No one who picks up the Wii Remote and Nunchuk for a spin at Mario Sports Mix should expect an accurate simulation of sports, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to form a triumvirate of bad guys and kick those self-righteous plumbers and princesses to the curb. Once you score a few hundred goals/points and toss dozens of bombs and banana peels, though, the game starts to feel a little thin.

Even though this game uses first party IP, it wasn’t actually developed by Nintendo. Square Enix could certainly have presented Mario Sports Mix like similar compilations Wii Sports Resort and Wii Plays without any preamble, but there is a story of sorts that explains exactly how the fictional characters of the Mushroom Kingdom are playing games with sporting equipment invented on Earth. When you fire up a tournament, a short cutscene shows how a meteor fell outside Princess Peach’s Palace. Little mushroom dudes run up to find four jewels inside the crater containing a basketball, a golden hockey puck, a volleyball and a dodgeball (which looks pretty much like a volleyball but hey, who’s counting?). The shallow story doesn’t explain much, and it can be skipped to get to the action.

Each sport plays differently, but I appreciated that details stayed consistent throughout. The characters have different stats: The bigger guys like Donkey Kong are slow but powerful, while small guys like Yoshi or Toad are quick and tricksy. Each character also has a consistent special move like Bowser breathing a massive fireball and Wario chucking a gas bomb. If you opt to use your Mii, your stats are of the “all-around” jack of all trades/master of none variety with no option to change or increase them, which seems like a missed opportunity. Mario Sports Mix might have been a better game if there was a better sense of progression than just unlocking arenas and a few incongruous Final Fantasy characters. Seriously, it feels more like a punishment than a reward to get to play as a Moogle.

As in Mario Kart, hitting a question mark box will give you a random toy like a green shell or a coin. Collecting coins is important in each sport because they are added to your points when you score so if you, say, hit a three-pointer in basketball, and you have two coins, you will actually gain 5 points. If you get hit with a toy like a homing red shell, then you drop your coins. I liked that players were rewarded for having a superior tactics; you want to hit Luigi with a shell to make him drop those 5 coins before he scores a goal. It’s double plus good if you can grab his coins before you score your own goal and inflate your score.

The core mechanic for each sport is to shake the Wii Remote. You use that to shoot the basketball, slap the puck, throw the ball or spike it across the net. I get the fact that Nintendo wants to justify its motion control in all of the games it publishes for the Wii, but my wrist got tired after playing only a short while. You can eschew the Nunchuk-Wii Remote combo and play the game with the Wii Remote turned sideways but I found that just as uncomfortable as the constant shaking. Meh.

The sports themselves are decently fun. I liked basketball the best as the fast-paced action of whizzing shells and huge fireballs seems the best suited to the sport. More than the other sports, picking a well-balanced team in basketball reminded me of the arguments I had on the school bus about what the perfect configuration of players was in Ice Hockey on the NES. Is having 2 fat dudes and one skinny fast guy better or does the well-rounded approach work?

Speaking of hockey, it feels a little mean to body check Daisy and Peach around in their own grassy garden. And how can you play ice hockey in a garden anyway? Good thing Wario and Donkey Kong are actually wearing rollerblades, otherwise the verisimilitude of this game would be completely ruined. The other sports are just as loosely based on their real-world counterparts. Dodgeball uses a strange system of fakes and passes to teammates who are behind your opponents to create challenge, with varying success, and volleyball devolves into whichever team charges up their powerful special moves first winning the point.

The AI seems balanced for a much less-skilled audience than the regular gamer. On normal difficulty, I had several matches where I shut out the opposing team, which is a lot more annoying than you might think considering the animations that play each time you score quickly get monotonous. It was more enjoyable to run down the clock than have to listen to WaLuigi make those weird sounds that pass as speech one more time. As you advance through the tournaments, the AI gets a little tougher but I can’t say that I was seriously challenged at any point. I found myself playing against the environment more than the opposing team, as the various arenas all have their own schtick that you must contend with in order to score. The aforementioned Peach’s Garden for example, has a semi-circle of water fountains blocking the hockey goal that must be turned off before you can shoot the puck through them. Environmental challenges is what the Mario series is all about, but there needs to be more for a player in a competitive game like this.

The lack of a serious challenge in single player might exist because it seems like multiplayer is the focus of Mario Sports Mix. I liked that you can play in nearly every permutation your little toadstool-shaped brain can imagine, with up to 3 players playing co-op against the AI, four players 2 vs. 2 competitive play, or straight up one on one. Mario Sports Mix is definitely more fun with a buddy, and I could see a group of friends creating a rivalry bigger than what Mario and Bowser already have. The problem is, if you have such a group, you’re probably playing more accurate sports simulations like NBA 2K11 and Madden. And unfortunately, there’s just not enough in Mario Sports Mix to pull you away from those games.

Bottom Line: Mario Sports Mix is a good game, especially for a younger audience that might enjoy the cartoony sports action or to play with friends. It’s just not great.

Recommendation: Unless you love Mario in all his incarnations, or miss the halcyon days of Ice Hockey and Double Dribble on the NES, it’s probably not worth the 50 bucks.

[rating=3]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Mario Sports Mix
Genre: Sports
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: February 7, 2011
Platform: Wii
Available from: Amazon

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