by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Mario Super Sluggers & r & Rated Everyone; Nintendo Wii & r & 3 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & used to think baseball was a simple game, requiring an assortment of bases, a ball and a bat. But during a match held aboard a cruise ship, I watched a do-rag-wearing monkey swing a surfboard at the ball. Then the monkey's team fired a cannonful of banana peels that sent outfielders skidding across the ship's highly polished deck, which was already tilting toward a giant squid who had hauled himself out of the ocean sometime between innings. Suddenly baseball didn't seem so simple any more.
Mario and his gang have always brought a dose of charming mischief to their sports outings. The random challenges of ricocheting turtle shells and walking bombs compensate for the less-than-subtle rules, offering novices a fair chance to defeat pros on the mayhem-modified playgrounds. When the formula works (Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, Mario Tennis), the games combine the elegance of sports with the chaos of cartoons. When it doesn't work (Mario Hoops 3-on-3), the result is a frustrating diversion in a world of better options.
Mario Super Sluggers hits a grounder somewhere in the middle, resembling -- in perhaps too many ways -- its GameCube predecessor Mario Superstar Baseball. A few lively (and living) ballparks play host to games that teeter on the verge of anarchy, thanks to super-powered swings and pitches. The characters display a selective affinity with each other, forming teams that cooperate better or worse depending on whether they're from the same Mario franchise or not.
Mario Super Sluggers adds a few invigorating touches to this mixture, most notably by incorporating player-launchable objects like bouncing fireballs. "Buddy jumps" allow characters to hop atop each other to grab balls that are headed out of the park. And God of War-style twitching settles close plays, with the offense and defense racing to press the designated buttons during tight contests between runner and ball.
Unfortunately, Super Sluggers gets muddled by the Wii's idiosyncratic controller. A single-handed swing of the Wii Remote results in either a pitch, a hit or a miss. That is, unless the Wii Remote is being held horizontally between both hands. Then the Remote-swinging is eliminated in favor of some good old-fashioned button-pushing -- unless the Nunchuk is attached, whereupon the swinging is reinstated with one hand while the other hand and its thumbstick take over for subtleties of timing. It's a trio of control schemes that creates chaos -- unfortunately not the kind on which Mario's sports games thrive.
THE GOOD: With more than 70 Mario characters (some of them just different colored versions), teams can be recruited and tweaked to accommodate any playing style. Even Miis (the Wii's personalizable playing figures) can be brought into the game, though they're given below-average statistics that can't be increased.
THE BAD: The three separate control schemes used in Mario Super Sluggers belie Nintendo's stated goal of simplifying videogame controls. Not one of them achieves a perfect match between real-world action and onscreen effects. The result is a game that offers three faulty ways to play one of the world's most sophisticated games.
THE BOTTOM LINE: A ballpark riot that pits the Mario characters against each other, but with the real contest among Super Sluggers' three different -- and differently flawed -- control schemes.