Mario Super Sluggers Review

August 30, 2008

 
Mario takes to the diamond once more for another season of crazy arcade baseball.  Is the plumber-turned ballplayer on a hot streak, or is it time to send him to the showers?  Below I carefully analyze on a scale of 10 this new sports title for the Wii.
 

Gameplay: Score at the bottom of this section

Mario Super Sluggers is an arcade baseball game, and playing baseball is what youíre going to do.  The game is more oriented towards hitting than pitching; it is relatively easy to hit line drives, and pitches can only be curved left and right, not up and down, making it much easier for the batter to connect.  But fans of well-pitched games should take heart; with the ability to change speeds and curve pitches sharply, pitchers still will be able to send batters back to the dugout shaking their head.

This gameís main mode is Exhibition, where youíll play a single game against another player or the CPU.  First you pick the team captains Ė major characters from the Mario series who each have special moves.  Then youíll pick the remaining eight members of the team, determine the batting order and starting fielding positions, and then itís time to play ball!  You also determined how many innings you play, and whether some of the special gameplay elements discussed below will be in play.

Sluggers more or less follows the true rules of baseball, but with many a twist thrown in.  One such twist carried over from the first Mario baseball game, Mario Superstar Baseball for the GameCube, is that most stadiums have obstacles in them.  These hazards are located in the outfield and can impede the fielders or redirect a batted ball, the result being many surprises and unusual plays.  Another element borrowed from Superstar is character chemistry, in which characters who are denoted as friends perform well with one another.  As in Superstar, players will hit better when there are friends on base, and throw more quickly to an ally.  Sluggers increases the benefits of character chemistry by adding special fielding techniques for getting the ball back into the infield lightning fast, and even being able to rob towering homerun balls.  Additionally, if the hitter and on-deck player are friends, the on-deck player can fire a weapon onto the field after the ball is struck to obstruct the fielders.

Another major element taken from Superstar is Team Stars, which allow players to hit the ball with special power or to throw special pitches.  This can have a major effect on the outcome of the game if you use your Stars to your advantage.  Although this concept is similar to that of Superstar, the execution is very different.  In Superstar, you started the game with a certain number of Stars based on your team chemistry, and then could earn more at specified times by getting a hit if youíre on offense or an out if youíre on defense; or the offense could occasionally get a Star by hitting special spots on the field.  In Sluggers, both teams start with no Stars, and Stars are earned based on performance all the time rather than at specified moments.  The offensive team can earn Stars by bunching hits, stealing bases, and scoring runs; while the defensive team earns Stars by getting strikes, getting outs, and making great plays.

Since performance gains you more Stars, and Stars improve your performance, this actually has the affect of creating a momentum system that can allow players who are earning Stars to really turn it on and continue doing well.  Itís an interesting element that could, in a way, be said to mirror real baseball, which often seems to involve an element of momentum.  That said, the momentum in Sluggers also can shift very quickly.  If you hit the ball using a Team Star, but the other team makes a great play, then youíve made an out and are down a Team Star, while the other team probably is going to earn a Star for the defensive gem.  Suddenly they have the momentum!

I like the momentum system the way I have described it up to this point, I think itís clever and has a good effect on gameplay, even as you scream in frustration when you hit a line drive with a Team Star only to watch it sail right at a defender and get caught.  The problem this system has, however, is that it also creates a major home field advantage.  When the visiting team comes to bat in the top of the first, they have no Team Stars, so they only can use regular power to get hits.  Itís difficult to get a Team Star on offense without already having one to help you get hits, while itís easier to earn them on defense.  If you strike a player out, youíre pretty much certain to get a Team Star, not just for the K but also for the strikes along the way.  But Iíve hit a homerun and not earned a Star for it.  So essentially, the visiting team wonít have any Stars in the first.  But when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the first, they could already have 1, 2, maybe even more Stars from pitching, and could use them to really jump out in front early.  This gives the visiting team a serious disadvantage, and forces you to bat very carefully in the top of the first.  You donít want to swing and miss much, you really donít want to strikeout, and good luck to you if the home team manages to make a great defensive play.  Then they will really be in business with Stars.

