You could say my hat is off to you
Within a handful of years after his debut, Mario exploded into the most popular video game franchise of his time… mostly because he’s responsible for the explosion of the video game industry in general, but it remains an incredible feat. Nintendo recognized that, because it didn’t take long for the company to capitalize upon that success by branching out into supplementary products. Merchandise happened, animated television series happened, video games happened - but, wait, the jumpman was already on video games. How do you make a video game icon “branch out” into video games? Different genres! Experimenting with Mario’s image, Nintendo cranked out plenty of quirky alternative adventures for Mario as early as the NES days’ Dr. Mario. Puzzle games and kart racers remain a firm foundation in Mario’s spinoff lineup, but there’s another subset of that branch which remains a key part of his identity.
Tennis. Golf. Soccer (or Football, if you’re not American). Basketball. Sports. Sports. More and more and more sports. This portly athletic has tried his hand at so many sports it’s honestly shocking he hasn’t tried American Football yet. Maybe Nintendo just doesn’t want to tread too closely to the dudebro demographic? Whatever the case, it’s no secret that if it’s a traditional sport, there’s probably a Mario game that lets you play it. As such, there’s so many entries under this category that it’s impossible to give them all a comprehensive look within a single blog. But there are certain trends and patterns across his sportsball career, so I’ll discuss enough of them to look at those general trends.
Mario’s face has appeared in many a golfing game on the NES, but their Mario branding is relatively downplayed barring the use of the iconic plumber and his closest friends as characters. For the most part, they’re emulating real golf as closely as the hardware can, Mario just happens to be one of the playable characters.
The games most iconic for launching Mario’s career as an athlete into the stratosphere are Mario Golf and Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color, developed by Camelot Software Planning. I’ve not played any of those incarnations, so I can’t touch on anything about them other than that they’re exactly what they sound like; Golf and Tennis with Mario characters, in Mario environments, with Mario twists. While they’re built around solid core mechanics, and are praised a plenty on those merits alone, they pack many alternate modes and arenas to compete within. If you so choose, you can hit balls through floating midair rings or fight with randomized items like banana peels! It’s very much a sports game, but with a spin befitting a fun-loving Italian plumber who fights a fire breathing monster.
Where I got into these games was yet again on the Gamecube, specifically two titles I used to rent a plenty; Mario Power Tennis, and Mario Golf Toadstool Tour, also made by Camelot. Before even starting these games, I saw that there was something special about them - their intro cutscenes.
Even compared to the previous games, these intros have a lot of outlandish antics going on! Little did I know that this would reflect just how much crazier these games got. Toadstool Tour introduced many wackier characters and course gimmicks, such as warp pipes and exploding Bob-Ombs. I was never too into golf back then, so I didn’t get especially into it regardless of it’s quality.
But Power Tennis? Not only was I much more inclined towards it from the start, it was packed full of exponentially more craziness! Gimmick courses full of hazards and shifting terrain! Minigames where you fight giant squids and ghosts! And to top it all off, a new core mechanic; the Power Shots, special techniques that can save you in a pinch or put your opponent into one such pinch. Since Power Shots are built into even normal tennis matches, they guarantee that every match will be more tense than normal, challenging players to balance finding the perfect moment to deal a finishing blow or to save their Power Shot as an emergency button. It’s a dynamic addition to the core tennis gameplay that makes players constantly evaluate the risks and rewards of their Power Shot charge and how they might use it to throw their opponents for a loop. This wrench into standard tennis gameplay marks Power Tennis on the map as a unique competitor in its field. Add in the myriad of zany side attractions I mentioned earlier, and you have a constantly changing game that can entertain young sports fans for hours upon hours!
Around the same time as their Nintendo 64 counterparts, Mario Tennis and Golf were released for the Game Boy Color. Similarly, shortly after their Gamecube cousins, a handful of GBA sports titles came out, Mario Golf: Advance Tour and Mario Tennis: Power Tour. Unfortunately, I’ve no personal experience with any of these, but I wish I had because these are very creative takes on the sports genre. While they are sports games first and foremost, they also feature RPG story modes starring normal people as the protagonists. Not even Mushroom Kingdom people, just moderately cartoonish Earth people. And Mario and company are still involved in the plot, somehow. Yep. I can’t tell you how well they handled these ideas myself, but I can point you towards the strong critical reception that says they totally handled it well. I’m fascinated by the concept of unconventional RPGs based around sports competitions, and I'd love to give these games a shot sometime!
