Mario Super Sluggers Review
Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is one of my favorite movies of all time. At a passing glance it just seems like a bloated, brain-dead summer blockbuster, where pricey special effects are meant to distract from the by-the-numbers plot and the sub-soap-opera acting. Those paying attention, however, will find a scathing indictment of fascism and conformity, a brilliant mass-media satire, and perhaps one of the most politically subversive films to come out of Hollywood in the past 20 years. That said, I have absolutely no interest in its direct-to-video sequels. It's still space marines fighting giant space bugs, but without the creative forces that brought life to the original, they're nothing more than the stupid action movies they appear to be.
Similarly, I've got a deep and abiding appreciation for the Mario franchise, but that doesn't mean that every Mario game gets an automatic pass. Namco Bandai's Mario Super Sluggers is, for all intents and purposes, a direct-to-video Mario game. It's got all the characters you expect from a Mario game, but without Nintendo actually handling the development duties, the whole thing has a real off-brand feel. Mario Super Sluggers is also a baseball game of sorts, albeit one that is simultaneously too casual about the sport itself and not imaginative enough about how it exploits the Mario motif.
As has become the default MO for many Wii games, Mario Super Sluggers puts a high value on accessibility, providing you with three distinct control schemes, two of which have you making use of the motion controls--one with the nunchuk, one without--and one that has you holding the Wii Remote sideways. I like to think that I've become fairly aware of the technical limitations of the Wii Remote over the past few years, and can adjust my play style accordingly, but I found the motion controls in Super Sluggers to be particularly inconsistent. The remote-and-nunchuk combo might provide a greater degree of control, but I found the sideways control scheme to be the most reliable and easy to use.
The game abides by the basic rules of the sport, focusing most of its energy on batting and pitching, though even then there's not a lot of nuance. When you're at bat, it's simply a matter of timing your swing--there's no consideration for the shape or speed of your swing when using the motion controls, and every character comes with a predetermined batting power. There's a bit more to the pitching, which accommodates fastball, change-up, and curveball throws, though it also seems to require less skill. You'll have varying levels of control over your fielders and your base runners depending on your control scheme, but I found them to be either too automatic or not responsive enough.
You can build your own teams out of the usual rabbit-hole menagerie of characters you expect to see in a Mario game, and in addition to each character having discrete performance stats, you'll find that certain characters work better together. The allegiances tend to break down the way you'd expect, but it still manages to make the team-building an interesting exercise.
Mario Super Sluggers spikes the action with a few Mario touches, such as the ability to build up star power when either batting or pitching. Every character reacts slightly differently, but activating it it generally results in a powerful swing or a speedy, unpredictable pitch, depending on which side of the plate you're on. Star power tends to build up quick, effectively providing a free pass every other at-bat. You'll also find stadiums with different surfaces, and the ability to throw “error items” out onto the field while you're running the bases, but these touches tend to muddle the gameplay rather than enhance it.
Beyond the standard exhibition game and the surprisingly brief story-based challenge mode, Mario Super Sluggers offers some minigames to test and hone the skills you'll need to employ in a standard game. They can be OK on the lower difficulty levels, but at a point the minigames just seem like a showcase for the gameplay's shortcomings. Then there's the Toy Field mode, which crosses baseball with pinball. This is easily my favorite part of the game, simply because it abstracts the sport to such a degree that the simplicity of the gameplay doesn't seem like a liability. In this mode, four players take turns at bat, while the other three players are out in the field, which is divided into a grid of panels, each with its own point value. The fielders then trigger a slot machine that determines the pitch, as well as whether any error items get tossed out. Points are awarded to the batter for contact with different field panels, and fielders can get points for catching the ball, or simply stealing the ball from another fielder. After a set number of turns, scores are tallied and a winner declared. I only wish there was more action like this in Mario Super Sluggers.
As a Mario game, Mario Super Sluggers feels kind of cheap; as a baseball game, it fails to capture the finer points that make the sport interesting in the first place. Its accessibility is probably Mario Super Sluggers' most well-realized characteristic, but what you're getting access to simply isn't much fun.