Tag Archives: gamecube

The Simpsons: Hit & Run

151790-the-simpsons-hit-run-windows-otherAfter a long stretch of posting about Christmas and Batman exclusively, it’s time to get things back on track here at The Nostalgia Spot. Here’s a subject I’ve been sitting on for quite some time. I love The Simpsons, and I also love video games, so it stands to reason I should love Simpsons video games! In a perfect world that would be true, but alas, we do not live in such a world.

The fact that Simpsons video games exist in the first place is kind of funny when you stop and think about it. After all, The Simpsons is essentially a family sitcom like Full House, except it’s actually good. I’ve never heard anyone sincerely bemoan the fact that there are no video games based on Full House, and yet we have around a dozen games based on The Simpsons. The most obvious difference between the two is that Full House is live action and The Simpsons is animated. Is that the criteria needed to enter into the world of video games?

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The main stars of the game. Sorry, Maggie.

Not exactly, but we’re getting there. The wonderful folks over at Talking Simpsons, a podcast that is a chronological exploration of the series, spoke with writer and show-runner Bill Oakley about his time on the show and he revealed an interesting tidbit about The Simpsons that I wasn’t aware of:  the audience was predominantly children. It’s not a total surprise to hear that, but as someone who watched the show regularly growing up with his entire family it did surprise me some. Because the art form is most frequently used to create children’s content in the US, animation inherently appeals to kids. And Bart Simpson was a character most kids looked up to, rightly or wrongly. So given that, it’s not at all surprising why The Simpsons received so many video games in the early days because, back then, no one really associated video games with any demographic other than children.

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Your first car is the (surprise!) famous Simpsons pink sedan which has inexplicably been turned into a convertible for this game.

Sadly, when the aim of a piece of media is to just appeal to children the end product is often pretty lackluster. The Simpsons were unremarkable in that respect as pretty much every licensed game from the 8-bit era was pretty terrible. The inaugural Bart vs The Space Mutants at least had an interesting They Live! inspired plot, but playing it was about as much fun as a trip to the dentist. The games that followed were the same, but without the quirky plot. Following the NES era the games became mini-game compilations on the GameBoy and SNES and the results were just as bad. The Playstation gave us Simpsons Wrestling, which the less said about that one the better. It wasn’t until we hit the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox generation where we actually received a home console game based on The Simpsons that was any good. Up first, was Road Rage, a Crazy Taxi parody that was decent, followed by Simpsons Skateboarding which was bad. The best though? A Grand Theft Auto parody called The Simpsons:  Hit & Run.

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Basically every major Springfield landmark is in this game, some of which you can even enter.

Hit & Run took a lot of the assets created for Road Rage and made them more interesting. Road Rage was okay because the taxi setup leaves a lot of room for the characters to just be funny, but the gameplay gets a little old a little fast. Hit & Run slows things down and lets the player exit the vehicle. Even though it’s a GTA clone of sorts, the game plays more like a generic 3D platformer when not in a car. Characters can run, jump, double-jump, attack, and butt stomp just like Ratchet from the Ratchet & Clank series but without the awesome gadgets. Generic characters litter the virtual Springfield driving generic vehicles you’re free to commandeer at your leisure, though the best vehicles are the ones you actually have to purchase.

Hit & Run contains a fairly large version of Springfield that’s broken up into three main stages, so they’re not interconnected unfortunately. There’s a suburban setting that contains Evergreen Terrace as well as the projects and upscale neighborhoods. There’s a downtown setting where you can find Moe’s, the remnants of the monorail, and infamous Matlock Expressway. There’s also a waterfront setting that inexplicably contains The Android’s Dungeon but also features Duff Gardens and the Channel 6 lots home to fine programming such as Krusty the Clown. Just about every major landmark from the show is featured, though the layout of Springfield is definitely not canon.  There’s a sense that in creating the three main stages the game designers just wanted to make sure they had some important landmark reserved for each one. It’s not a big deal, but Springfield isn’t as cozy as it could have been. It’s also very limited by the technology of the time since no section is nearly as large as an open world from today (even GTA: San Andreas featured a much bigger setting).

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In a surprising move, Apu gets to take center stage for a level.