Now, the astute among you might say, ďOk, so the visiting team has no Stars to hit with in the top of the first, but the home team has no Stars to pitch with either, so itís fair, right?Ē Well, in a single word, no; and Iíll explain why.  I have two answers.

The more complicated answer is that Team Stars are much more useful on offense than on defense.  On offense, they can be used to hit powerful blasts that can be of great help in getting hits with weaker players; while stronger hitters like captains can really wreak havoc with them.  On defense, a Star will only get you a strike.  If could cause the batter to hit the ball weakly for an out, but at least when Iím playing, I almost always take those pitches for a strike without offering at them.  Iíd only swing if there was 2 strikes.  ďAha!Ē you say. ďBut then you can use the Stars to get strikeouts!Ē  Yes you can, but unless you use three Stars to get a single hitter out, youíd have already had to get two strikes the normal way, so you may very well have been able to get a third strike normally, too.  Star Pitches simply are not as useful as Star Swings, even given that if you miss with your swing, youíre out a Team Star for nothing.

The simpler reason is that because the offensive team rarely earns many Stars without already having some to help out, the visiting team probably will enter the bottom of the first still without any Stars.  Granted theyíll have a partially filled meter for getting one Star, but still, they wonít have much help with pitching in the first, either.

Just as momentum is an element in real baseball, so too is the home field advantage.  But in a game where the home team is determined randomly and games may only be a few innings long Ė making the first inning even more critical Ė this unbalancing of the teams can be very disruptive within Super Sluggers.  Arcade baseball does not need to mimic real baseball, and so while I like the momentum concept, this home field advantage is not a good development for Marioís baseball series.  To combat this situation, the option should have existed to start the visiting team with 1 Team Star, maybe 2.  Getting that leadoff man on could make all the difference.  And look, if you swing and miss and waste your Team Star, then hey, you messed up, now youíre going to have to deal with it.  But I think this would be a decent way to handle the imbalance.

AnywayÖ So, thatís the major aspects of gameplay you can expect to see on the baseball diamond.  The result of all this is often a crazy ballgame where every at-bat is critical and that, despite frustration when things donít go well, is often very fun.  Gamers looking for a realistic baseball experience will not find it here, but those who like the arcade could find this kind of gameplay addictive.  Exhibition mode offers a good game, the only problem being thereís no kind of season mode that would offer stakes other than your own personal pride.

In addition to Exhibition mode, thereís also a Challenge mode.  Superstar also had a Challenge mode, but this one is quite different.  In Superstarís Challenge mode, you picked a captain and the default team that goes with him, then go around playing the other teams and getting other characters to join you by meeting certain challenges when called on.  Then eventually you would make your way to Bowser for the final game.

Sluggers also finishes with a game against Bowser, but the lead-up is very different.  This time you walk around Peachís new Baseball Kingdom using the team captains to talk to other characters and examine things.  When you find characters, many will ask you to meet a challenge before theyíll join your team.  Sometimes these challenges are minigames or puzzles, but most are quick baseball missions, and can range in difficulty from just getting an out on the easy side, to spraying hits to left, right, and center field, as indicated, on the hard side.

At first Sluggersí Challenge mode may seem unique and interesting, but before long I found it to be disappointing.  Superstarís Challenge mode may have been criticized for centering too much around the ballfield, playing just as you would in Exhibition; but really, what else would you like to do in a baseball game?  Sluggersí Challenge mode, aside from the quick scouting missions, actually includes very little real baseball.  Youíll play a few very short games against Bowser Jrís team, and then the final game against BowserÖ but really, thereís not a lot of ball-playing.  This mode isnít very difficult, they couldnít even bother to make all the scouting missions unique, and when you finish it once, thereís hardly any reason to play it again, like you might in Superstar.

