Four is better than one?
Since the N64 days, Mario has had the opportunity of trying his hand at plenty of major sports. Camelot was the first developer widely associated with bringing these ideas to life, and their Mario Golf and Tennis titles gathered quite a lot of attention then. Since, we’ve seen Next Level Games and, finally, even Square Enix take a crack at the subgenre.
Some might argue that these games have begun to lose their charm, and it’s no secret that most of us press-like folks didn’t come away from E3 2010 singing the praises of Mario Sports Mix—it just seems old hat these days. But all prejudgments aside, Square Enix’s second Mario Sports title (the first being the middling Mario Hoops 3-on-3) arrives as a decidedly solid entry for casuals and youngsters alike, neither revolutionary nor tired, and most certainly good for some lighthearted fun.
Four is better than one?
Hard to say why Nintendo decided to feature four different sports in Mario Sports Mix as opposed to taking the usual approach of a single sport per title, but perhaps they figured that none of these sports individually would make for a compelling full-featured package. You’ll find basketball, hockey, dodgeball, and volleyball included (along with four mini-games). As presented, there’s no shortage of content, though some of the depth (such as that of basketball and dodgeball) is not immediately apparent.
All of the included games share commonalities in concept and controls, a design choice which effectively smoothes the learning curves and makes switching between sports easier. That’s not to say that the different games feel the same—only basketball and hockey share any sort of architectural similarity—but rather that the various modifiers that come as part of the Mario Sports treatment are easier to digest thanks to their relative congruence. For instance, all of the games feature coins (which either add to your point total or, in the case of dodgeball, boost your power) as well as items. The different sports also share most of the same arenas, lightly modified to accommodate whichever game is currently taking place in them.
While it’s possible to select a single match in any unlocked arena in Exhibition Mode, the focus is in Tournament Mode, which sends eight teams against each other in a tour de force. This is where you can most quickly unlock the hidden arenas and characters, generally through a series of three matches per cup (and three cups total per sport: Mushroom, Flower, and Star… sorry, no unlockable Special Cup here). However, there are no real options to adjust in Tournament mode beyond simply the number of players, their respective characters, and whether it’ll be 2x2 or 3x3 matches—an omission which ultimately greatly damages this mode’s potential appeal (which we’ll come back to in a moment).
No matter which game you choose to play, as previously mentioned, many of the controls are the same. Each sport can be played with or without the nunchuk, though needless to say, it’s much easier with both controllers. Assuming nunchuk availability, the basics are simple across all sports: Shaking the Wii remote shoots or throws the ball (any shake will do); A generally passes; B attacks with items (holding B while shaking the Wii remote sends out an item along with the ball or puck). Combo attacks can be performed with your teammates by holding the A button and then releasing it at the right time, and special attacks can be initiated once your special meter has filled by pressing A+B.
From there, everything gets specific to the sport. There’s plenty to learn about each sport which makes competition less predictable than you might expect—but much of the depth beyond the basics is optional, simply providing additional ways to fool your human opponents and such. And the depth is commendable: there are ways to fake out the defender, and likewise, ways for the defender to respond in time to cancel the fake-out. You can do this in any of the sports, even if the mechanisms vary slightly accordingly (for instance, in basketball, it’s possible to go up for a dunk and then revert to a layup at the last minute to foil the defender’s efforts). Unless you’ve been playing for a while or decided to resort to the instruction manual (which really isn’t a bad idea, as the in-game tutorials are hardly exhaustive), it’s easy to overlook these little intricacies.
As you might expect from a Mario Sports title, the arenas do their best to shake things up as well. There is a small selection of traditional levels (such as Mario Stadium and Star Ship), but most of the rest of the arenas feature their unique assortment of gimmicks. To list a few:
Koopa Troopa Beach – The tides wash up green turtle shells that you can grab and use as items against your opponents.
DK Dock – The court slides back and forth, sometimes even separating the middle of the court from the goals/sides.
Luigi's Mansion – Ghosts randomly appear which can be used as teammates.
Bowser Castle – The court is suspended by four huge chains from posts, and it rocks back and forth violently during play. Also, Podoboos jump through the floor at random.
