Talk about a couple of powerhouses in gaming. Both of these franchises absolutely deserved to have two titles in the tournament, as they have each been incredibly influential for an entire generation of gamers. Mario needs no introduction; he’s been a household name for decades. Backyard Baseball was part of the Humongous Entertainment family, a game developer responsible for widely popular games like Putt-Putt, Spy Fox, and Pajama Sam. You’d be hard-pressed to find a millennial who didn’t play at least one Humongous Entertainment game growing up, and it would be even more difficult to find someone who hadn’t played a Mario title. These games helped shape a generation of baseball fans, so it’s only fitting that they square off here.
Gameplay: Both games go for simplicity in their controls, with Mario Superstar Baseball mostly revolving its mechanics around the A button, and Backyard Baseball 2001 being entirely point-and-click. You can do just about anything in Mario with the A button, including hitting, pitching, changing pitches, charging up your swing, jumping or diving in the field, and throwing the baseball. The only things you need another button to do are advancing or retreating on the bases, or sprinting. I think there’s slightly more nuance in the Mario games, as you can use your charging ability to add power to your swing or behind your pitch, but it does require timing to get it right. If you charge up your swing too early, you’d inevitably hit a pop-up as opposed to launching a fly ball. In Backyard Baseball 2001, all you had to do to hit a home run was choose the power swing, and as long as the character you were using had a good hitting rating, you had a good chance of hitting a home run. Pitching has more nuance as well, as you can curve the ball to your liking, as well as throwing a full-on power pitch, or just charging it up a little bit to get some more power without losing movement. Both games are easy to learn, but Mario is more difficult to master and there’s enough of a skill gap that it’s at least worth mentioning, which is more than I can say for Backyard Baseball 2001.
Replayability: It would be really easy to look at the games’ available features and award this category to Mario. The challenge mode has more of a storyline than Backyard Baseball’s season mode, which is essentially just an organized version of the pickup game. In the challenge mode in Mario, winning games and completing in-game missions allow you to pick up players from the opposing team, giving you a sense of accomplishment beyond just the wins. There’s also mini-games (what’s a Mario title without mini-games) and Toy Field, both of which bring enough differing mechanics and objectives that it feels fresh. However, Backyard Baseball 2001 has the ultimate trump card when it comes to replayability, and that is in roster construction. This game feels endless in terms of the ways you can play the same game just by choosing different players. Every player has distinct strengths and weaknesses, and those play out in every aspect of the game, including fielding. Endless debates have been had about where to play a certain player on the field. Is Pablo Sanchez best in center field, or at shortstop? Is Mikey Thomas a right fielder, a third baseman, or a catcher? Do you put together a lineup of pros, or just backyard kids? Should you pick both of the Webber twins and get their ratings boost, or is it better to get the Khan brothers and their ratings boost? Mario Superstar Baseball should feel this way, too, but the players don’t feel as dramatically unique from each other as the kids in Backyard Baseball do. That makes roster construction feel less exciting, and that’s where Backyard Baseball 2001 really shines.
Graphics: Both of these games deserve a ton of praise for this category. The Mario games always have a crisp, clean design with bright colors, wild character models, and that timeless cartoon look. Backyard Baseball set out to differentiate itself from the baseball games of its era, which were looking to get as photorealistic as they could. The character models for Backyard Baseball are mostly caricatures, but in the best way possible. Pablo Sanchez’s shirt rode up above his pot belly and Marky Dubois didn’t ever wear shoes. Both games set out to be the best version of themselves they could be, and both have clearly achieved that. Personally, I give the edge here to Backyard Baseball 2001 as well, as the distinct and unique animations that every player got is more memorable to me than the Mario animations. I can still picture Dmitri Petrovich jumping as he swung the bat, or the way Pete Wheeler would get up to the plate and face the wrong way, before using his ridiculously long legs to stretch out over to the other batter’s box to get in the right spot.
Sound: This category is similar to the graphics for me, in that each game aimed to be itself and in that both games succeeded. Backyard Baseball 2001 had unique walk-up music for all the Backyard kids, which gave off their own signature vibe. You knew exactly what each kid was about as they walked to the plate. Sunny Day and Vinnie the Gooch remain unmatched in their charm and ability to call a baseball game, and the sounds of the game were authentic as well. Mario Superstar Baseball had the signature Mario music, and also made sure each ballpark had music that represented the characters who called that park home. The only lacking part of the sound for Mario, in my opinion, is in Lakitu the umpire. I just cannot stand him calling balls and strikes, and there’s no variety to it either, so you hear the exact same “STRIKE” call each time. The music, the sounds on the field, and even the players themselves are all fantastic and memorable, however, so don’t let one bad part get you down about this game.
Conclusion: I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure which game I would consider better. Both games bring a lot to the table and really succeeded at giving their target audience a baseball game for them. Humongous Entertainment had been an educational computer game company and set out to make a baseball game that would appeal to that audience. They even made a point of adding in commentary urging kids who enjoyed this game to go ask their local parks about playing little league baseball. Mario Superstar Baseball was a game designed for fans of the franchise, who knew how much fun other Mario sports titles were like Mario Golf and Mario Tennis, and made a game that felt like if Mario Party decided to just be a baseball game. I know which game I’ve put more hours in over my lifetime, and that’s Backyard Baseball 2001, but I’ve also sunk a ton of hours into Mario Superstar Baseball. This one is just too close for me to call.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)