Springfield is the star of this game, but lets not forget about the playable characters. As you probably guessed, they include the main cast from the show:  Homer, Bart, Lisa and Marge. As you probably did not guess, there’s also a level for Apu. Why Apu? No idea, but it’s nice to play as someone who isn’t a member of the main family and Apu is better than Milhouse. Nobody wants to play as Milhouse. Each level stars one playable character and takes place in a different section of Springfield. Levels get recycled eventually, but with a slightly different take such as night vs day. The last level does something different that I don’t want to spoil, but I’ll say it’s pretty cool. At the start of each stage, your character has access to their default car plus any car that’s been acquired along the way. Naturally, the further into the game you go the better the cars get so you probably won’t use most of the earlier ones. Just about every car is taken from the series too so you’ll get to drive famous cars like Homer’s Mr. Plow truck and Martin’s Honor Roller.

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Do it, Bart, take his head!

The setup of the game is pretty straight-forward. You’re given a task, and you need to drive over to a certain character to begin the mission. Just about every mission can be distilled into you driving to a checkpoint in a set amount of time. A timer counts down and often another character has hopped into the car with you to make fun of you while you drive. Complicating things is the hit & run meter. As you run over pedestrians and cause mayhem the meter fills. If it fills all the way you attract the attention of Springfield’s finest. Chief Wiggum and company are surprisingly capable of catching you, and unlike GTA they don’t have to yank you out of the car, just stop you. In the early stages you probably won’t have too much trouble, but as the game moves along things get harder and you’ll probably need to make sure you have the best vehicles available to complete the missions.

The plot of the game is unimportant and pretty weird, even for The Simpsons. Buzz Cola is spreading some new cola that turns people into zombies. It’s sort of a New Coke parody and for some reason there’s giant robot wasps. I mostly ignored it, but the plot pushes you along and into contact with basically every major character from the show. Since the game was released in 2003, it includes characters and references up to around season 13 of the show, so all of the best stuff was available and not as much of the not so great stuff. If you only like the old stuff, you shouldn’t feel too lost here. All of the voice actors contributed to the game and the dialogue is really funny. It’s easily the game’s best aspect.

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Say it with me now, “I am evil Homer! I am evil Homer!”

If Hit & Run did not possess The Simpsons license, it probably wouldn’t be remembered at all. The game probably runs about 8-10 hours depending on how thorough you are and towards the end the game’s structure does get a bit tiresome. There’s basically no mission variety to speak of, and while the game isn’t really hard some of the end stages will feature a mission or two that will likely get frustrating. I would often find myself getting bored and sloppy and that’s when my play quality would diminish leading to some angry moments. Usually putting the game away for a bit and returning another day remedied this and thankfully the game’s humor and charm were enough to keep me coming back. Once you’ve seen the three main hubs though the game does lose some luster since most of the Easter eggs have been explored by then.

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Of course the Monorail makes a cameo.

Hit & Run is at its best when you’re just exploring Springfield. Seeking out the special missions and homages throughout is definitely the most satisfying aspect of the game. The game keeps track of them too so you know if you’ve found them all or if there’s more out there. There’s some optional races too, but they’re sort of just padding. If that last level wasn’t so good I’d say you’ve probably seen enough after just level three. There’s also optional costumes to purchase in the game if you want to dress-up your character as Bartman or Evil Homer. Once you complete a stage too you’re free to jump back into it if you want in case there was something you failed to complete.

It’s debatable if Hit & Run is the best Simpsons game ever made. Virtual Springfield is much beloved by the community for its authenticity, though it isn’t really much of a game. Most people probably pick Konami’s arcade brawler, simply titled The Simpsons, as their favorite. It was available for a time on Xbox Live but I believe that is no longer the case. It is a fun game, though it’s also a traditional arcade game that exists mostly to devour quarters. It also was created during production of season 2 so it only contains references to the show’s first season, which is a bit disappointing. Hit & Run is definitely worth a look if you love The Simpsons. It was released across all three major consoles at the time, so it’s really easy to find a copy at a reasonable price. And if you like podcasts, definitely check out Talking Simpsons as, short of just watching the episodes, that’s the best way to enjoy the classic era of The Simpsons. The main podcast is free and is part of the Laser Time family of podcasts. There’s also a Patreon that has additional content (including the Bill Oakley interview I mentioned) most of which is available for just five bucks a month. I heartily recommend it (and no, I am not affiliated in any way with that show, I just enjoy it). However you go about, treasure The Simpsons since it won’t be around forever, as incredible as that may seem. Maybe we can even get one more game out of it. The Simpsons Game followed Hit & Run, and while the production values on that one blow away the other Simpsons games, the actual gameplay is atrocious and ruins the experience. A game that expands upon the basic formula of Hit & Run would probably work quite well, if enough time was sunk into it. I doubt we’ll receive another major Simpsons game, but it doesn’t hurt to wish.


