Five-tool baseball players are rare, and many that are touted never meet the lofty expectations usually placed on them; they all can’t be Mike Trouts. Such can also be the case with baseball video games, which offer loads of promise via various franchise modes and other intangibles, passing the “looks” test, but disappointingly falling short in what really matters: the fundamentals.
At its core, baseball is a simple game—you hit the ball, you throw the ball, you catch the ball—and nailing the feel of stepping on the mound, digging into the batter’s box, and chasing down a line drive is what make classics like SNK’s Basbeall Stars still hold up after so many decades. Thankfully, that feeling is also what makes Metalhead Software’s goofily titled Super Mega Baseball 3 a joy to play for fans of the sport no matter their skill level; while it looks like a cartoony arcade title on its surface, there is some real love here for America’s pastime and an understanding of what makes it so special.
At the center of what Super Mega Baseball 3 gets so right is the heart of baseball: the duel between pitcher and catcher. Sure, climbing the wall like Ken Griffey Jr. and robbing a beefy slugger of what they thought was a surefire tater can be thrilling, but it’s those one-on-one battles that really determine the course of the nine-inning war. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to replicate the physical timing and coordination that is required to throw a diving slider or react with enough bat speed to catch up to a blazing fastball, but some nice touches and surprisingly realistic physics impart a sense of authenticity to anyone who has strapped on a pair of cleats.
This is especially true when pitching (which always seems to be more fun in video game baseball). Each pitcher comes with their own repertoire of junk to throw, with subtle tweaks to each pitch’s effectiveness (or bite) depending on their statistical ratings. Players must then choose wisely how to implement them against batters that might have different strengths and weaknesses in both areas of the strike zone and counts. Standard tactics like mixing speeds and painting the corners will obviously help ring up the Ks and induce weak contact, but repeating sequences over and over again will probably lead to trouble. And what about when facing a low-ball hitter? It can be nerve-wracking to go against instincts and climb higher in the zone, but there’s is a steady excitement in the risk that Super Mega Baseball 3 gets just right. Much of this is thanks to how accurately the ball comes off the bat, which gives players confidence that their inside curveball likely won’t be sent out of the park.
It’s not perfect—a push and pull system that forces players to fight against a moving reticule to hit their spot takes away the feeling of ever being truly dialed in—but the basics are as solid as they come, and convey the cat-and-mouse-like feel of the actual thing. Nice touches like hurlers flagging after a high pitch count and the occasional passed ball keep things even more interesting, and pickoffs have been added to give even more strategic options. It’s easily the most engaging phase of the game.
Action at the plate has always been trickier for video games to simulate, but though it’s a bit of a mixed bag for Super Mega Baseball 3 as well, there’s more here to like than not. Batters are given a contact zone, the size of which varies depending on their skills (mashers may have a smaller one as a sacrifice for power, while those with a good eye and compact swing will utilize a larger space which may expand based on their strike zone preferences), and players can position that where they like in expectation of the pitch. What happens next is a matter of timing, discipline, and luck. Swinging at everything is a sure way to earn a spot on the bench, but successfully utilizing the power meter (an easier one-tap swing option is also available for those not as practiced) to crush a hanging curveball into the seats is as satisfying as things get.
And yet, it’s hard not to wish for something a little more engaging. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do in all of sports (so they say), which is what makes it so much damn fun to actually adjust to that changeup and give it a rip. Video game batting takes away some of that reaction and last-second adjustment, leaving a swing at a low pitch inevitably producing a grounder to short. No Vladimir Guerreros allowed. It’s not something unique to Super Mega Baseball 3, but that “going through the motions” feeling isn’t solved here either. Nevertheless, there is a fantastic ability to tweak difficulty that should give players of all skill levels just the challenge they’re looking for (and can handle).
Of course, there are other people on the field, and Super Mega Baseball 3 does an admirable job giving them something to do as well. Different button pushes can control all baserunners or simply the lead one, letting players wreak as much havoc as they like before getting caught in a rundown, and fielders have multiple options that include dives (which rarely work, but are awesome when they do), throwing to the cutoff man (and not the Manny Ramirez kind), or preloading the power of their throw before even catching the ball. There are an inordinate amount of double clutches for some reason, lessening the poetry of the infield a bit, and it would have been nice to throw the ball ’round the horn after a particularly graceful out, but for the most part the squadron works like any good team should.
So that’s how well Super Mega Baseball 3 plays—which is the important part—but in addition to exhibition games, online play, and one-off seasons, there is also a Franchise mode that sees players guiding their team and silly players (like Junior Young Jr. and his gray-haired dad, Junior Young Sr.) through several years, with the ability to mold development and sign free agents. This should please stat fans and keep them coming back to the fictional ballparks, as they make that tough decision about whether to cut that aging superstar or hope for one last return to glory. Players and logos can also be modified in a myriad of ways, meaning that even though there are no licensed representation of your favorite player or team, creativity can provide at least the illusion. It would have been nice to have a batting cage or bullpen to give players a chance to hone the mechanics somewhere other than the field, but just like with my Minnesota Twins, there’s always next year.
There’s really an immense amount to do, many ways to play, and outstandingly customizable accessibility within Super Mega Baseball 3, making it worthwhile for those who just want to catch a few innings as well as those who will be glued to the whole season. Baseball fans shouldn’t let the arcade look or 1980s title fool them—Super Mega Baseball 3 not only shows promise in its many features, but solidly delivers on the fundamentals, making it a top prospect ready for the bigs.