The arcade-style sports game has mostly gone the way of the dodo in recent years, with factors in its decline including ever-increasing development costs and the rise of the mobile gaming market. Kids these days don't have the option of getting into sports by playing games like NFL Blitz or NBA Street; instead, if they don't want to try something as complex as Madden NFL or MLB The Show, they'll probably have to turn to their iPad.
But the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have opened up the market by bringing self-publishing to the fore, which has allowed indie developers to create alternatives to big-budget licensed sports titles. Consider HB Studios and The Golf Club, which is able to support user-created courses across both consoles and Windows PC.
Metalhead Software, another Canadian indie studio, is taking advantage of the new console landscape with a sports title of its own. The Victoria, British Columbia-based team has been working on a baseball game for nearly four years, and is launching it on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 this fall as Super Mega Baseball. It's a charmingly retro name, and with this game, Metalhead is also going back to the 1990s heyday of arcade sports titles.
"A lot of the intermediate stuff has kind of vanished at this point," said Metalhead Software co-founder Scott Drader during a demo of Super Mega Baseball to Polygon last month, referring to sports games that aren't annual releases from major publishers or smaller titles for mobile platforms. Super Mega Baseball is Metalhead's attempt to fill that gap — it's meant to be a fun, accessible baseball game that still boasts enough depth so that more experienced players won't scoff at it.
"It's obviously not The Show, but it's got a lot more to it than R.B.I.," said Drader of his studio's game, calling out R.B.I. Baseball 14, the relatively bare-bones game released earlier this year by Major League Baseball Advanced Media. While Super Mega Baseball bears the kid-friendly aesthetic of the Backyard Baseball series that Atari formerly owned, it's not an arcade game in the traditional NBA Jam sense: There aren't any power-ups, and according to Drader, the game is powered by a solid baseball engine with "proper physics" for the ball.
At the same time, Super Mega Baseball offers a somewhat simplified version of baseball. You can steal bases but can't make pickoff throws, and there are no wild pitches or passed balls. But there is full stat tracking in the game's season mode, which supports two-player co-op. In fact, Metalhead built Super Mega Baseball for couch play with friends: The game can be played solo, head-to-head, 2-on-1, 2-on-2 or cooperatively versus the CPU, although only locally. There's no online play because that would have been too much for the small team at Metalhead — the studio has only three full-time employees — to tackle at this time.
Super Mega Baseball plays very differently against the AI than it does against a human. Pitching against the computer uses a targeting reticle, but things are more disguised versus a human opponent. In four-player games, the two people on each team will trade off playing the baseball fundamentals: On offense, they'll switch between hitting and baserunning every at-bat, and on defense, they'll change between pitching and defense with every inning. Full nine-inning games are designed to be completed in about 20 minutes.
This isn't an MLB-licensed game, so Metalhead had the freedom to create four fanciful fictional stadiums and 12 teams. And because the studio made up all the rosters, the game includes women players as well as men, which is nice to see especially in a more casual game like this.
Metalhead is aiming to capture a wide audience from casual to hardcore with Super Mega Baseball's difficulty settings and ranking system. Players can tweak a setting called Ego from 0-99 to ramp up the challenge — at the low end of the scale, assists like automatic fielding will be enabled, and they'll disappear as the difficulty increases. This is separate from ranking up through the game's levels: As you earn more XP and get better, you can play on higher levels to gain more XP. Points are awarded frequently for just about everything you do, like taking a pitch (+10 XP for having a "Good Eye").
"I want people that don't play baseball to try this," said Drader, whose own promising career as a pitcher was cut short when he blew out his arm.
Super Mega Baseball seems to be in an odd spot: It doesn't have the over-the-top wackiness of MLB Slugfest or 2K Sports' The Bigs series, but isn't nearly as impenetrable as a true simulation. Then again, critics docked R.B.I. Baseball 14 for having no real depth. It's possible that console players are looking for something simpler than a sim but not as stripped-down as games of the 16-bit era. And one thing Super Mega Baseball has going for it is a personality that neither R.B.I. nor The Show can lay claim to. Considering all the depressing news in real-life sports, maybe this is just the right time for a cheerful game like this.