The Best You’ve Never Played is a retrospective review series on ‘hidden gems’ – games that did not receive the level of recognition that they deserved. Perhaps they were part of a niche genre, or had too many flaws to attract a significant audience – nonetheless they are quality games that deserve your attention (to varying degrees).
|What is it?||An arcade-style baseball game.|
|Developer||Metalhead Software Inc.|
|Platform||Steam (Windows), PS4|
|Price||$21.99 CAD (or your regional equivalent)|
|Review: Recommended||You’ll probably like this game.|
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with wrestling. I even attended a few WWE events as a child – and as an adult, too. My days were spent talking to my friends about the latest storylines in the schoolyard, while I would spend my evenings playing Wrestlemania XIX or Day of Reckoning on the Gamecube when there weren’t any wrestling programs on The Score. That channel was the only one that regularly broadcasted the weekly WWE events, and as a result I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what ‘tickers’ meant that flew by on the bottom of the screen, and of course watching highlights from other sports. Because baseball seems like it lasts all year long, I inevitably and inadvertently became a massive fan of baseball. Anyone who watches enough of ESPN, TSN, SportsNet, etc., all year round, is bound to become a baseball fan. It’s always on – it’s just a matter of time.
And so while my wrestling fanaticism waned with each passing year, my fervor for baseball only grew more insatiable. I was all about the baseball video games. I maintain to this day that MVP Baseball 2005 is one of the best games of that console generation (PS2, GCN, XBOX). Unfortunately this was the last MVP Baseball title to feature MLB licensing and one of the last baseball games EA Sports ever made. And I was in for a huge disappointment when I realized exclusivity rights meant that the flagship MLB gaming franchise would only be on PlayStation consoles. While I was able to play MLB The Show 2006 on my trusty PSP, I would not be able to play the definitive home console versions. The years after that were spent on Xbox Live, and of course the world of Azeroth, but that’s a story for another day.
Cut to the summer of 2015. A very unassuming baseball game which I had never heard of appears on Steam, called Super Mega Baseball. And it was one of those magical times when you take a chance, a genuine risk on something you’ve never heard of before, but you jump in with both feet nonetheless, and that risk yielded a reward beyond what you imagined. Metalhead Software absolutely hit it out of the park with Super Mega Baseball – it was a no doubter. They crushed a mongo dong. Super Mega Baseball is an incredible arcade-style baseball game with a surprising amount of depth – but it won’t rival the sim-like qualities of the Triple-A Sports titles. But that’s okay, because that’s not what it’s trying to be.
Now some of you may not consider Super Mega Baseball to be a true hidden gem, which is a reasonable standpoint. At the time of writing this review, it has a sequel due for release only a few months away. Not to mention that it’s Steam community hub is no ghost town, with nearly 300 forum posts and just under 450 reviews. And of course, Polygon named it as the Sports Game of the Year for 2014. But at the time of release, and my purchase, it kind of flew under the radar on Steam. The game was first released only on PlayStation, and during the baseball off-season – December 16th 2014 – which stymied the initial hype for the game. In fact, the only reason why Super Mega Baseball 2 is slated for Spring 2018 is to avoid an off-season release, which the developers admitted was a battle that they did not wish to fight again. It wasn’t until August 21 2015 that the game was released on Steam. So when I purchased the game, it certainly felt like a risk. Even today, it’s not something that is exactly wildly popular on Steam. In fact if you head to the sports section, and check out the top sellers list, you’ll have to search through 11 pages of other sports titles before you find Super Mega Baseball. Suffice it to say that compared to most sports titles, this is a hidden gem.
I will begin to sing this game’s praises with the following caveat: the art style is going to turn some people away. Take one look at the characters and you can see – they look very strange. They wouldn’t be entirely out of place on a show like Max Headroom or Jimmy Neutron. Since the game is unlicensed, the developers had to create a fictional baseball league from scratch – and thus these beautiful little monstrosities were born. Luckily every player can be completely customized, from head shape to gender, if the default designs are too nightmare-inducing. Metalhead studios is rectifying this issue of weird player proportions with the next iteration, Super Mega Baseball 2, which features more realistic depictions of humans. But despite the strange look, the characters they’ve created are genuinely charming. Baseball is well known for its abundance of players with strange or quirky names, and Metalhead seems to parody this as some of the players’ names are amusing puns on baseball terms, such as Hack Liner and Hammer Longballo. The teams are divided into two leagues: Super and Mega. Each of the teams has a unique theme, a memorable roster, and a specialization (power hitters, contact specialists, etc.) that really makes a difference. Most of my nearly 300 hours with Super Mega Baseball has been spent playing as the Sirloins, the extreme power hitters, and I have grown to love the players on the team, even though they lack any backstory or biography whatsoever. The charm of the teams and their players certainly won’t be blowing anyone away, but for an arcadey sports title with a made up league – they succeeded.
