Arcade sports games have brought much joy to my life over the years, and it is sad that the fine art of taking a complicated sport and boiling it down to an accessible but faithful video game has largely been lost. Baseball has been luckier than most sports in that regard; Blue Castle Games (now Capcom Vancouver, developer of Dead Rising 3) and 2K Sports excellent The Bigs series carried the arcade baseball torch last generation while the RBI Baseball revival and Nintendo’s Mario Super Sluggers for Wii were less successful in their attempts. Now Metalhead Software are bringing arcade baseball to the current generation with their debut effort Super Mega Baseball.
Super Mega Baseball doesn’t make an immediate impression. The graphic style takes some getting used to but it does allow for wildly expressive players, even if some are hideously ugly. There is no MLB license, all teams are fictional and have different strengths and weaknesses, from power hitters to fast runners. There is no online play and game modes are limited to single matches or a season. There is no commentary, just a gruff selection of umpire stereotypes growling ball and strike calls. You only have four (admittedly very lovely) fields to play on and 12 teams in total, most with ridiculous names and mascots like the Crocodons, Sirloins, Herbisaurs and Moonstars. Player names are usually twists on baseball terminology, puns or cute stereotypes, like chubby power hitter Keg Gutterson. After some time with the game I appreciated its charm, there are a lot of little touches that bring out player personality and show the deep love Super Mega Baseball was crafted with, but I fear a lot of players will dismiss its cartoon style out of hand.
That would be a shame, as Super Mega Baseball is both a realistic simulation of baseball and an arcade experience that brings out the most enjoyable aspects of the great American pastime. Every individual game has been a joy to play, with the brilliantly designed ‘Ego’ system meaning difficulty can be tailored by the player as they improve. It means the game never loses its challenge, when I found myself winning easily or putting too many moonshots over the fence I would up the Ego rating a few points and be challenged all over again. You can change the difficulty mid season, a crucial but often missing feature in sports games, and an upcoming update will allow you to tailor difficulty for hitting and pitching separately. My natural play style saw me improve as a pitcher at a faster rate than as a hitter so I find myself in a lot of tense low scoring affairs, and having such minute control over difficulty settings makes that possible.
Super Mega Baseball features the most enjoyable battle between pitcher and hitter of any baseball game I have played. Both systems balance risk and reward with a smooth learning curve, mastery will not come without significant time investment but first time players will immediately understand the mechanics. Both aspects of the game offer a safe and risky option, contact and power swings in the box, regular and power pitches on the mound. Regular and contact require a singular timing of one button press to swing or one button hold to throw, while power pitches and swings require a trickier hold and release approach that requires anticipation, fine adjustments and pinpoint timing. While your choice of swing will largely be dependent on your batters individual skills, experienced pitchers will soon be hurling power pitches every time once the mechanics are mastered.
As you increase the Ego setting the timing window becomes tighter and more accuracy is required for directing your swing, while pitching provides a more erratic reticule to be moved for maximum pitch power and accuracy. Once I settled in to a balanced difficulty setting I started to really notice the difference between facing a regular pitcher and the elite of the game, you will soon fear the Crocodons and their triple threat of starters who will beat you with heat one pitch then dip one well outside the zone the next that has you swinging at air. Anticipation becomes crucial to making good contact, especially with power swings, and better pitchers have a knack of hiding the various deliveries and making sliders look like 2 seamers and forks look like screwballs.
Facing down elite hitters is equally terrifying. Missing your target reticule on higher difficulty brings disastrous results as batters pick the pitch a mile away, but few games have given me the sense of reward for fooling a hitter with variety that Super Mega Baseball does. Throwing heat at the corners then a strike three sinker is especially satisfying, as is getting them to swing at a slider that breaks well out of their range after a few setup seamers. You need to vary your pitch types and location, and you will be rewarded for throwing outside the zone sporadically. Pitching never got ‘easy’, even when I was regularly throwing down power pitches the occasional miss was punished and I often found myself in to tense situations trying to paint the corners against hitters with a good eye. Both pitching and hitting are a joy, perfectly balanced and deep enough to perhaps never be truly mastered.
The physics of hitting are noteworthy, as small aspects of the game are accounted for such as hitters having more power when pulling a ball and hitting over the ball more likely to yield ground balls. You can hit the ball to every corner of the field, there is not a set number of pre-determined paths a ball can take (an issue that became apparent in The Bigs after extended play) and occasionally you’ll see the ball take a wicked hop off a base or the infield dirt. Power swings have a satisfying sound to them and when timed well rocket to the outfield, but mistimed swings draw realistic and frustrating popups to foul territory. You’ll be willing long drives to stay fair, cheering when they barely clip the foul post for a crucial home run, and you’ll lament when the ball bounces off a fielder’s glove and collects the top of the outfield fence for an assisted home run.
