It's no secret that Nintendo's iconic red-wearing plumber has had a number of vocations. From referee to painter to kart racer to hotelier, Mario's been through a lot and shows no sign of actually doing some plumbing. Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at a game where he becomes a pinball.
Super Mario Ball's plot revolves around a new contraption built by an undisclosed entity called a Pinballer, that allows the residents of the Mushroom Kingdom to use devices known as Sky Cannons; Princess Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser after Goombas take control of a Sky Cannon and fire her into the tyrant's lair. It's a fairly standard Mario plot with the necessary context as to why he must navigate in the unusual manner that the game dictates, but we didn't come here for a deep and compelling story, we came here to see Mario flung around a pinball machine crying out in yelps of pain as he strikes the many obstacles in his path.
The aim of the game is to collect Star Keys from different parts of the Mushroom Kingdom in order to enter Bowser's castle and save the Princess; in order to do this, you have objectives that you must fulfil in order to obtain Power Stars. The game is littered with dozens of different areas that you have to navigate using only your paddles, and that's where we hit our first problem. The controls and physics are rather well done, but the speed at which everything happens and the relatively small doors that you need to go through in order to progress are often either too difficult to enter or too easy. Many times you’ll find yourself repeatedly missing a door that was directly in the centre of the area, or worse still unintentionally flying through to another area before you’ve obtained the Power Star you’d worked so hard for.
The difficulty of the game is difficult to pin down – the erratic movement means that you can spend much longer than you think you would trying to get a particular Star when the one you picked up just before was obtained on the first try. This makes it infuriating at times, but infuriating’s good, infuriating gets things done. No matter how quick you are to put down the game in frustration, its whimsy and charm will soon claw you back into it. Some of the challenges become more about determination and principle than fun and enjoyment, but experiences so unforgiving are few and far between. Expect to see some familiar bosses such as Petey Piranha and Big Boo, too, some of which have some really interesting mechanics which really help to spice up the gameplay.
This is strongest in its visuals — the bold, bright colours leap off the screen and make you very aware of the environment you’re in. Although they’re borderline blinding, the colours have been picked very carefully so you’ll never lose sight of Mario against the tables. The sprites themselves are nearly all made up of pre-rendered 3D models in a fashion made famous by the original Donkey Kong Country, and even though it’s a dated method by today’s standards Super Mario Ball looks unashamedly gorgeous. Many of Mario’s familiar foes have returned in some form or another and look better than ever for 2D sprites, and the familiarity doesn’t stop there; most of the sounds are taken directly from other games in Mario’s extensive series such as Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine. Whilst some may argue that this is a lack of originality, recognising the little bleeps and jingles from such stellar games is just another reminder that the game is all about Mario, after all.
This isn’t the longest experience you’ll ever get from a game, with the main boss falling in a little under four hours, but there are enough extra stars to get a couple more hours out of it. There’s also the Time Attack Mode, which pits you against the clock in order to beat a world’s boss in as fast a time as possible. It doesn’t really feel any different to the main Adventure Mode, but it fleshes out the experience a little and allows you to re-fight the bosses, which you can’t do in Adventure Mode once you’ve defeated them.
Super Mario Ball holds its own as an oddball (pun intended) of the Mario spin-off series – a wholly single-player experience with beautiful visuals and an interesting medley of Mario and typical pinball tropes. It’s not without its flaws, and the gameplay may cause some to become more frustrated than perhaps is healthy, but the good experiences with this certainly outweigh the bad. Whilst you won’t get a tremendous number of hours from it, it's a ten year old game that you can download for 20% of its original price, and that makes this off-the-wall title worth a look for anyone looking for a more challenging romp through the Mushroom Kingdom.