With the real MLB season coming to a close, the sport is rapidly approaching its Toy Story moment: when no one is around to see, what happens to all the players? They're recruited by Nickelodeon, apparently, for a simplistic and, despite its best efforts, charming take on America's pastime. Nicktoons MLB falls under the same umbrella as NBA Jam on Wii and to a lesser extent Nintendo sports games like Mario Strikers Charged, putting an exaggerated and playful curve on a sport: here, baseball. The problem is Nicktoons MLB feels too restrained to fully take advantage of its kid-friendly licence.
Nicktoons MLB pulls multiple characters from popular shows across all eras of Nicktoons, ranging from Ren and Stimpy to Invader Zim and Spongebob Squarepants, which should put fuzzy feelings in players both young and old enough to remember being young. All MLB teams are included and the rosters are sufficient to fill each big league team, and you'll for the most part mix and match players from both sides of reality before taking the field. Not all major league stadiums are in, leaving the more iconic ones like Fenway and Wrigley to rub shoulders with six Nicktoons-inspired fields.
Pitting real-world players and cartoon characters against each other isn't a new idea — Space Jam will go down in history as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history, we have no doubt, but Warner Bros. had the sense to keep the Looney Tunes animated and the humans human. Nicktoons MLB instead tries to meet the two in the middle for the sake of artistic cohesion but somehow gets the worst of both worlds — the 'toons look less like 'toons and more like demented, strangely proportioned mascots, and the MLB players are not cartoony enough to fit in the Nicktoons world. On the other hand, you're finally able to answer the age-old debate of whether Derek Jeter or Powdered Toast Man makes the better shortstop.
Game complexity varies depending on your choice of control, with a regular pad playing like any other MLB game and Kinect favouring a streamlined Wii Sports approach of swinging and throwing motions. Kinect performs adequately in both pitching and batting: for the latter you swing like normal, and the former allows you to choose pitches depending on the angle of your arm and its speed when throwing. You sacrifice aiming with the pitching reticule when using motions, leaving it seemingly up to chance where in the strike zone the ball will go, and the offensive side of things is all timing-based regardless of control input. Once you've built up the meter enough by throwing strikes and getting outs, shooting your arms into the air kicks in turbo swings and throws for a little extra oomph — connecting a turbo swing is an automatic home run, and pitches get more intense but aren't sure-strike throws by any means.
Disappointingly, there isn't a whole lot here beyond straight-up baseball. Local two-player games and a home run derby are the only modes to dip into outside of the arcade-like Tournament or pick-up games. Accomplishing tasks earns you Nicktoons baseball cards that come in bronze, silver and gold flavours but they have no effect on gameplay. There are no online modes to speak of and little is done to take advantage of the Nicktoons licence apart from rudimentary use of the characters themselves on the field and as grating commentators, or in the handful of stadiums they inspire. We're not exactly condoning blue shells all up in here, and there is certainly value in an arcade baseball game that plays it pretty straight, but a few alternative modes that let the characters be characters would feel entirely at home.
There's little to do outside of straight-up baseball and the mix of cartoon characters and humans is artistically jarring and weird, but Nicktoons MLB delivers a solid base hit with its quick and easy rendition of hardball. You can argue the merits of the game's "Better with Kinect" sticker but the camera serves its purpose of letting inexperienced players step up to its plate for an enjoyable time. With better use of the Nicktoons licence the game could've been something really special instead of occupying a spot in the middle of the batting order, and with that we are out of baseball puns.