Nintendo has a magic formula when it comes to video games.
Add a few banana skins into go-karting, or give an Italian plumber insane jumping skills and you’ve got an instant classic. This wacky imagination is the source of Nintendo’s irresistible charm - a charm that's just as potent today as it was 30 years ago.
And so, when it came to a Mario themed sports game, you’d expect to see that wonderful imagination giving the likes of football and tennis a fun new twist.
Instead, we somehow ended up with Mario Sports Superstars. That’s because this isn’t a Nintendo game. Sure it has Mario’s face plastered on the cover, but it's developers Bandai Namco and Camelot Studio Planning that helm this title and, disappointingly, they just can’t capture the Nintendo magic that is expected in a Mario title.
Mario Sports Superstars: 5 a side
Mario Sports Superstars is made up five different sports: football, tennis, baseball, golf and horse racing. It’s certainly cost-effective to have all the sports bundled into one game, especially since the likes of Mario Tennis and Mario Golf have previously been sold separately. Unfortunately, it’s not as big a bargain as you might initially think.
The likes of horse racing and baseball, for example, feel more like filler content than main components of the game. After riding around on a horse for a couple of rounds, I already felt that I had experienced everything there was in that particular sport. Collect a few carrots and time your speed boosts and you’ve effectively mastered the art of horsing around.
Fire up tennis, on the other hand, and you’re faced with a steep learning curve and a range of shots to master. After a number of early heavy defeats, I later found myself curving the ball and lobbing Bowser to secure the match point in the championship final.
It’s clear that since Camelot Software Planning has created so many Mario Tennis games, they’ve had plenty of time to perfect the sport and layer it with tactical depth. Their inexperience, though, shows when it comes to the horse riding, which feels like it would be more suited as a minigame in The Legend of Zelda rather than existing independently.
The difference in quality across the five sports is blatant and, since they also vary in difficulty, it’s hard to see who this game is aimed at. Is it for seasoned sports pros who want to test themselves with the challenging tennis, or is it for children who want to have a go at a watered-down football game instead of FIFA?
Mario Sports Superstars: Foul play
Each sport lets you pick from a range of Nintendo characters, from Mario to Yoshi. You’d think a game of football involving an Italian plumber and a green dinosaur would be chock-a-block with crazy action. Apparently not.
This Mario version of football is basically the same as any other. You control 11 players, you pass the ball into the opponent’s box and you score a goal. It really is that basic. There are no crazy items, nor are there any special character abilities other than a few basic traits such as power, speed and skill.
I couldn’t help but think that I’d be better off playing FIFA than this watered-down football game, even if I were a child or a newcomer to the sport. The only wacky feature that Mario Sports Superstars adds into the game of football is the “special shot”: when the ball begins to glow, the player is able to activate a power-up which enables them to strike the ball with such power or finesse that it’s more than likely to end up in the back of the net.
Rather than adding a dose of Nintendo hilarity, though, the addition of this power-up makes the game unbalanced and frustrating. There were a number of occasions when I had scored a well-worked goal, only for my opponent to hit back immediately because the “special shot” had become available right from kick off.
And it isn’t just sour grapes that leads me to say this, as the power-up also worked in my favour on a number of occasions - and it took the fun out of winning. Rather than punching the air with satisfaction after scoring an injury time winner, I usually reacted with a shrug of my shoulders.
Mario Sports Superstars: Level playing field
It’s not just football that suffers from being too realistic. Baseball is as boring to play in Mario Sports Superstars as it is to watch on TV and the golf, while quietly enjoyable, seems to be a little too intricate for younger players.
In fact, there’s generally a jarring juxtaposition of the complexity of some of the sports and the goofy designs of the characters. I didn't expect to be judging wind speed and the cut of the grass when the character swinging the golf club is an oversized ape wearing a tie.
In fact, this doesn’t feel like a Mario game at all. Instead, it seems like the Nintendo characters have been plastered over a painfully average sports game in order to appeal to a wider audience.
Swap out these Nintendo characters for regular people, and you could easily mistake most of these sports games for something you’d find on your smartphone’s app store.
Mario Sports Superstars: Quantity over quality
One thing you can’t accuse Mario Sports Superstars of is lacking content. With each of the five sports you can either play a one-off exhibition match, take part in a tournament or engage in multiplayer.
In exhibition matches, you can select the difficulty, the arena and your opponent's character. It’s the perfect mode if you’re tight for time and just want a quick game against the computer.
The tournament mode sees you competing for a trophy in a series of knockout rounds. Frustratingly, you have to begin at the easiest difficulty and work your way up the ranks before you can face more challenging opponents. That said, if you lose to any of your opponents, you’re given the chance of replaying them immediately rather than being forced to restart the tournament. Even at the highest difficulty, Nintendo still finds a way to hold your hand.
Multiplayer is perhaps the most enjoyable way to experience Mario Sports Superstars, as your opponents’ varying styles of play offer more diversity. You can play with friends locally and online, or you can compete against strangers on the internet. You’ll be paired with someone of a similar ability to you, so hopefully you won’t be the victim of a crushing defeat too often.
Upon completing matches, offline or online, you are rewarded with gold coins which can be spent on virtual cards. These cards provide no benefits other than being added to your collection. Honestly, they just feel like a cheap trick to try and get you to purchase the newly release Amiibo cards, adding no real worth to the game.
Mario Sports Superstars verdict
Frustratingly, Mario Sports Superstars feels like a missed opportunity. I’d love to see Nintendo tackle crazy golf or build upon the Super Mario Strikers series, which strikes the perfect balance between over-the-top mayhem and the competitive nature of football.
Instead, we get a series of sports which just don’t feel all that Nintendo.
You might get five games in one package with Mario Sports Superstars, but the only sports I can recommend playing are tennis and golf. And, since both of those sports are available as individual games for half the price, there’s little point in splashing out for this collection.