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History Lesson: The highs and lows of Mario sports games

By Matthew Castle on Sunday 22nd Jun 2014 at 8:00 AM UTC

Roll a Mario sports title onto the CVG playing green and faces turn red and the air turns blue.

Spam us with a Monty Mole impossigoal and we'll flatten the office Wii with a spade. Expose us to one unskippable Mario Tennis Power Shot animation too many and we'll launch into an unskippable choking animation.

Put simply, Mario + sports = RAGE. No matter what the discipline is or who the developers are, all modern-day Mario sports titles employ the same in-game tactics - that is, to muddle and dismay all who play them with unrelenting chaos.

But like a Brazilian winger, we doth protest too much. Despite our professed hatred, Mario's sport-fests always find a way to weasel their way back into our disc slots, and the reason is simple: although they might be unbalanced (and in some cases unfair), they boast a carefree breeziness that more realistic sims such as FIFA could never hope to replicate.

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Here, fate is the ultimate equaliser thanks to weapon-based chicanery, but a production line of visual gags help defuse any friction caused by undeserved last minute winners (to a point). It's impossible to take a loss to heart when you've been denied a leveller not by a linesman's flag but by a runaway Wiggler's backside.

It wasn't always this way. In fact, Mario's first sporting endeavour (if you ignore the canon-smashing Game & Watch title Donkey Kong Hockey, which we shall), NES Open Tournament Golf in 1991, was an atypically straight-laced sports sim. Indeed, if you removed Mario's portly sprite from the equation, you'd be hard pressed to distinguish it from any other 8-bit golf game.

Sensibilities changed drastically eight years later when Nintendo tasked Shining Force developer Camelot with designing a follow-up on N64. The result, the boringly-titled but inspirational Mario Golf, set the template for Mario sports games.

Taking its cues from the established Mario Kart series, Mario Golf offered players a choice of Mushroom Kingdom favourites, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and based the courses on popular Mario hideouts with environmental hazards to match.

After receiving largely positive feedback, Camelot took the surreality to the next level in the 2003 GameCube sequel Toadstool Tour, which featured Warp Pipes, Thwomps and ball-harassing Chain Chomps. It's a wonder this superb perversion of the sport wasn't released on Wii as a New Play Control title, but a spiritual successor did recently arrive on 3DS.

Camelot's sister franchise, Mario Tennis, strayed even further from the source material. The N64 original featured a court suspended over a lava pit, which tilted during play to affect the flight of the ball. Powerups - now a staple of Mario sporting events - broke their duck here, with banana peels, Koopa shells and other familiar suspects conspiring to turn the scoreboard upside down.

The GameCube sequel, Mario Power Tennis, apparently began life being very similar to the original until Camelot's success with Toadstool Tour convinced it to start afresh, with a focus on gimmick-laden courts.

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"We couldn't accept a Mario game that merely brought graphics up to the system's specifications," mused Camelot's Hiroyuki Takahashi at the time. You've got to respect that desire to do the best by Mario, haven't you? Well, probably.

Following these games' critical success, Nintendo sent Mario out on loan to a host of third-party developers in the hope of recreating some of that Camelot magic.

Namco had a crack at baseball (Mario Super Sluggers), Next Level Games made football thoroughly confusing (Mario Strikers: Charged), and Square Enix hoovered up pretty much every other sport in Mario Sports Mix (we gave it 66%, but it's a blast in multiplayer if you overlook some of its idiosyncrasies).

Despite boasting a couch potato waistline, there isn't a sport that Mario can't 'improve' with his peculiar rule set. Ever the joker in the pack, Mario is the sport genre's equivalent of Blackpool FC buffoon Ian Holloway. While rivals fret and stew over the realism of their cloth animations, the Mushroom Kingdom Leagues are happy to layer their contests with fantastical imbalances that would make the Harlem Globetrotters blush.

The approach is a breath of fresh air in a genre that's otherwise lost its sense of playfulness. Load one of Mario's tournaments and you're practically guaranteed a good time, but be warned - the laughter can turn to murder with a shake of a Monty Mole tail.

Pitch Perfect?

We'd be here all day if we were to list every Mario sports game ever made - instead, we thought it would be worth listing our most memorable moments in Mario's sporting history, from the cameos to the little nods and features that made us smile.