You know who we hate? Pianta. Unless you're a Nintendo nerd-for-life, you probably don't recognize the name, but all the same you undoubtedly know (and possibly despise) the character. We'll give you a hint. He's blue. He has a huge, undefined nose and tiny, beady eyes. Oh -- and he's also got a green tree sprouting from the top of his fat head. This hideously designed extra and many more unfortunately like him helped Nintendo's Italian plumber along the way in Super Mario Sunshine and although we had hoped he would be gone forever, he's not. You see, developer Namco, responsible for the Famista Baseball series in Japan, has a mean sense of humor. If you play as Nintendo's premiere mascot in Mario Superstar Baseball's unique challenge mode, a chunk of your teammates will be variations of Pianta. Only by successfully achieving goals and advancing can you eventually acquire better characters to replace him. And really, can you think of a better motivation than that?
Luckily, there's a lot more to the latest in Nintendo's Mushroom Kingdom-enhanced sports franchises than Pianta. The self explanatorily titled Mario Superstar Baseball is a natural extension of the Camelot-developed tennis and golf outings and in turn many of the signature components from those games are duplicated here. This colorful take on baseball predictably boasts a full lineup of mascots and foes from various Mario-themed hits and likewise many of its play stadiums are placed in recognizable Mushroom Kingdom locales. Superstar Baseball is designed to offer pick-up-and-play entertainment and as a result it feels fast, friendly, altered and simplified, which is true despite a number of extra bells and whistles intended to deepen the experience. For this reason, some baseball fans may be better served with a stats-filled, options-heavy simulation. But if you're looking for an arcade-like baseball experience overrun with Nintendo style, you've come to the right game.
- Arcade baseball
- Play as or against more than 30 characters from the Mushroom Kingdom
- Bat it out on more than five unique stadiums with Mushroom Kingdom themes
- Unique challenge mode combines RPG-like elements with tournament-style advancement
- Unlock new characters and enhance their abilities in challenge mode
- A wide range of mini-games to play alone or with friends
- Play the toy field stage for a radically different baseball experience
- Use team stars in-game to activate special, powerful batting or fielding abilities
- Play against up to three friends in mini-games; two-player baseball matches
- Progressive-scan enhanced
- Dolby Pro Logic II compatible
- Requires 10 blocks for memory saves
Bring on the Challenge
Mario Tennis for GameCube featured a crisply rendered and humorous opening cinematic and Mario Superstar Baseball is no different. Namco has produced some of the best CG sequences in any recent Nintendo-published titles, challenged only by Mario Tennis and the upcoming Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. The colorful animation spotlights the characteristics of each Nintendo mascot as they battle it out in a game of America's favorite pastime and successfully sets the light and bright mood for the action to follow. Unfortunately, these high production values are not consistent throughout the experience. For example, when you finally take part in the title's main challenge mode, some of the thin storyline is revealed through compressed full-motion video, which is disappointing given the quality of the opening. That noted, Namco has mostly nailed it, serving up a mixture of cheerful music, easily manipulated menus (there's a Super Mario Bros. load screen), a host of different gameplay modes and mini-games, and even some good old-fashion record keeping for good measure.
Of course, Mario Superstar Baseball is best played with friends. The very make-up of the sport it recreates is suited for multiple living, breathing people -- two, to be exact, and up to four for the title's selection of mini-games. But Namco has done a commendable job of giving you something to work through and enjoy even if you're a malfunctioned member of society without a single person you can call an ally. In what can only be seen as a tip of the hat to Camelot's Mario Golf: Advance Tour, Superstar Baseball features a well-crafted, if slightly shallow challenge mode. And like its Game Boy Advance counterpart, this mode successfully brews a mixture of baseball matches and RPG-like teambuilding mechanics. There are other modes in the game to consider, including exhibition, mini-games and even toy field, but challenge is definitely the meat and potatoes of the experience because you'll need to play through it in order to unlock characters and fields, among other things, which can then be utilized in the other areas.
