Just weeks ago, baseball was a source of very little entertainment for me. It was too slow-paced. There were too many games to keep up with. Plus, Cracker Jack toys are super lame. But that was all before I saw the light. That was before I knew the truth. That was before I played Super Mega Baseball.
Metalhead Software's Super Mega Baseball is, as the name implies, an arcade-style baseball game reminiscent of 8-bit classics such as Bases Loaded and RBI Baseball. However, what it brings to the table beyond mere nostalgia is a fantastic blend of easy-to-grasp mechanics, tight humor, and just enough depth to keep players interested beyond the first couple games. Metalhead's vision of what makes an arcade-style sports game fun is so concisely realized that, after an initial gameplay session, I found my co-op partners almost immediately asking when they could return to what they referred to only as “Baseball Town.”
The beauty of the game's mechanics is almost immediately recognizable in its approach to pitching and hitting. One button can be used to pitch, one button can be used to swing, and the joystick can be used to aim for both parties. While exclusively using the basic controls isn't necessarily advisable, it’s all one needs to start playing, which is exactly the kind of simplicity needed for a genre that lives and dies based on how quickly new players can be introduced. SMB truly shines, though, in its ability to transition players into the use of its deeper mechanics. The more complex variants are never required, but immediately give the impression that their mastery will give one an edge over his or her opponent. As an example, one of my co-op partners quickly took to the mechanic of “charging” a swing when batting and spent the remainder of our time with the game attempting to pull off a fully powered hit. Whether or not he actually accomplished this is, well, up to debate, but it’s emblematic of how well the game entices players into trying out its full range of options.
In this day and age, a developer's vision for game mechanics is usually accomplished to a competent degree, but it’s a bit rarer to see a game's style so completely and unfalteringly realized. SMB's style is (forgive me for being a bit flowery) an almost translucent window directly into the minds of the folks over at Metalhead. From the fully customizable (and near grotesque) character models to the ads that play on the stadium billboards, the game's stylistic choices work together so harmoniously that it's impossible to not at least appreciate the developer's dedication to their vision. This is abundantly clear when one considers the game's only source of voice-over, the umpire. Though he is hardly ever seen on-screen, his voice and inflection on every call give him a very easily identifiable persona. Moreover, each of his recordings are simple as to not become tiresome, yet I almost always found myself chuckling whenever I heard a new variant of his “time out” call as the game was being paused.
The co-op gameplay is strictly local and, to be honest, I wouldn't have it any other way. SMB thrives on the couch co-op experience. Laughing about the various players' names and chiding each other when a pitch or swing goes awry are perfect examples of how well the game serves as a vessel for players who simply wish to goof off and enjoy a few beers together. Unfortunately, SMB is still a baseball game, a subset of the sports genre that has never been further from needing a co-op mode. Players who are more serious about their co-op session or require that they be active in all instances of a game may would do well to at least be wary of their purchase.
The game's co-op works such that one player controls the outfield facet of their team, while their partner controls the “duel” facet, i.e. pitching or batting, otherwise known as “baseball”. In essence, this usually means that one player will be less active for half an inning, save for moments when their reflexes are needed for fielding or their decision-making skills are needed for baserunning. Metalhead works valiantly to make sure that no player feels useless, though, and partners switch roles every inning. For what it's worth, none of my play sessions came close to being exercises in boredom, but I can see how games could eventually become tedious, especially if players are embarking on the game's season mode. It's also worth mentioning that it was occasionally jarring for myself and my partners to suddenly be thrown into control of the game, leading to a few instances of confusion about who needed to, for example, stop a baserunner from playing “hug the guy with the ball”.
While the scope of the game is largely beneficial to the developer's ability to hone in on SMB's style, potential buyers should be aware that its price point is indicative of its depth of gameplay options. In fact, the game only sports two modes, Exhibition and Season. In my opinion, those are the only two necessary for a successful arcade sports title, but those seeking a deeper experience may want to look elsewhere. SMB does try to allay these downfalls through full team customization options and a light RPG-esque improvement system for its season mode, so players seeking to eke every last bit of enjoyment out of the game have a good amount of options to do so. I did find that, only a few games into Season mode, I was easily able to outsmart the AI. Luckily, the game allows and encourages players in this predicament to crank up the difficulty mid-season.
Let's face it. Baseball games are still baseball games. Figuring out a way to successfully introduce co-op gameplay into a sport whose bread and butter is the one-on-one pitching duel is a monumental task in and of itself. Although SMB occasionally falters in this area, there are so many things to love about it that I find it tough to not recommend it to anyone aside from those looking for a truly complex baseball experience. The $19.99 price point may be a little high when compared to the gameplay options, but SMB's ability to weave its aesthetic, comedic, and mechanical facets so harmoniously into a fully realized package undeniably sets the standard for arcade-style sports games of this generation.