From his first venture into Karting through to competing in the Olympics, Mario has been spending plenty of time taking part in activities other than Princess saving. In 2007 (European release) Mario and his mates tried their hands at shooting a few hoops on Nintendo DS in Mario Slam Basketball (aka Mario Hoops 3-on-3 in the US) and now it's available to download for the Wii U Virtual Console.
This being a Nintendo sports game it's not exactly a simulation, but rather a colourful outing filled with special moves, cartoony graphics and - of course - touchscreen controls. There's a decent amount of game modes, including unlockable time trial 'Dribble Race' and 'Tourneys' to compete in for cups. Pleasingly this works well on Wii U, particularly when using a GamePad and TV combo - the controls are thoughtful and soon become second nature after a bit of practice. A warning though for left-handed folk - you'll be relegated to using the GamePad face buttons instead of the analogue stick to control character movement.
Swipes, charges and quick flicks of the stylus enable shooting, passing, slam dunks and dribbling as well as defensive, counter and offensive moves. There's even a handy tutorial to take you through the basics one-by-one as well as advanced moves to get your teeth into once you have the hang of the controls. Dribbling in particular is joyous; by tapping the stylus over and over in different locations you can bounce the ball easily around your character to avoid a steal, or make a nippy change of direction.`
Teams are made up of three players per side selected from the usual bunch of Mario stalwarts, each with their own special move and stats. Interestingly, as well as featuring Mario and his entourage you can unlock various secret characters from developer Square Enix's Final Fantasy series, including everyone's favourites Moogle and Cactuar. As in real life Basketball, points are scored for netting your ball into the basket depending on the distance you take the shot from - however, you also receive bonus points for particular shot types and even more points for the amount of coins you hold when scoring. Coins can be gathered up by dribbling over question-mark spaces that randomly appear during play or by sinking a charged-up slam dunk for bonus coins. Unfortunately coins can also be lost if your character is hit by an item or by a player. As coins are worth 1 point each and you can hold up to 100, it's quite common for games to swing rapidly in favour of one team to another, especially if you hold off from scoring and go on a coin collecting spree.
A defensive player (not in command of the ball) can pick up items instead of coins from the question mark panels on the floor, served randomly ala Mario Kart. These items include delights such as green shells for throwing, exploding bombs and speed boost mushrooms, all of which help turn the tide of a game in your favour and spice up the proceedings.
Additionally there's a good variety of different courts to play on, the list reading very much like a Mario Kart game – Mario Stadium, Koopa Beach, Bowser's Castle, DK Cruiser and so on. Each court comes with its own set of quirks such as DK barrels flattening players, exploding fireballs and even a court that's played entirely underwater. The single player mode takes you through all the stages, separated into tournaments of increasing difficulty and culminating with the Rainbow Tourney.
The biggest downer with the Wii U version is simple; you can't enjoy multiplayer. The original DS version supported multiplayer over DS Wireless Play, but in the Wii U port it's simply not possible. This would be sort of OK if the single player was brilliant, but it seems the AI difficulty can rapidly spike in an upwards curve as you move through the cups. Once this happens, Mario Slam Basketball is brutal and it's easy to become frustrated as the AI ramps up and begins blocking all your slam-dunk attempts and using countermoves consistently. The good news is it's manageable for those willing to put in the time to master the control system, but it will turn off the casual player rapidly. The additional single player modes and time trials won't last long either; the main 'Tourney' mode can be blasted through in a few sittings, so the solo fun is short lived.
Finally, we have to give credit where credit is due - graphically this is a gorgeous looking game, especially when you consider that it's a Nintendo DS title. The graphics are colourful, characters are large and well defined and the framerate is super smooth. There's beautiful presentation throughout and a fantastic, albeit a little samey, soundtrack. It's top-notch stuff and taken in its correct context (i.e. this is a Nintendo DS game) then it's easy to appreciate the effort Square Enix put into matching Nintendo for programming prowess.
Mario Slam Basketball was a great handheld title in its day (especially when played with a friend) but here on Wii U the multiplayer option is sorely missed and brings our final score down. That said, if you're after a fun, colourful and (at times) manic sporting experience with inventive controls and wonderful presentation, this is definitely worth a 'shot'.