Classic stadiums with jokey billboards is Super Mega Baseball’s new style

Classic stadiums with jokey billboards is Super Mega Baseball’s new style

Metalhead Software published the first screenshots for Super Mega Baseball 3 this week, showcasing classically styled ballparks that are a further degree removed from the indie sports game’s arcade-like roots. They look fabulous. But they don’t like a place that would sell me a foot-wide hot dog.

That bogus stadium billboard (only $39.84!) was my second-favorite gag* from 2014’s Super Mega Baseball, which inaugurated a franchise whose surprise popularity led Metalhead to discreetly back away from such cartoon motifs in 2018’s Super Mega Baseball 2. The zany player names may have remained, but their jut jaws, bubble butts, and Fred Flintstone bats departed. Metalhead understood these things created mistaken impressions: New players thought they were getting into something with wacky power-ups and alternate rules, and some veterans felt they belied or belittled Super Mega’s serious gameplay chops.

“The word we like, to describe it, is quite a polarizing art style, I think,” Scott Drader, Metalhead’s co-founder, told me on Thursday. “People looked at that game and the most common judgment was that it was maybe a game for kids, or not particularly deep in its treatment of baseball. The change in the art direction that we made was, let’s give this game some visuals that sell the baseball sim under the hood a little better.”

Still, Drader reassured me that the foot-wide tone may still be found in Super Mega 3’s environmental assets; the game isn’t dissing its class-clown roots entirely now that it’s a grown-up game worth a third edition, a true anomaly among a genre — indie sports — that is itself an anomaly.

“That stuff isn’t going away,” Drader said. “You’ll find that, in three, there’s still a lot of that there. It’s really been about striking the right balance between where do we want to fall on the realism-versus-lighthearted spectrum.”

With gameplay expected to be a further refinement of systems that I thought were outstanding the first two times, that leaves it to Super Mega Baseball 3’s visuals to do most of the distinguishing. Drader and Metalhead co-founder Christian Zuger published this week’s batch of screens in 4K resolution. Even if that resolution is only for the PC version (all versions will have 60 frames per second, though) with that kind of fidelity available to them, the developers wanted to illustrate a game that put those resources to good use.

“We want the game to look like it’s rendered at triple-A fidelity, honestly,” Drader said. “Improving the graphics is a big part of the condition, but it’s not just [the fields] and the UI, we’ve been trying to step up the presentation across the whole game, as much in the triple-A direction as possible.”

The screens from Tuesday show some fields with a Shibe Park-y, Crosley Field-ish vibe to them, particularly in more varied daylight that tries to fight through haze and overcast skies. There’s also a more modern-looking venue set somewhere in the Rockies, and what looks like an update of the Dominican Republic field (the one with the church belltower) that’s been a part of the series since the first game.

But if you zoom in on the images, you’ll spot all kinds of bizarre advertising for “Error Free Taxes,” and “Murrican Motors,” and “In Da Zone,” maker of “batting cages (and regular cages).” Metalhead’s blending of postcard baseball Americana with Grand Theft Auto-ish riffs reflects a game that draws on the best components of simulation and arcade-style sports games while leaving their rote or trite elements aside.

Thanks to the online multiplayer that Super Mega Baseball 2 delivered, and the cross-platform play that followed, the developers have a strong idea that this should work with a sizable audience.

In fact, cross-platform play, which was only recently fully implemented across all consoles in Super Mega Baseball 2’s Pennant Race, which is its online ranked competitive mode. But with that capability available out of the box for Super Mega 3, Zuger isn’t worried about the community for one version of the game suffering simply because there are fewer people on that platform interested in online multiplayer.

Put another way, Super Mega Baseball and its sequel’s solid reviews may have gotten new users in the door, but online cross-platform play is a big part of the game’s stability across all devices. “Keeping a multiplayer game like this going requires a minimum number of users to be active at any given time; if there aren’t enough users, then it kind of dies out,” Zuger said. “Especially when launching on a new platform, the users kind of come on gradually, but they can immediately start playing against a much larger user base that’s already out there. … Like, this community can sustain itself, and also it’s really grateful.”

Super Mega Baseball 3 launches in April (no specific date yet) and, since Drader, Zuger, and I spoke on Thursday, Major League Baseball announced that it would suspend its opening day by two weeks. So, on the bright side, Drader and Zuger’s game gets the benefit of being the only kind of baseball that fans have on their TV for a little while, without any of its features reflecting a season jeopardized by widespread shutdowns.

MLB The Show 20 will be out, too (it launched to pre-order buyers on Friday), but Drader and Zuger are confident that they have a game that, on its third iteration, is understood as something completely different, and whose value is beyond simply being the best-quality baseball game on the Xbox One or Nintendo Switch.

“We have evidence that there are people who are willing to play both types of games, or even if they have access to a core simulation, there’s still an audience for something that’s an easier experience to dive into,” Drader said. “At the same time, we’ve never launched right at the beginning of the baseball season. It’s a bit of a new adventure for us.”

*—My first-favorite gag was the “horse hormones” attribute buff.

Roster File is Polygon’s news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.