[24 February 2011]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Of late, difficulty has been my greatest challenge. What I mean by this is that it seems that every game that I have fired up recently, from Dead Space 2 to Stacking, has been well designed, providing some especially interesting gameplay elements, but just hasn’t been all that difficult.
Maybe it’s masochistic, but I kind of want to suffer again.
In that sense, playing through a Nintendo title (especially one with Mario’s name in the title) seemed like a potentially good way to cleanse my “all too easy gaming” palate. As New Super Mario Bros. proves, more old school gameplay can test one’s skills and patience at times, but there is something rewarding in finally pulling off a particularly trying level.
That wasn’t the only thought that I had running through my head when I fired up Mario Sports Mix, though. The other thought that occupied me concerned memories of hours spent in front of a 15-inch television screen with Nintendo’s arcade sports classic Ice Hockey. Ah, pure bliss.
I am not much of a sports game fan (okay, that’s actually an understatement, I don’t play sports games at all). Madden and FIFA hold no power over a man who rarely watches a televised sporting event. The controls are too complicated (which may seem ironic, given my earlier concern with games being too easy—however, there is a difference between challenging gameplay and challenging controls, see Hippolyta or High Tea for examples of simple controls alongside very challenging play) for me to bother with a type of play (sports) that doesn’t hold my attention for very long. However, as Ice Hockey long ago proved to me, a stripped down arcade version of sport can definitely be fun and engaging, especially alongside some simple but motivating mechanics. I don’t need to appreciate sports to appreciate a game that vaguely resembles a sport but really is just a good excuse to sit down with a friend or family member and fight it out on the small screen.
Mario Sports Mix did manage to itch the scratch that I was feeling for old school arcade sports fun and some old school challenge . . . eventually.
Offering four different arcade verions of Basketball, Hockey, Dodgeball, and Volleyball, Mario Sports Mix is certainly a more fully featured experience than my fondly remembered NES cart. Additionally, options to play with others both competitively and co-operatively against AI opponents is also a modern and appreciated feature. None of the “sports” on display here hew especially closely to their the rules of any version of the real sports that they vaguely emulate. Additionally, Super Mario-themed levels set in ghostly mansions or dank castles add random elements like the ability to score extra points by collecting coins or toss turtle shells at opponents during a game. All of this is arcade sports goodness as far as I am concerned.
The difficulty that I had though with the game, though, was, well, difficulty. While in Exhibition mode, you can choose your level of difficulty for a match. But, of course, only offers a quick match on the fly. Tournament play has a mild “story” element to it, but more importantly, allows one to unlock stages for play in exhibition, along with some additional bonus characters (provided by developer Square Enix in the form of some familiar old school Final Fantasy characters), and the chance to play a full on “Mario Sports Mix” tournament (a tournament, in which you play through matches that swap between all of the various sports in the game throughout your climb to the tournament cup). This mode, however, requires that you play on Normal before getting to select higher levels of difficulty.
Let me tell you, this might not seem like that big a deal, but Normal is way, way, way Easy. Normal difficulty might exist to encourage casual players or kids to play the game, but I can’t imagine that either group really wants to run through three hockey matches in which the other team manages to score just one point against you (in all three matches!) to your 30-ish points in each match over and over again. Playing through Normal is just going through the motions. Harder difficulties can be unlocked but only after completing three tournaments of three matches a piece in each sport. And when you’re talking about sports like Volleyball, which are “best two out of three” matches, this length of play with no real challenge is utterly interminable.
I guess that this is a form of masochism, too, but it isn’t the pleasure that I am looking for in a more seductive form of suffering.
Once you can get the game to a point at which you can play at a level of challenge that you actually desire, there is a good time to be had in both single and competitive play (you know, when you actually feel some tension about the AI possibly being able to beat you, and the other team actually even will at times!). The controls are simple and do have some correspondence from one sport to another (jumping in basketball is a flick of the Wiimote, as it is in volleyball, too, for example) and there are the aforementioned arcade shenanigans available to mix up play in all the right ways. You know, by bending the rules . . . a lot, which is what I was hoping for. In other words, there is some Ice Hockey-esque fun to be had here, especially if you can get a friend or two or three to get involved in some match ups.
A game just shouldn’t make one suffer so much drudgery to unlock a reasonable level of challenging play.