Mario is no stranger to the world of sports. He’s played golf, tennis, basketball and soccer (or for the rest of the world, football), as well as competed in various Olympic events in both Beijing and Vancouver. He’s proven time and time again that he’s just as good at scoring goals as saving a princess. Well, now he’s back to show off his athletic skills with Mario Sports Mix, a collection of not one, not two, not even five, but four sports to help show that the man in the blue overalls and red cap still has what it takes to compete. So does Mario Sports Mix make the highlight reel or does this compilation end up losing the big game?
Thos familiar with past Mario sports games will feel right at home with this mix of sports. All the available sports come chock-full with Mario-isms, such as items to either power you up or to attack your opponents, courses with crazy obstacles and challenges, as well as special, character specific moves that can really turn the tide in a match.
Mario Sports Mix features four sports for you to partake in: basketball, dodgeball, volleyball and (my little Canadian heart sings) hockey. Basketball makes its return from Mario Hoops 3-On-3 (also developed by Square-Enix) and plays by and large the same, save for a few new changes. Dodgeball and volleyball are both similar in that all you really have to do is get the ball and return to either an open spot on the course or straight into an opponents’ face. In hockey you play three on three and must simply score more goals than the other team. Every game is divided into a best 2 out of 3 contest (which really makes things drag on). You can also play tournaments to unlock new arenas and characters (including some Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest favourites).
Now, if you’re going to pick up Mario Sports Mix, you absolutely must invest in Nunchuck controllers as the game becomes immensely frustrating to play when the Wii Remote is used on its own, especially during hockey when the game decides to wander into the realm of the unplayable with just a D-pad to control your character. The game also decides to do some odd things with the camera controls. You see, during basketball and hockey the camera will automatically center on the character you are controlling, even if they are not carrying the ball/puck. This is not the case in other sports games (both traditional and ‘Mario’ in nature), which makes for extremely awkward transitions and plays. The game also features a copious amount of ‘waggle’ controls, so much so that at times it seems like the developers mapped everything to remote shakes. Now I realise not every game needs Wii Motion Plus support, but implementing smart motion controls can and has been done before, so to see a first party game rely on cheap third party tricks is very disappointing.
One of the biggest strikes against Mario Sports Mix is that this game cannot, should not, and will not be played in single player. A combination of dunderheaded AI, boring repetitive gameplay, matches that take just too long to finish and a complete lack of the extras (stats, teams, etc) that made the Mario sports games that came before it feel actually like... well, sports. Mario Sports Mix just feels like a bunch of mini-games slapped together to fill a disc.
Like any Mario sports title, the game features an abundance of multiplayer options, because after all, this is a game best enjoyed (ok only enjoyed) with friends. You can choose to either play with up to three friends on the couch or hop onto Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for some online sports action. Now, this is a common complaint about online-enabled Wii, and one that may be kind of moot at this point, but why Nintendo doesn’t support its own Wii Speak or Headbanger headsets for voice chat is beyond me, and also, why are we still using friend codes when third party games like Call Of Duty: Black Ops are allowed to use their own systems for finding friends online?
All these multiplayer options will surely come in handy when you consider that the computer AI is about as intelligent as the posts you can hit in hockey. Oftentimes, even on the harder difficulty settings, your artificial opponenent will constantly make dumb plays, run straight into obstacles or misuse items, turning what could have been an enjoyable day at the court into a mind-numbing exercise in tedium. You know something is wrong when you can beat your opponent at hockey 23-2 on the medium difficulty... on only your second time playing.
The game doesn’t push any boundaries visually, in fact at times you may even be wondering if Mario Sports Mix was at one point destined for the Gamecube and not the Wii. That said, the game does do some impressive things when it comes to the frenetic action and lively backgrounds that always have something (which is fully animated in 3D) going on. It’s just annoying that almost five years into the Wii’s life we’re still getting 1st party games that look like they belong on a prior generation's console.
As you would expect from a Mario sports title, Mario Sports Mix plays things safe when it comes to the music department. Most of the tunes are either remixes of classic tunes from the series or Mario-fied sport anthems. While the music does its job and sets the mood properly for the action, it just doesn’t hold the same weight has some of the other Mario sports titles, like Mario Kart’s playful and bouncy tunes or Striker’s heavy metal inspired beats. The voices are also the standard fare for a Mario sports game, which, while enjoyable and appropriate, do start to wear on after you hear the same voices saying the same catchphrases game in game out.
Value is a tough area to score this game on, mostly because such a large part of the core gameplay relies on having friends to play with. So if you’re home alone on a Saturday night you will want to steer clear of Mario Sports Mix, however once you do get a gang together the game can be - dare I say it - fun. Nintendo, figuring that maybe some of their customers might not have friends on tap also included online play; so you can always find a game if you’re really interested.
The four sports ensure that there is at least some variety, and the mini-games in the Party Mode will, for a while, keep you coming back. However the entire experience just feels way too shallow. The four main sports feel more like mini-games that got stretched out to make this package worth your hard-earned coins. It would have been awesome for Nintendo to have made a fully fledged Mario sports title out of any of these sports (Mario Hockey has been a dream of mine since I was about five years old), instead we get only small glimpses of what could have been.
Mario Sports Mix is a shelf game. What is a shelf game? Well it’s a game that for the most part just sits on your shelf, collecting dust. Sure, it gets brought out at parties, when you and your friends are bored or when your aunt that still thinks the Wii Remote is the best thing ever (we all have one) comes round, but that’s the extent of its life off of the shelf. The rest of the time, it sits there, lonely, neglected and forgotten; the way things should be.