Before either of those sports got another shot in the limelight, we had two more major sports spinoffs - Mario Superstar Baseball and Super Mario Strikers, followed by their sequels, Mario Super Sluggers and Mario Strikers Charged. These two are more of a doozy, but let’s start with baseball. ‘Tis America’s classic favorite pastime, and I have to say, Mario does it justice, thanks to Namco’s help in development. The core gameplay is plenty good, with a sprawling roster of major and minor Mushroom Kingdom faces ranging from Waluigi to Boomerang Bro. Extra kooky game modes help players practice specific skills, such as pitching to break walls for coins or batting for explosive home runs. Literally explosive. They’re Bob-Omb home runs.
Most intriguing are these games’ adventure modes, built around recruiting players into your captain’s team to challenge Bowser in the ultimate baseball battle. It’s pretty simple in both games, although it changes from a repeatable, simple but open-ended campaign in Superstar Baseball to a single, intricate but linear challenge in Super Sluggers. It’s another layer of fun and I enjoyed exploring both takes on the campaign, I’d be down for seeing Nintendo attempt to refine the concept further!
The Strikers games, on the other hand?
This isn't fanart. This is actual promotional art. It’s so shockingly edgy that players who are pushed outside of the soccer field get electrocuted. Yeah.
And it’s so good!
These soccer games were instead developed by Next Level Games, hence the drastic tonal shift. To be fair, it’s not up to Shadow the Hedgehog levels of edge. The organic and saturated environments of the previous games are replaced with a lot of metal and duller colors, but everyone retains over the top personalities with plenty of goofy antics in between plays. Everyone’s aggressive as all heck, but getting struck by actual fire still invokes the standard cartoon response of running in circles with your butt on fire. More importantly, that aggressiveness compliments the gameplay very well. The action is fast paced, complimented by items and the occasional stage hazard.
The big wrench into these games are Super Strikes and Mega Strikes, special shots only team captains can perform. You can pull one off at any time, but they require a long windup that can easily be interrupted, making them extremely risky. But should you pull it off, you can earn multiple goals at once! It’s another interesting twist on the risk vs reward dynamic, this time based around controlling your surroundings and estimating your opponent’s abilities to interrupt you. Furthermore, Strikes Charged lets players build teams from Sidekicks of their choice like Toads and Hammer Bros, and while Sidekicks lack Mega Strikes, they get their own helpful utilities and charged attacks. And don’t get me started on Charged’s wonderful OST taken from about twenty genres of music!
Okay, I had to start myself. This theme always gets me in a good mood. Bottom line, the Strikers games were an extremely unusual and risky endeavor for Mario’s IP, but they resulted in a creative and unique duology that remains a fan favorite, one that people still egg Nintendo to give a third entry.
Then we got Mario and Sonic at the Olymp - wait, what? Do those games count? Well, uh… technically? They’re a joint effort with SEGA and are structured more like Mario Party-esque Olympic minigame collections than fully fleshed out sports, most of which are performed without any interaction against other competitors. They might be rooted in somewhat similar design practices, but in execution, they’re fundamentally different from any other Mario sports game. That doesn’t necessarily make them a less good idea, but if you want my input? I enjoyed the first few Olympic spinoffs for their novelty, but mostly the Dream Events. The normal events just lack the depth or nuance to engage me for long. After a few years of them, my impression of this crossover series is that it’s stagnated so much I’ve stopped giving it my attention. Moving on!
It was only a matter of time until Mario tried his hand at Basketball, but I don’t think anyone expected him to do it on the Nintendo DS for Mario Hoops 3 on 3! My big take away from Hoops is that it’s… weird. As in, weird to control. The only big things I remember about playing it myself is that the music was pretty underwhelming, and that the controls were very unwieldy. They relied on constantly tapping the touch screen to dribble the ball, which led to some creative applications but mostly just resulted in me fumbling around awkwardly. Dribbling and moving with buttons simultaneously felt like patting your head while rubbing your stomach. Even though it had a lot of interesting ideas going for it, like collecting coins to increase your points upon scoring a basket, the control scheme just felt so awkward that I’d rather not play it for long.
