Super Mega Baseball review: hall of fame

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS3, PS4
Publisher Metalhead Software
Developer Metalhead Software
Release Date Dec 16, 2014

Super Mega Baseball is the rare sports game that makes me want to play a sport, not recreate it.

In a genre dominated by big-budget console titles, most games attach to something familiar — a team logo, a broadcast announcer, a stadium — to create a bond with the player. Super Mega Baseball binds the player to the sport itself. It's an arcade-style sports title, with cartoonish players and mirthful touches. In its core, though, is one of the most thoughtful and balanced sports games I've ever played, "arcade" or "sim," licensed or not.

The imagination that went into this game is most apparent in Super Mega Baseball's pitching system, which elegantly combines the challenges of accuracy and timing as the pitch is being delivered, without resorting to meters, gimmicky gestures or visual information that dominates the screen. It essentially breaks down to finding the proper release point for a pitch, which determines its effectiveness and accuracy in real life, too.

Other baseball games take an approach to timing and release point, but Super Mega Baseball's way allows for more of the mistakes — some of them with happy outcomes — that influence a duel with a hitter.

Power pitching is good fun when there's nobody on base

It plays out like this: The player steers a drifting reticle toward his target, and releases as close to the center of that target as possible. The pitch then gets a numerical rating (0-99) based on its effectiveness. One may also ignore the target and throw it somewhere else, inside or outside the strike zone. It will be a weaker pitch, but the hitting AI senses these weak pitches and will occasionally go after them. You can get a hitter (particularly a poor one in a pressure situation) to chase a bad pitch, where that happens entirely at random in something like MLB 14 The Show.

Pitchers have two pitch types, one that's easier to control, but will never result in a high-rated pitch, and one that's harder to pinpoint, but if you do, it can be overwhelmingly effective. Against dangerous hitters whom I could afford to walk, I'd use the more accurate alternative to nibble around the edges of the strike zone. Power pitching is good fun when there's nobody on base, of course. It's also useful when you have to go after a hitter in a pressure situation. The layered approach gave me a sense of pacing my starting pitcher in a way that other games don't.

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Hitters also have two swings, regular and for power, with a similar trade-off in accuracy and distance (though it is possible to hit home runs with a regular swing). Where Super Mega Baseball's hitting shines is, again, with a very uncomplicated aiming system, letting you anticipate or wait on a pitch thrown to a certain part of the plate and then jump all over it if it goes there.

Fielding and baserunning controls are rather standard for the genre, but hearty praise must be given to the game's physics. I saw ball trajectories of all types — home runs that bounced on the top of the fence, line drives that wrapped around the bag and kicked around in foul territory, and even bad hops off the lip of the grass bordering the infield dirt. The robust physics keep Super Mega Baseball from the bugaboo of repetitive gameplay that afflicts many arcade sports titles.

Super Mega Baseball's secret sauce is in several variable influences that combine to make for some truly exciting and memorable at-bats. Each encounter is graded for pressure, with ones in late innings, runners on base and a narrow lead for either team being the most pressure-packed. Some pitchers are easily panicked; others will be confident.

The best situation is when your player goes "in the zone." My catcher in the season-long mode goes in the zone whenever there's two strikes on her in an extreme pressure situation, and she has hit at least four game-winning home runs. Here's a fifth, in the bottom of the eighth inning, down two runs.

Super Mega Baseball also tracks "Mojo," which rises or falls during a game according to a player's success or lack thereof. All players start out with different mojo. It's important to get to a pitcher who has a lot of it early, so that they're not a problem in the later innings (if they're still around). But a middle reliever with a big fastball doesn't look so tough when he has puny mojo and a bad accuracy rating.

All of this conspires to give your players reputations and personalities as you take them through a season (campaigns of 16, 32 and 48 games, with playoffs, are offered). My second baseman has solid contact and power ratings, but his low mojo makes slumps a real problem. I finally benched his ass, tired of watching him ground into double plays.

The 16 fictitious teams all have comical mascots, ridiculous logos and players with double-entendre names. The rosters are fully customizable, meaning any gender, all ethnicities and body types, but their base ratings and attributes do not change. Even if you rename the whole lineup, you have to learn to live — and win — with the jokers you're dealt.

I have. I'm in the middle of my second season with the Wideloads, and I haven't cared about the characters in any video game this much since The Walking Dead: Season One. The game's brilliant upgrade system forces you to get to know your players' needs and strengths. Through the year, coaches, trainers, gear providers and stylists will become available for hire, each bringing three boosts that can be doled out to any player with an open slot. But it's a package deal: A boost you really want may be accompanied by two you already have or can't use. I found uses for boosts I otherwise wouldn't have considered, and felt that I was improving the club without driving it to super-team status.

I haven't cared about the characters in any video game this much since The Walking Dead: Season One

The boosts are comically named — for example, picking up the "legal representation" boost delivers a mojo buff. Players can be given "celebrity date" or "reality show appearance" boosts in addition to super carbon-fiber bats or the "greased uniform" that improves speed. It all builds up to performance-enhancing drugs at the highest level (including a "horse hormones" buff with an outstanding icon.)

Super Mega Baseball's primary drawback is a lack of modes. There's no online multiplayer, for example, though there is local multiplayer. Although it has four richly illustrated stadiums, some might find the lack of variety repetitive in a longer campaign (your venue is assigned at random, home or road, in season).

Wrap Up:

Super Mega Baseball is an arcade sports game for the ages

None of that diminishes Super Mega Baseball as an arcade sports video game for the ages, worthy of the likes of Tecmo Super Bowl, NBA Jam, Mutant League Football and Backyard Baseball. No sports video game of 2014 approached its subject with as much imagination as Super Mega Baseball. In such a rigid genre with high barriers to new ideas, this game is a legitimate breakthrough.

Super Mega Baseball was reviewed on PS4 using a download code provided by Metalhead Software. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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