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Mario Sports Mix (Wii) artwork

Mario Sports Mix (Wii) review

"You start fresh in each sport and you have to unlock every character and arena in each event. That means either playing 60 matches within that sport, which takes a lot of time, or it means playing through challenging hidden paths where the difficulty level is ratcheted up to an eventually absurd level that is made entirely too frustrating for most players within the gameís target audience because itís so cheap."

When you sit down to play a Mario sports title, you have the right to expect something special. Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 was one of the most addictive golf games ever released, a clever and well-executed take on golf made memorable by the crew of golfers that included numerous favorite characters from the Mushroom Kingdom. That release was followed by a string of quality tennis, soccer, baseball and track and field games, always with polish and plenty of fun to go around. Now there is Mario Sports Mix, a compilation of four sporting events--basketball, dodgeball, hockey and volleyball--that arrived on Wii last week. Developed by Square-Enix, the new release appears to do all of the same things right that its predecessors did and even throws in what is perhaps the strangest boss battle that youíll ever see in a sports title. Unfortunately, none of that adds up to an especially positive recommendation.

Perhaps things would have been different if Nintendo had continued its previous policy of releasing one sports title at a time. A hockey game featuring the beloved plumber could have, with proper attention and supplemental modes, easily made sense as its own release. The same is true of the basketball mode, and perhaps even volleyball. Dodgeball probably never had a chance of working, except maybe as a DS title. While each of those ideas on its own could been wonderful, though, some of that potential wonder and depth was left behind when the developers decided to combine everything and press it onto a single disc.

From the title screen, you now select the one sport that interests you. Then you get to decide whether to play in a Tournament or in an Exhibition match (or to try your hand at a frustrating mini-game that is best forgotten), and you can select the number of human players and how many members are on each team and such. Character selection is simple enough; just pick from the handful of characters--all familiar folk such as the two plumbers, Toad, Peach, Daisy, Wario, Donkey Kong and the like--and then youíre off to the match. You have your slow characters, your fast but weak ones and the middle ground sort who can manage special moves that are difficult to counter. Itís a nice mix, even before you find out about the unlockable characters.

Square-Enix decided to make things interesting. The character roster from which you can initially choose is supplemented by three Final Fantasy heroes and also Cactuar (the little cactus guy from the same series who fired waves of needles at you whenever you met him in a desert), Moogle and Slime (from the Dragon Quest games). It feels odd to have six new characters from separate and nearly incompatible fandoms going up against Mario and crew (at least Sonic was another platformer veteran), but the gimmick does work and the newcomers boast some powerful stats. Thereís joy in oozing across the dodgeball court, absorbing a toss from an opponent, then firing back with ridiculous power and speed as Slime. Itís fun, as the Ninja character, to disappear in a flurry of leaves and then reappear underneath the volleyball, just in time to knock it back over the net and surprise your opponent. Gaining access to a new character feels greatÖ right up until the moment you realize that you have to unlock that character again if you want to be able to select him or her in another sport.

Mario Sports Mix winds up feeling like a fragmented mess because thereís almost no connection at all between the various sporting events, just a lot of unwelcome repetition. You start fresh in each sport and you have to unlock every character and arena in each event. That means either playing 60 matches within that sport, which takes a lot of time, or it means playing through challenging hidden paths where the difficulty level is ratcheted up to an eventually absurd level that is made entirely too frustrating for most players within the gameís target audience because itís so cheap.

On the default setting, which is the only one available when you first start playing, your opponents produce little in the way of resistance. Youíll likely have trouble with the last few rounds but still win. Then you can access the aforementioned hidden paths and suddenly your opponents become more competent. For example, they then seem to occupy every corner of the volleyball court at once and if you manage a vicious spike that your opponents werenít ready to block (a difficult feat in and of itself), the ball will fly toward the ground and--no joke--an invisible mushroom may well appear and bounce the ball back to your side of the court without you scoring a point. If you lose a match on one of those hidden paths, which is entirely likely since some matches literally require you to prevent your beefed-up opponent from managing a single successful play, you have to either reset your system or save your progress and start over again on the path, perhaps forced to play through five games again to get back to where you were. Thatís not fun.

Because each of the sporting events takes place in the magical Mushroom Kingdom, even the typical event is dressed up a bit and includes certain random elements. Thatís usually a good thing because it means that each of the 12 or so unique courts--which are all recycled in every one of the four sports with only minor alterations--offers a unique new challenge. In volleyball, for instance, you might find yourself playing a round in Peachís Castle and knocking the ball over the net, only to watch it hit sprinkler geysers that send the ball back to your side. In basketball, you might run up and down the court and find various hotspots that multiply the points you receive if you dunk the ball or make a brilliant 3-point shot. In Bowserís Castle, you might have trouble with your hockey match as you slide over a patch of lava just as a fireball flies into the air and knocks you for a loop. Coins shower everywhere. Itís a mess.

Winning in Mario Sports Mix comes down to more than just playing good basketball, dodgeball, hockey or volleyball. Youíll do well to pick up coins so that each point you score is worth more points than normal (or else youíll have trouble staying ahead of your opponents on higher difficulty levels). You have to get good at power plays that allow all team members to work together to set up a combo and you have to master the various special weapons--homing shells, invincibility stars, bombs and the like--that can temporarily stop your opponents from moving so that you have time to sneak past them and slam dunk the ball or knock it into a goal. That sounds like a lot of depth, but it really isnít. Mostly, you can win matches just by scoring a few points and then playing keep away with the ball or puck so that your opponents arenít given a chance to return the favor. Though you have a whole range of options at your disposal, youíll quickly realize that only a few of those options are actually useful and that the game does little to force anything more than token variety when it comes to your offense.

Until youíve played for several hours and had time to realize how repetitive everything ultimately becomes, Mario Sports Mix is enjoyable and occasionally it even feels like an excellent game. Certainly the anticipated personality is present, and the graphics on display range from better than average to absolutely gorgeous. Every character makes the right sounds, the menus are generally polished and easy to navigate and the play control is tight and appropriately simplistic. The problem is that everything on offer wears thin well before it should. The process of unlocking everything begins to feel more like a chore than a game. The AI-controlled characters start to feel cheap, not merely proficient or challenging. When you reach that point in your experience with the game, which could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days of casual play, the game will inevitably find its way to a neglected shelf and stay there until the next time some friends come over in search of a little four-player mayhem. You have a right to expect better from a Mario sports title. Someone fumbled this one.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (December 22, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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