Launching with Wii Sports was, in hindsight, one of Nintendo's best ideas: the pack-in's elegant simplicity helped skyrocket the fledgling Wii right up into the stratosphere. Families rallied around Tennis, grannies couldn't get enough Bowling, that annoying uncle hogged Golf, mass hysteria yadda yadda.
So no surprise then that minigame sports compilations flooded shelves throughout the console's life, and its successor, Wii U, couldn't even make it one day on the market without one of these discs trying to chase that Wii Sports fever.
Now, granted, it's not really fair to lump ESPN Sports Connection in with all that other junk — not that it's magical and amazing, but because by virtue of the GamePad it offers new experiences impossible elsewhere. However, with little excitement or daring baked in, the result is a toothless clump of utterly expected minis that is totally deserving of membership in that club of crap.
On offer are a handful of reasonably competent variations on tennis, baseball, football, soccer, go-karting and golf, making use of either the GamePad, Wii Remote Plus or both. So competent, in fact, as to be all too predictable: the twists on motion gaming staples offered here by the GamePad are by and large what one might dream up given 10 minutes thought. Go ahead, give it a crack — you probably just replicated Sports Connection's design document without even trying.
These GamePad twists may sound cool in your head, but just aren't compelling enough to draw someone in for any length of time. We're talking motion-controlled racing, motion-controlled golf, bog-standard motion tennis, that ilk.
Soccer, for instance, let's you play either a regular match that feels like a bastardized and chuggish FIFA clone — where players seem more interested in muppeting around than responding to your commands — or a more interesting penalty shoot-out. Here, two players alternate between drawing a line on the GamePad to shoot and flicking the Remote to pick a direction to tend goal. Novel and unique in a sense, but utterly expected and somewhat pointless — no matter how squiggly your shot line is, the goalie jumps either left, right or stands tall to block it, amounting more to a game of paper-rock-scissors than anything. Tennis' alternate mode fares a little better, with the GamePad player blasting balls through rings that the Remote-wielder must swat back into designated areas — an activity that is fun until it isn't.
Games that don't require use of a Remote can be played right on the GamePad, but the majority of games require an opponent (or multitasking, at least). There are hundreds of in-game achievements to chase if you're so inclined, which to their credit are actually a decent source of challenge.
To do that involves looking at the game for hours, and Sports Connection is, shall we say, not very aesthetically pleasing. Truthfully we don't expect much out of a sports compilation in this department — possibly our years of exposure have broken us — but the art style just looks all kinds of haggard, and its connection with ESPN encompasses all of a SportsCenter-like slide that crops up every so often. You'd think that with all the talent on air at least one of them, or anyone at all, might lend their voice to commentary or something, but nope: this game is disconcertingly quite and anonymous.
ESPN Sports Connection's biggest problem is that it feels like it was slapped together in a matter of months, with seemingly little interest to exist beyond merely existing — someone had to make motion-controlled tennis, right? Noble perhaps to take one for the team like that, but families looking to replicate that Wii Sports magic this hardware launch are better off with a ticket to Nintendo Land.