Ranking the Zelda Games Part 2

images-223Part 2 of this ranking feature for the games in the Legend of Zelda series should be less controversial than Part 1. Hopefully that doesn’t make it boring because we are just about at that point with this list where I’m splitting hairs. It’s probably not really a spoiler to say that the top 2 Zelda games are not really in question, and I think for many, the order is mostly agreed upon. I also think the next two games on our list are pretty clearly inferior to what follows, though some of that does depend on what your appetite for retro gaming is (suffice to say, if you were born sometime after 1990 the order of the following games is probably different from mine). Let’s move along though to take a look at these prestigious games which made it deep into the top ten.

67651-legend_of_zelda_the_-_oracle_of_seasons_usa-68. Oracle of Seasons (Gameboy Color 2001) – The sister title to Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages, has already appeared on this list. Seasons was to be the more action-oriented of the two titles, but it’s still a Zelda game and isn’t really lacking for puzzles. It’s a more balanced title that manages to challenge the mind just as well as one’s ability to wield an in-game sword. The gimmick here is obviously the seasons, as indicated by the title. Early on Link acquires the Rod of Seasons that he can use to change the season of the screen he is on. Each screen has a default setting that it will reset to once the player exits it. As far as gimmicks go, it isn’t too bad, but it is rather limited in terms of puzzle application. It’s often easy to see what needs to be done to reach a certain area or acquire a certain item and it’s mostly a matter of time when the player will acquire a dungeon item or open a new path to clear the way. It’s a fine entry in the Zelda series, but it’s lack of diversity and a missing ingredient or two keep it from being among the franchise’s best.

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If Link doesn’t take care of business this creepy ass moon is going to kill everybody. 

7. Majora’s Mask (Nintendo 64 2000) – Released two years after Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask has the distinction of being one of the few direct sequels in the Zelda series. It plays more like a companion piece than a full-fledged entry in the main canon, making it similar to the majority of the handhelds in that respect. And like the handhelds, it’s gameplay is driven by another gimmick, but this time the gimmick is pretty interesting. Majora’s Mask takes place over the course of three in-game days as the moon is on a collision course with earth thanks to the actions of the Skull Kid, who has stolen the magical artifact Majora’s Mask. As Link, the player sets out to acquire other powerful masks that enable Link to change form in order to progress further into the game. Using the Ocarina of Time, Link is able to continuously reset time to avoid disaster while keeping the items he’s obtained along the way. Essentially, this means that as the player you’re constantly in a race against the clock to advance the plot as far as possible before having to reset everything and do it again. It’s a clever idea, but it naturally overstays its welcome towards the end of the game. The game takes place in Termina, as opposed to Hyrule, necessitating a new, but less interesting, setting. And even though it’s in Termina, expect to encounter the same types of characters that Link did in Ocarina of Time. Thankfully, the game is shorter than its predecessor, otherwise the time-rewind function would really get old, but it still offers a pretty meaty experience. The game was remade and released on the 3DS in 2015, much like Ocarina of Time, and that edition is probably better than the original, but mostly just because it’s nicer to look at.

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Link is able to get flat in this one and it’s a gimmick that actually works fairly well.