Challenge mode begins with a predictably pointless storyline. Mario and friends love to play baseball against each other, but they'll have to unite to face Bowser's team in the ultimate battle of bat and ball. With that out of the way, you're free to choose your team's captain and begin. You're placed on a top-down map and given several objectives. The first is to play against various other teams located on the map and win. By doing so, former members of the outfits you beat will defect to your lineup, thus eliminating the need to use Pianta at all. The second is to partake in the mini-games strewn about the area and beat them. Winning these will serve up coins, which can then be taken to the local shop to buy character upgrades. For instance, Mario can gain a fireball pitch that's sure to send betters spinning. When your team has acquired enough new and better players, access to Bowser's Castle will open up and you can then play his team to win the cup and open the next.
The map is well designed and in typical fashion, extremely colorful. It looks like something you'd find in a Mario Party game, except that you don't need to roll the dice to move. You're free to go wherever you want, play against whoever you want, or take part in any mini-game. Just watch out for Bowser Jr. as he walks about the map because if you run into him, he'll force you to play a match and after you've kicked his team's ass five or more times, encountering him can be a tedious, time-sucking process.
There's really not a lot to it, but nevertheless the challenge mode is a success in that it both offers something new on top of the standard baseball exhibitions and it truly encourages you to keep playing in order to advance and unlock all of the goodies. The downside is that after you've beaten a cup, you'll have to start completely fresh on the next one, meaning that your team packed full of Pianta clones will be back and you'll need to go through the exact same process again to eliminate him. It's a way to extend replay value, no doubt, but it's also a cheesy way.
Mario Superstar Baseball's challenge mode is certainly a worthy addition to the game, but we expect that regardless you'll spend the bulk of your time with the title's exhibition option. Here, you can pick a team captain, generate a team, choose a stadium, and bat it out against a friend. Namco has included a surprising amount of flexibility to the mode. You can, for instance, individually select team members and assign them to specific positions on the in and outfields and you can even alter the batting order so that Luigi takes the plate before Mario. But even so, the setup is designed so that it has momentum from the start, meaning that you won't be fiddling with character attributes or making trades; the challenge game is about as close to franchise mode as Superstar Baseball serves up. So if you're looking for all-around depth, you might be disappointed.
However, if it's fast, arcade-style baseball made over with Nintendo style that you're after, Mario Superstar Baseball will undoubtedly deliver. Nintendo has taken America's favorite pastime and re-envisioned it for the Mushroom Kingdom. So naturally it's packed full of Nintendo mascots. With an impressive selection of more than 30 playable characters, you get everybody from Mario, Luigi, Peach, Waluigi, Wario, Donkey Kong, Yoshi and Bowser to lesser-known types like Monty Mole, Blue Noki, Toadsworth, Birdo and yes, the hated Pianta. Further, you get to play in Mushroom Kingdom-influenced stadiums, including a field set to the backdrop of Mario Sunshine, Peach's Garden, Wario Palace, Yoshi Park, Donkey Kong Jungle and Bowser Castle. Unfortunately, only four of the stadiums are available from the start and the remaining selection is unlocked at a slow pace. As a result, the playfields quickly grow repetitive, a problem.
Gameplay is pretty straightforward with a few notable exceptions. The pitch/hit system is reminiscent of other baseball games, minus some of the depth. You pitch and aim the ball with the A button and analog stick respectively. Meanwhile, hitting is as simple as lining up your bat and pressing the A button. But there are defining intricacies to both systems. For instance, you can throw a change up by tapping the A button with the analog stick held down. Or, you can throw a fastball by holding the A button down to create a charge and then releasing it at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, you can also charge your hits by pressing and releasing the A button at the appropriate time and you can likewise choose the direction you send the ball with the analog stick. But don't expect to find Electronic Arts-like options in Superstar Baseball; you can't even throw a sinker in the game.
To make up for this fact, Namco has developed a fun, but again cheesy star system that enables the mascots to perform truly outrageous moves during gameplay. So-called "star challenges" take place during matches. You might be asked to simply strike a character out, for example. If you do so, a star will be added to an on-screen star meter. If you fail, one of your stars will be zapped. When your meter is full of stars, you can hold down the R button to activate a star pitch or hit. Yoshi, for example, will toss an egg toward batters, and it will wiggle to and from before it crosses over the plate. These star moves are entertaining to watch because they showcase the attributes of your favorite mascots, but at the same time some of them are nearly impossible to stop, which can make them unfair.
