Super Mario first made his mark in the sports world through the game of golf. Golf has been a game video game publishers have often tried to emulate and Nintendo likely thought their brand would sell better with Mario in a starring (though understated) role as opposed to some new character. Mario has since appeared in numerous golf games for Nintendo and would add tennis to his resume on the Virtual Boy and Nintendo 64. It was also on the Nintendo 64 that the Mario Party games debuted where Mario and his buddies got to show off a bunch of skills no one knew they possessed. Come the era of the Gamecube though, and Mario’s sporting exploits exploded. One such resulting title is Mario Superstar Baseball.
During the mid-2000’s the sports landscape changed. EA Sports, having felt undermined by 2k Sports and their $20 game NFL 2k5, made a deal with the NFL to secure exclusive rights to the NFL brand. 2k would follow suit by doing almost the same thing with Major League Baseball. The only difference was that 2k’s deal with MLB made them the sole third-party publisher of MLB games allowing the first-party developers the ability to utilize the MLB license for their own games (hence why MLB The Show has appeared on Playstation consoles ever since). Nintendo first attempted a baseball game with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz as its cover athlete, but for whatever reason, the game was cancelled. Rather than start development on another MLB title, Nintendo instead chose the cheaper route and once more tabbed their mascot for a baseball game.
Mario Superstar Baseball is, naturally, an off-beat take on the sport of baseball. It’s not the first title to do so. There was SNK’s Super Baseball 2020 in the early 90’s, and Midway (having found success with NFL Blitz) released their own exaggerated take on the sport: MLB Slugfest. Mario though could bring something different to the sport in the form of its unique world full of warp pipes and piranha plants. In some ways, the foundation had been laid by Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, also for the Gamecube, and Superstar Baseball just needed to adapt those features to the game of baseball.
Probably due to the existence of miniature golf, it’s easy to envision how one could make golf gimmicky but fun for a video game. With baseball, it’s not quite as obvious how such features could be added without feeling forced. Namco, the developer of Mario Superstar Baseball, focused on a small core of characters to focus on while supplementing the team rosters with lesser characters. These main characters consist of the team captains and one co-captain, and they usually have the more impressive special abilities unique to the game. Mario, and brother Luigi, can both use their fire power to enhance their pitching and their hitting. As a pitch, the fireball is blazing fast and tough to square-up. When used as a hitter, if Mario or Luigi successfully put the ball in play it will retain its flaming properties and make it hard to handle for the fielders. Peach and Daisy can both make their ball disappear in a puff of flower petals, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong wield a boomerang like banana, Yoshi and Birdo an unpredictable bouncing egg, and Bowser and Bowser Jr. call upon their pal Bullet Bill to take the place of the baseball. Wario and Waluigi have this weird, gassy, multiplying pitch that is best scene than explained. The support characters include the likes of hammer bros. and toads, all of which can use special moves but they just slightly enhance their fastballs/hitting as opposed to doing something unique.
The other main way for Namco to apply a Mario coat of paint is with the stadiums. Mario’s home turf plays like a generic ballpark, but Bowser’s is ringed by lava with fireballs shooting across the outfield. Donkey Kong’s is a jungle setting with a croc-infested creek running through it and Peach’s castle stadium has music boxes floating in the air. The unique features of the stadium probably only come into play once or twice a game (which range from 3, 5, or 7 innings) but can bring about fortune but often misfortune for the player. The game is not as wild as other Mario sports titles, but given the actual game it’s adapting, Namco did a solid-enough job in this area.
The mechanics of the game are largely reminiscent of old school baseball games from the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era. Batters can be moved in the batter’s box at any point during the pitch and the break of each pitch is determined by just pressing any direction on the controller. Pitches can be charged for added velocity, and also for less velocity to disguise a change-up, and varying speeds and break is vital to having success (just like in real baseball). Each team can possess up to five “stars” which allow for the use of special abilities like Mario’s fireball pitch. Stars can be replenished at random times during a game when the player is presented with a “Star Chance” during an at-bat or by striking a star panel on the playing field with a batted ball. Fielding and base-running are also rather old school in their controls, with throwing to a base requiring a direction be pressed on the analog stick. Modern games just map the bases to a specific button, and unfortunately Mario’s game can at times lead to throws to the wrong base. Players can also dash in the outfield, or on the bases, and attempt diving or leaping catches. Most characters have a floaty feel to them making leaping catches a little easier than they would be in an MLB game. Also, characters have special abilities unique to them that often show up when they’re in the field. The powerful guys, like Donkey Kong and Bowser, have powerful throwing arms while Yoshi can catch balls with his tongue. This dynamic helps make each player feel different with some naturally being more suited for one position over another.