6. A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo 3DS 2013) – The next three games on this list I consider pretty fluid. I could have ordered them in any way and it probably would have pleased me, and that’s because they’re all great, but are just missing a little something which keeps them out of the top three. For number six, I’m going with the most recent game in the main series, A Link Between Worlds. Like Majora’s Mask and The Adventure of Link, A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to another game in the series. In this case, that game is the SNES classic A Link to the Past. If you’re a Zelda fan, then you know that makes this the only game in the series to be a sequel of a game that already has a sequel. That’s because Link’s Awakening also takes place after A Link to the Past. I have no idea how this one relates to Link’s Awakening, but since the plot of that game is basically a dream I suppose it doesn’t matter. A Link Between Worlds is both helped and hindered by its predecessor. It borrows heavily from A Link to the Past, and if you’re going to borrow heavily from a game it might as well be one of the greatest ever made. It’s main difference is in the item system. Instead of entering dungeons and uncovering a new item, they’re all made available early from a merchant to rent. The idea seems to be that the player would be exchanging items here and there with the merchant, but since they’re not very expensive and rupees are never that hard to come by in a Zelda game, most gamers probably rented them all at once fairly early in the adventure. So while the game does rightly attempt to change things up a bit, it’s mostly for naught. There’s another parallel world for Link to enter, Lorule (get it?), which is very reminiscent of the Dark World from the first game. Link also has the new ability to become a painting on the wall to access normally inaccessible areas. As far as Zelda gimmicks go, this one is solid as it’s not overly intrusive and does lend itself fairly well to puzzle solving. The game is a joy to play and it’s only major flaw is the difficulty. This is the only Zelda title I’ve ever played start to finish where I didn’t die once. I don’t need it to be as hard as The Adventure of Link, but I would like some challenge. There’s also really no point in the game’s progression that will tempt you to reach for a strategy guide or wiki, making it feel like a light, breezy, Zelda adventure.

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The color palette in this one is so earthy. Everything looks dusty/dirty. It reminds me of Resident Evil, believe it or not.

5. Twilight Princess (Nintendo Wii/Gamecube 2006) – During the press tour for Wind Waker, Nintendo assured those gamers irritated with the design choices made for that game that a more traditional, mature looking Zelda game was in development and would be released in the same console life cycle. As such, Twilight Princess feels like Nintendo’s reaction to the backlash they received for Toon Link. The game is visually dark and strikes a somber tone. Zelda herself is portrayed as a sad and somewhat tragic figure and the Twilight Princess hinted at by the game’s title is even more so. Link is his usual stoic self, but even he seems to sport a permanent scowl on his face and the moments where he appears to experience any semblance of joy are few and far between. Twilight Princess was developed on the Gamecube, but first released as a Wii launch title with some motion controls tacked on. They’re not overly intrusive, but only the aiming mechanic offered by the Wii-mote would be considered an improvement over a traditional control scheme. As such, most seem to consider the Gamecube version superior. The game largely plays like the previous 3D titles with the game’s Z-targeting combat system once again limiting Link to only one-on-one encounters. With Ocarina of Time, that went almost unnoticed at the time, but by now it was an obvious limitation of the Zelda style. Of course, the main difference between Twilight Princess and other Zelda titles is Wolf Link. When Link enters the Twilight Realm (yet another dark, parallel world to Hyrule) he takes the form of a wolf. As a wolf, Link can track enemies with his potent sniffer and tap into some twilight powers to kill Shadows. He is accompanied by Midna, a sort of cat like being that doubles as this game’s version of Navi. She’s just as intrusive, but I found her less annoying for the simple reason that she has a personality. And she’s not nearly as bad as that wretched sidekick in Skyward Sword. Twilight Princess is an appropriately grand adventure and another quality entry in the Zelda series. It’s main failing, aside from wolf Link being surprisingly uninteresting to play as, is that it feels far too familiar. Twilight Princess is to Ocarina of Time what The Force Awakens is to Star Wars. It’s very similar to Ocarina, almost to the point of deja vu. It even has a fishing hole with mostly the same challenges and goals of the one from Ocarina. It has a lot of the same themes for its temples, most of the same items, and so on. Had it come before Ocarina of Time, it’s possible it would be considered the better of the two, depending on how much you like or dislike the wolf and the Twilight Realm.

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Bosses were a lot smaller back then.

