In the past, you could always count on a Mario-themed sports game to be excellent. Super Mario Kart set the standard for kart racers while the Nintendo 64 incarnations of Mario Tennis and Mario Golf, as well as their Game Boy Color counterparts, showed that arcade sports titles can successfully marry enjoyment and depth. These last two generations, though, haven't been so kind to Mario sports games. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour on the GameCube and Mario Kart games were still bright spots, but Mario Hoops: 3-on-3 on the Nintendo DS wasn't received so well by critics and fans. It's bewildering, then, that Nintendo asked Square Enix, the developer of Mario Hoops, to once again helm a Mario sports game. Luckily for them, Mario Sports Mix is quite good.
Unlike all of the other Nintendo-published Mario sports games, Mario Sports Mix consists of four different sports instead of just one. Basketball plays out more like NBA Jam instead of the traditional form of the sport. Each basketball game is played in two halves, and you can knock down opponents and goaltend without penalty. By the same token, hockey plays out like NHL Hitz,where fighting and brutal knockdowns are encouraged as much as getting a one-timer down to score as many goals as possible in two halves. Volleyball and dodgeball follow the standard game rules, and both are played until one side wins two rounds.
Of course, Mario and his friends aren't the only components of a true Mario sports game. In every arena, famous question blocks litter the ground, and stepping on them gives you the item power-ups that you've grown to love and loathe. Turtle shells knock down your opponents, invincibility stars make you impervious to attacks, bombs knock out your opponents for a few seconds, and blue mushrooms shrink your enemy down to a minuscule size. If you use some of these power-ups while you have the ball, though, it makes for a somewhat unstoppable combination. For example, using a turtle shell while you have the ball in dodgeball makes for a ball that does damage even if it's caught.
Coins are also a big factor, as they count for extra damage in dodgeball and extra points in the other three sports, changing the tide in a game or solidifying a lead. After time, characters have their own special moves that can be used to inflict damage or hinder the enemy. Finally, every arena has a special gimmick that's designed to enhance the sport. Playing volleyball in Bowser, Jr.'s court, for example, gives you bonus points if you light up the opponent's floor with spikes; Peach's dodgeball court features fountains that can change the divisions between each side.
Mario Sports Mix consists of a few modes per sport. Exhibition mode lets you play two-on-two or three-on-three matches against any Mario characters or Miis of your choosing in any of the unlocked arenas. Party Games mode takes the basic elements of each sport and transforms them into the types of minigames you'd see in a Mario Party title. There's only one minigame for each sport but, like the main sports themselves, each has a set of arenas with different attributes. While the different arenas add some meat to the minigames, don't expect your playtime with the game to be devoted heavily toward these minigames.
Tournament mode is where the bulk of the single-player action lies and, unlike most of the other Mario sports games, this one actually has a story, albeit a thin and peculiar one. On one fateful day, a meteor fell in the Mushroom Kingdom, and upon closer inspection, it was found that the meteor contained four crystals with balls and pucks inside. It was decided that the crystals would be crafted into trophies, and all of the Mario characters would fight for it in three different tournaments consisting of three rounds each.
The unlockables make the Tournament mode worth the time. As expected, going through each cup unlocks new arenas for each of the four sports, and since the arenas each have a unique gimmick, it is worthwhile to try to unlock every arena. This is a Square Enix-developed game, so you'll also get to unlock four more characters from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest universes. While we aren't talking the likes of Cloud and Squall, getting the chance to play as a Moogle or Cactaur is a nice little perk for die-hard fans of those RPG series. Going through the final tournament also gives you the ability to go against one of the big bosses from those RPGs. Finally, each tournament teases different routes, so playing a tournament more than once would be a good idea for completionists who want to unlock everything possible.
