I’ve never really been a big baseball fan. Sure, I’d watch a game if it was on TV and I had nothing better to do, but I’ve never gone out of my way to watch. I’ve never followed any league, I’ve never had a favourite team, I’ve never really caught the bug that creates the kind of obsessive fans that baseball attracts.
That’s all changed in the last week.
I have not one, but two favourite teams now - the Baltimore Orioles (by extension of my NFL-borne allegiance to the city. Also, fantastic team colours.) and the Toronto Blue Jays (because, aside from Ron Swanson, who doesn’t love Canada?). Division rivalries be damned. I “get it”, to some extent. Not necessarily the ridiculously detailed statistics or the deep strategic elements, but I get the excitement of it all. The hype that comes from a well-placed hit to bring a runner home when you’re down by one at the bottom of the ninth, or from a pitcher throwing a shutout.
The thing that gave me my newfound love of baseball? Not some concerted marketing campaign by the MLB, but a ridiculous, unlicensed, arcade-style baseball game by the name of Super Mega Baseball.
In a sea of increasingly complex sports sims like MLB: The Show and ever more over-the-top arcade games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, Super Mega Baseball stands out by being a no-frills game with a focus on the fundamentals of what makes the real-life equivalent so compelling. It’s a game that’s accessible to newcomers, while also having the kind of depth to hook in even the most ardent fan of the sport. It’s a game that, singlehandedly, took me from “baseball? no opinion” to (ahem) “OMG BASEBALL, THE BEST”.
At the core of it all are wonderfully intuitive, organic pitching and batting systems that drill right down to the heart of baseball - the battle of wits between pitcher and batter. Batting is pretty straightforward - you watch for the pitch, and either hit cross as the ball crosses the plate (a standard swing, less powerful but easier to time), hold down square while the ball’s in motion to wind up a power swing, or press circle to bunt. Good hitting means good timing - whether or not you hit the ball at all, and where it ends up if you do all depend on the timing of your swing.
The pitching interface is what really sets Super Mega Baseball apart from other baseball games; it’s very minimalist, to great effect. You select a pitch type with the right analog stick: fastballs along the top “row”, and breaking balls of various trajectories around the rest of wheel. Want to throw a cutter? (A fastball that curves towards the pitcher’s glove side.) Up-left or up-right, depending on whether your pitcher is left- or right-handed. A downward-diagonal travelling slider? Pick the corresponding analog direction. Before you know it, you’ll be intuitively choosing pitches without even really looking at the wheel.
With the pitch chosen, it’s time to throw it. A reticle that you control lets you choose where to aim your pitch, in or around the strike zone, and then pressing either cross (for a slower, more accurate pitch) or square (for a power pitch) unleashes the ball.
This is where things get interesting. Rather than using metres to determine release timing, accuracy, and velocity, a la MLB The Show, Super Mega Baseball has a very simple, and very effective setup. The reticle you aimed becomes a target, and a second reticle appears, which you need to move towards said target - ideally, smack bang in the middle. The closer you get, the higher the quality of your pitch - faster for fastballs, more tricky for breaking pitches - but, depending on your difficulty setting and whether you used a standard or power pitch, accurately hitting the target can be quite challenging due to the speed the reticle moves and the limited time you have.
Like pitch selection, this works so well because it’s intuitive and very quickly becomes second nature, leaving you to focus on the strategic element: mixing up pitch types and speeds to keep the batter off guard, get them to chase balls they really shouldn’t, and - ideally - quickly and cleanly striking them out.
Because of how intuitive everything is, Super Mega Baseball is a perfect game for newcomers to the sport, like me. There’s not a whole lot of documentation about tactics, but these just emerge organically as you play. The game does advise you early on to mix up your pitches, and if you get too predictable, it will say so, but it didn’t take long before I was making decisions based on the ball/strike count and fine-tuning swing timing based on where the previous hit landed.
Because of how intuitive everything is, Super Mega Baseball is a perfect game for newcomers to the sport.
But like I said earlier, this is a game that’s as well tuned for experts as it is for novices. You can manually adjust your “Ego” (difficulty) at any time outside a game. The higher it is, the more lifelike - and challenging - the game becomes, as pitches get faster, opponents get smarter, and good-quality pitches become harder to achieve. At its hardest (99 Ego), Super Mega Baseball is basically impossible by the accounts of many, and even the developers themselves reportedly struggle to win once Ego gets past the 80 mark. I tried playing a 99 Ego game once; I only lost 16-0. In five innings, rather than nine. Yeah.
All of this deep gameplay is wrapped up in a wonderfully irreverent presentation. There are 10 teams to choose from, with names like the Wideloads, Sirloins, and Beewolves, and all have appropriately silly logos that somehow still manage to have that authentic feel. The players are cartoony, with big heads and strange proportions, and not being tied to any real, male-only baseball leagues means you can have men and women playing alongside one another.
The stadiums provide plenty of laughs in the form of joke advertising (Pyramid Investments - Spend Money Now!), and a simple progression system includes upgrades for your team such as Thick-Rim Glasses (Stylish and functional - Speed +4), Celebrity Date (Provides an excellent boost to morale and other things - Speed +7, Mojo +2), and Entourage (Never mind that they are paid to follow you, the morale boost of having groups of people fawn over you is immense - Power +3, Fielding +3).
The best part, though, are the animations. In keeping with the cartoony aesthetic, players are decidedly emotive. Watching a dejected, struck-out batter walk off the field Charlie Brown style, tears streaming out of their eyes, while the pitcher waves goodbye grinning from ear to ear never stops being funny.
Super Mega Baseball’s only real shortcomings are in the features department. More simulation elements like a multi-season franchise mode and player trades would add a lot. A few more stadiums would be welcome, as the game only includes four, and the ability to create your own team would be a nice touch. I’d call mine something humble, like God-Emperors of All Discovered and Undiscovered Universes. Our team colours would be fluoro pink, and fluoro-er pink.
The thing is, the core game is so good that the lack of such things is far from a dealbreaker. I’d go as far as calling this a must-play for anyone even remotely interested in sports games. You won’t regret it.
If you're interested in a more simulation-style baseball game, be sure to check out our MLB 15: The Show review! - Ed.
Note: Originally, this review was peppered with jabs about how baseball is a better bat-and-ball sport than cricket. But, considering the Kiwi audience, my self-preservation instincts kicked in and I removed them. I don’t need angry mobs outside my house.
Actually, screw(ball) it. Baseball is cricket’s sexier, more confident, and more exciting older cousin, and is better in every way.