In Superstar characters could become, well, Superstars by managing various stunts in Challenge mode, liking getting a hit, scoring multiple runs, or even in one case pitching a perfect game.  These Superstar characters would gain increased stats both in Challenge and in Exhibition, this giving a reason to replay the Challenge mode as you continued to try to improve players.  This feature has been all but removed from Sluggers.  Superstars exist, but there are no stunts to complete Ė the character must just be on a team that beats Bowserís Ė and these characters will not be upgraded.  So again, thereís no reason to replay Challenge mode once you beat it once.  Youíll want to play it once to unlock some characters and stadiums, and itís not so terrible that itís a real hardship to play through it that one time, but relative to Superstar, itís a big disappointment.  It should only take you about 5 hours, Iíd wager, to beat Bowser and get all the courses and characters.  Then you may never play this mode again.

Sluggers also has a bunch of minigames, as Superstar didÖ but it doesnít really matter.  I have not been interested enough to play any of them yet and will not be commenting on them, except to say that if you buy this game for the minigames, youíre probably doing it for the wrong reason.  Theyíre a diversion at best.

So finally, here are the scores.

Exhibition: 9
Challenge: 3
The Rest: Who cares?
Overall: 7
 

Controls: Hard to sayÖ Read on and Iíll explain

Iíll do controls next because theyíre a highlight of this game, which is billed as using motion-sensitive control not entirely unlike Wii Fit.  Indeed, this game can be controlled by swinging and shaking the Wii-Mote, in two styles: Wii-Mote only, or Wii-Mite with Nunchuk.  This game can also be played with more traditional control by holding the Wii-Mote sideways, so there are several control schemes available.  Whatís not available, though, is the GameCube or Classic controllers, which probably would be more effective than the sideways Wii-Mote, and more familiar to those who have played Superstar.  I was happy to see traditional play as an option, but the omission of those controllers was disappointing.

After having had the game for just three days, I have only used the Wii-Mote with Nunchuk control scheme, so I cannot speak with personal experience about the other methods.  You might think that the fact I have used only this control method means that it works very well, and it does workÖ But whether it works well is something still to be considered.

If youíve played the baseball portion of Wii Sports, youíll already be familiar with the basics of using the Wii-Mote on its own in Sluggers.  You swing the remote to pitch and to swing.  You can also now pull back and wait to use a charged pitch or swing, and tilt the Wii-Mote to curve pitches.  You also shake the Wii-Mote to speed up runners and fielders and to make throws, but in the Wii-Mote only method the CPU controls the movement of the fielders and the batter in the box, as well as the direction of throws.  This control method seems like it would work well with what it does, but leaves some parts of the game out of the playerís control.

For those gamers that want a more complete experience, the Wii-Mote with Nunchuk is the way to go.  With it you can curve pitches with the control stick rather than leave it up to your wrist, slide the batter around in the box to line up your swings, and play defense.  You also can fire weapons onto the field when your batter and on-deck hitter are friends Ė assuming, that is, that you can quickly point the Wii-Mote at the screen after swinging and fire the weapon before a defender gets the ball.  Itís a difficult maneuver that the CPU sometimes seems to be able to do unreasonably quickly, even managing to knockout infielders on reasonably hard-hit grounders.

Hitting and pitching work well with the Nunchuk Ė better, I suspect, than with the Wii-Mote alone.  Fielding, however, is a mess, because youíre completely on your own.  It can be very difficult to determine how you need to move to make the play, and balls can easily slip through the infield as you try to figure out where your defender is.  Sometimes the game has you controlling the wrong fielder, like the shortstop when the ball is really much closer to the third base line.  You can press the Z button on the Nunchuk to switch the player youíre controlling, but by the time you realize youíve got the wrong player and remember what button to push, itís probably too late.  Itís hard to explain what this game fails to do on the defensive end that other games have done right, but the fact is that, with the Nunchuk, pretty much every play is an adventure.

I thought that defensive play in Superstar Baseball was one of the strengths of that game.  It used a partially automated system whereby fielders would start running toward the ball on their own, but would seamlessly switch over to player control in order for characters to run the rest of the way to the ball and use special moves.  Plays would not be made without the involvement of the player, but this seemed to be the ideal blend of player involvement and CPU assistance, the result being that the player would be interested in the defensive elements of the game and be in a position to make good plays.  Every now and then a grounder would slip through or a pop up drop in, but most of the time, apart from errors made by characters in the game, defense was solid. But with the Nunchuk and Sluggerís completely manual defense, thatís suddenly no longer the case.  Itís really a problem, and a big disappointment relative to the quality of defensive play in the prequel.

So, if Iím griping about the Nunchucís effect on defensive play, why donít I switch to one of the other control schemes?  Well, the Nunchuk really does improve the other aspects of the game Ė hitting, pitching, and running Ė so I sacrifice all three if I use the Wii-Mote on its own for motion control.  I imagine that methodís defensive play to be closer to Superstarís, and what I really need is an option to play with the Nunchuk for pitching and hitting and still have all, or mostly all, automated defense, as I would without the Nunchuk, but thereís no such luck.  I hear that the traditional control with the Wii-Mote, while functional, has problems of its own, like buttons being inconvenient or the fact you can run past a base because you use the same button to run faster and to advance to the next base.  But more importantly, Iím into motion control right now, and think it would be less interesting to use traditional controls for this game.  So Iíve been putting up with the Nunchuk, and like I said, it works well in the other aspects of the game, but when I allow hits and runs off balls I feel I should have been able to get to with a little more assistance from the game, itís very frustrating.

I hope now that you understand why I felt it was hard to give the controls a single rating.  There are three control schemes, each with their strengths but also with their problems.  None of the problems destroy the game, but it doesnít seem like it would have been that difficult to allow players to use the GameCube controller for traditional play, or to get defensive assistance when using the Nunchuk like you do when you only use the Wii-Mote.  Right now I think a 6 or 7 is an appropriate score, but just wait until the next time I lose a game due to a botched play, and that score may drop to 2 or 3.
 

Characters: A score up front for a change! -- 8

I do this section next because it may be the final wordy one, and then it should be pretty quick the rest of the way.

The playable roster in Sluggers consists of 41 noteworthy characters from the Mario series, including all 32 from Superstar and 9 new ones.  41 players still isnít really a lot for a baseball game where matches consist of 2 teams of 9, but after getting used to Superstar, the roster in Sluggers seems much more respectable.  It also helps that ďstockĒ characters that come in different colors now can be on a team more than once, in those different colors; as well as be on both teams.  So while opponents may still squabble over unique characters, thereís still a better chance of getting who you want since some characters can be used more than once.  Characters also have more friends now than they did before.  Although some of these alliances may be questionable in the eyes of Mario vets, the effect on gameplay is a good one, especially with the increased importance of team chemistry, since if you are not able to get a player you want, youíll now have a better chance of finding another character who fits well with your chemistry.

Thatís the good, now hereís the bad.  Of the 9 new players, 5 are really from the DK series.  So youíre going to be very happy if you are a fan of DKís games, but if youíre more of a Mario fan like I am, youíre going to be less interested.  The 4 true Mario characters they added are good, 2 of them even being surprising, Iíd say; but Nintendo didnít exactly dredge up anyone from the distant past, with nearly all of these characters appearing in recent games.  And there are still some obvious choices they left out, including all the recommendations I made in my Review of Superstar BaseballÖ which I never finished or posted, but hereís an excerpt:

Despite this hurdle, 32 characters is really just too few for a baseball game; and even keeping within the GameCube era of Mario games, there are a couple of obvious choices that were inexplicably left out. Where is Nintendo's favorite inventor, E. Gadd, popular enough for a cameo in Superstar Saga and all sorts of references, but not enough to be a player here? Why are Ukiki and Penguin limited to just a random appearance in the audience at the end of the intro? While I agree that Lakitu is a great choice for umpire, that role is little more than a voiceover anyway; he could have been a great, high flying fielder instead. Similarly, Bob-omb could have been a player instead of the ball in Bob-omb Derby. Not a single character who originated in a Paper Mario is in this game. Kammy could have been an easy addition to Bowser's team, and Kamek too; he's been getting appearances in the Mario Parties and Superstar Saga.

Those six characters whose names I underlined are just as deserving of a spot on the roster now as when I wrote that unfinished Review (although Lakitu is now actually visible on the field of play), and there could easily be more.  With the release of Galaxy, whereís Rosalina, who has already appeared in Mario Kart Wii?  Iím no Rosalina fan, but Iíd rather see her and some Lumas on Marioís default team, and some of the multicolored Piantas and Nokis could be removed.  (Or really, all Piantas and Nokis could beÖ)  So while there has been definite improvement since Superstar, there still is room for more.

There is one other character not in the 41 who I need to speak about.  Itís MiiÖ er, I mean youÖ I meanÖ Oh, you get it, donít you?  Thatís right, any Miiís that you have on your Wii can be added to the teams in Exhibition.  Itís a fun idea, and for those Mario nerds who would like to spend a day with Mario, having their Mii play baseball with him is probably as close as theyíll ever get.

I like the Mii option Ė so much so that I would have liked to see them do more with it.  All Miiís have perfectly average stats, making them decent players in all areas.  But I think it would be cool if there were ways to enhance the stats of an individual Mii.  Whether there would be a new mode for this, or the game would just say ďYou drove in a run in this Exhibition game, now your hitting stats will improveĒ, I think it would be an exciting feature, even if it meant that Miiís start with worse stats than they do now.  Miiís have chemistry with the real characters seemingly at random (What, are those characters known to be fan favorites or something?), and it would be cool if your play could determine who your Mii is friends with.  Finally, unlike all the other characters in the game, Miiís make no sound effects.  Iíd love to be able to record my own sound effects (like you could in Diddy Kong Racing for the DS) that would play at appropriate times.  So, this is a fun feature, but as with the whole roster in general, Nintendo could have done more here had they wished to push the envelope.
 

Stadiums: 9

Super Sluggers has 9 stadiums Ė 3 more than Superstar did, and thatís not even including the fact that most stadiums can be played by day or by night with some differences between them.  All the stadiums except Marioís have obstacles that can obstruct the fielders and redirect the ball.  These hazards are interesting, but usually not as much of a factor as they were in Superstar, where courses like DKís (with the barrels knocking down outfielders left and right) and Peachís (where any fly ball might hit a block in the air) were heavily under the effects of obstacles.  In Sluggers, Iíve played games in stadiums with obstacles and never had them come into play.  Players who donít like obstacles will appreciate that, but they already have an obstacle-free stadium; so if youíre playing one of the other stadiums, itís probably because you want to see some obstacles!  On the other hand, the weapons that can be fired by allies are already an obstacle in their own right, and help to make up for the lack of influence from the stadiumsí own hazards.  So maybe it works out after all.

There, ya see?  Finally a short section.
 

Graphics: 6

Well, Iíll start with the good.  I like the character models; theyíre not that much better than on the GameCube, but there is some improvement.  Superstar Baseball came out fairly late on the Cube, and the Wii is not known for its great graphical advancements, so I really didnít expect more than this.  On the other hand, characters did look better than this in Bowserís stadium in Superstar, where the lighting created a very nice contrast and made all the characters look better.  I didnít see a counterpart to that here.

The stadiums are lovely to look at, but hereís the problem.  The colors of the hitting target are similar to the colors surrounding a hard-pitched ball, both of which may be complicated by the colorful floor of the stadium especially when itís transparent.  The result is that thereís a lot of colors in the hitting zone, a lot of distractions from the ball, and sometimes it can be hard to track a pitch as itís thrown.  I pretty much canít play Peachís course here at night because itís too hard for me to see the pitches.  There are enough stadiums that donít have this problem, and you can fight through it, but itís an annoyance that I never had to put up with in the prequel.

Iíve heard complaints about the camera when youíre pitching, which, when youíre not playing another live opponent, is situated behind the pitcherís mound.  That makes it harder to see exactly where your pitches are going to cross the plate, and itís not as comfortable.  I thought this camera view had gone by the wayside back with the NES, I hadnít seen it in a more modern game until this one.  Well, except for Wii Sports, but then, thatís not nearly as competitive, is it?  And like in Wii Sports, since youíre actually making a throwing motion like the pitcher would, it makes sense to do it from the pitcherís perspective.  So I think in this case this view has some merit, and I have mixed feelings about whether this is a good idea or not.  I donít want to take off points for it, but then, Nintendo could have provided the option for putting the camera behind the mound or behind the plate.  Plus, since it makes since to throw from the pitcherís perspective, it also makes sense to hit from the batterís perspective, and so I wish I could make all batters hit left-handed as I do.  But now weíre getting far astray of graphics, arenít we?
 

Music: 9

Very good.  Many of the stadiums have remixes of familiar tunes, including Bowserís, which has a very nice remake of the castle theme from New Super Mario Bros, a song I very much liked originally and was happy to see here.  Even the intermission-type music, like at the start of the games and between innings, is mostly well done, and I found it usually got me going.  I really donít have any complaints here.

Please understand that this score of 9 doesnít indicate that I like the music here better than I did in Super Mario Galaxy, where I gave an oft-criticized score of just 8/10.  Galaxyís music is better, but I expect more from a major title than from a spinoff baseball game.

Ö And Galaxy doesnít have a remix of NSMBís castle.  Oh snap!
 

Longevity: 3

AhÖ Well, thereís not a lot of meat to this game.  As I said, Challenge mode can be completed pretty much for good in about 5 hours, and within another 5 hours or so you could probably play in every stadium in Exhibition, both day and night.  Then, with no stakes to any of the games, the only reason to play is for fun.  Which you will have if you play, but then, you could stop at any time and not be missing out on anything further.

I acknowledged in my score the extra stadiums relative to Superstar as well as the day/night feature, which add a little more to look at; but with a disappointingly short and not replayable Challenge mode, as well as the continued lack of a season or series mode, this game is even shorter than Superstar, and youíll see almost everything there is to see in a very short time.
 

Fun Factor!: 8

Well, as a Mario fan and a baseball fan, I did find this very entertaining, even possibly addicting- when Iím not getting frustrated over bungled defensive plays or losing 3-inning games when Iíve had the misfortune to be selected as the visiting team, that is.  Itís still good arcade fun, and the new controls, characters, and stadiums make this game stand out from its prequel even as some aspects are not as good as before.  I enjoyed playing this and want to continue doing so.
 

Recommendation:

Fans of the Mario series should get this because it does have a lot of Mario charm in it.  I think they would appreciate this game even if they are not baseball fans or are worried about the control.  I also would actually recommend this game to the type of non-traditional player who may have gotten into Wii Sports, because if youíre familiar with and fond of the baseball game there, the motion-sensitive controls here are similar, and you get here a more complete package with fielding and running as well.  Those players can start with just the Wii-Mote, which doesnít give them as complete control but is more similar to Wii Sports, and can maybe graduate to the Nunchuk later on.

I hesitate to recommend this game to baseball enthusiasts who are not Mario fans, because apart from the Mario charm, I think there are better baseball games out there.  Superstar Baseball was good enough that I would recommend it to baseball fans as well as Mario fans, but some of Sluggersí control issues, the weak Challenge mode, and other aspects that are worse than in the prequel make me feel as though baseball fans can find better elsewhere.

Mario may be slumping a bit after his power surge with his first baseball release, but this still brought something new to the table and was fun to play even as there were many things it did not do so well.  I had some concern over whether another Mario baseball game was needed, but with a good framework that has a number of things in need of improvement, Iíll be looking forward to the presumed next go at this sport.  Batter up, Nintendo!

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