4. The Legend of Zelda (NES 1986) – Just outside of the top three is the one that started it all. It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t experience this one in 1986 just how different an experience it was from other games. It’s a game design so perfect that it remains largely unchanged thirty years later. It’s rather incredible just how playable this game still is, and just how much fun it remains to be. It’s main difference from the modern games is mostly just how cryptic it is. It’s pretty clear where the game wants to send you in virtually every other Zelda game except this one. Here you’re just dropped into the fray and told to go beat the game. There’s a few hints along the way, if you happen to uncover them, and if you read the instruction booklet you get a few more, but that’s it. Word of mouth, and eventually Nintendo Power, was the way to beat this game back in the day as there was always a friend with an older brother, cousin, or cousin’s cousin that knew how to get into Level 6 or whatever. The game manages to be cryptic without being unfairly so, for the most part. There is one part where you have to find a specific bush and use a specific item on it that is pretty ridiculous, but it’s not on Simon’s Quest level. The combat is generally the same as the top-down Zelda titles that followed, but harder because all of the other enemies seem to be able to move much faster than Link. Some of the boss fights are so well constructed that Nintendo has returned to them over and over again. Really, if you grew up with one of the later Zelda titles being your gateway to the series then you owe it to yourself to go back and give this one a try. Once you get past the crude visuals and accustomed to how the game handles you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it quite a bit. The game is readily available as a downloadable title on basically every modern Nintendo device and will also be included with the NES Mini this fall. I’m obviously ranking this one somewhat on a scale to place it so high and affording it some deference for how important it is to the franchise and gaming as a whole, but I also genuinely love the game. I’ve returned to it over the years more than once, which is something I haven’t done for every game I’ve ranked behind this one (but something I have done for the ones ahead of it) which is a testament to its quality and its longevity. It’s really one of the greatest of all time.

 


Mario Superstar Baseball

Mario Superstar Baseball (2005)

Mario Superstar Baseball (2005)

Super Mario first made his mark in the sports world through the game of golf. Golf has been a game video game publishers have often tried to emulate and Nintendo likely thought their brand would sell better with Mario in a starring (though understated) role as opposed to some new character. Mario has since appeared in numerous golf games for Nintendo and would add tennis to his resume on the Virtual Boy and Nintendo 64. It was also on the Nintendo 64 that the Mario Party games debuted where Mario and his buddies got to show off a bunch of skills no one knew they possessed. Come the era of the Gamecube though, and Mario’s sporting exploits exploded. One such resulting title is Mario Superstar Baseball.

During the mid-2000’s the sports landscape changed. EA Sports, having felt undermined by 2k Sports and their $20 game NFL 2k5, made a deal with the NFL to secure exclusive rights to the NFL brand. 2k would follow suit by doing almost the same thing with Major League Baseball. The only difference was that 2k’s deal with MLB made them the sole third-party publisher of MLB games allowing the first-party developers the ability to utilize the MLB license for their own games (hence why MLB The Show has appeared on Playstation consoles ever since). Nintendo first attempted a baseball game with Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz as its cover athlete, but for whatever reason, the game was cancelled. Rather than start development on another MLB title, Nintendo instead chose the cheaper route and once more tabbed their mascot for a baseball game.

Mario Superstar Baseball is, naturally, an off-beat take on the sport of baseball. It’s not the first title to do so. There was SNK’s Super Baseball 2020 in the early 90’s, and Midway (having found success with NFL Blitz) released their own exaggerated take on the sport: MLB Slugfest. Mario though could bring something different to the sport in the form of its unique world full of warp pipes and piranha plants. In some ways, the foundation had been laid by Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, also for the Gamecube, and Superstar Baseball just needed to adapt those features to the game of baseball.

Characters from the Mario franchise play ball in some familiar locales.

Characters from the Mario franchise play ball in some familiar locales.

Probably due to the existence of miniature golf, it’s easy to envision how one could make golf gimmicky but fun for a video game. With baseball, it’s not quite as obvious how such features could be added without feeling forced. Namco, the developer of Mario Superstar Baseball, focused on a small core of characters to focus on while supplementing the team rosters with lesser characters. These main characters consist of the team captains and one co-captain, and they usually have the more impressive special abilities unique to the game. Mario, and brother Luigi, can both use their fire power to enhance their pitching and their hitting. As a pitch, the fireball is blazing fast and tough to square-up. When used as a hitter, if Mario or Luigi successfully put the ball in play it will retain its flaming properties and make it hard to handle for the fielders. Peach and Daisy can both make their ball disappear in a puff of flower petals, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong wield a boomerang like banana, Yoshi and Birdo an unpredictable bouncing egg, and Bowser and Bowser Jr. call upon their pal Bullet Bill to take the place of the baseball. Wario and Waluigi have this weird, gassy, multiplying pitch that is best scene than explained. The support characters include the likes of hammer bros. and toads, all of which can use special moves but they just slightly enhance their fastballs/hitting as opposed to doing something unique.

