Design by Randall Montanari
Mario's Got Game
Check out our montage of Mario sports games, both old and new.
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.