Mario Sports Mix
Nintendo is certainly no stranger to tossing their first party characters into a variety of different games genres. Mario and the gang's next foray outside the Mushroom Kingdom is into the sporting arena, specifically dodgeball, basketball, hockey and volleyball. Nintendo's Mario Sports Mix was developed by Square Enix, likely the same team that worked on Mario Hoops 3-on-3 for the Nintendo DS. Conceptually, this sounds like a great game. Use Nintendo's first party characters with a Wii-sports style of game and rack up the sales. Unfortunately, Square Enix forgot to make the game entertaining, thus the release feels much more like a cheap money grab rather than a polished Nintendo first party title.
The biggest problem with the game comes with completely unbalanced A.I. difficulty. It's either designed to be so simple that my cat could score a goal if I strapped my Wii controller to him or designed to be so incredibly hard that you will likely fail within seconds of starting a new game. In games like hockey and basketball, it's almost impossible to score goals at the highest difficulty levels. On any other difficulty level, the game becomes overly long because a plethora of scoring sequences extend game time by 5x. What was a mini-game becomes something more in line with an EA Sports titles, just without all the features. For some inane reason, Square Enix wasn't able to properly balance difficulty and gameplay suffers because of that reason.
The worst of the four games is dodgeball, mostly because the developer loves monotony. You never have to really dodge the incoming ball, just tap a button at the right time to catch it. Once you get that process down, it's just a matter of throwing the ball over and over again until the A.I. is caught with their back turned. Plus you have to hit the players multiple times to get them out of the game. If anything, it's like watching a game of Pong, just with prettier colors, 3D character models and Mario sounds. On the other hand, games like basketball and hockey are much more fast paced and require more teamwork to score goals. Basketball is very similar to the Mario Hoops DS title and just as frustrating. Character movement seems sluggish and it's too slanted towards the defensive end to be entertaining.
Hockey is the most rewarding of the four games, mostly due to the faster pacing and more balanced defensive A.I. Unfortunately, player control is setup strangely when playing with the computer. When the puck slide over to another player, you have to manually switch to that player to gain control. It's a silly setup that hasn't been seen in a hockey game in a decade. The player control should automatically switch over, a nagging problem that causes more puck turnovers on the highest difficulty level. The volleyball game doesn't require much skill to play, just navigation capabilities. You basically move the player to the spot where the ball is coming down and hit a button at the right time to knock it back over the net. It's just as boring at dodgeball most of the time.
Mario Sport Mix does have excellent controls though. There's nothing functionally wrong about them and they are certainly family friendly for those that don't play Wii games very often. It's setup to be familiar to anyone that's played a game like Mario Kart using a tournament structure to progress within the four sports. It's vastly more rewarding to square off against real players and the multiplayer functionality allows you to do that, online and local. Beyond the main games, you will also find a group of four mini-games, most of which are forgettable. They include collection games and location based checkpoint games.
The graphics engine used in Mario Sports Mix is a good one. Character animations, specifically the special moves, are fluid and all work well with the Mario themed characters. The color palette is certainly bright and cheery, just like most first party Nintendo titles. The background environments are relatively low resolution though and the audience could use some work. Everything loads fairly quickly on the Wii and you can jump right into a game quickly.
If you have every played a Mario game, you will be familiar with all the trademarked Mario universe sounds. The sound effects are the main show here with the music taking second fiddle in this game.
Square Enix succeeded in creating another Mario sports title; they just forgot to make it fun. From the perspective of a younger player, they would find the lower difficulties too easy and likely toss the game aside within the first hour of play. For teens and adults, there's nothing in the game that makes you fond of your early Mario days and the gameplay is absolutely dreadful. The sheer lack of balance in the difficulty settings and the poor design of the various sporting events make this a title to avoid completely. Leave this Mario branded title in your local Gamestop to collect a large layer of dust.