Mario Sports Superstars sets an unexpected precedent. Over the years we’ve had various standalone renditions of different sports being played by Mario and his chums with varying degrees of success, yet here we have five such sports – football, tennis, golf, baseball, and horse racing – generously compiled into one package for Nintendo 3DS.
Not just that, but both the golf and tennis portions have been worked on by Camelot Software Planning, the developers behind previous Mario-starring versions of the sports, making this, in theory, the greatest Mario sports package of all time. Sadly it may not be the home run – or goal, point, hole or finishing line – you might be hoping for.
Football – thankfully not soccer – is a fully equipped, 11-a-side affair. You select two star players from the game’s star-studded roster, with the rest of your team being made up of a troop of toads, koopas or other multitudinous characters, with a choice of two goalkeepers at the back.
It sits uncomfortably between the all-out embellished fun of Mario Strikers and a more serious simulation, with some elements like super shots and passes making it through, but otherwise it’s a workmanlike take on the sport. There are various annoyances including a failure to autoselect the nearest character whenever you’re off the ball, indistinct tackling and an overall low level of challenge, but it does just enough to hold your attention. There’s the added bonus of being able to take it and all of the other sports online for multiplayer shenanigans.
Baseball certainly looks the part, and unlike football there’s a bigger array of Mario sidekicks to choose from to flesh out your team. The mode relies on timing for success, both when pitching and hitting. Pitches are chosen from a selection wheel, and once you’ve selected your target your throw is determined by a spinning dial that ask you to stop it in the correct area to throw your best.
It’s actually quite a challenging mode to get right, relying on reactions as much as it does, but I soon found myself getting – forgive me – into the swing of things. Batting tasks you with matching your batting box up with the incoming pitch, but crucially it misses out on the cat and mouse of a real pitcher/batter battle, and it ultimately feels unfocussed and too reliant on luck to be anywhere near essential.
Tennis clearly benefits from Camelot’s involvement, though it’s to all intents and purposes the same as some of their previous Mario Tennis offerings, with similar controls and special shots and abilities. It’s probably the most comprehensive of the five games in terms of feel, but there’s a strange disconnect between you and your character, and the computer AI is mostly a walkover.
One odd piece of lacklustre presentation is the loss of the commentators saying the character’s names. During the tennis matches your character and their opponent are referred to as “server” and “receiver” which jars badly with the rest of proceedings, and is a very odd omission.
The golf offering is also similarly close to what has gone before, albeit with fewer courses and options, and anyone that’s played one of the recent Camelot-developed Mario Golf games will recognise the setup. The touchscreen lays out all of your controls in a welcoming and clear manner, from club selection to the different camera options. After years of analogue control being pushed on us by big franchises, it’s still refreshing to have a golf game that sticks with a simple charge meter for shot power.
As with each of the other sports, you have tournament play, with four cups to work your way through, which in turn unlocks sport specific superstar versions of the character you’ve played as. If you wanted to unlock all of the superstar characters, for all five of the sports, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with Mario Sports Superstars, unless you’re willing to spend some money.
Nintendo’s latest money-spinning creation ties into Sports Superstars with the introduction of 90 bespoke amiibo cards, the use of which will unlock the respective item or superstar character in-game, as well as let you play the Road to Superstars mini-game. While they boast enhanced stats, I really can’t see why anyone would want to drop any extra money on this game, and though I understand Nintendo’s need and desire to boost amiibo and cultivate other revenue streams, this doesn’t seem like a good fit.
There is of course a fifth, outlying sport, in the shape of horse racing. A first for Mario, and indeed for me as a serious gaming undertaking beyond those saddle-equipped arcade games at the seaside, it’s a surprisingly fun little racing mode that favours tactical dashing and jumping over obstacles. The Herd Effect also comes into play, whereby having more horses around you boosts your horse’s stamina, making it a wiser decision to hang back rather than simply going for it. It’s certainly an interesting mode, but I can’t imagine it becoming essential to anyone in the long term.
Navigating in and out of the different sports and through their respective menus is swift and simple, with minimal loading times that mean you can jump into a round of golf before getting embroiled in a football tournament while you’re out and about. Visual presentation is also of a suitably high standard for a Nintendo game, and everything is bright, clear and welcoming. Things don’t fare quite so well on the audio front, with overly repetitive music mixing with some cut-rate voicework that makes some of the characters sound just a little bit off.
Mario Sports Superstars should feel like a generous package, but each of the different sports feel lightweight or stripped back, and ultimately a touch forgettable, despite the inherent charm of Mario and his friends.