Aside from the character design, the rest of the game features fairly standard cartoon-style graphics. The menus, however, could stand to be improved. A lot of time is spent staring at them when min/maxing players on your roster with endorsements, and they aren’t so pretty. Everything is quite green, and the way the colours and font are combined gives me a ‘Fisher Price toy’ kind of vibe.
While the music in the game is generally good, there are some areas that could use work. Being that the developer is called Metalhead studios, you could probably already guess what to expect when it comes to the kind of music in Super Mega Baseball. Yes, it’s rock and metal. Sometimes, it feels out of place. And while most of it is pretty good, there are times when it gets a little annoying. For instance – the intro screen. When you launch the game, “Metalhead Studios” appears in white writing while the first heavy metal tune starts playing. The problem here is the volume; in game, I have the music set to a much lower and reasonable volume. But the intro just bypasses this and goes full-bore 100% volume. 300 hours of playtime and it still startles me when that opening riff blasts my eardrums. The volume is then corrected as soon as the menu screen is reached of course, but it is annoying nonetheless. But other than this, the music is actually pretty good. I especially enjoy the main groove that plays when in Season mode.
Of course, the gameplay itself is fantastic. As mentioned, SMB takes on a much more arcadey style of play compared to the likes of EA Sports or MLB The Show. For instance, there are no pickoff attempts, no defensive shifting, and no injuries in Super Mega Baseball. You can’t ‘trade’ players and negotiate with other teams. The season mode options are also quite limited. There are three length options for season mode – 16 games (short), 32 games (medium), and 48 games (long). It doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but 48 games feels like a long season. It achieves that same marathon-like effect that the Triple-A games achieve with their 162-game seasons, though of course not to the same degree. It may even be a bit more reasonable as a player may not be as likely to burn out on a 48 game season. After your season, there isn’t really any option to ‘continue’ the dynasty, as with other games. Instead, the season ends, the stats for that season are wiped, and you can start a new season with the same team with the same endorsement setup and progress. It’s not terrible, but it would be nice to have that ‘dynasty’ experience where multiple seasons are experienced with the same team seamlessly. It would also be nice if there was some development with the players themselves – perhaps an injury, a bad slump, a feud, or a trade, to shake things up a bit. There is a system in place that tries to simulate the slumps and streaks that one finds in baseball – called ‘mojo’. If Filet Jones on the Sirloins drops an easy pop fly, his mojo goes down. If Hammer Longballo hits a dong – his mojo goes up. A higher mojo increases the rest of the stats for that player and prevents them from succumbing to the pressure of big game situations, which can lower their stats due to nervousness. This can be a significant mechanic at times, but often I find I just ignore it. It could have been capitalized upon with more depth.
The difficulty system is interesting as well. The system is dynamic (though it doesn’t change on its own) and features literally 100 different difficulty levels (called EGO levels). The game is legitimately challenging above 90 ego. With 100 EGO levels, each player can fine tune the difficulty to their level of skill and progress. This is a great system. Improper inclusion of difficulty levels and settings is a huge pet peeve of mine in video games. Consider Persona 4, for instance: before the player has played the game, they are asked to choose a difficulty level that cannot be changed – beginner, normal, and hard. This is terrible game design. As a player, I have no idea what to expect from the game, and so how can I possibly choose the proper difficulty level? The game recommends ‘beginner’ for those not familiar with the game – but then as a hardcore gamer I worry that I will just steamroll ‘beginner’ since I am very familiar with strategy JRPG’s. Especially considering how integral a proper difficulty level is to the enjoyment of the game, developers ought to put more consideration into this. Super Mega Baseball succeeds here, where many other developers fail.
The pitching in the game is perhaps one of the best, if not the best, pitching system in any baseball game I’ve played. For one thing, each pitcher has an eight pitch arsenal, with breaking balls that curve so much they seem more suited to a game of wiffle ball. Each pitch can be thrown two ways – normal or power – which changes the dynamics of each pitch, causing some to break more, and others to increase velocity. This adds an incredible layer of depth to the pitcher/batter interactions. Those interactions – between the batter and pitcher – are the smallest constituents of ‘game’ that exist in a baseball game, and they really polished it to a mirror shine. They understand that this is what a baseball game is at its core, and in polishing it, they’ve made their game very compelling. Most baseball games feature realistic pitchers with 3-5 reliable pitches, just like in real life. Those games can be great, but adding more pitches and having them break like crazy really amps up the fun, even though it is unrealistic. But again, Super Mega Baseball throws caution to the wind when it comes to realism, all in pursuit of a fun game.
Batting is a joy as well. The success of the batter depends on a few things – where the cursor is placed within the strike zone, their contact stat, and their power stat. For my first 150 hours or so, I relied on getting lucky with pitch location to hit home runs. I would place the cursor where I anticipated the pitch, and hoped it would appear there. As I reached EGO levels of 80+, I realized this was no longer going to cut it. I started a new technique – shifting the cursor in the zone towards where the pitch may land as it’s flying through the air. This requires quick, snap-like movements with the analog stick, and so far I have been wildly successful. Most recently, I eclipsed the 90 EGO threshold season that I was having trouble with for awhile, and won the championship at that. Though it is somewhat derivative of ‘zone’ hitting from prior MLB licensed games, I haven’t really seen a batting system reach these levels of skill depth.
All this being said, there are some things I would like to see added in Super Mega Baseball 2, slotted for release in Spring 2018. Firstly, some added depth in the gameplay. They already announced that defensive shifts would be added to the game. Pickoff attempts to curb base stealers would also be a great inclusion. But season mode needs the most work, I think. Selectively adding some tried and true features from other baseball games into SMB’s season mode could be fantastic. The game begs for a seamless ‘dynasty’ style mode, for example. Negotiating with other managers about trading players could also add a great level of depth. Each season would naturally create its own storylines with players being traded and the league generally taking on a mind of its own. The league would be shaped differently each season.
Also, a fantasy draft mode would be absolutely incredible. Having a fantasy draft creates an entire league of new teams every time. That would be very compelling. Due to the fact that each team has a specialty (power, pitching, speed, etc.) they tend to feel a little too one-dimensional. Adding some power hitters to the Crocodons, for instance, would really balance out the roster. Of course, some would argue that each team having a specialty creates a kind of game balance in itself – each team has their own emergent style of game and strategy to uphold. The Overdogs won’t be hitting lots of home runs, but they’ll be stretching a lot of singles into doubles and doubles into triples, for instance, and so that ‘small ball’ style of play is their specialty, and this is all part of the strategy of choosing the Overdogs. Shaking up the players on the teams would make most of the teams in themselves balanced, but perhaps would take away from the balance of the ‘league as a whole’ as the teams become more homogeneous.
In terms of meta-progress, the game does track certain things. There is a ‘progress’ screen that shows various stats across all of your season and exhibition games. Some stats, however, are strangely omitted, such as strikeouts pitched. The game also features leaderboards where you can see how both your season point totals, and individual game point totals, stack up with other players (my high score in a single game is a little over 1.2 million points, for example). There is also a board that shows what seasons you’ve finished on which EGO levels, with three milestones per season length. The hardest one is completing a long season (48 games) on EGO level 90+. This is a genuine challenge and will take quite a bit of time. In short, the game does feature some progression outside of the games, but it’s shallow. The real progression comes from your skill as a player increasing over time, and consistently winning at higher and higher EGO levels.
There need to be more sports games like Super Mega Baseball. We need more arcade sports games in general, like: NBA Jam, Sega Soccer Superstars, NFL Street, Bloodbowl, and RBI Baseball. For whatever reason, these kinds of games have disappeared over the years. Some claim this is due to the lack of licensing from the big leagues, as they have become more game savvy and are much more selective about bestowing their official licensing. Not to mention that licensing itself has become much more expensive, and if your studio isn’t a massive Triple-A studio, you won’t have a chance at acquiring the license. Thus, most developers don’t want to take a chance on a baseball game that doesn’t have the instant fan appeal that an equivalent MLB licensed game would have. Others claim that the experiences one would get in previous arcade sports games have been slowly incorporated into the Triple-A releases – consider the addition of street ball to NBA games, or ‘lifestyle’ type sim mechanics. These are features that were previously the main draw for other NBA games, namely NBA Street and NBA Ballers. MLB The Show ‘17 famously features an ‘arcade’ style of play, which very closely resembles that of RBI Baseball. The recent addition of the classic RBI Baseball as a licensed series is a step in the right direction, but many argue that the game was made just to fill a gap on the new Xbox One console, which had no baseball games. Hopefully Super Mega Baseball is just the beginning, and we get some more fresh arcade sports titles from smaller studios that can’t afford official licensing. As Metalhead Studios has demonstrated – you don’t need a budget on steroids to make a good baseball game.