Well, that’s the first weird thing. The other weird thing is that there’s 5 unlockable Final Fantasy characters. Did I mention Square Enix worked on Hoops? That’s honestly the biggest reason I felt I had to check it out in the first place. If you think it’s surreal enough that Mario is racing Sonic at the Olympics, you ain’t seen nothing until you see him shoot hoops with a Moogle, a White Mage, and a Ninja.
This wasn’t their last visit to the Mushroom Kingdom, either. A few years later, they came back with their brother-in-law Dragon Quest Slime on the Wii for… Mario Sports Mix? That’s right, this next game is four sports packed into one! I’m sure your first concern is “If there’s only four sports, they can’t be all that polished compared to a normal sports game”, and don’t worry… you’re exactly right! But they do all share certain nuances such as 2 v 2 or 3 v 3 teams, items, coins, court gimmicks, character-specific special shots, and awesome music with delightful saturated visuals. So let’s summarize the four sports really quickly…
Far easier to control than in 3 on 3 with very little cost to how deeply I played. Not very complex, but does what it sets out to do. My second favorite.
My favorite by far, it rewards aggressive play while also offering enough defensive options to keep you on your toes. It’s based off “health” instead of score, but eliminated players can remain active on the sidelines.
Gets samey since you’re usually just rushing to the marker and setting up for spikes with your teammates, but it can be chaotic and unpredictable thanks to specials, items, and a handful of risky defensive options. I enjoyed it, but not for long spurts.
… euhhhhh… you score sometimes I think? To be frank, I never really understood how to properly get pucks past the goalies, I usually just spammed specials and crossed my fingers. Not a fan of this one.
I will confess, I mostly grabbed Sports Mix because I wanted to play dodgeball with a Black Mage, a Slime, and Daisy. I was not let down. To this day, I still insist that the best Black Mage character design in all of Final Fantasy’s history is from Mario Sports Mix. And I’m proud of that statement, since Sports Mix goes the extra mile in affirming every character’s identity in the roster, Mario or Final Fantasy or otherwise. The roster might be relatively small for a Mario sports title, but every character looks and plays distinct. Everyone is emotive and quirky, and they pack various personal abilities that they can apply in every sport! In addition to their special moves sharing similar character-specific traits across each of the 4 sports, some characters have extra tricks up their sleeve, like Yoshi sticking out his tongue, Black Mage casting Fire magic to reach balls, Cactuar breaking the speed cap, or Toad… conjuring a giant mushroom out of the ground to bounce things? That’s a thing Toads can do? Why haven’t they used that before!?
Oh, and the final boss after you finish every sport's tournament is a Behemoth you fight using techniques from all four sports.
Are the individual sports relatively shallow? Yep. But it’s stuffed to the brim with charm of both Mario and zany crossover flavors, and the games are fun despite their simplicity. And you fight a freaking Behemoth. Sports Mix is one of my favorite Mario sports games and I won’t take that back no matter how much I dislike hockey. Which is a lot. I never said I consider it the best Mario sports game.
Alright, my slight detour in Mario’s sports history is over, so let’s get back on track with Mario Tennis Open for the 3DS, released almost a decade after Power Tennis. Camelot returns to develop this one. I was so excited to play this new game. By all indications, it was bringing back most of the core I enjoyed from Power Tennis, but with a few omissions. For one, the wonderfully charming intros and award ceremonies were completely absent; odd, but not really integral to the experience, so I shrugged it off. For two, no more Power Shots. As fun as they were, they were also technically a gimmick, so I understood that as well. Substituting Power Shots were a new mechanic called Chance Shots, which allows players to perform enhanced returns by standing in highlighted areas and hitting prompted buttons. This mechanic piqued my interest… and then quickly sent it crashing down within a few hours of playing.
Chance Shots are my least favorite idea for a tennis game I’ve ever played with. Instead of asking players to quickly make decisions, they automatically highlight an optimal strategy to pursue almost every single time the ball enters your side of the court. It’s reactive, but it doesn’t require players to think about how they’re reacting or prepare for unexpected threats. It’s like playing Simon Says, except Simon only Says one thing at a time, every time. It was hard for me to believe, but I regretted buying a Mario game. The only thing this game had going for it over its peers was the ability to customize a Mii player with various equipment, but that’s far from enough to save the dull gameplay.
