Ahh sport, the great equalizer of the Mushroom Kingdom. Whether you're a red Toad, a blue Toad, or made entirely out of metal, athletes of all kind are welcome to set aside their differences and gather together in the name of friendly competition. From kart racing to hurdle hopping, Mario and company have had plenty of experience with all sorts of activities over the years, and this latest title brings together five different sports as part of a sort-of "greatest hits" compilation. Mario Sports Superstars tries to offer something for everyone by fleshing out each event, and while this is an admirable pursuit for sure, by the time you're all kitted out and ready to hit the playing field things start to feel a touch too familiar.
The sports on offer are Soccer / Football, Baseball, Tennis, Golf, and Horse Racing – with sporting veteran Camelot teaming up with Bandai Namco to share development duties and fine tune each experience. We've seen each of these before in some form or another - though horse racing was previously just a simplified Olympic Equestrian event - with Tennis and Golf in particular having quite a back catalogue already. While having them all in one place is undoubtedly convenient, balancing all of these different sports together leads to the whole package feeling a little charmless, and this is apparent right from the opening menu's clean yet sterile approach to presentation.
There's a very direct style to everything, with a sharp, modern design breaking the game up into its different main events. Without a story mode or career mode to follow, you're free to jump into whatever sport you like, and there's definitely an effort to make each a compelling and accessible experience. Every event features a quick tutorial upon start-up, and a lengthier "how to" guide with some practice sessions to top things off. For the most part the games have been stripped of power-ups, items and special arcade-style modes, focusing instead on a purer kind of gameplay based around a set of straightforward core mechanics. It's extremely easy to jump straight in to any event and give it a try as a result, but again it does leave some distinctly Mario-esque fun out of the equation.
Dealing with each sport in turn, Soccer is one of the more surprising entries and features a full line-up of 11 players on each team. You're able to choose your formation and customize your squad to a certain extent, as well as taking full control of corners, throw-ins and goal kicks. It's a far-cry from Mario Strikers Charged, reigning in the madness for a pretty solid simulation of the real thing, with a decent amount of options to play around with. The only real novelty is the ability to power up the ball over time, allowing for your star captain or sub-captain to perform a special shot at the goal. Bowser knocks out a suitably fiery kick for example, while Peach opts for a more agile leap. There's even an option to turn this extra feature off if you really want to keep things grounded. Just don't think too much about how Boo manages to kick the ball in the first place...
Both Tennis and Golf are well represented in the Mushroom Kingdom by this stage, so it's unfortunately easy to feel quickly underwhelmed by the versions included here when comparing them to past titles. Golf takes place over 4 courses with only 9 holes each, while the interface and animations are ripped straight out of Mario Golf: World Tour. It's a perfectly functional base for a golf sim, but fails to add anything exciting for veterans. Tennis is similarly pared down, featuring only one stadium with slight changes to the court's surface across different championships. You have the option of playing either singles or doubles, but with the absence of any kind of special moves or extra modes it feels even emptier than Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, if that were even possible. There are opportunities to hit powered up lobs and star shots as you play, and that's about it. Both of these classic sports are entirely serviceable here, but never try to rise above that modest standard.
Things take a more positive turn with Horse Racing, which we'd argue is actually the most substantial game mode on offer here, believe it or not. You'll compete in races across 12 different tracks, with a variety of horses to choose from based on their speed, balance, technique and power. After choosing your long-faced companion you'll dive into a frantic chase to the finish line by choosing the right time to gallop ahead and the right time to stick with the pack. The game actually draws a lot of attention to the "herd" mechanic, which rewards horses with faster stamina recharge if they remain close to each other on the track. There are also special star dashes to collect for an extra boost when needed, and alternate routes with obstacles to avoid if you feel up to the added challenge. If we were to pick out a negative then the races can be a bit long-winded and samey after a while, but we were pleasantly surprised by how this mode turned out.
The stable is also a really charming extra mode included as part of Horse Racing. Here, players are allowed to customize and care for their own horse, improving your bond together by feeding and grooming them. You can even go on leisurely walks around open – albeit small – environments to find accessories to beautify your mare and improve their stats further, unlocking new pastures to explore little by little. You can also get a feel for race courses on your own time, by galloping around and scoping out optimal routes while the pressure is off. Brushing and feeding your horse is actually not unlike recent Pokémon games, allowing for you to poke and prod using the touchscreen in between races, and it makes for a welcome respite.
