Mario swings and hits it back, back, back...and the ball falls on the warning track.
Through the years, Mario has taken up a wide range of hobbies in between platform jumping and princess rescuing. From golf to cart racing to tennis, if Mario is in a game, you can be sure that there's plenty of fun to be had. This is largely due to the fact that beneath the Mario-exterior lies fast, fun gameplay that is just deep enough that it's easy to learn but still offers rewards for more experienced players. The Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, and Mario Golf games would all be fun games even without Mario and company. Adding the short Italian plumber and his associates from the Mushroom Kingdom only makes these games better. Mario Superstar Baseball follows the same formula but with more mixed results.
The standard "Mario sports" formula takes a sport, keeps the rules intact, utilizes a simpler control scheme than typical 'pure' games of that genre, and adds plenty of Mushroom Kingdom flavor in the form of familiar characters and locales along with special items or abilities. Mario Superstar Baseball is no exception.
The heart of a good baseball game lies in the pitching/hitting gameplay. If it is fun and intuitive to pitch and hit, then there is a good chance the game will be a keeper. If pitching and hitting is awkward or boring, then there's really not much you can do to make the game fun. Mario Superstar Baseball's pitching and hitting system leans towards the fun and intuitive side of things, but it is not without some shortcomings. The game simplifies matters by restricting pitch movement to one plane, so pitching and hitting is really a 2D affair.
Presumably Namco and Nintendo designed the game to appeal to a more casual audience of baseball fans but they may have taken things a little too far. Almost every baseball game in the past five years has used a somewhat three-dimensional approach to hitting/pitching where the ball's height is a factor. While Mario Superstar Baseball's 2D approach certainly simplifies gameplay and makes it very easy to learn, the end result feels distinctly shallow. Pitches are either fast or slow and move to the left and right. Batters only have to worry about moving around in the batter's box and swinging as the pitch crosses home plate. The end result is game that plays fast, especially for a baseball game, but wears thin after a few games.
Star Balls and Star Swings are added to spice things up with Mario-style arcade gameplay. Each character has a special pitch/swing to match his or her personality, and these moves can be called upon several times per game to deliver a tricky pitch or hit in key situations. For example, Mario and Luigi have their trademark fast fireballs, Yoshi and Birdo use eggs with unusual bouncy movements, and Donkey Kong has a curving banana. The specials certainly add to the charm of the game but still aren't enough to add much depth to the hitting and pitching.
Although Mario Superstar Baseball may be a bit lacking in pitching and hitting, the game oozes Mario-style charm. Fans will delight in the fact that players can choose from the entire cast of Mario Kart: Double Dash, along with many lesser characters from Mario's adventures such as Toadsworth, Monty Mole, Noki, Shy Guy, Paragoomba, and Magikoopa. Each character is nicely modeled and animated so it looks really great at bat and in the field. The different stadiums are also lovingly rendered and are appropriately filled with themed obstacles to spice up gameplay, so you'll find tall hedges and floating blocks adorning Peach's Garden, Klaptraps and rolling barrels littering Donkey Kong's Jungle, and with fireballs and Thwomps at Bowser's Castle.
To add even more Mario flavor, the game opens with a light-hearted video that explains the "story" behind the game; the Mushroom Kingdom starts playing baseball and
That's not to say that there isn't much baseball in the game. The single player Challenge Mode actually offers a lot of baseball gameplay with a few RPG elements. Players choose a team captain and must go around the Mushroom Kingdom challenging other teams, all in preparation towards knocking off Bowser's team. Along the way, you can gain players from other teams by achieving certain tasks while defeating their own teams. So if you manage to retire Peach's Monarchs in a 1-2-3 inning and win the game, Daisy could be available for your team in the next game. Also, if one of your players makes a particular predetermined play during a game, he or she could see a slight stat improvement. In addition to these in-game goals, players can participate in mini-games to help boost stats.
Outside of Challenge Mode, there are a handful of mini-games (the same ones from Challenge Mode) that can be played with up to four players. They're all fairly fun with some friends, but none are quite deep enough to keep you entertained for endless hours. Toy Field mode is another four player mode in which players take turns at-bat, on the mound, and in the outfield on a pinball-like field in an effort to earn coins. It plays like a cross between Mario Party and baseball and is decently fun with four players, though not quite as much as previous Mario titles.
With a good single player mode and some fun multiplayer modes, Mario Superstar Baseball is solid addition to the non-platforming Mario library. However, gamers who've enjoyed a more realistic game of baseball in the past (i.e. any game from the MVP Baseball, High Heat, World Series 2K, All-Star Baseball, or Powerful Pro series) may have to let go of their perceptions of how a pitcher/batter interface should work in order to enjoy the game. On the other hand, casual baseball fans with a soft spot for Mario should have a great time with the game's simple mechanics and plentiful charm. Unfortunately, since the gameplay isn't quite on par with most of the other games, the fun won't be as long lived.