Our first impression of Mario Sports Superstars had us wondering whether this was going to be another unfortunate blend of ingredients, like Mario Sports Mix, instead of another arcadey sporting success for the mustachioed plumber & friends. Mario's been there, done that in this kind of game, after a stellar sports career full of triumphs, a decent collection of trophies and medals, and a surprisingly consistent level of performance over the years, this despite the occasional drop in form (such as the aforementioned Wii game). Unfortunately, it looks like Mario is once again out of shape.
Mario Sports Superstars is an awkward, confusing, unbalanced mixture of modes and game types. Even if it gets better when you invest time into learning every discipline included - and of course it's a much more interesting experience if you can play multiplayer - our initial fears have become confirmed gripes.
Football, just one of the disciplines in this five-sport compilation, is clearly sub-par. We're still trying to get our heads around why Nintendo decided not to import the tried and tested Strikers formula from Next Level Games, one that worked so well on the Gamecube and Wii. Instead they opted for a flat, dull, clumsy and at the end of the day quite boring interpretation of the sport. By just nailing this part of the game, the overall package would've been much more interesting, especially for European players.
The football looks more detailed than it actually is, this thanks to formations, captains, 11-a-side teams (and not 5v5), various stats, and even a control scheme that suggests multiple on-field options, but when you get down to business this is far from the case. The movement is stiff, the animations are robotic, the AI is ridiculous, you constantly stumble into other characters, the ball movement isn't smooth at all, and you're limited in how you can approach the game; the tactical element is actually just an illusion. In fact, versus the CPU, it's a bit of a pain, and it doesn't help that the Tournament mode, which is absolutely basic and lacking any kind of spice, has lengthy matches by default. Thus, we were involved in some high scoring matches, but in turn we didn't have fun nor did we enjoy the spectacle of scoring lots of goals.
The camera is not agile/flexible enough, and the players in each team can get confused with one another (you play with minions as seen elsewhere in the Mario universe - koopa soldiers and toads - but the same ones are sometimes on both teams and are not clearly differentiated). There's no fancy dribbling, no interesting triangular passing moves, and super shots are nothing to write home about. You won't even find a single mini-game to flesh out the offering, and the same can be said about the five sports on offer.
The quality and most of the fun in Mario Sports Superstars is found in the tennis and golf, but that's nothing new. Both are copy and pasted from Mario Tennis Open and Mario Golf: World Tour, the two decent (more so the latter) games that Camelot has already delivered on the 3DS. They're of course far from being the same as the full games in terms of content (there's fewer events and no extra activities), but the formula works just as well, and if you were interested in them back then but didn't want to pay full price at launch, it might be worth checking them out here.
Finally there's baseball and horse racing, and confirming our initial impressions, both are well rounded and offer some depth (surprisingly enough, more so than the football). We disliked the slight lag intentionally implemented for the button presses in baseball, but otherwise we like the adaptation of a sport that's much loved in America and Japan. Just as with the sections of game developed by Camelot, it's here where you can see Bandai Namco's experience in the genre, after efforts such as Mario Superstar Baseball, which hit a home-run way back at the end of Gamecube-era.
In a similar manner, the Japanese developers took note of the Final Furlong series when making the horse racing part of equation, but to be honest, for all the nice work put into this via its tactics, pacing and special moves, it's not the same as the hilarious arcade machine that comes complete with plastic horses, nor is it like any of the several racing games already available on Nintendo's handhelds.
Personal interest in each sport aside (if you're a baseball or horse racing lover you can probably add a point to the score), Mario Sports Superstars is a weird hotchpotch of ingredients that doesn't manage to stand out in any respect and that has been made by mixing various leftovers and off-cuts together. It might work for you and be worth picking up if there's potential for you to get online with it in the coming months, or if you have some friends with whom you usually play Mario sports games (although sadly they'll have to be willing to buy the game as well, as there's no download mode to try out multiplayer with another 3DS owner). Don't buy it for the football, nor if you're expecting to find a spiritual successor to Strikers, but it's worth considering if you don't own the Camelot games and want to give them a go as well as try out a couple of new sports.