MARIO SUPERSTAR BASEBALL / Nintendo / Gamecube
Nintendo's internal R&D teams have historically had the magic touch, but only with certain types of games. They never really managed to figure out team sports for whatever reason. After a handful of excruciatingly bad titles on the NES and SNES, Nintendo just gave up and started outsourcing sports game development. Their most notable partnership was with Camelot, who capably handled their Mario Tennis and Golf games for many years.
For their first Mario baseball game, Nintendo farmed development out to Namco. This was an odd move for several reasons. One is that Namco was a pretty big publisher in their own right, not the sort of mercenary publishing house that usually handles this sort of thing. Another is that Namco had very little history of developing baseball games - pretty much just the RBI Baseball games way back on the NES. They didn't even have much experience with sports games, just sporadic mediocre releases throughout their history like Ring King and Anna Kournikova Tennis.
The game turned out OK overall, but leaves one feeling that Nintendo really should have gone with someone with some specialized baseball experience.
If you don't have the manual, it's virtually mandatory to go through the game's "training mode" first. Though it's a greatly simplified style of baseball, the game has a number of unique quirks and there are no prompts or ways to get a list of commands in-game.
Challenge Mode is the meat of the game. This consists of several SMB 3 / Mario World type overworld maps to traverse while powering up team members and recruiting new ones. You pick a captain from amongst the bigger names of the Mario franchise, then get a team of scrub Goombas and such. You'll have to beat the teams of the better players to recruit them, and play Mario Party-ish mini-games to get money and improve player stats.
The problem here is that the mini-games are largely an unfun waste of time, and a tedious chore to grind levels at. Also, you only get limited opportunities to play each one, and failing it not only wastes that opportunity but costs you a chunk of money. And while the core baseball action is basically solid, recruiting new characters requires completing a list of very demanding challenges in addition to winning the game ... for example, the very first one you run into is to get the first three batters out in the first inning! Kind of a tall order considering you just started playing the game.
And while the baseball action is alright overall, it has some little control quirks that make it inferior to comparable games. The AI does not auto-field in any way, and what's worse it does not allow you to manually select the fielder. That means being in control of the infield temporarily as the ball flies over them before you're finally allowed to control the outfielder it's headed to.
Base running is perhaps the worst part, though; it's inadequate and super sluggish. You can't control individual runners, you have to issue mass commands to all of them. There is also a long delay in them executing a change of direction, and you're not allowed to tell them to return to their base until a ball is caught, so you're often left with far too little time to actually react. Lots of cheap outs due to bad base running controls.
Pitching is extremely limited; the only special pitches are a change-up that you can't really control the direction of, and a "super pitch" that the computer often hits like it's nothing anyway. Batting is a little better, but certain characters have weird quirky swings that you have to adjust to. For example, Bowser wields a one-handed mace and Donkey Kong punches with a boxing glove and the swing mechanics are as weird as you would expect them to be.
Finally, random obstacles pop up in the outfield in every stadium except for the most basic one. Barrels, Chain Chomps and whatever else can just pop up and randomly screw you at any time.
The game is even lacking in multiplayer options. The exhibition mode only allows two people to play. Four-player is only available for the mini-games, or the Toy Park mode which is basically a glorified mini-game.
It's really one of the better-looking games on the Cube and overall fairly solid, but there are too many annoying little rough edges to it that keep jabbing at you. If you want a cutesy, newbie-friendly baseball game with better mechanics and a lot more depth from the 128-bit era, check out the MLB Power Pros games instead.
* Gameplay Video