To start with a key point, the actual games in Rusty's Real Deal Baseball are window dressing for Nintendo's rather quirky interpretation of the free-to-play microtransaction craze. A collection of ten baseball-themed minigames start out at $4.00 each, but players are encouraged to haggle with the eponymous middle-aged dog Rusty to get the real-world prices down as much as possible. It's not exactly the future of digital distribution, but Rusty combines this unique retailing approach with surprisingly deep baseball gameplay for an experience that's at least worth a few bucks. How many bucks is up to you.
Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is free to download, but you can't get very far without spending any money. You start out with a free demo of the batting minigame "Bat & Switch," which lets you play its first six small challenges (out of 50). You can unlock one more six-challenge demo after playing for a while, but you'll have to pay for everything else.
The haggling mechanics are easy to understand. When you play the minigames you earn items like donuts and nose hair trimmers that you can use as bartering chips with Rusty to get his prices down. The items are plentiful and easy to obtain, and one of Rusty's children even tells you when you've reached the predetermined lowest possible price for each minigame. Of course, a predetermined lowest price is the downfall of haggling with a computer character, but there's not really any other way Nintendo could've approached this idea unless it actually wanted to give games away for free; the lowest price ranges from $1-2 for each of the minigames. If you were to purchase all ten at full price, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball would add up to $40, but with all the haggling you can get your total for all ten down to $16. Since Rusty and his children are so helpful in this negotiating mechanic, it's hard to imagine many people wouldn't get down to the $16 price point.
Rusty's is kid-friendly, so the haggling mechanic brings up the question of whether this real-life bartering is suited for young children playing the game. Rusty holds your hand all the way through the process and gives you plenty of warnings before you purchase the minigames. As long as there's an adult around to occasionally monitor what's going on, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is well suited for children despite the inviting microtransactions. These price negotiations are a big component of this title, though, and it gets tougher and more complex as you unlock more of the games.
The ten games in Rusty's Real Deal Baseball are based on individual aspects of playing the sport. All of them require only a few buttons to play, and consist of 50 different challenges that can easily be tried and retried with virtually no loading times. There is no multiplayer to speak of, but you can compare scores with friends via StreetPass.
There's a batting cage game that emulates the cathartic "thonk" of your bat hitting ball after ball, a fielding game that simulates the frustration of staring into the sun to catch a fly ball, and a glove-cleaning exercise that replicates the therapeutic action of cleaning a dirty old leather mitt. Even if you're not a sports enthusiast, most American (and Japanese) kids grow up playing at least a little baseball at some point in their childhood, and Rusty's Real Deal evokes those nostalgic feelings. For players outside the small handful of countries where the sport is popular, the nuances of America's Pastime depicted in Rusty's Real Deal may not connect with you; at the time of writing this game hasn't even been confirmed for PAL regions, regardless. In fact, some of the minigames may not even make sense at first if you're unfamiliar with baseball's more obtuse rules and regulations.
Speaking of obtuse rules and regulations, if you're looking to purchase only one or two of the minigames in Rusty's Real Deal Baseball, the clear stand-out is "Make the Call," a game where you play as an umpire (referees in baseball are called umpires, for those of you unfamiliar). You wouldn't think the most fun part of a baseball game is where you're not actually playing the game yourself, but calling balls and strikes with the satisfying "STEERIIIIKE!" yell by the umpire is a remarkably rewarding experience.
Remember when Wii Sports Baseball provided only a small slice of the baseball experience and you wished it had been more meaty? Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is like ten different small slices of the baseball experience. It makes you wonder what it would be like if Nintendo could somehow combine all of these different minigames into a deep, comprehensive multiplayer baseball game.
Strangely, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball features an actual storyline. Rusty Slugger is a former professional baseball player who fell on hard times after his wife left him, so he's opened up a sporting goods store to pay the bills and support his ten children as a single father; shockingly heavy themes of divorce for such an otherwise lighthearted game. Some kids these days perhaps play video games more instead of real-life sports, so Rusty decides to start selling baseball video games made by successful publisher Nontendo for its handheld console, the 4DS. Yes, that's right. Not the Nintendo 3DS, but the Nontendo 4DS. Because 4DS is better than 2 or 3DS, right?
Nontendo is Nintendo's critique the current games industry. Rusty describes Nontendo as a manufacturer of "highly acclaimed baseball software," which can be interpreted as any number of Nintendo's real-life publishing rivals. The technological advancement of the 4DS by simply adding another number to the name of the console can be interpreted as a jab at the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In addition, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball revolves around a twisted version of microtransactions, the modern game industry's hot buzzword. The idea of bartering over prices in the increasingly ubiquitous world of digital distribution is an old-world response to the various price models of services like iTunes, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Nintendo's own eShop.
Rusty acknowledges Nintendo's existence, too. At one point we even see a drawing of Nintendo's real-life Kyoto headquarters. Rusty recalls Nintendo simply as a toy company, perhaps a nod to its reputation as a family-friendly publisher. It's more than that, though. Rusty references the Ultra Machine as part of his backstory, Nintendo's popular real-life baseball toy designed by Metroid creator Gunpei Yokoi back when Nintendo actually was a toy manufacturer in the 1960s. Too bad Rusty doesn't reference Nintendo's other pre-gaming business ventures, such as questionable hotels.
The Ultra Machine becomes the symbol of Rusty's Real Deal Baseball. While it sports a clean, Wii Sports-esque art style and a pleasantly unremarkable soundtrack with hints of baseball stadium organ music, almost all the minigames in Rusty's Real Deal Baseball feature bizarre men and women in business suits and Ultra Machines for heads. They're the ones who toss the baseballs for you to hit and hit the baseballs for you to catch. Mr. Ultra Machine (and Ms. Ultra Machine!) remind us of Pyramid Head from the Silent Hill series: they never say a word, but they're omnipresent and haunt your dreams.
As you may have gathered from these peculiar references, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball features Nintendo's trademark humour and charm. Rusty himself, however, is not a very likeable balding middle-aged dog. We already know he was altered from his original form in the Japanese release, but we do wonder whether this title could have captured more attention by picking up popular existing characters — some of which are underused elsewhere. With the cute, witty style and the haggling with a shady animal shopkeeper premise, why wasn't this Tom Nook's Real Deal Baseball? Or Crazy Redd's Real Deal Baseball? It's a perfect fit for the Animal Crossing universe, and it would've likely led to more sales for Nintendo with the huge AC fan base. Another option would have been Wario's Real Deal Baseball, since the creepy Ultra Machine Heads would fit the WarioWare aesthetic. Rusty's fine, but didn't strike us as a memorable character to be seen a lot more in the future.
If you hail from a part of the world where baseball is a foreign concept, Rusty's Real Deal may not be for you. If you have even a passing knowledge of the sport, however, this takes the simple fun of Wii Sports Baseball to the next level and captures the spirit of playing outside with your friends as a kid. The haggling system isn't perfect, but it's unique and approachable enough that Nintendo deserves credit for trying something so adventurous. The amount of content accessible without spending any money is unfortunately limited, but it's easy enough to haggle Rusty down to a buck or two for each of his titles. At the very least, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball is worth downloading. You can decide for yourself how much money you want to spend on it.