When your gut feeling doesn't go further than a ''meh'', you simply start to wonder.
Mario sports titles have been maddeningly inconsistent in recent years. When I worked on my coverage for Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, I had no idea that it would be as disappointing as it was. On the flipside, it made surprises like Mario Golf: World Tour and Mario & Sonic Rio 2016 even more entertaining in highsight. But what do you do when the conclusion is neither good nor bad? That is the crossroads I found myself with Mario Sports Superstars. It is decently made, but there’s nothing truly outstanding about it.
Mario Sports Superstars offers five different sports: Football/Soccer, Baseball, Tennis, Golf and Horse Racing. Mario has tried all of them before, but Mario Sports Superstars tries to bring them together in a cohesive package. The first boot brings you to a menu with a very realistic look. Although it’s nice to be able to pick a sport and go, there’s not a lot of charm to it which put me off a bit straight away.
Trying out the sports, I first went into the golf game. I enjoyed Camelot's Mario Golf series, which made me excited for what they could bring to Mario Sports Superstars. With Mario Golf: World Tour still fresh in my mind, I was hoping for something among those lines. And Camelot delivers – but to the point of parody. Mario Sports Superstars lifts elements wholesome from Mario Golf: World Tour. This includes the user interface, control options, some of the music and the character animations after each hole. While it is nice to have the same controller options present, it is a little shady to see everything else in the same place.
The major difference here can be found with the four new courses (Emerald Woods, Gold Links, Crystal Beach and Wild Valley). With no real connection to the Mushroom Kingdom, they’re good golf courses but don’t really push the Mario aspect of the title. To make matters worse, the courses are all nine holes so I blasted through them incredibly quickly. Beyond the occasional match, there wouldn't be a reason to return after those initial play sessions.
Tennis is the other sport from Camelot and it doesn't fare any better. The gameplay is slightly better as they chose to base it on Mario Tennis Open's gameplay, instead of Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. Superstars doesn’t bother with Ultra Smash shots or Mega Mushrooms, instead keeping it to simple tennis with the odd glowing circle for special moves. Sadly, the one feature that did stay from Ultra Smash is the single stadium, which seems to clash with the rest of the game bringing you to different locations. The only thing that can be changed is the playing surface which affects how the shots behave. The game is competent but feels too familiar, right down to the UI being functionally identical to Mario Tennis Open’s.
Baseball is the most disappointing sport of the bunch so far, which is a shame as this is the first Mario baseball game Bandai Namco has made since Mario Super Sluggers on the Wii. Baseball in Mario Sports Superstars is basically pressing the A button a bunch as either the batter or pitcher. The only control option besides the A button is the ability to move in the batter’s box, or change the type of pitch thrown. After the pitch, all base running and fielding is mostly handled by the AI so there’ll be time to grab peanuts or Cracker Jack while the play runs. The teams and stadiums have fun designs, however.
Football/Soccer are handled by a different studio than normal for a Mario title, as Bandai Namco took over managerial duties from Next Level Games. Next Level knew how to make an entertaining game, with a very over-the-top style and crazy special moves tearing up the pitch. Bandai Namco has instead opted for a more conventional 11-on-11 game on the surface. There’s the staples of the game – throw-ins, realistic-feeling free kicks – but with a bit of a twist. The team that controls the ball long enough will see the ball glow, then engulf itself in a dazzling array of color to set up a special move. The special move is powerful, but doesn’t guarantee a goal. The AI plays well in this mode, as I usually found myself dealing with 2-0 scorelines even after the first few matches. There’s plenty of customization in the game, from stadiums to the length of the game and even the option to go almost entirely sim and remove the special moves.
The final sport, Horse Racing, is the odd one out here. While it has been tried before with Mario & Sonic London 2012, it’s still a novel experience. In Horse Racing, you hop on that mighty animal and try to go for the gold in a variety of races. There are four cups with three tracks each, which is good for the most original element in this game. In a regular racing game, you would try to sprint ahead and score an easy victory that way. You can't really do that here as the best way to win is to ride someone else’s slipstream. Slipstreaming motivates the horses and helps them conserve energy down the stretch. By making clever usage of dashes, jumps and the special Star Dashes, you will become a champion in no time flat. The main problem I had were the controls, as they felt incredibly floaty and required a lot of adjustment time before I finally got the hang of them.
After all the racing action, there is also a stable where you can take care of your own horse. You can pet your new friend, hand it food, brush his/her hair, give it various accessories and take it out for a walk. While the rest is pretty straightforward, walking your horse is actually neat. While you see the horse during actual races in third-person, walking actually happens in a first person perspective. You can search around for various goodies and travel to different tracks to give your horse a test drive. While it becomes slightly harder to control in this perspective, I really enjoyed the experience.
All of the sports feature similar features. In singleplayer, you can compete in four cups that test your wit and skill. It starts out simple with the Mushroom Cup, but once you reach the Champion's Cup, you better get for some harsh CPU opponents. If you complete this seemingly impossible task, you will get a couple of unlocks. The last course/stadium/set of tracks will be made available, you get access to a secret character and you will get a Star Character of the one you used. In a very irritating move, the unlocks aren’t universal; they only apply to the game you just won. This is a horrible process that is only there to lengthen your playing time. Do you want those Star Characters instantly? You can... with the Amiibo cards (sold separately, and in blind packs).
Aside from the cups, you can partake in single matches or duke it out in training modes. This means different things for each game. Golf gives you access to various shot practice challenges, while Horse Racing and Baseball focus on a more freeform sessions that help you understand the mechanics better. They are all neat to have, but I haven't really touched them all too much. I will surely get back to them in time, just to see how deep the rabbit hole for these options go. Multiplayer features multi-cart local play (no Download Play option) and online for both friends and random players. The latter two are perfectly executed in my limited experience and feel rather snappy to use.
Mario Sports Superstars isn't leaving a strong impression on me so far. Nothing about the games (outside of Baseball) are horrible, but they simply fail to impress. The elements handled by Camelot seem to build upon the foundations they’ve made before and they aren't trying to take any risks. Horse Racing and Football can be enjoyable, but they have elements that leave things to be desired. The only truly unredeemable entity is Baseball as you do not do much more besides pressing the A button. For those searching for a decent multiplayer game, this might be that, because the singleplayer elements won't last you too long. You will get quickly sick of the way unlockables are handled, which certainly deserved better. If you played a more entertaining game like Mario Golf: World Tour, I don't exactly think that you are missing much here.