes like piggies going wee-wee-wee all the way home. Goofy graphics aside, R.B.I. remains popular amongst NES holdouts because it smartly exaggerated its players’ positive traits; top pitchers threw fastballs that topped 110 miles per hour, sluggers rocked at least one homer per game, and speedsters stole with impunity. The blobs standing in for Nolan Ryan, Mark McGwire, and Vince Coleman didn’t resemble their inspirations facially, but they inevitably met their fans’ loftiest expectations—a far more important achievement in a fantasy realm.
Since then, most baseball games have embraced calculated replication at the expense of fun. For example, the All-Star Baseball series offers the option of stringent budget constraints, thus plaguing an ostensibly amusing simulation with the brutal business truths that Royals, Pirates, and Reds fans retreat to their platforms to avoid. It also makes trades maddeningly difficult, even for sentimental general managers willing to deal two superior players in exchange for one undistinguished childhood hero.
With realistic batting stances and wind-ups swallowing seconds, game time drags at a pace that’s only tolerable in the summer sun with easily accessible brats and beer. And regardless of how architecturally sound the graphical recreation of the ballparks might be, the emphasis on the pitcher-batter match-up dilutes the panoramic majesty of each stadium. Finally, there’s little chance that something transcendently sensational will happen, given that no-hitters and five-homer games are linked to the infinitesimal real-life probability of such occurrences.
Fans perennially search for a figure who could make such happenings commonplace, which is why Robert Redford’s preternaturally talented Roy Hobbs character in The Natural remains baseball’s most appealing archetype. Two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated named Jeff Francoeur “The Natural”, making the Atlanta Braves rookie phenom the latest player to don this two-decades-old tag. But the young slugger isn’t swinging an enchanted bat, and he’s unlikely to do anything genuinely unprecedented, let alone make a habit of such theatrics.
Mario Superstar Baseball, on the other hand, embraces the universal desire to see any given pitch turn into something truly astounding, as well as satiating the much less prevalent urge to watch a deceased turtle swing a disembodied bone. Goofy, albeit gorgeous, graphics aside, this game reacquaints jaded fans of the steroid-and-payroll-gap-tarnished American pastime with innocent awe. These are cartoonishly embodied clichés, larger-than-life figures with capabilities beyond those average humans can comprehend.
For hero-worshippers, it’s somewhat disillusioning to learn of the amount of film study and practice that comprises top hitters’ regimens. These guys aren’t just relying on raw talent, and there’s little “natural” about their success. By contrast, it’s unlikely that Donkey Kong, swinging a boxing-gloved fist instead of a bat, studies scouting reports.
There is a “scouting” mode in Mario Superstar Baseball, though mercifully it doesn’t require you to watch computer-controlled squads play while taking notes (which would be a pragmatic twist on R.B.I.‘s rightfully mocked “watch” option). Instead, it’s a refreshingly afiscal depiction of free agency. Randomly inserted in-game scenarios (i.e. strike someone out, get a hit) impress star players on the other team, inspiring them to change allegiance. The inability to meet such criteria produces the word “failure”, which is as confrontational as this relentlessly genial game gets.
Each team receives five Star Points per game, which it can use to execute supernatural moves. Princess Peach’s pitches morph into hundreds of hearts; Luigi and Mario literally toss fireballs; and the comically gawky, Willy Wonka-esque Waluigi chucks the physics-defying Liar Ball. The characters can use these skills at bat as well, though it’s a dicier proposition because contact isn’t guaranteed, and errant swings waste the precious supply. While over-thinking strategists might preserve their arsenal of flamboyant talents until late-inning situations, most players will exhaust them early, given that they’re the game’s most exciting feature. Star chances, which require players to achieve reasonable goals (similar to the scouting settings), replenish the supply. Also, in a game that offers options for one-, three- and five-inning affairs, “late-inning situation” is relative.
The shortened span helps inject urgency into a game that lacks real rivalry. Bowser plays the villain, but he’s a mild trash-talker at most, prone to writing benignly insulting notes and transcribing his evil laugh as a signature (“Gwah Ha Ha”). Even one-on-one matches with familiar foes will want for conflict, as it’s difficult to get too serious while controlling stake-swinging beavers, suction-mouthed pink dinosaurs, and a pear-shaped palm-tree-wielding Grimace doppelganger.
In Challenge Mode, the alternative to single-game play, your character follows a Super Mario 3-style path to quirky ballparks and intermittently enjoyable mini-games. The best of the latter diversions are a home-run-derby with Ba-Bombs as balls-turned-pyrotechnics and a pitching exercise that rewards both power (you must hurl the horsehide through brick barriers) and restraint (break the wrong wall, and you lose half your points). If you bump into Bowser, Jr. while strolling, you’ll have to engage him in a simple inning-long scenario, such as attempting to score a runner from second or preserving a 2-0 lead. Should you succeed, you receive gold coins as a reward. And these coins aren’t meaningless score-boosting trinkets; they’re currency that allows you to purchase players’ Star Point talents. The Gnarly Garlic, for example, enables Wario to baffle fielders with line drives that split into multiple balls.
Player controls are agreeably easy. Pitchers draw from a standard curve-change-fastball arsenal, and they can enhance their velocity with a simple charge-up process. Excepting a few of the more hapless characters, it’s simple enough to make contact, but putting the ball in play doesn’t guarantee hits, especially because fielders’ special talents (leaps, sliding catches, quick throws, etc.) don’t take Star Points to perform. Most fielding aspects are automatic, but unique ballpark hazards (Piranha Plants, lava bubbles, and giant rolling barrels in the outfield) require quick response times.
Mario Superstar Baseball seems primarily designed for those in the low double-digit age range and those looking to recapture that mindset, however briefly. As such, it won’t appeal to the baseball enthusiasts who leak tangible testosterone onto their controllers. It’s far less threatening than the easygoing inaugural installment in the Super Mario Bros. saga, because that game implied the plumbers’ fireballs and curiously fatal stomps were offing their enemies. Here, nothing proves injurious, including losses; it’s possible to rematch immediately without penalty.
The de-emphasis on a winning record makes sense in this context. Mario Superstar Baseball is all about the spectacle, which makes it analogous to a real-life September match-up between pathetically non-contending teams. Very few people care who comes out on top, but if an individual participant does something unfathomable, this unglamorous game will headline SportsCenter. Similarly, Mario Superstar Baseball is all glitzy highlight fodder, with no statistically generated reality.