The hit/system, despite lacking depth, is intuitively controlled and moves along at a fast pace. You'll be able to quickly pick-up-and-play the game, which makes it a perfect multiplayer choice, even if your friends are not already schooled on the basic play design by other baseball titles. Namco has succeeded in conveying a satisfying sense of "umph!" when batters connect with a ball, which makes for a very rewarding batting experience. However, based on extensive play, we highly recommend that you opt for the easy batting setup, as it overlays a batting icon that represents where your bat will swing when the ball is pitched your way. Especially because each character's so-called batting box is different in shape and size, it's hard to discover their sweet spot without it.
Running and fielding are unfortunately not particularly balanced or fun processes in Mario Superstar Baseball, which may be the game's biggest problem. When you're playing the field, it's very hard to tell where a popped ball is going to land, and oftentimes your fielders are too slow to get there in time, anyway. Meanwhile, running the bases can be frustrating for the very same reason: namely, you're likely to anticipate that a fielder is too far off to catch a popped ball, so you move your runners along the bases -- and it is caught. As a result, double and triple plays are commonplace in matches. Sure, they make for some exciting replays, but when the AI takes your batters down in one play, it's also infuriating. You'll need to watch out for unexpected hazards or obstacles when pacing the field, too -- a truth that adds a layer of chance to the experience. For instance, a character's hit may smash directly into a coin box and fall to the ground before you can catch it. Or, alternatively, a tornado may swoop a ball from right field and send it flying into center. In Bowser's Castle, you have to watch out for earthquakes and lava. Most of the time, these elements don't play into the experience, but occasionally they do and they're bound to bring a smile to your face as you're reminded you're playing a Nintendo game.
Namco has included a host of Mario Party-style mini-games in Mario Superstar Baseball. These can be accessed in challenge mode or as stand-alone experiences for up to four players from the main menu. The games are very much like the offerings in Mario Party in that they are simple and shallow, but nevertheless enjoyable. In Bob-omb Derby, your goal is to hit as many pitches out of the ballpark as you can within a given number limit. In Wall Ball, you try to throw a fastball through a number of walls for points. In Chain Chomp, you're challenged to run the diamond collecting coins while avoiding the chomping baddy. And in Barrel Batter, you try to blow up barrels by hitting baseballs their way. These games are entertaining because they break up the baseball experience and also enable three additional friends to join in the challenge. But don't expect them to keep you busy for too long. In addition to everything else, the title boasts a Toy Field mode in which you compete against mascots on a virtual court filled with bonus tiles. Frankly, we failed to find this mode's appeal.
Namco has created a very crisp, stylized baseball experience. Mario Superstar Baseball screams Mushroom Kingdom from beginning to end. The clean, often humorously animated character models that grace the field will please Nintendo fans. When Boo charges his bat, he turns to the camera with a pained look on his face. Wario spins out of control after he swings and misses. A bevy of lighting and particle effects surround and bring life to these animations. The fields are different in presentation. For instance, Yoshi's Stadium boasts a storybook background while Wario's Palace takes place in the desert. It all comes together for a baseball title worthy of Nintendo's stamp. But it's not perfect. Some of the animations, particularly when characters run the bases, are downright poor. In fact, during replays, you'll be able to see some models clipping through others as they sprint for home plate. On the other hand, the game does run at both 60 frames per second and in progressive scan mode.
The game delivers a fitting selection of happy, upbeat background music and downright ridiculous -- yet somehow funny -- character noises. We could listen to Shy Guy and Birdo all day. In fact, many of us have taken to imitating these amazingly cool mascots around the office. Does that make us sick? We can't help it. In contrast, whoever is calling the game's numerous strikes and balls has a voice so painfully screechy that it's difficult to stomach for even a short time. Everything runs crisply -- in the announcer's case, too crisply -- in Dolby Pro Logic II surround sound.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved