They could have called it Ultra Mario Baseball Simulator 1.000.
I tend to enjoy the Mario sports games, but Mario Baseball is even more fun than I expected. Maybe it's that it has both the flashy dynamics of Mario Golf and the one-on-one competitive spirit of Mario Tennis. It could be that it shows off many of the more obscure characters from the Mario series. Or perhaps it’s the hitting and pitching antics worthy of that SNES classic, Ultra Baseball Simulator 1.000? Yeah, that's it.
The biggest draw of Mario Baseball is undoubtedly the array of wacky pitches and hits you can make, many of them unique to the character you are currently controlling. But Namco has learned from Camelot's mistake, keeping the special effects in pace with the gameplay so it doesn't feel like you're stopping to watch a tiny cut-scene every time you use a special move. Mario Baseball also has a better method of rationing the power moves, thanks to the star point system. You can use specials at any time, but each one uses up a star point. The only way to refill your star points is by winning a randomly chosen "Star Chance" match-up. For instance, let's say Mario is pitching and Dry Bones comes up to bat. The game announces that it's time for a Star Chance. That means that Mario will get a star point if he strikes out (or fields out) Dry Bones. But if Dry Bones gets on base or scores a home run, he will get the star point. It's a great system in that it makes those match-ups extra tense, which has a real psychological effect on your choice of pitches or your timing with the bat.
The special moves themselves are as ridiculous as you'd expect from a Mario sports game. For instance, one character throws a bullet bill special pitch that flies up into a loop-the-loop somewhere between the mound and plate, and it may even accelerate once leveling out again. One of the few special hits I’ve seen is Waluigi's move, which causes a pop fly to shoot off a garlic bomb that looks almost exactly like the real ball. If the fielder tries to catch the decoy, not only will he have missed the easy fly out, but he'll also be stunned for a while thanks to the overpowering smell! Special moves are always surprises, because there's no charge-up required to perform them. Just hold down the R trigger while you throw a pitch or swing the bat, and the fireworks will go off just in time for your opponent to react.
Perhaps to compensate for the very simple batting controls, most pitches are completely controllable even after the ball is thrown. Yes, we're talking insane, remote-controlled curve balls. The fast ball and changeup pitches are just straight shots, at least once you release the ball, but they can still be highly effective. Both pitches and hits can be charged up, a la Mario Tennis, and each character has a "sweet spot" in the charge timing that will result in an extra-powerful "Nice!" action. I found that charged changeup pitches are most effective, because it looks like I'm going to throw something really fast, and then it comes in like Jabba the Hutt.
At least in the current demo version, games are only five innings long, and they move along quickly, so you can definitely play a whole game in five minutes or so. The demo contains three fields (with several more shaded out), one is normal and the other two are souped up. The fantasy fields are chock full of hazards for base runners and outfielders, and some of them even have mystery blocks overhead that cause things to happen if hit by the ball. Unfortunately, baseball doesn't lend itself to four-player games, but Namco is including some baseball-themed mini-games that do support four players at a time.
Mario Baseball is sure to be a huge hit at E3 this year, because it's hilarious and very easy to pick up for a few minutes. Aussie Ben and I will definitely be reviving our Mario sports rivalry, which began all the way back at E3 2000 with the N64 version of Mario Tennis. I'll see you on the sandlot, Mr. Kosmina!