The other main way for Namco to apply a Mario coat of paint is with the stadiums. Mario’s home turf plays like a generic ballpark, but Bowser’s is ringed by lava with fireballs shooting across the outfield. Donkey Kong’s is a jungle setting with a croc-infested creek running through it and Peach’s castle stadium has music boxes floating in the air. The unique features of the stadium probably only come into play once or twice a game (which range from 3, 5, or 7 innings) but can bring about fortune but often misfortune for the player. The game is not as wild as other Mario sports titles, but given the actual game it’s adapting, Namco did a solid-enough job in this area.

Special abilities, like Mario's fireball pitch, work better against human opponents than CPU ones.

Special abilities, like Mario’s fireball pitch, work better against human opponents than CPU ones.

The mechanics of the game are largely reminiscent of old school baseball games from the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era. Batters can be moved in the batter’s box at any point during the pitch and the break of each pitch is determined by just pressing any direction on the controller. Pitches can be charged for added velocity, and also for less velocity to disguise a change-up, and varying speeds and break is vital to having success (just like in real baseball). Each team can possess up to five “stars” which allow for the use of special abilities like Mario’s fireball pitch. Stars can be replenished at random times during a game when the player is presented with a “Star Chance” during an at-bat or by striking a star panel on the playing field with a batted ball. Fielding and base-running are also rather old school in their controls, with throwing to a base requiring a direction be pressed on the analog stick. Modern games just map the bases to a specific button, and unfortunately Mario’s game can at times lead to throws to the wrong base. Players can also dash in the outfield, or on the bases, and attempt diving or leaping catches. Most characters have a floaty feel to them making leaping catches a little easier than they would be in an MLB game. Also, characters have special abilities unique to them that often show up when they’re in the field. The powerful guys, like Donkey Kong and Bowser, have powerful throwing arms while Yoshi can catch balls with his tongue. This dynamic helps make each player feel different with some naturally being more suited for one position over another.

The game has various modes such as exhibition, home-run derby, and other mini games based around pitching, hitting, and base-running. The meat of the game though is found in its single-player mode where the player selects a team and barnstorms around a map taking on the other teams before eventually facing Bowser’s team. During the games though, opportunities will be presented to the player such as “get a hit” or “steal a base.” If successful, the player will earn a star allotted towards an opposing player. Get enough of these for a player and you successfully recruit him or her to your team. Recruiting the team’s captain will prevent you from being able to play that team again, so the idea is always to try and recruit all of the other players first before getting the captain. If the player manages to win via the mercy rule, then all recruitable players are recruited at once. On the map, Bowser Jr. roams and his team will contain a collection of any players the player failed to recruit giving another option for recruitment. There’s also a store where items can be purchased that temporarily make the game easier. The mini games are also playable a set number of times which is primarily where the player earns money.

There are lots of players to recruit and improve your team with in the game's single-player mode.

There are lots of players to recruit and improve your team with in the game’s single-player mode.

By recruiting new players one can better optimize their roster. To prevent players from simply loading up on the best, an affinity feature was added to the game that makes certain players work better as teammates of others, or not work well at all. Mario, for example, is more likely to make an errant throw to first base if Bowser is the first baseman. If it’s Luigi instead then he’s less likely to make an error and will also throw quicker. This incentivizes the player to pair up certain characters at key positions, such as double-play partners or outfielders with the catcher for those throws home. Each character, captains and all, also have goals and achievements associated with them. The minor characters may only have 3 or so of these while major ones as many as ten. Some are easy, like score a run, and others quite difficult and dependent on chance. Donkey Kong, for example, needs to hit a home run with both Diddy and Dixie Kong on base for one of his and Mario needs to pitch a perfect game (no hitter allowed to reach base) for one of his. Achieving all of these goals for a character unlocks their star form, which is just a better version of the character. It adds a compelling layer to the game and incentivizes the player to use every character, though the quirkier ones can become aggravating. Building and customizing a team becomes a lot of fun, especially for those who like to tinker, so much so that I wish there was even more depth to it. The goal of the game is to be accessible and fun, but a more robust single-player mode might be even better.

