It’s well known that Mario has a wide range of interests — plumbing, princesses, tennis and kart racing to name but a few. His enviable CV is second to none in the gaming world, having won numerous Flower, Mushroom and Star Cups, collecting so many coins along the way that he’s practically a one man economy, with a GDP roughly equivalent to his native Italy. But I truly never thought I’d see the day he donned a skirt and pigtails to join a volleyball team.
OK, I’m lying about the skirt and pigtails. But Mario Sports Mix does indeed feature our dungaree-wearing hero enjoying volleyball, as well as hockey, basketball and dodgeball, with all his familiar friends and foes — Toad, Yoshi, Bowser, Wario, Waluigi et al – along for the competition. It’s made alightly more interesting by the occasional dose of Final Fantasy – having been developed by Squaresoft/Enix, Black Mage, Cactuar, Moogle and other associated characters all appear at various points – a nice, if strange touch – I was certainly surprised when the normally affable Diddy Kong morphed into Ninja and challenged me to a game of roller hockey on a giant flying pirate ship.
So far, so simple – you choose your characters, and either participate in a tournament or an exhibition, with the former sending you through a knockout process whereby you encounter various different arenas to play in, mostly locations made famous in previous Mario titles — Luigi’s Mansion, Bowser’s Castle and my favourite, the Kalimari Desert, making a return from the Mario Kart 64 to once again attempt to run you over with a train.
There are some new destinations as well — Bowser Jr. Boulevard with its LCD screen arena sees multipliers flicker up and deliver you bonus scores with various multipliers of up to ten, or penalties of up (or down!) to -20 if you are particularly unlucky! These courses add a welcome layer of extra complexity to what are essentially very simple game mechanics.
The control system is quite well-judged — the moves and combinations are playable by the most novice gamer, yet still allow some sense of pride when executing a special manoeuvre to outfox your opponent. Things are pretty similar from game to game, and although for younger gamers this may make it easier to transfer their skills from one sport to another, it will frustrate gamers looking for a little more depth. A combination of waving the stick and judicious A and B bashing will see you execute enough moves to defeat any opposition. There is a slight tactical element when playing on the stages where coins and question marks are plentiful, but perhaps not enough to add sufficient longevity.
The single player game doesn’t put up too much of a challenge, and all but the most tragically inept will complete the Cups for each sport on ‘Normal’ difficulty within a few hours — even I found myself beating my hockey opponents with cricket scores. Things improve marginally in the ‘Hard’ difficulty but still overall the game feels unsatisfying in single player mode. The new routes offered upon replaying are mere distractions, and the repetitiveness begins to grind once you realize that, having played through one of the four sports, that the other three are depressingly similar — the pattern the courses appear in is similar if not identical, and the mechanics remain analogous between the different sports.
You might expect a Mario sports game to come into it’s own in the multiplayer arena. There are options to play against each other in exhibitions, or together in tournament mode, which has the effect of making an easy game easier still by eliminating the often frustrating computer teammate and substituting in the second human player. The four bonus games offered are sadly a mere 10 minute diversion, catching balls to play notes on a giant organ or avoiding Bob-omb blasts for as long as possible. If you were expecting two player action of similar quality to that of, say, battle mode on Mario Kart, then forget it. I have to say I was a little disappointed here, and would say that this title is inferior in both single and multiplayer to the Mario & Sonic at the Olympics titles already available for the Wii.
Overall it feels like this game is just too simple and underdeveloped to warrant a full price tag. For kids it may entertain for several days but I imagine most will be bored within a couple of weeks at most, and for adult gamers here there’s little beyond the initial enjoyment of having Bowser and Toad duke it out on the hockey field, or trying to play volleyball as the lumbering hulk of Donkey Kong. Without the familiar characters in place as a hook, this game would probably never have got out the development room. I for one would welcome a reduction in the number of Mario titles that shamefully prey on his ardent fans by milking the franchise like a cow from Moo Moo Farm; regretfully I would have to include this game in that category.