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July 14, 2017

Mario Super Sluggers (Part 1)

I have a… complicated relationship with team sports. I mean, solo sports, no problem; swimming, bicycle, Just Dancing, even some of the sports that are practiced alone but could be played competitively, sure. I’ve held a real bow and arrow and aimed at a wooden target at least once in my life. But team sports, I always need reminders of the rules (when I learn them at all), can’t bother to remember the teams and players, I don’t find a lot of enjoyment in watching them. Yeah, I’m one of those guys who watches the SuperBowl only for the ads, and cares little about the game. The only exception may be hockey, since I’m Canadian, but even then I only care about hockey because it’s all over the goddarn news here, I know at least a few more players. Also, when our team, the Montreal Canadians, make it to the series, there’s an air of innate hope and happiness from just about everyone around me, and I find myself wrapped up in the hockey series hype. Well, until the Montreal Canadians lose, at least…

Pictured: Stuff I pretty much never used in my life.
Then there’s baseball, the interest of many an American – and the interest of many a mathematician, for some reason. I never got into the sport, I saw maybe one game live, and never really understood the rules. But hey, I’m a fan of the Super Mario series, and the franchise includes a lot of sport spinoffs, so one day I found and bought Mario Super Sluggers. I knew I quite enjoyed the baseball mini-game in the first Wii Sports, but I decided I would enjoy a Mario-themed game based on the sport…

…Nah, okay, I admit it, it was part of the Nintendo Selects brand and one of the cheaper Wii titles at the store, so I went ahead and bought it. True, I do like the Mario series enough to try its games, and I was intrigued by this one. I knew about Mario Superstar Baseball for the GameCube, and wanted to try the sequel. So hey, I knew what I was getting into. And it’s summertime, so I figured it was the perfect time to review this game. Shall we get to it?

"I wonder what Peach has in store for us."
"A giant cake?"
"Nintendo Hotels in a spa resort?"
"Yoshi?" ("The Boogeyman?")
The game opens on Mario and Co. on a cruise ship, navigating the ocean. They were invited by Princess Peach. They see an island in the distance, and it doesn’t look like anything they’ve got in the Mushroom Kingdom. They step out of the boat, onto the island, and the princess presents to the plumbing brothers and everyone else who attended the cruise… The Baseball Kingdom! This artificial island, built on orders from Princess Peach- Wait! Time out.

You mean to tell me that Princess Peach, ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, had the money to order the creation of an artificial island, with all the infrastructure, workforce, resources and management implied by this, for the sole purpose of letting her friends play… baseball? Okay, I get that we needed a reason for the setting, but that’s just stupid.

Shall we play The Price Is Right? How much do you think
this island cost to make?
If you said "Too much"... you're right! Congrats!
First off – who would say yes to this? Clearly not the Mushroom Kingdom citizens. Sure, they can spectate (there is, after all, a crowd watching the games), but how did they ever get there? This island can probably be reached only if you can drive to it, with a water or flying vehicle. How would they react if they knew that the Kingdom money was wasted on this? How will they react when they find out? Second, this would require many millions of dollars in real-life money. Not to go all MatPat about this (I hate Game Theory anyway), but if Peach is so wealthy that such expenditures are nothing to her (and she can do these frivolous things without asking her population first), then she really needs to manage her money better. What, making this within the Mushroom Kingdom wasn’t enough? Also, that’s a few millions spent on a leisure island, with baseball and mini-games based around the sport as the only available activities. That’s a pretty poor business decision. What will people do once they get tired of playing baseball? Oops, sorry, there’s nothing else to do on this island! Oh, by the way, do you know what else that money could have been used for? Anti-Bowser protection around Peach and her castle. But naaaah, Mario and his forty friends have to have their little remote location to play sports just for fun, am I right? Besides, Peach getting kidnapped is just a formality by this point, might as well not strengthen the Castle. Do you have any idea how much work would have to be put into an artificial island?

Bleh, we’re not even past the intro and I am already annoyed. There is no logic in here! But it would be too long to discuss all of this. Let’s ignore the three hundred issues here for the sake of simplicity, okay? That’s alright Nico, your brain won’t explode with questions.

At least the princesses of the Mario series are relaxed enough
to be in more casual clothes when they're participating to
sport competitions. Take that, Zelda!
The attendees climb a tower to see the entire island. Damn, this place has, what, eight baseball fields? Can you imagine how big this must be? Okay, okay, I’ll stop. We’re treated to animated scenes similar to gameplay footage, showing Mario and the guests trying out the various baseball fields, encountering the various hazards that goes with the sport: Frozen by Slipice, falling into pipes, getting blown away by bombs, players freely punching and kicking each other…

Yep. Feels totally like real baseball.

Such magical pitches! So much fire!
If you open a new save file, the game tells you to start with Training Mode in order to learn how the game is played. You’re taught how to pitch (by swinging the Wii remote with your arm), how to deviate the ball’s trajectory (with the Nunchuk or by turning around the Wii remote in your hand), and how to use Star Skills. This last one is the Mario series attempting to add fantasy to the game – in case Slipice, pipes and bombs weren’t enough. If a gauge belonging to your character is filled, you can use a Star Skill. Your pitcher (or batter) will then unleash a very special move that will be difficult for the opponent to counter. You’re then taught how to play when you’re on the batter side of things.

On the defense, you’re taught how to run towards the point where the ball lands when it was flung high, how to deal with a rolling ball (run to it, toss it to the nearest goal a player of the opposing team is trying to reach), how to catch balls by jumping or sliding on the ground, and how to fight back against the items tossed by the batting team. Oh yeah, there are items too. What, you’ve never seen players use a green shell in regular baseball? How to use them, though? I’ll go back to this soon. Other lessons reveal how to run between bases, what happens in case of a tight match between a running player and a ball about to be caught by a player on third base or on the marble, and how to steal bases.

Ah yes, here, have a bunch of banana peels.
Still no idea where the actual bananas went.

You can see the little musical note between the two.
That's a sign that they're buddies.
Yup, we need buddy symbols now.
Up next is the special moves: First is how to use items. Those can be accessed when two team players following each other in the team’s order have good chemistry. It’s possible to unleash shells, bombs, all that good Mario stuff that helps in ripping any sense of realism out of baseball. Next up is how to attack the ball when you’re about to catch it, in order to throw it to another character that has good chemistry with yours, which will allow them to throw a fast ball and prevent opponents from reaching bases on the field. Last but not least is how to prevent a Home Run by using two characters with good chemistry. One will use the other like a spring board and catch the ball at high altitude, stealing the Home Run from the opponent.

Good stuff, really; I like the whole chemistry aspect, it’s pretty clever. It really shows the thought put into the relationships between the various playable characters. The tricks added into the game to make use of said chemistry element are also interesting. They can turn the tide of a game if you know how to use these tricks well – as, obviously, in Story Mode the opponents will also get better and better at using them.

Bowser Jr. is like that spoiled kid who sees something on TV,
says he wants it, and his daddy immediately goes to get it
for him. Except, instead of toys, it's conquering kingdoms
and causing trouble.
Speaking of, the Campaign mode resumes where the intro left off. Mario’s greater allies all have their own baseball stadiums – Luigi has one, Peach has one, DK has one, Wario has one… Pretty big place, huh? It looks too good, someone’s gonna try to ruin it… My bet’s on Wario. But wait, what’s that? Someone is spying on the good guys? Why, yes, it’s Bowser Jr. aboard his boat that looks like a giant toy castle. He smashes it into the Baseball Kingdom and comes out, revealing his plans of taking over the whole damn place. Wanna bet Bowser isn’t far behind? Thus Bowser Jr.’s takeover begins. Mario’s quest is to build a baseball team and participate in the big matches against the young turtle-dragon and his daddy.

Gotta weed the villains out of Baseball Kingdom, and what better place to start that the beach around the Mario Stadium? There are areas in the game that can be accessed only during Campaign mode, because they’re where the plot events happen. In there, we’re introduced to the true reason behind Campaign mode: Unlocking all the characters in the roster, for use in making baseball teams. This is done through interacting with the characters around an area. Near Mario Stadium, we get big Super Mario Sunshine vibes, as we meet again Nokis and Piantas, two resident “species” of Isle Delphino. We help a few on the beach, and they join the team. We also save Baby Luigi from being stuck on a dock disconnected from the land. After which, we show Bowser Jr. who’s boss, and he flees to the other areas of the Baseball Kingdom.

Oh, by the way, don’t expect everyone you meet to just join your team. No, you gotta PROVE that you’ve got what it takes! The three Nokis you meet on the beach will have little challenges for you. They’re basically like tutorials, but ones you’re forced to follow, unlike those in the Training Mode. Because everyone loves forced, unskippable tutorials, amirite?

There isn’t much of a story past this point, really. Mario goes from a baseball field to the other around the Baseball Kingdom, helps people, and finds baseball players for his team. That’s about it. We can now visit four more stadiums: Peach’s, Yoshi’s, Wario’s, and Donkey Kong’s. Let’s go in that order, shall we?

Oh no! So what do we do now?
I dunno... anyone has an anti-magic thingy?
We get to Peach’ stadium, and learn that something horrible happened: Bowser Jr. flooded the path to the baseball court, and turned Daisy into a statue! Wait wait wait. He can do that? No wait, he can do that, and he did it only to seize a measly little baseball stadium? Why has he never done that in any of the other games? Why does he have that much power and uses it only to try and conquer something as unimportant as a baseball field? What the Heck? Did the Magikoopas do that? Sure, that explains it, but again - using these talents just to steal one baseball stadium? Once again, we go around that place, solve little puzzles, add more people to our team – by this point, we actually have nine players, so we could immediately go out to battle Bowser Jr. on his own field. But let’s save Daisy first, because we’re not jerks. So, we bring Daisy to a pressure pad that activates a mechanism, causing the flooding water to go away, and then we fight Bowser Jr. in a baseball match, with Princess Peach joining us when he’s defeated. Oh, and of course, Bowser Jr.’s defeat at baseball makes him flee, which lifts the curse on Daisy in the process. Can you say “ass pull”?

Never underestimate Peach's strength.
She can punch the lights out of anyone.
...According to this game, anyway...
So, that is another saved stadium. As you can see, there isn’t much of a plot aside from “Mario goes to stadium X, saves it from Bowser Jr.’s shenanigans, gets more people to build a team, moves on to the next stadium”. One element of interest in this game is how you need some particular captains in order to unlock more stuff. As an example, when you get Peach added to your team, she can sprout flowers in an empty pot and Petey Piranha will appear, challenging her to a baseball match. Petey will join the roster if defeated. There’s a few secrets like this in every area. You can use Donkey Kong to smash barrels near Mario Stadium, or go down sewers with Wario. That last one is needed in order to find a Toad statue in Peach’s Garden, so that we can add Princess Daisy to our roster.

Either way, it’s now possible to challenge Bowser Jr. in his Toy Room. How about we do that in Part 2?