Described as "the ultimate sports challenge" on its packaging, Sports Champions is a modest but varied collection of sports games that puts the PlayStation Move motion controller to good use. Almost none of the games (disc golf, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, bocce, and gladiator duel) are obvious choices for inclusion in a collection that boasts only six different sports, but they're all fun, and while most are best enjoyed with friends, there's a good amount of single-player content as well. Like Nintendo's Wii Sports before it, Sports Champions is a game that successfully shows off the capabilities of the motion controller it's played with and is one that you're likely to return to time and time again.
Regardless of which sport you choose, Sports Champions affords you the same set of gameplay options. Free Play mode supports between one and four players depending on the event (though no more than two people ever play simultaneously). Challenge mode is where you find mostly fun minigames such as a tic-tac-toe variant of archery and a gladiator duel in which you're prompted to target specific areas of your enemy. And Champions Cup mode--which is where you unlock the aforementioned minigames--pits you against increasingly tough AI opponents in bronze, silver, and gold trophy competitions. The AI of your opponents borders on laughable in most of the bronze competitions, but as you gain access to the silver and gold levels, they improve dramatically. Replay value in this single-player mode comes courtesy of a rating system that, based on your performance in each match, awards you one to three stars that count toward unlocking new outfits, equipment, and characters.
Though the six events on offer are all of comparable quality, you inevitably end up having one or two favorites and, perhaps, an event or two that you avoid for the most part. The events most likely to end up in the latter camp are those that fail to keep things fresh by offering varied challenges. For example, in table tennis the environments change, but the gameplay never does, and the same can be said of the beach volleyball courts and the gladiator duel arenas. Bocce, on the other hand, offers a number of different courts to play on, while disc golf features 18 different holes, and archery gives you plenty of different things to shoot at. One thing that all of the events have in common is that they control well; the movements that you're required to perform mostly mirror those that you'd make playing these sports for real, and there's no noticeable delay between your movement and your character's. The Move hardware is also sensitive enough that by rotating your wrist slightly you can add spin to the balls used in bocce and table tennis, for example.
Like the bowling game in Wii Sports, there's a good chance that bocce might become your go-to game anytime you have folks visiting who aren't entirely comfortable playing video games. That's because it's incredibly easy to pick up; all you have to do is depress the trigger button to pick up your ball, keep it pressed while you make an underarm throw gesture, and then let go of the trigger to release the ball. You can add spin to the ball by angling your wrist, and by holding down the O button it's possible to reposition your character for a different throwing angle, but that's really all there is to it. The standard bocce court is just a rectangle, but if you get bored with that one there are more than 10 other areas to play in, including a park filled with benches, barbecues, and other obstacles, as well as a number of courts that wouldn't look out of place on a miniature golf course. Not all of the courts are conducive to enjoyable competition, but most are a lot of fun to play on with a friend or three.
At the other end of the scale where ease of play is concerned, gladiator duel isn't nearly as accessible nor, unfortunately, nearly as varied. Like every other event in Sports Champions, gladiator duel can be played using only a single motion controller, but along with beach volleyball, it's best played with two. That way you can use one controller as your weapon and the other as your shield and move them simultaneously. Like their counterparts in conventional 3D fighting games, both combatants have a health bar and can win either by depleting their opponent's health or by forcing their opponent to fall off the edge of the arena. The similarities with games like Soul Calibur pretty much end there, though. These characters don't have unique move lists, nor do they have different fighting styles. Rather, with the exception of powerful "special strike" moves that are performed by following onscreen prompts, the vast majority of their moves are based entirely on your own. Swing your motion controller down low, and you might hit your opponent's ankle; swing it harder, and there's a good chance you'll knock their feet out from under them, setting you up for a jumping attack. Since every character is armed with a shield and has the ability to sidestep quickly, landing successful blows can be tricky, and because successful blocks fill up the defender's special strike meter, it's rarely a good idea to just launch an all-out offensive. Gladiator duel is fun both solo and split-screen against a friend, but because both the character and arena differences are only aesthetic, it doesn't take long to get old.
Table tennis and beach volleyball suffer from the same problem, although the former is a very enjoyable approximation of the fast-paced sport and does an excellent job of communicating both the movement and exaggerated spin of the diminutive ball that you spend your time swinging at. Beach volleyball is the weakest of the six included sports, in part because you're not afforded nearly the same level of control that you are in other events. Your character moves around automatically, and you simply mimic real-life arm movements to serve, set, spike, dig, and block the ball. You're also prompted to flick a motion controller left or right to dive in that direction when the ball is out of reach, but this only adds to the feeling that in this particular event you spend most of your time reacting to cues that aren't much more subtle than those in a rhythm game like Rock Band or Guitar Hero.
Disc golf and archery are both strong events that benefit from having a decent amount of variety in their courses and challenges respectively. In the former, the challenge comes not only from being able to throw a disc straight and true (or around corners, when necessary), but also from figuring out which line to take so that you avoid water hazards and the like. Because there are no canned throwing animations, you're free to throw forehand or backhand and to use any throwing techniques that you might wish to employ. You can even throw the disc upside down simply by rotating the motion controller 180 degrees in your hand, though this isn't particularly useful. Throwing a disc with some degree of accuracy can be enjoyably challenging, especially in later competitions where the wind is a factor.
Archery works just as well with one motion controller as it does with two, and involves the same simple movements (grabbing an arrow from your quiver, nocking it, and then aiming before drawing it back and releasing) either way. Because archery challenges are played against the clock, you need to be both accurate and quick to succeed, which makes this one of the more difficult sports to beat the AI at--especially when you're both aiming at the same one-hit-then-they-disappear targets. Archery works especially well in multiplayer, because a number of its game types are designed in such a way that it's almost impossible to play them without getting competitive. In one event, a bonus target that appears at random intervals can be shot to temporarily erect a wall in front of your opponent's target, for example. And in another event, you shoot arrows at targets on wheels in an attempt to push them closer to your opponent.
Sports Champions does a great job of teaching you how to play all six of its sports via tutorials that are offered to you as you progress through the Champions Cup mode or that you can select at any time. The presentation of the tutorials and all of the in-game menus prioritizes clarity and ease of use over flashiness, which is just as well given that you navigate all of them with motion controls. Elsewhere, Sports Champions' presentation is less impressive; the animation of the oddly proportioned but decent-looking characters is a little stiff, environments aren't detailed enough to be considered pleasing to the eye, and while the audio doesn't do anything wrong, there's also nothing memorable or remarkable about any aspect of it. Presentation shortcomings aside, Sports Champions is undoubtedly one of the strongest launch offerings for the PlayStation Move hardware. This isn't a game that you're likely to play solo for any serious amount of time, but it's certainly one that you'll keep coming back to in short bursts and anytime you have interested friends or relatives visiting.