The other aspects of baseball are handled well in Super Mega Baseball, but pale in comparison to the excellent hitting and pitching. Base running has some issues, I was particularly frustrated by my AI baserunners inability to hold at third base when trying to hit a sacrifice fly and there was the occasional time where a player would leave his base when I released the ‘run back’ button. You have general controls to make all runners continue, stop or return and can direct individual runners to specific bases, though this didn’t help in some particularly frantic situations. The problems stem from occasionally misjudged tag up or run situations by the AI runners and while in the moment it proved very frustrating those times were rare, about a half dozen over 90 games of baseball. The sacrifice fly problem is the only lasting issue that frustrated me, the ‘leaving base’ issue was easily managed by holding the ‘run back’ button until the play ended.
Fielding is mostly well done, the slow motion period as a hard hit ball leaves the infield is a particularly inspired innovation, allowing you time to dive or jump for out of reach balls. Throwing is done on a charge-up system with button holds, but can be started before you field the ball at a slight risk of a misfield. You can intercept an ill-advised long throw with a cutoff as well as throwing to them directly and the AI is adept at covering empty bases and positioning themselves for throws. Dives and jumps are a standard animation that makes judging distance fair if not exactly easy, timing dives is particularly perilous and often I would find myself blocking a drive with my body rather than gracefully fielding the ball in my glove. You can steal home runs with a well-timed leap but the chances to do so are rare and the timing is difficult, as it should be. Judging fly balls is easy, even in the absence of any ‘landing marker’ as you can judge the balls trajectory by its shadow and players helpfully wave away other fielders when under a fly ball to indicate correct positioning. You’ll occasionally let a ball by when trying to field on the run but in general fielding in Super Mega Baseball is strong.
It is the little touches that lift Super Mega Baseball from great to excellent. Pitchers have a variety of actions, some sidearm, some with big kicks and wild arm swings, others with efficient, fast snaps of the wrist. Their idle animations are fantastic, from coughing and shaking their hand to adjusting their crotch or scratching their butt. Batting stances are equally varied and the hitters reactions to strikeouts are priceless, tears stream from their eyes, they stand and shake their fist at the pitcher while steam fires out of their ears, all the while the pitcher waves them off or claps their handiwork. Adding to this is the Mojo system, a method of measuring how well a player responds to pressure situations.
Players have a base mojo level that adjusts in game depending on their performance, high mojo means players thrive in pressure situations and low mojo means they turn to jelly at the first sign of stress. The game always indicates the current pressure situation, no outs, no runners on and it is low pressure, full count, two outs with the tying run in scoring position in the ninth and you will be facing extreme pressure. It affects both pitchers and batters, and is represented in game both by gauges and the sweat pouring from a players brow, a frazzled cartoon “Q-Bert” jumble over their heads and steam coming from their ears. It makes big moments matter and gives players personality, you’ll dread certain players coming up in pressure spots and have regular heroes that come through in the clutch. Some players will be so badly affected you have to pinch hit for them, and pitchers with low mojo need to be pulled before serious damage can be done. It is a fantastic touch to what is already an excellent baseball game, highlighting those crucial moments and building tension just like the real sport.
Season mode is where you will spend the bulk of your time and while there is no franchise mode where teams carry over year on year the default sides in the game are replaced by your customized season teams in all game modes. Customisation options are extensive, all players appearance and name can be changed though stats can only be influenced, not outright adjusted. This is done through a complex system of coaches, gear and training, where perks are unlocked as you play. You can then assign these perks to various players, providing improvements to all aspects of their play. You might improve your fielding (but drop your mojo) with an ‘umpire incentives’ program or find natural power improvements with new batting gloves or a ‘juicing’ program. It allows you to build the team how you wish, fixing weaknesses and improving strengths, and after extensive play you can have some truly devastating players in your team. Elaborate statistics are kept for your squad and the league, going well beyond simple batting average, hit totals and ERA to include advanced metrics such as BABIP, OPS and XB%.
Super Mega Baseball manages to be both very accessible and an authentic baseball simulation that captures the magic of the sport. Beginners will immediately grasp the basics and multiplayer games can be played on different Ego settings so rookies and veterans can compete on an even footing. Those with a deep understanding and love of baseball will appreciate the little touches but even those who don’t care for the sport will find a well-balanced experience that may just turn them around. Super Mega Baseball proves that you don’t need crazy, elaborate pitching systems, hot and cold zones or even a Major League Baseball license to produce an entertaining, deep baseball game.
Super Mega Baseball has unseated The Bigs as my favourite baseball game of all time. It is a must play for baseball fans and well worth a look for sports fans in general. It captures everything that is great about baseball, is accessible, deep and well balanced. I can only hope it signals the start of another great era of arcade sports games.
Super Mega Baseball was reviewed using a retail download on PS3, purchased by the reviewer.
Review: Super Mega Baseball