"Four score and several sports ago"
Mario is a man of a thousand professions. When he's not cleaning pipes as a plumber, he's refereeing a match between Little Mac and King Hippo, and when he's not doing one of his many jobs he takes the time to cut loose and have some fun. Perhaps on the golf course, tennis court, racetrack, or Olympic event. Now the Mushroom Kingdom cast is participating in four sports this go around with Mario Sports Mix. Featuring four unique sports: basketball, volleyball, dodgeball, and hockey, does Mario's mix keep players coming back for more?
When a meteorite falls from the heavens and crashes nearby Peach's Castle, a brigade of Toads investigate. What they uncover is a rainbow-colored crystal just begging to be broken open. The Toads break up the crystal into four pieces-- each with a game ball or puck inside-- one for each of the four sports Mario Sports Mix contains. The Toads then decide to create trophies out of the four differently-colored crystals and have the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom participate in a series of tournaments for each of the sports to see which duo or trio of characters deserves the trophies and the title of champions.
Each sport follows the same basic idea. There are three cups to each sport: Mushroom, Flower, and Star. Each cup lasts three matches each. It's tournament-styled, so the tourney begins with eight characters, weeds off four for the second round, and then it's a one-on-one battle in the final round to see who will be the champion. There's three difficulty modes in Mario Sports Mix, but you'll have to tough it out and be bored playing on Normal difficulty first. The AI is so brain-dead and easy to defeat that you might get the wrong impression about the game. It's not an impossible feat to beat an opponent by at least one-hundred points given the particular sport. Of course, Hard and Expert modes offer more of a challenge. There's no catch-up AI to speak of, but the Expert mode will have you cursing at the screen quite often. Luckily, nothing is unlocked from completing Expert mode (which coincidentally is the SportsMix mode that unlocks after beating the Star Cup in all four sports).
In all sports, collecting coins and items is key. In basketball, volleyball, and hockey, grabbing coins gives you extra points for when you score. Items are used to throw your opposition off-balance, giving you the edge. Dodgeball is a different case. Coins gives your characters' throwing arms more power. More damage is taken off when you have more coins in your possession. Items in this mode are used the same way as in the other three sports.
After you beat a sport completely, you have the option of replaying said sport in hopes of unlocking alternate pathways to gain new locales and characters. In the Star Cup, you can bypass the traditional tournament mode and take a trip via airship to Star Road. It's here where you can unlock all sorts of goodies by participating in matches with bonus stipulations such as your opponents having a huge lead on you, the first goal wins, or items are exceptionally larger than usual. By completing Star Road, you unlock new characters for all four sports. It's important to note that most of the time, you only gain new characters and arenas in the sport you're currently playing in. For instance, that means that you have to unlock a character or arena in all four sports which is, quite frankly, a needless hassle. Oftentimes, Star Road occurs seemingly randomly in the first place, so trying to unlock it is an effort in frustration when sometimes you do get a chance to try the mode out, and sometimes you don't.
Speaking of characters and arenas, there's a multitude to open up and play with or on. There's a total of twelve Mushroom Kingdom members to play with including standbys like Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yoshi, Toad, Donkey Kong, Diddy Kong, Wario, Waluigi, Bowser, and Bowser Jr. Then there's the secret characters that, like Mario Hoops 3-on-3, are comprised of Final Fantasy characters such as the Ninja, White Mage, Black Mage, Moogle, Cactuar, and even Dragon Quest's mascot, the Slime, to play as. On the spectrum of arenas, there's fourteen in total. These range from traditional gimmick-free levels like Mario Stadium to places like Koopa Troopa Beach where the tide comes in, pulling in green shells to use on your opponents, Bowser Jr. Boulevard where you can score multipliers and point bonuses (or have points taken away) for scoring, and Daisy Garden where the premise at least in basketball is to slam or shoot the ball inside Petey Piranha's mouth while it remains open. Each arena is full of eye-candy and things to gawk at. Not every sport can be played in every arena. Waluigi Pinball can house hockey, volleyball, and dodgeball, but not basketball, for instance.
One thing to add before I begin is that any sport can be played 2-on-2 or 3-on-3. In a given cup, you can play with up to two other friends to help you out. Furthermore, players have a choice between the Wii remote and nunchuk or just simply the Wii remote turned sideways by itself. The goal of basketball is simple: earn points by either shooting the ball into the net or slam dunking it. With the ball, players can juke around opponents handily while defense can try to swat the ball away from their competition with the A button. Like NBA Jam, shooting is performed by waving the Wii remote up into the air to jump and then lowering it to shoot. By running up to the net, you can perform a slam dunk this way. The opening tip-off is also handled by waving up the Wii remote to grab the ball as it is tossed into the air. The A button is additionally the designated pass button. Just watch out so you don't pass in the sights of your opponent as they will steal the ball away from you. Unlike the NBA, there are no fouls and no goaltending. Though a shot clock violation is still enforced even in the Mushroom Kingdom. Basketball can become very intense depending on the set rules. There's generally two periods of three minutes each for games in Tournament mode. This happens to be one of my favorite sports as your CPU teammate actually helps out instead of simply standing there like in Mario Hoops 3-on-3 on the Nintendo DS.
Nothing like beach volleyball on Koopa Troopa Beach with Peach or Daisy wearing short-shorts to resonate memories of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, eh? Those thoughts aside (perverts), volleyball is played with two or three teammates working together to knock the ball into the court of the opposing side. The first player serves the ball by waving up the Wii remote and then slamming it downward to strike it over the net. The opposition then volleys the ball to each teammate to set up an opportunity for a player to slam the ball to the other side of the net, hopefully scoring a point or points in the case of having coins. You can move the projected point of impact with the analog stick or d-pad as you set up your shot to attempt to fool your opponents at the very last possible second. If a player hits the ball out of bounds, the opposing team earns that point. Each game in volleyball goes to fifteen points. The winner, best two-out-of-three sets, earns the victory.
Either played on ice, sand, grass, or whatever themed arena floor you're playing on, hockey is a fun sport where the camera shows the rink vertically unlike Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games where the rink was shown in a horizontal fashion. Players can win the face-off by waving the Wii remote. You can also body-check opponents this way as well and fire off shots at the net. Your goalie is usually a Shy Guy (AI-controlled) which can be told to dive for the puck with the hit of a button. Like the NHL, there's plenty of opportunities for fights, one-timers, slapshots (by holding a button and then striking with the Wii remote), and trashtalk. By pressing and keeping down the A button, you can perform a combo move (this is used in every sport, not just hockey) to pass the puck to your teammate to pull off a one-timer. Like basketball, there's two periods of three minutes each. Since the camera focuses on the player you are controlling, it can be maddening trying to find the puck even with the on-screen prompts. Trying to defend your net when the camera is focused on you is even more frustrating. Nonetheless, hockey is still an enjoyable sport that is simple enough to learn and tough enough to master.
Thankfully, Ben Stiller is nowhere to be found in this version. That man is somehow considered funny. I don't get it either. Regardless, dodgeball is the fastest sport in Mario Sports Mix. It takes but five minutes to complete a match if you're really smokin'. You throw by waggling the Wii remote, catch the ball by pressing A and B at the same time, fake out a player by holding the d-pad while waggling, and shake the Wii remote without the ball to dive out of harm's way or to catch a ball. You see, if you're hit, and the ball is caught by you or one of your teammates, you don't lose any health. Every player has a set amount of health. When they get hit so many times, their health dwindles to zero, and they are eliminated. They then get placed on the side of the court. If they hit a player with a thrown shot, they get to come back in, be it with little health remaining. Each team has a Yoshi which stands on the opposing team's sideline. In some cases, one could say dodgeball can be up to a four-on-four affair thanks to Yoshi. Yoshi can be passed to, so the opposing side must quickly turn around or else be smacked in the back by a dodgeball. Overall, dodgeball is a fun sport that much like volleyball is a best-of-three set game.
When a player's gauge is at maximum, by pressing A and B together you can perform a devastating special move. Some trick the player into thinking the puck or ball is going one way but ends up going the other, while others are simply stronger versions of regular shots. Peach shoots out five hearts that daze anyone who gets smacked by one as she fires as hot whereas Mario blasts a fiery shot which usually not even the strongest of characters can block. These special moves are best saved for clutch moments. They can easily turn a game around when defeat seems like the utmost possibility.
As stated, local multiplayer is a definite option in Mario Sports Mix, and that's a blast. However, there's also Nintendo Wi-Fi play as well. You can play random matches where you select a team and an arena to face off in. If both players choose different arenas, then it's chosen randomly. A win boosts something called a Nintendo WFC Skill level. Quitting matches early lowers it severely, so it's better to rough it out and lose than quit prematurely. You can also play with friends, of course, via those darned friend codes Nintendo is so crazy about. Sure, it isn't as big of a hassle as I state, but it is annoying a bit all the same. Online is virtually as smooth as butter with little to no noticeable lag. So if you lack nearby friends, you can always happily and successfully play them from across the country or even the world.
Everything about Mario Sports Mix oozes with a beautiful presentation. While the character models aren't Super Mario Galaxy quality, they are indeed a step-up from the Gamecube which is sad to say after four years and we've finally reached this point. Stages are littered with Mii faces (you can also choose to play as any of your Miis by the way), characters, and sensational set pieces to make things interesting. This is a good-looking game without a doubt. Masayoshi Soken and friend return from the astounding Mario Hoops 3-on-3 soundtrack, and come out shining with this brand-new score for Mario Sports Mix. There's a myriad of memorable melodies that your toes will be tapping to.
Overall, most of the sports in Mario Sports Mix have just enough depth from growing quickly stale. As aforementioned, they're mostly easy to learn and tough to master. Collecting all the characters and arenas in every sport is something that will take quite a while to do, and with the option to check your stats for each sport, stat-lovers will go crazy for this game. The online works really well, the presentation is near-perfect, and Final Fantasy fans will get a kick out of the game's final boss. Yep, you read right. A Mario sports game has a final boss in it. Along with the various themed mini-game (one for each individual sport) like checking opponents off the arena in the hockey-themed mini-game, for starters, there's plenty of content to enjoy in Mario Sports Mix. Yes, grinding for unlockables in each sport is an unnecessary pain, but if you can persevere, there's something for everyone in this marvelous medley of sports.
[SuperPhillip Says: 8.25/10]
Game Release: Mario Sports Mix (US, 02/07/11)