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By: Chris Hodges
The Wii got a lot of grief, and much of it was justified–especially in terms of the complaints coming from longtime gamers who felt Nintendo had abandoned them in favor of the lucrative families and grandmas market. The last time that a Nintendo console could really hang its red-rimmed, M-emblazoned hat on strong third-party support was the SNES, and all Nintendo hardware going forward lived or died legacy-wise by what its respective first-party lineup looked like. To that end, the Wii was definitely one of the biggest disappointments in the history of Nintendo, with several of its biggest franchises–Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, WarioWare, Mario Party, Donkey Kong)–sort of on cruise control. Now, that’s not to say that Nintendo didn’t put some great games on the Wii. In particular, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel remain two of the benchmarks by which 3D Mario games–if not 3D platformers in general–are still judged to this day; Kirby Epic Yarn saw that well-worn franchise do a really unique spin; Metroid Prime 3 proved to be a strong continuation of that franchise and one of the few compelling cases for pre-Plus motion controls. But, overall, Nintendo quickly saw that it didn’t need to put a ton of time, money, or creative resources behind Wii games, and could instead coast on Wii Sports and streamlined entries of its existing brands.
It became apparent to both third-party publishers and Nintendo itself that minigame collections were an easy route to take with Wii games, as it not only offered excuses for motion control but also a way to appeal to the Wii’s selling point of being a machine for families to play fun, simple games together in short bursts. It’s this mindset that likely led to the conception of Mario Sports Mix, a Mario-based sports game that was a collection of four different sports that were a bit more involved than the events of a game like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games but not nearly as fully-featured or as complex as titles like Mario Tennis or Super Mario Strikers (Mario Smash Football to European readers). In a sense, you can’t entirely blame Nintendo for this experiment, as the audience that had largely settled into Wii as their primary console for that generation probably wasn’t going to be interested in a full-priced Mario hockey game and wouldn’t have appreciated the RPG modes that make the better entries in the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis franchises worth putting dozens of hours into.
The inclusion of volleyball and dodgeball on Mario Sports Mix made sense, as those are two sports that would be a pretty tough sell as full-priced games (in the case of the former, especially without resorting to growing Peach’s chest by three cup sizes and putting her in a string bikini while letting players watch her suggestively eat ice cream). But hockey and basketball, the two sports that round out the collection, can both easily be turned into sports games deep and varied enough to warrant their own separate releases, which is the first of the many missteps Mario Sports Mix takes. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with collecting both those sports on one disc–so long as that doesn’t mean severely dumbing them down to the point that they barely play differently from one another, which is exactly what ended up happening here. And, somehow, as different as volleyball and dodgeball are in real life, they also strangely end up playing pretty similarly, making it pretty obvious that all four sports are built on the same basic foundation with just minor alterations to pass them off as different ones.
So, is it all bad with Mario Sports Mix? Definitely not. It’s a Nintendo game, so you know it’s fun to play, is incredibly polished, and is pleasing on the eyes. The sports might feel a bit same-y and a tad underdeveloped, but they are still enjoyable, especially with friends (and especially among families and kids). There’s something to be said for wanting the basic gist of a sport but without all the complexities–the NBA Jam approach–and that’s basically what Mario Sports Mix offers with the four sports it features. It also needs to be mentioned that this was a developmental collaboration with Square Enix, and with that, the roster of classic Mario peeps is complimented by characters from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (though it’s more of the generic white mage variety rather than the Cloud Strife variety, it needs to be noted). It’s definitely not as much of a 50/50 partnership like Fortune Street so charmingly was with the worlds of Mario and Dragon Quest, but it’s still a fun novelty to get a few spoonfuls of Square Enix in a bowl of mostly Mario cereal.
Mario Sports Mix definitely flirts with greatness. With a fun story mode that tied everything together and had players bouncing between the sports in the vein of the most recent Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games entry for Switch, the game could’ve justified itself as being a worthwhile package for solo players as well. It doesn’t have that, but still frustratingly forces players to slog through the matches against the CPU in order to unlock all the characters and courts. And the sports on offer could’ve been so much better with just a tiny bit more depth. Overall, Mario Sports Mix might not be on the same level as the better Mario-based sports titles, but it still wasn’t a bad way to spend a half dozen weekends with friends and/or family back when it was released in 2011. Though, if you didn’t already play it at the time, you probably don’t need to go out of your way to track it down and play it now.