Review: Nicktoons MLB 3D

NicktoonsMLB3D

Grown-up video game big leaguers have their usual baseball simulations to choose from at the start of this young MLB season. It’s either MLB 12: The Show or MLB 2K12. But what about the kiddie boppers looking for some make-believe baseball fun? 2K Play covers that demographic with Nicktoons MLB 3D.

Conceptually, Nicktoons MLB sounds wonderful. Seriously, what kid wouldn’t go bananas for the chance to hit the diamond as their favorite Nickelodeon cartoon characters and team up with stars from all 30 MLB teams? The childhood fantasy of having SpongeBob, Danny Phantom, Ren & Stimpy, Jimmy Neutron and Powdered Toast Man playing on the New York Yankees alongside Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia can finally be realized. Toss in famous arenas like Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium or parks themed after Nicktoons shows like Air Temple Courtyard from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Frosty Freeze Field from Fanboy & Chum Chum, and the fantasy becomes all the more irresistible.

Okay, so I doubt very many kids actually have that dream, but for those who do, this game has all the makings to be a true game of fantasy baseball. With regret, though, I have to warn you that the game falls well short of the dreamy results the developers swung for.

Before picking the game apart, let me first praise what it does well. Modes are plentiful, for one, including quick play, single games, full MLB seasons, tournaments, local versus play between two players, and a Showdown mode pitting Nicktoon favorites against MLB’s finest in an All-Star game for the ages. Collectible trading cards unlocked through achievements enhance the childhood baseball fascination, and three mini-games lighten the mood. There’s the obligatory homerun derby, a Rock ‘N Roll challenge which has you defending three stone walls from rolling boulders by batting balls into them, and an augmented reality game which morphs the question mark AR card into a stack of Frosty Freeze soda cups that you pitch balls at to knock over by aiming the 3DS camera to find the best angle. These side attractions are pretty fun.

All aspects of playing baseball are streamlined and easy to grasp. Pitching is as simple as moving a cursor within the strike zone to set the location, and then holding down the face button for the desired pitch type to fill a power meter. The higher the meter is when you release, the faster and more accurate the pitch will be. Batting is every bit as basic, just step up to the plate and press A for a power swing, B for a contact swing, or Y for a bunt, tilting the Circle Pad to influence ball direction upon contact. A tiny yellow dot often appears to help clue players in on the flight trajectory, too, so identifying pitch location and distinguishing balls from strikes isn’t overly complex. Turbo-charged pitch and swing power-ups also give the game an arcadey pop.

As an older, more experienced player, the game proved way too easy for me. Even on the max difficulty setting, I routinely had to enact my own mercy rule, or else I’d score 10 runs or more every inning. However, the gameplay is suitably simplistic and accessible for the target audience, and that is a crucial achievement.

The broadcasting duo of Perch Perkins, anchorman for the Bikini Bottom News, and GIR, the hyperactive robot assistant from Invader Zim, lay on the Nicktoons charm nice and thick. Perch Perkins doesn’t have a whole lot to say other than “Oh, so close!”, when you swing and miss for a strike, and the same generic sportscaster phrases to announce the score or introduce teams, but he’s the perfect setup man for GIR’s random and often manically hilarious one-liners, which usually have something to do with food. GIR loves to talk about mashed potatoes, tacos, cheese and waffles, and of course he has to poke a little fun at Mr. Perkins, quipping that his head smells like a puppy. Some of GIR’s statements are repeated a lot, but every game I would usually hear one line I hadn’t heard before and even lines that were spoken over and over still provided a comical respite from the poor on-field performance.

My main issue with the game is how exploitable it is. The defensive AI is broken, to the point where virtually every hit can be turned into an inside the park homerun. No matter what difficulty I played on, every hit that made it past the infield was an inevitable run on the scoreboard. When running bases, the AI’s predictable throwing patterns combined with the slow rate of speed at which the ball travels through the air allows you to run towards the next base, turn and wait for the basemen ahead to throw back to the previous base, and then immediately turn around and run to the next base, at which point the fielders are stuck in limbo and the coast is clear to advance safely to the next plate. Simply repeat this same tactic all the way around the bases until you reach home plate. Hits that should be no more than singles become easy homeruns every single time—unless you strike out or hit a pop fly, the AI is completely defenseless.

Pitching also can be exploited to an extent. If you set the cursor to where it’s well outside the strike zone but just grazing the border by a hair, the batter will almost always let it pass by for an easy strike. Strikeouts pile up in no time.

Now, to be fair, I don’t imagine a player within this game’s demographic being able to discover and utilize these exploits so it’s reasonable to excuse them somewhat. But as a reviewer, these are glaring holes that I can’t very well overlook. It’s sloppy design, plain and simple.

A problem I can’t excuse, though, is the game’s horrible frame rate. During many—though not all—games, the frame rate drops to a state of near slow motion, the choppiness causing delays in pitch release, batting animations, and the timing of fielding plays. It’s like the game can’t render more than a few players on the field at once without stuttering. This shouldn’t happen either, because the graphics are an eyesore. The Nicktoons characters are recognizable and full of personality, but the colors are so muted, the textures so flat, and the geometry so blocky and aliased, that much of the Nickelodeon spirit fizzles away as soon as the ball is in play. 3D adds absolutely nothing to the experience either. In fact, when nudging the slider on, I could hardly notice a 3D effect being applied. The screen’s light intensity changes, but the depth of field only seems to shift by like a nanometer.

On brand recognition and novelty alone, Nicktoons MLB 3D may entertain elementary school Tee ballers who just want to bat around as their favorite cartoon pals. But even as a sports game for kids, it is a one-inning flameout that doesn’t even have the stuff to survive in the minor leagues. While the flaws don’t stir up the type of rage Ozzie Guillén’s latest foot-in-mouth incident has incited, Nicktoons MLB on the 3DS is a shoddily made game of baseball deserving of harsher punishment than a mere slap-on-the-wrist 5-game suspension. Last year’s Wii and Kinect versions are worth a shot, but leave this one in the bullpen.

SkipIt

Pros:
+ Nicktoons favorites paired with modern MLB stars is a childhood dream mash-up
+ GIR’s random one-liners are a hoot
+ Good selection of modes
+ Very accessible controls and gameplay

Cons:
– Design imbalances in baserunning and pitching allow for extreme exploitation
– Choppy frame rate hinders ability to time throws and at-bats
– Hideous graphics fail to capture the full Nicktoons personality
– There’s 3D in this game? Damned if I could tell.

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: 2K Play
Developer: Black Lantern Studios
Release Date: 3/6/2012
Genre: Sports – Baseball
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-2 (local VS play)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!