(This post is also up over at The Crawfish Boxes and Hot Corner Harbor, since it's both baseball and video games.)
I think there’s a real art to making fun, arcade-y baseball video games. Maybe it’s because my first baseball video game was Backyard Baseball. Maybe it’s because I can sometimes get a little intense with more in-depth simulations, like Out of the Park Baseball (although it also does fill a different niche as a game, coming more from the management simulation side of things). Some of it is probably experience in my younger days that some “official” games relied on carrying MLB’s license to move units rather than actually fun gameplay; when you’re designing things as a game first rather than a marketing opportunity, you have to be sure the game is fun enough to stand on its own without official MLB names and logos. For instance, both Backyard Baseball and Out of the Park began without official licenses, making use of fictional players and teams in their initial entries.
And on top of that, there’s an added difficulty in making games that are not just fun, but also intuitive to pick up and play for most people; there are a lot of things going on in baseball, and sometimes, in trying to adapt every single aspect for fidelity, you end up with a complicated heap of systems for the player to memorize before they feel like they have a handle on things. Backyard Baseball was great at this for a while; growing up, I could even sometimes get my dad to play it, when more official and complex titles would frustrate him.
Of course, with Backyard Baseball more or less dead as a series, and Out of the Park doing something different entirely, I had been looking for something to fill this void. MLB’s recent video game efforts have been extremely lackluster, in all honesty. Most of their attempts at easy-to-pick-up-and-play baseball games have left a lot to be desired. MLB: The Show is a solid series, but still on the more complicated side of things, and even that has been a Playstation exclusive for the better part of a decade, leaving a lot of people (myself included, since I’ve usually focused on Nintendo systems and PC) totally out of luck. Which is why I was really excited to find the Super Mega Baseball series a few years ago.
From Canadian-based developer Metalhead Software, Super Mega Baseball was released in late 2014 to high acclaim; the sequel, Super Mega Baseball 2, came out in 2018. And the newest version, Super Mega Baseball 3 released just last month (currently available on Steam and all three major consoles-I’ve been playing the Switch version, thanks to a review copy from the developers); both sequels have been similarly well-received.
And for good reason! I’ve been playing since the first one, which was fun but also clearly a first try at the subject. The modes were a little bare-bones, and the look had style but lacked polish. But what it absolutely had, though, was a smoothness to the play, which has held through to every sequel. It felt like the game was designed from the question “What would be the most natural way for a video game to imitate baseball?”, rather than “What’s everything that can happen in a baseball game, and then what buttons do we assign each of those to?”. That’s a small difference, but it absolutely comes through when you’re playing the games.
The first game you play in each gives you a little popup of each element as it’s introduced, broken down to the one or two main ideas you need to grasp to play the game. After a few innings, more advanced ideas will come up. And because of that design philosophy, none of the individual elements is overwhelming by itself, allowing you one or tries to implement the straightforward, basic ideas it’s giving you before iterating.
Another related thing that I noticed was that Super Mega Baseball, as a series, has done a better job at capturing fielding than most of its predecessors; growing up, it felt like you either had games that slowed down the action substantially to make it more natural for your average non-baseball player to react to; or they wanted you to have the reactions of a baseball player, but from an omniscient third-person, home plate camera. SMB splits the difference, giving you a moment of Matrix-esque Bullet Time to let you get the proper jump, then speeds back up accordingly. Also helping to smooth things out is better AI than the old games, and difficulty that allows you to set different aspects to different levels according to what you find easiest.
(Of course, the improved AI also allows extra challenge for an arcade-style baseball game, with hitters picking up on your pitching patterns if you get too repetitive or pitchers learning to throw you junk outside the zone if you get frustrated and just start chasing everything, like I do on my bad days.)
Even if you’re not sure about it because you don’t often play games or don’t have great reactions, it may still be feasible. As I mentioned earlier, when I was growing up, my dad (who was a huge baseball fan, but not nearly as familiar with video games) often couldn’t follow more complicated, “realistic” baseball games, but was able to occasionally pick up the more arcade-style ones. When I played the game while visiting home over the holidays, he saw me playing Super Mega Baseball 2 on my Switch one afternoon and was substantially more interested (and not nearly as lost) as when I played, say, MVP Baseball growing up. Of course, while the easiest levels are extremely accessible, the upper end of the difficulties is still challenging (admittedly, I still have not reached those peak difficulty yet, three games and dozens of hours in).
Of course, from the skeleton the first game established, subsequent editions have added more and more to flesh the series out. New modes, like online play, or new features, like increased customization options, have gradually expanded the series. The big new one in 3 is the long-awaited franchise mode, which I’ve been enjoying so far; Metalhead’s version of the format allows their fictitious rosters to get in the fun. Seasons can be chained together, players can improve or decline, rosters can turnover, and so forth. I had enjoyed playing through seasons in SMB2, but I missed having the roster management elements and sense of progression, so SMB3 has basically filled in the last remaining hole in the series’ lineup.
Outside of that, I’m especially fond of the series’ pretty deep options for building custom teams. Sure, they don’t have an MLB license, but you can build your own version of your hometown favorites (or, if doing that from scratch seems too overwhelming, there are plenty of resources to base your work off of, thanks to the game’s fantastic community).
I do especially appreciate the degree of creativity the customization allows for. Especially given their distinctive cartoon art style that they’ve honed over the years, which allows for caricatures of real players to square off seamlessly against more fantastic options like, say, Wolverine and the X-Men.
And with that art style have also come a dozen-plus original, picturesque stadiums that combine recognizable, real-world elements into unique and memorable locations. And while I’m talking about the game’s creative side, I really appreciate Metalhead’s decision to load the game with as many silly jokes as they could fit, from punny or goofy player names (like ace Manny Kays, or batters Liane Drive or “Downtown” Upton) to ads on the stadium walls that are just a bit off from what you’d see in the real world (like ones for Pyramid Investments in the New York and LA-inspired stadiums, or the one for Chewing Gumbo in the New Orleans-inspired Lafayette Corner).
In all, Super Mega Baseball 3 is the culmination of what this series has been improving to so far, and the total package. Simply put, if you don’t own a PlayStation, SMB3 is the uncontested king of the hill when it comes to baseball games, and even if you own PlayStation and MLB: The Show, it’s still a good enough game that it can stand on its own, different enough to justify a place beside it (and arguably more fun overall, given the greater ease in adjusting to it). And given that it’s available on the Switch, thereby making it portable, it’s pretty far and away the best portable baseball video game ever released, the type of thing ten-year-old me dreamed about. If any of that sounds interesting to you, definitely check it out!