It's that time again. With a new console out, and a 3DS release schedule that's starting to look inevitably bare, it's time for the hastily cobbled together mini-game collections to appear, in a vague effort to convince people the 3DS still has life in it yet. Step up Mario Sports Superstars, a hastily cobbled together mini-game collection that brings with it a lot of the old, and very little of the new.
On paper, Mario Sports Superstars at least sounds pretty good. With five sports on offer - Football, Baseball, Tennis, Golf and Horse Racing - you might at least think that you're getting a heck of a lot of Mario-infused sports for your money, like the Wii's impressive Mario Sports Mix. Unfortunately, the truth here is that each of the mini-games is a lot more bare bones than you might expect, making this surprisingly light on actual gameplay (not to mention fun).
In terms of single player, you're limited to a paltry three cups in each sport's respective 'Tournament' career mode, with each consisting of three rounds. Multiplayer, meanwhile, is equally disappointing, as there's no support for single card download play at all - instead, whether you're playing locally or online, everyone will require their own copy of the game.
It's not so much that Mario Sports Superstars is inherently broken or anything, though - it's just nowhere near as good as any of the Mario sports games that have come before it. The football mode here is a great example. Your team is made up of two star players, such as Mario and Luigi, or Daisy and Peach, with the remaining nine players consisting of a bunch of jobbers from across the Mushroom Kingdom, like Koopas, Toads of different colours, and Shy Guys. Annoyingly, these extra players only really function as extra bodies to pass to, as they're all nigh on useless as taking shots - it's only really the two main characters that can score.
What follows is a pretty bog standard game of footie as you pass, dribble and shoot your way to victory - only one that's a bit clunky, and is hampered by plenty of annoyances along the way. Tackling is pretty much non-existent here, and is mostly instigated by simply running at your opponent and praying you'll be able to come away with the ball without getting accused of a foul. And while most games try to quickly auto-change your current character when you're not in possession, to keep you close to the ball, Mario Sports Superstars is a lot more laid back. In fact, the game's so sluggish at switching your character, it may as well not bother; rely on the game to switch, and you'll spend most of your time running around off the sides of the screen.
As with football, Baseball sees you picking two familiar faces as captains, before filling out the rest of your squad with generics. You'll take it in turns with your opponents to bat and pitch, with each having its own set of special moves - when batting, you can use a Power Swing to bat a ball harder but less accurately, while pitching gives you the option of using a screwball to confuse your opponent. By mixing things up, you should be able to catch the other team out and win - but unfortunately, as we're not American, the rules of baseball are somewhat lost on us, and Mario Sports Superstars doesn't deem it necessary to explain how things work. Add in the fact that there's no prompts/glow as to when you should hit the ball, and that the timing for batting is immensely finicky - you'll have a split second to spot which way the ball's going for the more curved throws, (and then when you do eventually hit it, it'll count as a foul) - and you've got a recipe for our least favourite game in the whole collection.
One issue both Football and Baseball share is that, as your team is effectively made up of two characters plus a load of indentikit fill-ins, only your main guys can use the 'star moves'. Special, high-powered shots, or full-speed bat whacks that are much harder for your opposition to counter, these are designed to make the game a lot easier - but with the moves being locked to a tiny fraction of your team, actually getting to use them can be a bit awkward. Football is arguably the worst for it too, as you seem to spend all your time passing between a trio of generic Toads, waiting for Wario to get into a decent position to unleash his star move and boot it into the goal - by which time the other team have stolen the ball anyway.
Moving onto tennis, if you've ever played Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS, you may notice quite how similar things feel in Mario Sports Superstars. In fact, the tennis mode here has essentially been lifted from Mario Tennis Open, right down to the Touch Screen controls that you can use to perform different moves (which were noticeably absent from Football and Baseball). Using either the buttons, or the aforementioned Touch Screen, you can topspin, drop shot and lob your way to victory over your opponent. Every so often, glowing circles will appear on the court, colour-coded to each of the different types of shot you can do - use the relevant shot while standing in the circle, and you'll unleash a more powerful version of the shot in question, which your opponent will struggle to return, giving you the upper hand. Arguably one of our favourites in the collection, even this mode disappoints in the end though, having no other modes besides a bog-standard tournament to play through.
Another sport lifted wholesale from the corresponding 3DS title, Golf in Mario Sports Superstars follows much the same pattern as every other Mario-themed golf game in existence. After picking your favourite Mushroom Kingdom character, you get to take on a variety of other familiar faces on the fairway across a range of holes. Courses, of which there's only a very small selection lifted from the 'full game' (in this case, the 3DS' Mario Golf: World Tour), have all the usual hazards to contend with - trees, water features and sandy bunkers to name but a few, and you'll need to make use of all the shot types and spins you can to get past them. All in all, its pretty par for the course.
Horse Racing, the fifth and final sport of the collection, is at least something new, and arguably the most complete of the sports on offer. Imagine Mario Kart, but on horse back and with none of the weapons, and you wouldn't be too far off. After picking your Mushroom Kingdom representative, you get to saddle up and gallop your way around a number of tracks, leaping over any hazards you encounter along the way. Your horse has a stamina gauge, which you can use to get a short boost, but using it too much will tire your horse, causing it to slow down. Fortunately, carrot pickups throughout the course will restore a small portion of your bar, letting you make better use of the giddy ups, while star pickups charge up an additional boost meter that gives you a much more substantial boost, sending you tearing past your opponents, and hopefully into the lead.
More interestingly, your horse here is more than just a tool for winning races, and there's actually a virtual pet mode of sorts here, where you can create your own ponies, feed and clean them, and otherwise bond to increase your performance in the races. Taking your pet pony for a little walk will also see you finding various accessories, such as flowery headbands or new saddles, which you can use to customise your noble steed even further - not to mention fancier foodstuffs to feed them with. While nowhere near as deep as something like Nintendogs, its still a nice addition to what is otherwise a bit of a disappointing collection.
With five sports in one, Mario Sports Superstars might win a prize for variety, but it's still painfully obvious that it was a rushed stop gap to fill a hole as the 3DS slowly fizzles out. Perfectly playable but nothing to write home about, it merely exists. Tennis and Golf are stripped-down clones of their respective 3DS games (Mario Tennis Open and Mario World Tour), while Football and Baseball are fairly barebones Mario-isations of the sports. Of all, it's the Horse Racing that stands out as the most "complete" sport in the collection, making it easily the highlight of the bundle. If it had only had Download Play, Mario Sports Superstars could have redeemed itself - but as it stands, it's a bit of a sad, soulless compilation of sports, several of which you can get a better version of anyway.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS