Design by Randall Montanari
When you think of a plump, 3-foot-tall guy wearing a red shirt, blue overalls, and a jaunty crimson hat, what comes to mind? Certainly not the image of a world-class athlete. But that's just what Nintendo's ubiquitous mascot, Mario, has proven himself to be throughout the past 20 years. And why not? The guy may not look it, but he's definitely got his cardiovascular stuff together. Running huge distances, leaping blocks, pouncing on koopas, and chucking fireballs isn't just a great way to save princesses; it's a fine way to stay fit as well.
Thanks to his unprecedented popularity and longevity, Mario has probably done more than any other video game character, branching out into all genres of gaming--from puzzle and adventure to role-playing and painting. Truly, the plumber has done it all in the gaming world. He's also put that rotund shape of his to work in the sports gaming genre. John Madden may own the football world, but outside of that, there's nobody that comes close to Mario and his dedication to all things sporty. Join us here as we pull on our overalls, lace up our work boots, and take a jog down memory lane for a look at some of Mario's greatest hits in the sports gaming world.
The Early Years
Like a walk-on player relegated to second string after joining the team, Mario's initial forays into the sports genre were a bit on the subtle side. In fact, back in the Nintendo Entertainment System days, he wasn't a big enough star to warrant billing in some of the games. Consider Golf for the NES, for example. Here the main character, a paunchy mustachioed hacker who looked a lot like our favorite plumber, wasn't even referred to by name. Two appearances in early Game Boy iterations (the black and white Golf and the Game Boy Color's Mario Golf) further cemented Mario's amateur status. It wouldn't be long before he would earn his tour card, graduate from the public courses, and get an entire set of games named after him.
The same was true for that other country-club sport: tennis. In addition to Golf, the NES had a racket sport game--the appropriately named Tennis--and it featured Mario in an even more subtle role, this time as the chair umpire perched high on his stand scoring the game and ruling on ball position as you controlled your Larry Bird-shorts wearing players. With his officiating status in full swing, Mario even took his keen judgment to the rough-and-tumble world of boxing in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!, refereeing matches between the hero, Little Mac, and the likes of Glass Joe, Soda Popinski, and, of course, Tyson himself. To think that Mario knew Mike before he had that scary face tattoo...
It wasn't until the granddaddy of them all, the original Super Mario Kart, came along that Mario began to get his due in his status as a marquee name in the sports video game world--a name that could carry practically any game in which it appeared, regardless of genre. Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the beginning of a brand-new franchise for Nintendo and certainly ranks as one of the big three sports franchises Mario has appeared in. With eight playable characters from the Mario world, including Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Mario's brother, Luigi, and a split-screen approach to the action on the track--the lower portion showed an elevated view of the track, while the upper portion showed your racer in action on the course--Super Mario Kart was truly the start of something special.
The early NES and SNES years also featured a number of less-well-known sports games that featured Mario in either a supporting or cameo role. NES Open Tournament Golf, a sequel of sorts to the original links game, featured a much squatter, shorter, and more "Mario"-looking Mario, along with some ball-spin mechanics and better graphics.
In some games Mario made an appearance in image only, whether as a roadside spectator in F-1 Race, on racetrack signs that appear on the sidelines in Stunt Race FX, or as the "heads" side of the coin tossed to determine possession during the pregame ceremonies in Super Play Action Football. After the NES, SNES, and original Game Boy handhelds ran their respective courses, Nintendo was set to take cartridge-based gaming to its pinnacle with the next wave of hardware releases. And, as you might expect, Mario and his sports games were major weapons in Nintendo's impending video game battle with Sony and its PlayStation console.
The Nintendo 64 was never going to be the one-stop shop for sports games. Over the span of the N64's life, Nintendo had a semirocky relationship with the burgeoning monster that was EA Sports. As a result, the Madden series didn't make an appearance on the console until 1997, nearly a full year after the N64 made its way to store shelves. Just a handful of sports games, such as Wayne Gretzky's 3D Hockey and NBA Hangtime, made an appearance on the cartridge-based console during its first year of life. The Mario line of sports games didn't get revved up until well after the release of Mario Kart 64. 1999's Mario Golf was a game that, in true Nintendo fashion, appealed to the hardcore golf set as well as the casual gaming crowd, thanks to great controls and an appealing cast of characters.
That blend of fun, challenge, and unique twists has always been a hallmark of Mario sports games. It's one thing to offer requisite features, such as great-feeling physics and a variety of shot types, as in the original Mario Tennis for the N64; it's another to add on top of these features such curveballs as tilting courses and power-ups galore. It's that blend of fantasy elements, family-friendly humor, and an authentic sports feel that gave Mario Tennis (which was also released a year later on the Game Boy Color) its trademark appeal.
There was one other area in which Nintendo's Mario games excelled: multiplayer. Nowhere was this clearer than with the release of the aforementioned Mario Kart 64, the sequel to the original SNES kart racer, Super Mario Kart. What the game lacked in its single-player game--namely challenging AI-controlled opponents--it made up for with some excellent multiplayer modes. This was 1996, after all, well before the era of online console gaming was even a potential reality--a lot of game fans weren't even online with their PCs yet. No, if you wanted to get together with three of your best friends and blast turtle shells at each other with Mario Kart 64, you were going to do it the old-fashioned way--with all four players hooked up to the same N64 and all watching the same TV screen. It didn't matter that on a smaller television screen you could barely make out what was happening on the four-player split-screen--the furious speed and seesaw gameplay kept things lively and gave Mario Kart 64 tremendous replay value.
Nintendo's next next-generation console--the GameCube--saw Mario and his pals branching out into other sports, in addition to appearing in the stalwart series we'd all become accustomed to. Mario Kart: Double Dash!! was another solid entry in the high-speed kart-racing series whose twist was two-player-on-the-same-kart action; Mario Power Tennis brought more imagination to the court, controls, and character lineup than ever before; and Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour did exactly what it needed to do: fuse likable characters with an engaging control scheme to create a links game that could be enjoyed by nearly everyone. Over on the handheld side of things, Mario Golf: Advance Tour gave golf nuts an entirely new angle on the sport--combining traditional Nintendo-style links play with some light role-playing elements, which resulted in a game that was thrifty on the Mario (the main characters were named Neil and Ella) but generous with the fun. Similarly, Mario Kart: Super Circuit brought the fast-paced fun of the original SNES Mario Kart game to the Game Boy Advance, in what was essentially an upgraded remake of the original game.
Truly Nintendo had found its Mario sports stride through a string of successes on both the GameCube and the Game Boy Advance. In the case of the GBA and GC Mario Golf games, you could even transfer characters from Toadstool Tour to Advance Tour--an interesting, if trivial, use for GBA/GC connectivity. Having successfully conquered genres such as racing, tennis, and golf, it was time for Mario and the gang to step out in a big way, not only in games of their own, but also in games from other publishers.
Coming hot on the heels of an ugly steroid scandal in the real world of hardball, the recently released Mario Superstar Baseball is a typically skewed take on America's pastime, one that trades in the big-league egos and complex franchise modes for simplified pitching controls and trap-laden outfields. As is the case with practically every Mario game, part of the magic of MSB is its cast of characters and the special powers each (literally) brings to the plate. Donkey Kong doesn't need a stinkin' bat to take the ball downtown; he simply punches it out of the park with a boxing glove. Yoshi doesn't reach for fly balls with his glove; he uses (what else?) his tongue.
But even three solid games like Mario Superstar Baseball, Mario Power Tennis, and Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour hasn't been enough to satiate Nintendo fans. It's no wonder, then, that Mario and the gang lent their athleticism to games from the biggest name in sports games: EA Sports. If Mario, Peach, and Luigi were the kings (and queen) of the hill when it came to their own games, so the logic went, just think what they could do for more traditional sports games. Hoops fans found out in February 2005, with the release of NBA Street V3--a game whose roster was rife with stars from the NBA and beyond. Dunking it up with Shaq and Kobe were hip-hop legends The Beastie Boys, along with Mario, Peach, and Luigi, who made a special appearance in GameCube version. This wouldn't be the last cross-pollination between Nintendo and EA Sports, however. Little Mac made a guest appearance in the GameCube version of Fight Night Round 2, released just a couple of weeks after Street V3. In fact, just recently Nintendo and EA announced yet another cameo from Mario and friends in the soon-to-be-released GameCube version of SSX on Tour, the fourth game in EA Sports Big's lauded snowboarding series. Not only are Peach, Luigi, and Mario all playable in the game, but they even have a specially designed mushroom- and coin-themed course to schuss their way down.
Will Mario and his pals make future appearances in upcoming EA Sports games? While we don't expect to see Luigi trading jabs with Bernard Hopkins or see Peach in the booth with John Madden anytime soon, the possibility remains that the Nintendo gang could make another surprise visit where you least expect it.
So is Mario on the tail end of his athletic career, soon to be riding the bench and holding the proverbial clipboard? Not likely. If anything, Mario's sports ride is just getting warmed up. Three high-profile sports games starring Mario are all due for release this holiday season: Super Mario Strikers, Mario Tennis: Power Tour, and Mario Kart DS.
Super Mario Strikers marks the gang's soccer debut, and from what we saw of the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo back in May, SMS is turning out to be a fun, high-octane take on the beautiful sport with finely tuned controls and power-ups and trick shots galore. Also at E3 we got an extremely brief glimpse at Mario Tennis: Power Tour for the GBA, and though we don't know anything more about the game now than we did then, we're excited for the game's four-player capability, slick look, and, of course, portability. Finally, perhaps the most anticipated Mario sports game of all: Mario Kart DS. Few games qualify as a system seller, but with dual-screen capability, eight-player wireless multiplayer, and the same high-speed fun the series has come to be known for, Mario Kart DS just may make the grade. All three of these games are currently scheduled for release in December, and if they all hold to that release date, the holiday season should be fun indeed. Another Mario Kart game, MarioKart Arcade GP, is in the works for Japanese arcades and it's shaping up to be another welcome addition to this heralded series.
And after that? Well, the sports world is Mario's oyster, frankly. He's done so much in his career already and shows no signs of going Randy Johnson on us and slowing down. Provided the demand keeps up for the plump little plumber, there's no end to the sports games he could make an appearance in. Could Mario basketball be far behind? Think about how insanely fun a Mario football game could be, especially in today's current football landscape. Whether coming off the bench in a supporting role or getting the nod as a first-string starter, rest assured that Mario's sports future is bright indeed. We can't wait to see where he turns up next.