The single player game is surprisingly deep, and the play is quite fun, but the game does have some short-comings. The controls, touched upon earlier, are an issue. Hitting and pitching is simple and intuitive enough, but the base-running is overly complex leading to numerous base-running errors and frequent instances of a runner being doubled-off. Some of that is also due to the field of play being rather small compared to other baseball games and the propensity for line drives being caught by infielders. For a game that’s supposed to be kind of a “wacky” take on baseball, there’s a lack of home runs as well with only the most powerful characters being reliable sources of round-trippers. The game seems to want the player to make use of the item store for super powerful bats if they want to see the ball leave the yard. The special abilities of the captains are also pretty hit or miss, with most of them being a miss. Mario’s fireball pitch seems to work okay on easier difficulties, but on hard the AI never seems to miss. Peach’s disappearing change-up pitch seems to be the only reliable and useful one with Bowser and Donkey Kong’s pitches being so bad they’re not worth using. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to strike out the AI with Donkey Kong’s banana pitch. Wario and Waluigi’s pitch is pretty much just as bad. When used at the plate, all of them are a bit more reliable. The AI will still sometimes feel like it’s cheating with how easy it finds Peach and Daisy’s invisible ball when put in the air, and Donkey Kong’s banana ball is still awful. Wario’s is one of the most effective in terms of introducing an element of chaos to the game as it splits into two balls, with one being the actual ball and one being a fake, and if it’s a fly ball the AI (or another human player) is forced to commit to one or the other. This can make decisions such as whether or not to tag-up or send runners an exciting one.

Not all characters can be expected to use standard equipment.

Not all characters can be expected to use standard equipment.

I love baseball, and I love baseball video games, and Mario Superstar Baseball is probably my favorite when it comes to off-beat baseball games. It’s also one of my favorite Mario sports titles, and even though it has its share of problems, it’s a very enjoyable game. It’s single-player mode is surprisingly addicting, though like most Mario titles, the actual gameplay experience is better when played against other human opponents. Unfortunately, its sequel, Mario Super Sluggers for the Wii, failed to address the faults the game had. In many ways, it was a step back. The single-player game was simplified and less interesting and the power-ups weren’t improved at all. There was also the inclusion of “waggle” controls which felt unintuitive and tacked-on. Rather than swing the wii-mote like it was Wii Sports, the game wanted the player to just move the controller back and then forward emphasizing rhythm. It was unfortunate the game came out so poorly, and if you’re someone interested in a Mario baseball title the Gamecube original is the way to go. I’ve never heard any rumblings of a new entry in the series, but it sure would be nice if Nintendo gave the go-ahead for a 3DS sequel as it did with the golf franchise. For now, Mario Superstar Baseball is sort of an annual tradition for me, where I dust off my Gamecube and settle in for a fun time either by myself or with a buddy whenever the baseball season comes around.


Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour

Toadstool_TourWith spring comes golf season and this spring brings a new Mario themed golf game as well.  Titled World Tour, the game is set for release this week on the Nintendo 3DS which got me to thinking about my favorite title in the Mario Golf series:  Toadstool Tour. Released in 2003 for the Nintendo Gamecube, Toadstool Tour was the sequel to the Nintendo 64 game (simply titled Mario Golf) and was the first Mario Golf title to really incorporate the over-the-top components of Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom setting.

Mario has a history of having various hobbies and other jobs. We first knew him as the Princess rescuing Jump Man in Donkey Kong before moving onto his more popular plumber gig for Mario Bros. and the Super Mario Bros. series. Not long after his previously mentioned debut he almost immediately jumped into the world of sports. Nintendo basically decided Mario was its most marketable persona and stuck him into everything. He had cameos in the likes of Tennis and Punch-Out!, but it was the original Golf game that first allowed users to control Mario as he took part in a sport.

Golf games in general have been around basically just as long as video games. Golf is one of the few sports that’s played all around the world so it makes sense that it would be well-represented in game form. Still, it can seem kind of surprising at just how many golf games there are considering it’s often not been a sport real popular with kids (before Tiger Woods, it wasn’t really popular at all). It works though in game form since it doesn’t really require much out of its AI opponents and the slow pace makes it easier to plan. And really, the basic gameplay hasn’t changed a whole lot between NES Golf and Toadstool Tour, though pro-oriented titles like Tiger Woods have made advancements with analog control.

Toadstool Tour is pretty basic on the surface. The user selects an onscreen avatar and a mode for play. Modes include tournament, match play, and Mario specialty modes like coin mode. Each character has its own unique attributes affecting power, control, and spin and also a natural ball trajectory. Mario is the most well-rounded and his ball travels straight while a power hitter like Bowser has a mean hook and less control over where his ball is going. Once on the course, the player has two main modes of play:  auto and manual. Auto is basically a one-button approach where the user lets the CPU take over after lining up a shot and pressing A twice. It’s good for kids but most gamers will find it unsatisfying and opt for manual. On manual, the player hits the A button to start the character’s swing and then a bar at the base of the screen starts to fill. The player has to hit the B button to stop the bar at the desired spot for power, and then stop it again as it comes back for control. Once the ball is in the air, the player can affect the spin of the ball in one of four ways: topspin, backspin, super topspin, and super backspin. For those unfamiliar with golf, topspin basically extends the distance of the shot a few yards by making sure the ball rolls forward once it strikes ground. Backspin does the opposite. The standard versions of both are pretty true to life, while the “super” versions can really exaggerate the movement of the ball. Pre-shot, the user can also affect what part of the ball the character strikes by using the D pad. Once the swing starts the player has to hold the analog stick to match the new strike point allowing the player to put more loft on the shot or hook/slice it in a certain direction.

Toadstool Tour may be nearing its eleventh birthday, but it's still a pretty nice game to look at.

Toadstool Tour may be nearing its eleventh birthday, but it’s still a pretty nice game to look at.

Players have access to a full arsenal of clubs. The game will make a default selection that 90% of the time works best. It’s usually on approach shots where you may opt to go for a different approach such as putting from the fringe as opposed to a chip-shot. The power meter can also be toggled from normal, power, and approach. If using the putter, there are three options for short, medium, and long range. The user is free to select whatever option he or she desires, though the power function has only six uses per round (a perfectly executed shot though, max power plus perfect accuracy, won’t consume a power shot reserve). There are enough options to approach any shot, though if the game has one short-coming it’s with the putting. Putting does not have an accuracy input, it’s simply a two-press function for power. Longer shots are actually fine, but the really short ones can be more troublesome because of how touchy the meter is. For short puts, you basically have to let the meter fill all the way and set your power when it’s coming back. This takes getting used to and novice players will likely miss some short ones as a result which can be really frustrating. Many golf games will have a “gimme” putt feature where a yard or less is automatically sunk by the game. Such a feature would be welcomed here.

The basic gameplay works well, putting excluded, and it actually surprised me with how robust the shot options are. It wouldn’t be a very special game though if it ended there. This is a Mario sports title after all, so a certain amount of “wackiness” is expected and the game mostly delivers in that respect. There are six courses to unlock, not including the par 3 course, and each new one unlocked ups the difficulty factor as well as the amount of Mario-isms. The first course is fairly basic, as are the next couple, but later ones add things such as warp pipes and piranha plant hazards. The final course takes place at Bowser’s castle and features numerous lava hazards, thwomps, and other features common to such a setting. These courses can be pretty difficult, but are definitely more rewarding. Completing courses and certain game modes unlocks additional characters, and competing against individual characters in match play unlocks star versions of those characters. The star characters have improved base stats and are practically mandatory if you want to score under par on the most difficult courses.

It's not often you have to worry about chain-chomps when getting in a round of 18.

It’s not often you have to worry about chain-chomps when getting in a round of 18.

Even though the Mario theme is represented well here, I can’t help but wish there was more. Mario has visited all kinds of different worlds throughout his games and I feel like crazier courses could be designed to accentuate that even more. It is my hope that the new game does just that. Additional courses in general would also be welcomed. Six feels a little light. Eight, or even ten, would be best. There could be ice courses, pipe courses, even a floating airship course. And now that the Mario Galaxy series has come along, some funky gravity-defying course would likely be a fun experiment in course design. More courses would naturally lead to more variety. Most of the courses in Toadstool Tour encourage power over “target golf.” The hardest courses negate that to some degree, but the power golfers definitely seem to have an advantage on most courses. An ice course, for example, would definitely emphasize spin and control over power as the ball’s movements once it hit the ground could be pretty unpredictable.

Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour is currently the best Mario Golf game released and probably the best Mario sports title as well. It strikes a nice balance between the actual game of golf and the more off-beat qualities brought by the Mario gang. It could probably stand to be even more outlandish, and some minor control tweaks could also improve the experience, but as it stands it’s a fun game of golf and offers a different experience from the usual EA Sports type of game. If you’re looking for a home golf game and something to play with friends, Toadstool Tour is a cheap and effective solution.


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