RUSTY’S REAL DEAL BASEBALL: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Nintendo recently stepped up to the plate in the free-to-play space with the 3DS title, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball, and it’s an exciting title as much for its gameplay as for innovative take on game monetization. It’s also great fodder for baseball-themed puns, so consider yourself duly warned.

Before we get started, though, let’s focus on that title for a second because it represents one of many intriguing risks that this downloadable-only affair embodies for Nintendo’s flagship free-to-play experiment. Who is Rusty and why do we care? What’s with the vaguely cheesy “Real Deal”? And why settle on a sports-themed game?

It turns out that each part of the game’s title perfectly represents an important aspect of this experience, but it certainly isn’t apparent at first glance. Many eShoppers could easily pass by this game based on the title without understanding what they’re missing.

And that’s why it will be so interesting if Nintendo ever decides to share any telemetry on the game’s sales performance. Like many of Nintendo’s ventures the past few years, Rusty’s is difficult to encapsulate in an elevator pitch and is best experienced, not described.

Still, I’ll take a swing at it! …sorry.

 Hmm, the name of that game company sure seems familiar...

Hmm, the name of that game company sure seems familiar...

WHY RUSTY MATTERS

Rusty is a brand new character to us, but he’s an old, washed up baseball star in the game world with a gaggle of puppy children and an estranged wife. What? Yeah, much of this game shows us Nintendo at its quirkiest in a delightfully charming way, and Rusty is the bizarre star of the show.

Many have complained about Nintendo over the past few years for a lack of new characters/series with 2001’s Pikmin often cited as the last “new” franchise. Clearly, those critics have paid very little attention to the 3DS’ eShop exclusives, as titles like Pushmo, Crashmo, Dillon’s Rolling Western, and Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword are all great examples of Nintendo creating new and interesting game scenarios and characters. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is the latest addition to this newer brand of leaner, riskier titles from Nintendo, and it’s arguably one of the most memorable.

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It’s important to note, though, that Rusty is really a more fleshed-out character than a few of the other titles I’ve listed, which all focus on gameplay over story. That’s not to say that Rusty’s is a story-heavy RPG, but Rusty has a fully realized personality that is actually part of the gameplay. The fact that he directly addresses the player throughout the game only serves to strengthen his personality, as you’ll no doubt grow fond of his antics as you go.

GETTING THE REAL DEAL

So what’s the “real deal” here? See, Rusty now runs a modest store to support his family, and he has decided to sell what I’ll call sub-games (think of them as more substantial mini-games, upon which I’ll expand on in the next section). Because this is a free-to-play game, though, he’s selling them for real-world currency.

 Image from nintendo.com

Savvy Nintendo 3DS fans might point out that this is actually Nintendo’s sophomore attempt at using an in-game character to sell additional content in a more personal way than via the typical digital storefront. Last year, the quartet of new StreetPass Mii Plaza games featured a rabbit who could tell you a little about each game and its price. Think of that as merely an appetizer compared to Rusty’s haggling mechanic, which is a full-on gamefication of the sales process.

The “real deal” here is actually a secondary game goal, but it’s certainly the most noteworthy: after you’ve demoed each sub-game, you’re encouraged to haggle with Rusty to reduce the price from the starting value of $4.00. Impatient shoppers can choose to simply buy a sub-game at full price, but haggling with Rusty is engaging and well-written enough to be genuinely amusing.

 Rusty's kids will primarily help you throughout the negotiations, but they have a few tricks up their sleeves, too.

Rusty's kids will primarily help you throughout the negotiations, but they have a few tricks up their sleeves, too.

One of Rusty’s pups will help you navigate the waters of securing the best deal possible with dear old dad, and the “gameplay” in these portions plays out through conversation trees with the occasional opportunity to choose whether or not to give Rusty certain items to improve his mood. The game also throws the occasional plot twist at you to keep these portions interesting, and the game does a good job of conveying a frantic sales negotiation that escalates as you wear Rusty (and the price) down.

 This is the sort of quirky Nintendo weirdness I love to see.

This is the sort of quirky Nintendo weirdness I love to see.

It’s a refreshingly unique (and quite “Nintendo”) approach to the free-to-play genre. Rather than 99 cent micro transactions for more lives or extra time to play, we have Nintendo offering significant gameplay experiences for $4.00 or less (usually less). I’ve never seen a game that is actually designed to help you pay less for its products as a reward for paying attention and engaging with the characters.

 There aren't a lot of places to go in this game: either home (to play games) or to Rusty's shop (to buy games). I think this is Nintendo's secret ideal world.

There aren't a lot of places to go in this game: either home (to play games) or to Rusty's shop (to buy games). I think this is Nintendo's secret ideal world.

But, really, that’s the genius of Rusty’s. Just like the StreetPass feature was a revolutionary way to encourage gamers to bring an extra device with them in the age of the smartphone, this is a completely outside-the-box way to get players excited about microtransactions. When you’ve worn the old dog down to the lowest price possible, it’s almost impossible not to want to choose the “purchase” option. This is salesmanship perfected.

YOUR FAVORITE PASTIME?

This brings us to the final word of the title: “baseball.” You may know that baseball is wildly popular sport in Japan (it doesn’t fare too badly in the US, either, for that matter), so perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that Nintendo would choose it for the game’s theme. The thing, though, is that you’ll never actually be playing a game of baseball.

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Rusty’s is constructed as a series of smaller games for the “Nontendo 4DS,” a fictional, virtual reality game console. Rusty has decided that selling old game “cartridges” for the 4DS is a prime business venture, and he’s determined to sell you the lot of them.

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The first game you’ll experience, Bat & Switch, is a timing-based affair during which you’ll attempt to bat away incoming baseballs, which amounts to hitting the A button at the right moment. In typical Nintendo fashion, these are masterworks in the art of theme and variation with lots of visual humor thrown in for good measure. For example, what initially appears to be a standard pitching machine turns out to be the head of a humanoid pitching machine man wearing a suit. Because why not?

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Other games all take elements of baseball (catching, pitching, even umpiring) to create whimsical gameplay experiences for you to enjoy. The best part is that none of them really require you to be an avid sports fan; these are enjoyable for anyone. What’s more, the depth of concepts presented within each game makes them worth your time and attention. If you’re curious about more of the games, Nintendo has a great microsite dedicated you can check out with video clips and descriptions

 Image from http://rustysrealdealbaseball.nintendo.com/play/

Image from http://rustysrealdealbaseball.nintendo.com/play/

HITTING IT OUT OF THE PARK

It’s hard to say whether this out-of-left-field concept (sorry, again) will pan out for Nintendo, but it’s certainly the kind of innovation I’m glad to see. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball exists on a wholly different plain from games like Candy Crush Saga that are diabolically designed to steal your money or exploit your social network.

Nintendo has shown a lot of respect for the consumer with a free-to-play system that encourages us invest mentally as well as financially in this new franchise. Hopefully the rest of the industry will take notice.