Finally we come to Baseball, which is perhaps the most limited of all the game modes. While you'll initially choose your entire team and get ready for a fierce challenge, all that amounts to is taking control of either the batter or the pitcher and timing a simple press of the 'A' button over and over. You can change your positioning or the type of pitch thrown of course, but these minor options are all you get to control, with the computer handling everything else. You end up watching about as much as you actually play, helplessly ogling your team trying to make it to home base while you cross your fingers. It absolutely shouldn't be this boring to watch a crew of Magikoopas waddle after a baseball, but it really is. Not one you're likely to come back to very often.
Any sport can be played in either a single friendly exhibition or as part of a ranked championship event, which unlocks further courses or stadiums to try out depending on the event. The AI can put up a serious fight in later championships, though we never found ourselves sweating too much during the majority of our sporting careers, and certainly never came up against anything we'd consider unfair. While many familiar faces are here to compete - 16 playable characters initially, with a further two to unlock - not all athletes are created equal. They're all determined by their stats, with talents that vary between sports and have a definite affect on their performance in certain areas. Waluigi is a beast on offense in Soccer, but lacks control in Golf. That, however, can change.
If you use one of the new Mario Sports Series amiibo cards, available to buy in blind multi-packs, that character's star version will be unlocked in-game, boasting better abilities than their standard version. Keep in mind that these are tied into each individual sport, so a star soccer Mario card won't grant you a star tennis Mario, for example. If you don't want to use amiibo cards then you can also upgrade a character to star status by grinding tournaments in a particular sport the old-fashioned way, but there are also superstar characters which go one step beyond even that. Confused yet? These superstar characters can be unlocked by using an amiibo card in the "Road to Superstar" mode, which is an extra mini game that plays out similarly to a classic brick breaker arcade title. Performing well here will serve to upgrade your favourite characters stats even further, totally switching the numbers and helping them excel in even their weakest areas. As amiibo cards are required to unlock this mode we weren't able to try it out for ourselves, but got a bewildering sense of the impact it can have on certain characters and just how much you can tweak their stats.
Aside from amiibo cards, there are also regular collectible cards which can be bought with an in-game currency, but we really can't see any use for them other than just checking boxes off a list. You can fill up your collection and view them, including different rarities or holographic types, but they're pretty dull and are only available in blind packs at random. Even netting a shiny version of a character card doesn't feel exciting, as the artwork is hardly worth a second glance and you don't unlock anything else as a result. It feels as though something more worthwhile could have been added in here, like Smash Bros. style trophies or even different game modes, but that unfortunately isn't the case.
Multiplayer is of course a big draw here, and allows for both local and online play. Up to six players are supported, though this will depend on your chosen sport. Football, Tennis and Golf all allow for four players each, while Baseball only allows two and Horse Racing can support the full six. Everyone will need to have their own 3DS and copy of the game for local play however, as there isn't a download option available. It's still a solid experience nonetheless and there are plenty of ways to tweak your matches to your liking with custom rules.
Heading online is no different, either with friends or strangers from around the globe. Playing with strangers means that you'll be stuck playing random stadiums or courses, which is a bit of a downside, but if you link up with friends through a specific menu then you can change the settings of each event however you choose. Matchmaking is handled by a simple ranking system based off of skill points, which start off at 2000 and either increase or decrease depending on your performance. This will affect who you match with across all events, and you can even blacklist certain players so you never match with them again.
Make no mistake - this is a solid package that delivers on the promise of a one-stop-shop for Mario sporting titles, and we didn't run into a single technical hitch during our time with the game. Each sport controls well - with touchscreen options and clear instructions to help new players get to grips with Golf and some useful indicators to show where to get the best position in Tennis - but there's just something lacking with the overall execution of Sports Superstars.
Our concerns come from a more creative perspective, and a general lack of that playful spark you'd expect from Mario and friends. Events are preceded by bland intros, winning celebrations are dry and predictable, and even the courses themselves have absolutely zero Mushroom Kingdom charm to them. We'd love to have titles like this go the extra mile, and maybe even bring in characters from other Nintendo franchises to freshen things up, because as it stands we'd struggle to get excited about future instalments in this 'Superstars' style.
Mario Sports Superstars straddles that unfortunate line of mediocrity that makes it difficult to actually score. It's certainly not a bad game, as it has plenty of variety and content to offer with a robust multiplayer mode for anyone that wants all their Mario sports in one convenient package, but we'd struggle to call it a good game either. It merely exists; sitting uncomfortably in a space that Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games has been eyeing up for years now.
By offering five games in one it fails to offer a definitive version of anything, and even a pretty decent take on horse racing isn't worth the price of admission unless you're planning on really diving into the other sports as well. As a multiplayer title it could be fun to climb the ranks online, but as a single player experience it's totally functional yet painfully lifeless. It's laid out the groundwork, but Sports Superstars just needs to take a few more risks.