The big issue you'll find with Tournament mode and, by proxy Exhibition mode, is that the CPU AI is pretty bad on both teams. On the default difficulty level, it feels like your teammate is just doing enough to prolong the match instead of trying to score. Unless you take direct control of your partners, expect to be the ball (or puck) hog for the rest of the match. On the flip side, opponents rarely want to put up a fight. With the exception of dodgeball, the opponents seem to be holding on to the ball or puck until you forcibly take it away from them. Don't be surprised if you have blowout matches through most of the tournament. Once you increase the difficulty level, though, it becomes unfairly challenging as the opponent AI gets smarter but your partner AI stays the same. The matches don't become unbeatable, but you'll wish that you were playing against humans instead of the CPU.
The other sticking point with Mario Sports Mix has to do with basketball in particular. For some reason, every time there is a change in ball possession, the game pauses slightly before continuing. It's perplexing that it only happens in this sport and not others, but due to the chaotic nature of the sport, the action becomes less enjoyable. Admittedly, the issue shows up more prominently in three-on-three than two-on-two, so those who don't mind the frequent stops will have a better experience with fewer people on the court.
The game supports both a Wii Remote and Nunchuk combination as well as a horizontal Wiimote-only setup. Interestingly enough, the horizontal Wiimote setup requires some motion controls for things like face-offs, fighting in hockey, and fake tosses in dodgeball. For the most part, though, you'll control the action with your standard d-pad and the four primary buttons on the remote. With the Wiimote-Nunchuk setup, you'll employ the C and Z buttons on the Nunchuk instead of the 1 and 2 buttons on the remote. It's a fairly competent setup, but since some of the motions are merely actions that can be replicated with button holds or presses, you'll probably be fine playing this game with the Wiimote only.
Multiplayer has been the real reason to play any of these casual sports games, and the same holds true with Mario Sports Mix. The game handles four players with any combination of control schemes rather well, and because of the AI behavior, all of the games are made infinitely more fun with the unpredictable nature of human players. The multiplayer experience stands out here because it also goes online — a rarity for Wii games. While the experience is limited to a maximum of two consoles, it accommodates two people per console playing online against random opponents or friends via Friend Codes. The online experience is smooth, with very little lag. Every match per sport is ranked, and that can become addicting in a jiffy. Winning gives you rank increases, and losing decreases your rank. Because of this, you'll encounter rage quitters who want to preserve their precious rank, but it also provides some incentive for players to be competitive.
Graphically, the game is a notch below what you'd expect from a Nintendo-published title. The graphics are still high-quality stuff when compared to most other Wii games on the market today. The models animate well, though their mouths fail to move when speaking, and their colors are perfect. The same goes for the arenas, which have nicely animated crowds and bystanders. The particle effects look great, and aside from the stuttering gameplay in basketball, the frame rate is solid. The real issue is with the jaggies. No matter where you turn, every curve and object lacks anti-aliasing, and you'll see jagged lines creeping up all over the screen. At a time when Wii games are starting to smooth out their edges, it's disheartening to see such an abundance of jagged lines.
If there's one thing you could always count on from Square Enix, it would be its experience with sound. The effects are fine, but it's the music that really hits you in a positive way. The fully orchestrated score doesn't feel out of place in the menus, and the switch to typical Mario sports music isn't abrupt, either. What really impresses is the number of classic Mario pieces peppered through the score. Versus menus have hints of the classic Super Mario Bros. theme in both modern and 8-bit varieties, and snippets from other Mario games also make their way in other parts of the soundtrack. Even the "hurry up" sound effect is used when time is running out during a half of hockey or basketball; it's guaranteed to make nostalgic players grin upon hearing it. As for the voices, you'll get the usual samples of Mario characters you've heard countless times before, and there aren't any new phrases here. Oddly enough, your Mii gets a voice sample and even though it's only a small cheer, it's novel to have them utter anything when other games leave them mute.
Like any of the Mario sports games, Mario Sports Mix is best enjoyed with friends. The length of each minigame is good enough to be enjoyable without feeling like it's over too quickly, and the rules are simple enough to pick up and play. The fact that it has online multiplayer at all — let alone stable online code — means that you'll get some mileage out of the game if you crave human competition. However, if your Wii isn't connected online and you don't have many local friends who are interested in the game, the single-player mode won't do much for you. The tournaments are short affairs, and with such an easy default difficulty level, you'll unlock everything in no time.
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