Super Mega Baseball 4 exemplifies the need for lighthearted, fun-focused sports games
Posted on June 24, 2023 by Nicholas Serpa in Features, Switch eShop
Sports video games have been a part of my DNA since I first picked up a controller. My dad had an NES hooked up to the TV while I was young, and so I was graced with some incredible arcade-style sports games – the likes of Blades of Steel, Tecmo Bowl, and RBI Baseball. When I was a little older, I got some great mileage out games like Backyard Baseball, and after the Wii launched, I jumped into the obvious hits – Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort. I’m probably forgetting a few, but all those games have one thing in common; none of them are simulators of the sports they represent. That’s why I love them, and why we need more games like Super Mega Baseball 4.
Nowadays, the sports game genre looks incredibly different. Organizations like the MLB, NFL, and FIFA are all incredibly selective with their licensing, and most game studios have little chance of being able to afford the brand-name logo on the box, let alone the rights to player likenesses, licensed stadiums, and more. Hell, not even EA was willing to pay FIFA for their license anymore, after the controversial soccer juggernaut reportedly sought over $1 billion to renew it. The increasing popularity of almost all major sports around the globe has led to a consolidation of video games in that space, leading players to fewer options as time progresses.
The other kicker – that is hardly news at this point – is that the few companies who can afford to make these games have been incentivized to cram as many money-sucking mechanics into their annual releases year-over-year, not merely because they have licensing fees to cover, but mostly because there’s a lack of competition (and no, the most recent PES game is not adequate competition for FIFA). It was less than a year ago that I tried to jump into NBA 2K23, and I was quickly overwhelmed with a slew of notifications about in-game currency, bloated mechanics, and gameplay that was poorly explained to newcomers like me. I’m totally down to try and learn the rules of a simulation – it can be a rewarding challenge in of itself – but when there’s so many other unfulfilling distractions shoehorned into an annual franchise that, often, is only a marginal improvement from previous years (if not a complete train wreck, as we witnessed with WWE 2K20), why even bother?
Sure, casual sports games still exist – Nintendo still makes them, although they’ve been more barebones this generation than in previous ones – and we’ve seen some interesting attempts by indie teams to create narrative-focused games with a sports backdrop, like the highly-acclaimed Golf Story. But for the most part, it feels like there are fewer games in the middle of those two extremes. What if you want a semi-realistic approximation of a sport, but without all the bloat and baggage of the latest release that will be all but disposable by the time the next one comes out?
Well, I’ve been playing a fair bit of Super Mega Baseball 4 lately, of all things. I was able to get hands-on with the game at Summer Game Fest, at which point it had already been released to the public for about a week. For those who aren’t familiar, the Super Mega Baseball series straddles the line between simulated baseball, and a more arcade-style approach. The rules of the game, the stats, the verbiage, and the AI all lean towards realism in many ways, but the presentation of the game is the opposite; creative, cartoony, and subtly funny if you pay attention to the details. Players are caricatures that feel almost like the bobblehead figures they sometimes hand out at real games, and stadiums are all fictional, with over-the-top designs. Have bad luck at the plate, and some batters will snap their bats in half, throw them, or react in other ways that would probably have them ejected in a simulation of the sport. Pay close attention to the sounds of the fans in the stadium behind you, and you’ll often hear funny remarks from guests who lost their cell phone, vendors trying to sell bizarre food items, and more. The commentators – who, in games like MLB The Show, are often real people – are sparse here, but witty in an understated way.
The gameplay is grounded, but faster and snappier than other games in the genre. There’s no downtime in-game; the camera cuts quickly during the action, and at-bats have mere seconds between them. Controls are intuitive, but helpful tutorials appear during your first game to introduce you to them anyways. This is a game that most players will be able to pick up, play, and get some enjoyment out of, even if they don’t typically play baseball titles. On the other hand, there’s plenty of room to dive deep for those who obsess over things like franchise modes, building custom teams and leagues, and adjusting granular player stats in menus.
Super Mega Baseball 4 is filling a gap in the genre that desperately needs to be filled. The series is long-running, but there are usually a few years between entries, allowing for lots of time to iterate and improve. This fourth release is notable for a few reasons, but the interesting part of the story is that the developer – Metalhead Software, formerly an independent studio based out of Canada – was purchased by Electronic Arts a few years back. This type of scenario might give a lot of prospective buyers pause, given EA’s reputation, but I was surprised to see the ways in which the company’s involvement seems to have helped this game evolve into a more compelling package. On top of the game’s massive roster of fictional players, male and female – it also now has hyperexaggerated versions of real-world baseball icons from across the history of the sport. Animations are improved, visuals are generally improved in most cases, there are new stadiums… the list goes on. Yes, you must have an EA account to access online features. But there are no microtransactions in the game – you pay $50 (or $60 to get three extra stadiums) and you get a full game, end of story.
It’s refreshing. It’s also EA’s first baseball game in about a decade. The cynic in me wonders if they bought Metalhead so that, down the road, they can absorb them into another studio or have them work on their next big sports game – it wouldn’t shock me. But for now, I’m grateful that a game like this exists, and that the Switch port is low on compromises. There’s absolutely a market out there for these types of releases; I just think many of those players are latent, jaded by the state of the genre as a whole. Still, there are glimmers of hope. Konami recently released WBSC eBaseball: Power Pros on Switch in the west for the shockingly low price of 99 cents, presumably to gauge interest and evaluate releasing more of those games in the west. And the WWE games by 2K might have some arcade-style competition when AEW: Fight Forever launches soon. I hope this trend continues. I want sports games that help me feel like I did when I was kid: having fun. And I know I’m not the only one.