And they brought Chance Shots back for Mario Tennis Ultra Smash on the Wii U!? But… why? Nobody liked them, did they? The only big change Ultra Smash brought to the table were some modes with Mega Mushrooms that provide temporary power ups. Sounds neat, except it does next to nothing to change how you play the game or counterplay with your opponent. The powerup just provides a brief buff to your stats, nothing more dynamic, and it spawns periodically in your court. It’s one more thing Simon sometimes Says. For the first time ever, I knowingly skipped out on a Mario sports game. I just didn’t want anything to do with Ultra Smash.
Thankfully, Mario Golf: World Tour for the 3DS one year before Ultra Smash didn’t spurn other players the same way tennis spurned me. I skipped out on it myself due to said spurning and a lack of interest in golf, but looking back on it, if I ever decide to buy a Mario golf game I think this will be the one. It has another story mode like Advance Tour, only based around a customizable Mii character instead. The basic controls, as far as I’ve seen, don’t add anything new. But there are new mechanics and modes to compile upon the traditional wackiness of Mario sports games, such as item boxes and Star Coin collecting challenges. It’s an iteration of the Mario Golf series that adds upon previous foundations without any expense to what was already there. I’d love to take a closer look at it someday!
The latest Mario sports game to be released is Mario Sports Superstars. Yep, another sports compilation, this time by Bandai Namco and Camelot. Unfortunately, this is where my knowledge and experience of Mario sports games peters out, because I’ve not touched this game and I’ve barely looked into it at all. Internet cynicism was getting to me, especially after seeing how bland Ultra Smash was just a little while ago. I didn’t see any reason to assume this game could do 5 sports right if Ultra Smash couldn’t do 1 sport right. Its big issue is that unlike Sports Mix, four of the five sports are borrowed from other Mario games - baseball, soccer, tennis, and golf - but simplified and minus any new innovations from any of them, even stripping away the majority of cartoonish Mario elements (though to be fair, that means they brought tennis back up to par by removing Chance Shots).
The only new sport introduced is horse racing, which I’ve heard is pretty good in this game. But aside from that small slice of horse pie, there’s just not enough of a compelling argument to buy this one game instead of seeking used copies of the other four sports’ games at their best. To iterate what others have said, it’s generally fun, but a lingering “so what?” factor holds it back.
Sports will always remain a cornerstone of the plumber’s repertoire and a key to what makes Mario such a respectable IP, but his track record seems to be showing an unfortunate downward trend. Somewhere along the way, Camelot’s tendency for stylish personality and thrilling, chaotic gameplay has sterilized, and I’ve no idea why. It’s cost their sports games their biggest selling points; Mario charm, and cartoonish fantasy fun. That’s not to say those points are altogether gone, as World Tour remains a favorable recent sports title with plenty of personality under their belt, but that game has already been succeeded by a handful of lackluster follow-ups.
As of right now, I remain skeptical to the future of Mario’s part time job as an athlete. But Nintendo recently took a risk by retreading and revamping old ground from Mario’s explosive debut on the Nintendo 64. A risk named Super Mario Odyssey. I shouldn’t elaborate too much about either 64 or Odyssey before this retrospective gets to them myself, but I will refer to the fact that Odyssey has sold megatons and has been received very well by critics. If Mario’s capable of rejuvenating himself in such a way by returning to and innovating upon what made his jump to 3D so beloved in the first place? I think there’s hope for his sports games to see a similar revival, but we’ll have to wait and see whatever Nintendo has in store next year before we jump to conclusions.
Mario is loved for not just what made him famous, but for everything that he does. That’s why people are upset about his newest sports games being “okay” - because these spinoffs have consistently proven themselves to be much more than “okay” until recent history. I’ll always look back fondly on the thrills Power Tennis and its brothers and sisters gave me, and I hope to see Mario’s inevitable future sports spinoffs achieve the same. With that said, I’m overdue to look at one of the games that made Mario even more famous than he already was! Next month, I’ll take a step back to the past to discuss that aforementioned explosive debut on the Nintendo 64… as well as the version of that game I’m much more familiar with.