One of the coolest of them all is arguably Bowser Jr. Boulevard, which features multiplier icons fading in and out on the LCD-screen floor (yes; you can see the individual colored pixels). These multipliers provide additional points when you score from the spots they occupy (e.g., x3, +20, or even -10). This is by far the most tumultuous of any of the game’s levels, but it’s tons of fun in spite of the chaos.
And again, this is just a small assortment of the available arenas. There are over a dozen available in all, with most (but not all) of them compatible with any of the four included sports. Between sports, the gimmicks and designs adjust to accommodate the game being played (for instance, the obstructive fountain streams in Peach’s Castle courtyard reposition themselves to either play the dividing line in dodgeball or encircle the goals in hockey). It’s a thoughtful design which provides good replay value between each of the featured modes.
These stage gimmicks rarely stand in the way of fun—and, on the contrary, most often enhance it—but if you don’t like a particular one, you can always choose to ignore it in exhibition play with your buddies. Likewise, it’s also possible to opt out of items everywhere but in tournament play… but again, if you’re looking for an authentic sports experience, why are you playing a Mario Sports game?
The puck is a coin. Of course it is!
Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe
So what about the individual sports themselves, then? Each one feels quite a bit different from the rest, and forgiving Volleyball’s overlong match length in Tournament Mode, they’re all a lot of fun. I’d say that basketball and dodgeball are my personal favorites. Basketball has a lot of depth to it once you learn how to switch between layups and dunks effectively, and most of the arenas provide additional complicating factors which make for great multiplayer. Meanwhile, dodgeball is considerably more timing-based, and thanks to the implementation of a life meter as opposed to a one hit kill, matches last for considerably longer and collecting coins provides meaningful throwing power. There’s also plenty of techniques to master, such as diving to catch a ball which ricocheted off your character following a missed catch.
Volleyball’s perhaps the deepest of all the sports, and it sort of has a Wii Sports Tennis feel to it (albeit with less pivotal motion controls and more emphasis on button play). Aiming and blocking spikes is easy, and it’s possible to charge for so-called “Super Spikes” and, as usual, couple them with items for added destruction. Finally, Hockey is fun, but it’s probably the weakest of the four, with fewer differentiating features apart from the nifty ability to control the goalie at a moment’s notice by holding the Z button while your opponent shoots. Oh—and of course, there’s also the four mini-games (as previously mentioned), but as you might have figured, they’re little more than ancillary distractions.
Supporting the solid gameplay is a predictably competent presentation from Square Enix, featuring shiny, 60fps visuals and colorful, cartoony personality throughout. The courts appear organic enough and adjust intelligently to the different sports; for instance, you’ll find basketball goals tethered between the trees of Koopa Troopa Beach or integrated into the chandeliers at Luigi’s Mansion, both of which sway and crash respectively when met with a violent dunk.
Overall, the included sports are worth a try if you’ve got a small crowd to play with. With a little bit of practice, any of them could be a lot of fun in the right setting. In fact, truly the biggest problem of all is if you don’t happen to have multiple humans available to participate. The single-player gameplay is woefully bad, with AI so weak (and unable to be adjusted the first run through) in Tournament Mode that—for instance—you’ll probably run through all three basketball cups (nine games) without having so much as 50 points scored on you, total. It’s bewildering why the developers didn’t provide an option to adjust this from the very start—as it’s not really even worth playing when you eventually decide to deliberately skate around aimlessly with the puck just to waste time until the match ends.
This omission effectively ruins Tournament Mode entirely, as even with a human teammate, you’re still pitted against abysmally bad CPU players in each match. It’s too bad, too, because the tournament map designs are clever, providing optional alternate paths after the first playthrough which lead to special matches with modified rules. It’s also troubling because Tournament Mode represents the entirety of the game’s available campaign/franchise content.
Offering some redemption is the fact that you can also unlock arenas and characters by playing with friends or online, the latter of which I was unable to test (seeing as no one else has the game yet in the States). It seems to be well enough implemented, however, judging by what I saw. Skill matching is present (thankfully), and apart from the asinine and completely pointless Friend Codes which plague all online Nintendo titles, it’s fairly easy to jump into a match. As icing on the cake, it’s possible to play online with two local players, meaning that you and a friend can go up against the world. Sadly, there’s no way for a third local player to participate.