Over the course of a recent weekend, I had an interesting experience with the Mario Super Sluggers title for the Wii. An old friend came into town, with his six-year-old boy in tow. I introduced them to the Wii console, which my friend found impressive and his son found to be, naturally, the Coolest Thing Ever in The History of Creation.
At various points in the weekend, my friend and his son — plus my own five-year-old boy — ended up playing several hours of Mario Super Sluggers. The four of us had a great time, and after the kids went to bed, my friend and I had even more fun. This is a testament to both the Super Mario title and the Wii aesthetic generally. The really well-designed, all-ages Wii games are simple enough for littler kids to enjoy, and sufficiently multivalent to keep adult gamers engaged as well.
Mario Super Sluggers is one such game, and has quickly rotated into my rack of Wii favorites. A direct descendent of the GameCube’s Mario Superstar Baseball, the Wii incarnation retains the loony, ‘toony charm of Nintendo-style baseball, and takes full advantage of the console’s motion-sensitive controls.
Actually, there are several different control setups to choose from, each of which offers a different level of complexity. Advanced players can use the Wiimote-plus-nunchuk approach for more exacting control, but the simplest setup turns out to be the best. Using the single Wiimote control, even complete newcomers can get into the game quickly. Swing the controller to swing the bat. Make a throwing motion to pitch. Add in some simple button combos, and you’re good to go.
It’s amazing at times how the Wii’s simple but paradigm-changing approach can alter the home console gaming experience. The motion controls replace sitting and fiddling with standing and swinging, and it makes all the difference. Besides, Mario-style baseball isn’t about realism, it’s about surreal cartoony fun.
Onward: The two main modes in Sluggers are Exhibition Mode and Challenge Mode. Exhibition Mode lets you jump right into the action. You assemble your roster from the usual rogues’ gallery of Nintendo characters (predictably, many characters must be unlocked by completing other tasks in the game). You can also import your customized Mii characters directly, which is always great fun. Five-year-olds, I can dutifully report, consider it a kind of miracle.
You can also choose your ballpark, either the standard-issue Mario Stadium, or one of several other themed parks on Baseball Kingdom island. Tenacious players will discover additional hidden ballparks as well. Each themed park comes with its own assembly of wacky in-play hazards and obstacles. All I can say is watch out for the ice stalagmites. And the carnivorous plants. And the train.
Sluggers adds some optional arcade mechanics into the baseball action. For instance, if your adjacent position players have “chemistry,” then you can team them up for unlikely acrobatic maneuvers and tricks in the field. Or, when at bat, you can direct the on-deck hitter to launch various projectiles at the defenders. Other mechanics allow for special pitches and bat swings, many tailored individually to the specific characters. Donkey Kong’s lights-out pitch turns the baseball into a giant barrel rumbling toward home plate. Multiplayer games benefit greatly from these little tricks.
For single-player games, you can choose from four levels of difficulty in Exhibition Mode, and the AI is sufficiently flexible to let kids win consistently on one end of the scale, and present a serious challenge to grown-ups on the other. This is, of course, critical. All the bells and whistles in Marioland won’t save a game if it doesn’t get this core element of game architecture right. Happily, Sluggers does.
The Challenge mode continues the Mario tradition of surreally tripped-out, slightly exasperating, sometimes repetitive quest-based gameplay (Occasionally, this game really makes me miss smoking pot, which always tended to smooth over these rough spots). Essentially, you wander around Baseball Kingdom island recruiting new players by defeating various mini-game challenges. Most of these involve application of your baseball skills (make three outs in the field, or score one or more runs), but there are also a scattering of puzzle challenges to switch up the rhythm. Once you assemble your dream team, you take on Bowser’s island-invading bad guys in several climactic baseball showdowns.
The additional Toy Field and Minigame modes are underwhelming and eminently skippable (in single player mode, anyway), but full props to the Training mode, which offers effective, sequenced tutorials for all aspects of the game.
Production values here are standard-issue for the big-budget end of things. Characters are nicely rendered, colors and cinematics simple and solid, music and sound design entirely adequate. Nothing to complain about; nothing to write home about.
Mario Super Sluggers is a superior multiplayer party game, and a pretty damn good Nintendo-style sports title otherwise, which earns huge points for flexibility. Kids will dig it, and adult baseball fans can use it as an antidote to that most unnatural of seasons — winter. This will tide you over nicely until spring training.