The game has various modes such as exhibition, home-run derby, and other mini games based around pitching, hitting, and base-running. The meat of the game though is found in its single-player mode where the player selects a team and barnstorms around a map taking on the other teams before eventually facing Bowser’s team. During the games though, opportunities will be presented to the player such as “get a hit” or “steal a base.” If successful, the player will earn a star allotted towards an opposing player. Get enough of these for a player and you successfully recruit him or her to your team. Recruiting the team’s captain will prevent you from being able to play that team again, so the idea is always to try and recruit all of the other players first before getting the captain. If the player manages to win via the mercy rule, then all recruitable players are recruited at once. On the map, Bowser Jr. roams and his team will contain a collection of any players the player failed to recruit giving another option for recruitment. There’s also a store where items can be purchased that temporarily make the game easier. The mini games are also playable a set number of times which is primarily where the player earns money.
By recruiting new players one can better optimize their roster. To prevent players from simply loading up on the best, an affinity feature was added to the game that makes certain players work better as teammates of others, or not work well at all. Mario, for example, is more likely to make an errant throw to first base if Bowser is the first baseman. If it’s Luigi instead then he’s less likely to make an error and will also throw quicker. This incentivizes the player to pair up certain characters at key positions, such as double-play partners or outfielders with the catcher for those throws home. Each character, captains and all, also have goals and achievements associated with them. The minor characters may only have 3 or so of these while major ones as many as ten. Some are easy, like score a run, and others quite difficult and dependent on chance. Donkey Kong, for example, needs to hit a home run with both Diddy and Dixie Kong on base for one of his and Mario needs to pitch a perfect game (no hitter allowed to reach base) for one of his. Achieving all of these goals for a character unlocks their star form, which is just a better version of the character. It adds a compelling layer to the game and incentivizes the player to use every character, though the quirkier ones can become aggravating. Building and customizing a team becomes a lot of fun, especially for those who like to tinker, so much so that I wish there was even more depth to it. The goal of the game is to be accessible and fun, but a more robust single-player mode might be even better.
The single player game is surprisingly deep, and the play is quite fun, but the game does have some short-comings. The controls, touched upon earlier, are an issue. Hitting and pitching is simple and intuitive enough, but the base-running is overly complex leading to numerous base-running errors and frequent instances of a runner being doubled-off. Some of that is also due to the field of play being rather small compared to other baseball games and the propensity for line drives being caught by infielders. For a game that’s supposed to be kind of a “wacky” take on baseball, there’s a lack of home runs as well with only the most powerful characters being reliable sources of round-trippers. The game seems to want the player to make use of the item store for super powerful bats if they want to see the ball leave the yard. The special abilities of the captains are also pretty hit or miss, with most of them being a miss. Mario’s fireball pitch seems to work okay on easier difficulties, but on hard the AI never seems to miss. Peach’s disappearing change-up pitch seems to be the only reliable and useful one with Bowser and Donkey Kong’s pitches being so bad they’re not worth using. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to strike out the AI with Donkey Kong’s banana pitch. Wario and Waluigi’s pitch is pretty much just as bad. When used at the plate, all of them are a bit more reliable. The AI will still sometimes feel like it’s cheating with how easy it finds Peach and Daisy’s invisible ball when put in the air, and Donkey Kong’s banana ball is still awful. Wario’s is one of the most effective in terms of introducing an element of chaos to the game as it splits into two balls, with one being the actual ball and one being a fake, and if it’s a fly ball the AI (or another human player) is forced to commit to one or the other. This can make decisions such as whether or not to tag-up or send runners an exciting one.
I love baseball, and I love baseball video games, and Mario Superstar Baseball is probably my favorite when it comes to off-beat baseball games. It’s also one of my favorite Mario sports titles, and even though it has its share of problems, it’s a very enjoyable game. It’s single-player mode is surprisingly addicting, though like most Mario titles, the actual gameplay experience is better when played against other human opponents. Unfortunately, its sequel, Mario Super Sluggers for the Wii, failed to address the faults the game had. In many ways, it was a step back. The single-player game was simplified and less interesting and the power-ups weren’t improved at all. There was also the inclusion of “waggle” controls which felt unintuitive and tacked-on. Rather than swing the wii-mote like it was Wii Sports, the game wanted the player to just move the controller back and then forward emphasizing rhythm. It was unfortunate the game came out so poorly, and if you’re someone interested in a Mario baseball title the Gamecube original is the way to go. I’ve never heard any rumblings of a new entry in the series, but it sure would be nice if Nintendo gave the go-ahead for a 3DS sequel as it did with the golf franchise. For now, Mario Superstar Baseball is sort of an annual tradition for me, where I dust off my Gamecube and settle in for a fun time either by myself or with a buddy whenever the baseball season comes around.