While they’ve never troubled the likes of FIFA or Virtua Tennis for sales or reputation, Nintendo has had a pretty good run with its Mario-branded sports titles. The formula has always been simple; take a popular sport (e.g., Footie or Tennis), throw in the usual suspects (Mario, Bowser, Donkey Kong, etc.), mix things up with power-ups, special attacks and combos and - most of all - make it fun. Nobody could accuse Mario Power Tennis and Mario Strikers Charged of being rooted in the real world, but they’re easy to pick up and play, and a decent laugh when you want something you can play with kids.
With Mario Sports Mix, however, things seem to have gone a bit awry. A compilation, containing Mario-fied versions of Basketball, Ice/Roller Hockey, Volleyball and Dodgeball, it’s entertaining enough in small doses, but there’s a distinct feeling that none of these games could really hold up on their own, and that the weakest elements drag on the package as a whole.
Some of the classic Mario sports magic has carried over. The controls are very easy to pick up, relying on simple D-pad directional control and three buttons if you use the Wii remote on its own, or an intuitive system of flicks if you plug in the Nunchuk controller. Nintendo has produced some nice, quick tutorials, and even young-ish children will get the basics very quickly. Plus, as always, the Nintendo cast works well. We all know that Bowser and Donkey Kong will be slow but powerful, Princess Peach fast but fragile, and Marion and Yoshi will be somewhere in-between, and - as a long-time Nintendo fans - we’d have to admit that we’d rather watch Bowser and Bowser Jnr shoot hoops than most stars of the NBA. The action moves at a decent lick, and it’s relatively easy to rack up high score-lines.
However, there are also some obvious problems. First, the game doesn’t automatically switch between players on the same team. This isn’t an issue if you’re playing two-on-two multiplayer, but if you’re playing as a solo player or one-on-one with AI-controlled team-mates, then the constant need to manually switch is a real annoyance, particularly as the AI is woefully duff. This also leads us on to a second problem; the AI opposition is every bit as bad, making the one-player game a bore unless you’re playing volleyball, where a tougher AI prolongs each match beyond your patience.
More seriously, the Mario-fication of the sports hasn’t worked so well. The power-ups, which mimic old Mario Kart favourites are fine, and the game’s other core idea - collecting coins to add bonus points when you score - adds a little extra strategy. In the basic Mario Stadium stages, where the gameplay is pared back to its essentials, there are some good times to be had. Once you move onto the other stages, however, things go up and down.
Each setting has some gimmick, whether it’s coin-dispensing trains and revolving sections of a wild west hockey stadium or moving rafts for a jungle volleyball court. In the latter case, it adds to the fun, but in the former it’s annoying and disruptive, particularly when some jammy git grabs a ten coin bonus and reverses the scoreline in the last few minutes with one lucky shot.
Other stages, meanwhile, are plain bewildering. We might have fond memories of Luigi’s Mansion, but does it really make a great sports setting, or do the roaming ghosts and on/off lighting throw too many variables into the mix? The more you play, the more you feel Nintendo has put novelty over playability, limiting the long-term appeal.
The games, meanwhile, leave you thinking that this could easily have been called Mario Sports Mixed Bag. Basketball and Hockey are the strongest, delivering simple two on two or three on three thrills for one to four players with little depth, but lots of furious entertainment. Volleyball is a bit tiresome played on your tod, but as a simple multiplayer game that the kids can play with Grandma, it’s not all that bad. Dodgeball, however, is a total waste of space. It doesn’t help that the actual sport is (a) very silly and (b) pretty much unknown in the UK beyond the Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughan movie. However, it’s over-complex, fluke-ridden, tiresome incarnation here makes a bad thing even worse.
Finally, there’s no getting past the fact that the graphics look extremely dated. This is a worsening problem for Wii games, and one that developers can only get around through clever stylisation or serious technical skill. There’s no evidence of either approach here, just the same look and feel we’ve been seeing since the GameCube era. The characters look primitive, and only a handful of stages show the attention to detail that was once a Nintendo hallmark. It’s 2011 now, we know the Wii can be pushed harder, and this kind of thing is no longer good enough.
Mario Sports Mix is not the Italian plumber’s finest hour. The AI and graphics are poor to mediocre, the gameplay isn’t as polished as we’d like, and the sports vary dramatically in terms of quality. At its best it’s a shallow but enjoyable Sunday treat, but no single game is good enough to make up for the weakness of the package as a whole.