Mario has been around for over twenty five years now and over that long span he’s been (takes a deep breath) a go-karter, golfer, tennis player, footballer, made of paper, host of many many parties, a pinball, competitor with Sonic at the summer Olympics (twice), a baseball player, a baby, an artist, competitor with Sonic at the winter Olympics, a dancer, a basketball player and of course main lead in a bunch of amazing platformers. You’d think the red plumber would be happy with what he has accomplished thus far but not one to call it a day he’s back in not one but four sports.
Mario Sports Mix much like previous sports outings is all about offering simple, fun takes on existing sports while injecting an extra dose of Mario themed madness. The activities in question here are basketball (having already appeared in DS form a couple of years back), volleyball (another sport that appeared as a mini game in a previous Mario Party), ice hockey (again this was an event in Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympics) and finally… dodgeball.
On first glance you may be forgiven for thinking that this is a rather underwhelming and odd list to combine together but after you actually get a feel for each and get some friends over, you begin to see the true Mario multiplayer magic shine once more (even if it is a little uneven.) So how good are these four sports?
Volleyball is perhaps the easiest sport to get to grips with offering quick paced action regardless of skill. Digging, setting up and spiking are all done with a shake of the remote while aiming just before a shot is done via a handy on-screen cross-hair and the analogue. That and feinting shots is pretty much all there is to this and while it’s over simplicity may put some gamers off it can still be a laugh to play with three friends.
Hockey again is very easy to handle with controls being limited to the most basic of moves. Shaking will shoot the puck and tackle players while the A button passes. It feels very arcadey and those of you who have tried the old NHL Hitz games will feel right at home. It may be fairly shallow but when mixed with the chaos of unpredictable stages, weapons and special moves it all blends together to create something that undeniably can sometimes be good fun. Unfortunately this is seriously dampened by the inexcusably idiotic goalkeepers. More often than not you’ll find that the puck may trickle in while your Shy Guy is diving on the floor a mile away! It kills any fun when you find yourself constantly watching your goalie outwitted by the simplest of moves and makes this easily the weak link in this mix.
When I first saw the announcement trailer for Mario Sports Mix, dodgeball was the sport that I was most curious about. I had seen countless basketball and hockey games, not to mention some volleyball ones too, but dodgeball seemed like uncharted territory as far as games go. How would you represent it? How would you make it fun?
As with real dodgeball the idea is to throw a rubber ball at the opposing team eliminating them one by one whilst avoiding getting hit yourself. Here it isn’t just one hit and you’re out though as health bars are given to each character. Controls are nice and simple allowing you to run around with the analogue, jump with the A button, dodge and throw via shaking the remote and catch an incoming throw by pressing the A and B button together just before impact. Square-Enix have not only created an easily accessible game of dodgeball but one that does require a certain amount of skill and timing.
The final game (and perhaps the most technical in terms of controls) is basketball offering a fun, frantic take on the American pastime. Shooting feels pretty satisfying with a quick upward and downward flick of the remote while the A button passes and tackles. Blocking is… yup you guessed it done via shaking the remote. Unlike the previous events here you are able to perform a wider variety of moves such as twists, lay-ups, slam dunks and alley-oops with relative ease. And that’s what makes this sport so much fun to play. It has depth and at the same time allows you to perform slick looking moves at the press of a button. Within minutes my girlfriend and brother were slam dunking their way to victory against me and you know what. I had a blast.
Scoring in each sport is not just a matter of getting the puck in the goal, ball in the basket, ball on the other team’s floor or just hitting them as coins play a big part too. Scattered around the floor you’ll find question mark boxes that either contain coins or weapons (more on these in a minute) These coins add an extra point when you score or extra power when you hit someone in dodgeball so grabbing them is often key to winning.
Of course like every other Mario sports title certain gimmicks have been thrown into the mix to offer a little variety and mayhem. The first addition is the environments themselves. Matches can take place on tropical beaches, river rafts, haunted mansions and more with each offering unique features that can both help and hinder you. These can be green shells being washed ashore on the Koopa Beach stage, ghosts helping you out in Luigi’s Mansion or water fountains shooting in the air and blocking the ball/puck. While in past sports titles I’ve felt the gimmicks have been more of a nuisance than an exciting addition, here they are subtle enough to simply add another layer to the sports rather than dominate the action making things too crazy and hectic. Plus with fourteen courts spread over the four sports you’re bound to find a handful of standout stages.
Then there are the usual assortment of weapons and special moves we’ve come to expect from the plumber. Like Mario Kart items such as red shells, banana peels and mini mushrooms can be used at your advantage. The difference here is that they can be used offensively or defensively. Defensively you’ll simply fire the weapon at your other team momentarily stunning them which is useful in situations where you don’t have the ball. Offensively you transform the ball (if you’re holding it) into the item you’re using making it tougher for the team to predict where the ball will go. Using a red shell for example will send the ball into a huge curve while a mini mushroom will turn anyone it hits small. When to use these items is key to victory and gives each sport a much more tactical feel (even when the gameplay itself may seem slightly shallow at times)
Finally special moves have been given to each character which can be used when a bar at the bottom of your screen is full. These usually make the ball or puck harder to stop/dodge or cause it to move devastatingly fast. Fortunately they aren’t too frequent and don’t dominate the game too much. Sure they are tough to deal with but they aren’t automatic goals/points either.
The character selection is a little disappointing. While you have the usual suspects to pick from other fan favourites like Koopa Troopa, lesser known characters like Boo and others are sorely missing. Instead we get some Final Fantasy characters that don’t feel like they fit in too well at all. A missed opportunity. On the bright side though they look great (even if they animate a little jarringly) with the environments too looking lush and vividly coloured.
In terms of modes there’s a few things to try out. Exhibition is your basic option while single player has its own selection of tournaments to make your way through… although chances are you probably won’t want to. And this where Mario Sports Mix falters most. The single player is incredible boring thanks to a bone idol AI that doesn’t really pick up until the final unlockable expert mode. I kid you not when I say during a game of basketball I’d find myself scoring a good thirty points before walking away from the controller and coming back to the same score for both teams. Even people with no experience of any games would find this a cakewalk. Thankfully online does offer a good experience with lag being of no worry at all. Finally there are four mini games that serve as a small distraction utilizing mechanics from each of the four sports, but nothing really to shout about.
Mario Sports Mix may not be the best game on the Wii but it’s a decent distraction especially when played with others. Avoid this if you’re looking to play alone but if you have some extra money lying somewhere you could do a lot worse should you want a great family friendly party title.