Mario Sports Primer

A Mario Sports Primer – Golf and Tennis Edition

I’ve never been a big sports person, so what little I do know about various sports comes from the most obvious source – Nintendo. If a short Italian plumber in red isn’t involved, you can bet I don’t know a thing about it. What exactly is a first down, anyways?

Alright, enough joking – while sports aren’t up my alley, I grew up in a household with a father who watched pretty much everything, and I picked up the important parts of each game we sat down to watch together.

That being said – my favourite way to experience sports is through video games, and for me, there isn’t a lot out there more entertaining than when the Mario series tackles a sport. While there have been a few missteps here and there, the series has produced some incredibly fun games. We’ve talked about them ever so briefly, but they deserve more attention. It’s always serious sports titles that get the attention – so why not Mario and his friends?

When it comes to the Mario sports series, we can trace its origins back to 1991, when Nintendo released NES Open Tournament Golf – a much improved version of the original Golf released in 1984, featuring Mario and Luigi as playable characters, with Peach and Daisy working as caddies.

It’s a fun game, with three courses to play on (or five if you’re playing its Famicom counterpart, Mario Open Golf), but it’s simply a precursor to the great sports games Nintendo would start offering around the new millennium with two entries on the N64 – Mario Golf in 1999, and Mario Tennis in 2000.

The title screen to Mario Tennis.

The title screen to Mario Tennis.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that Mario first picked up a racket in 1995, when Mario’s Tennis was released for the Virtual Boy. I don’t have any first hand impressions of it, as I’d rather keep myself as Virtual Boy free as I can.

Much of Nintendo’s success with sports titles comes from the developmental wisdom of Camelot Software Planning, who have held the reigns on both the golf and tennis series since the days of the N64 – we’ll see what has happened with other companies in control later.

So, when Mario Golf hit the N64 in 1999, what exactly made it so compelling? In typical Nintendo fashion, Mario Golf excels at keeping things simple, while adding appealing, colourful visuals and the personality of Mario and his friends. Mario Golf isn’t, at least in my estimation, for the same kind of people who would play a PGA Tour game.

But it’s not like the game strips away everything that makes golf what it is. You’ll still be reading greens, paying attention to the wind, and carefully selecting the proper clubs for shots – but even younger gamers found something to enjoy with it – a strength that runs quite commonly through the Mario sports titles.

Mario Tennis, especially the game’s handheld counterpart on the Game Boy Colour, showed how good a grasp Nintendo had on the sports game concept. Mario Tennis on the N64 was much like Mario Golf – a solid, simple to play game with personality. The GBC version adds an RPG-like mode where the player enrols in a tennis academy, and through training and practice, eventually comes to be a high level competitor.

This mode kept my attention for much longer than I expected, proving to be not only fun, but engaging. It gave the game an extra layer of personality, and through the N64 Transfer Pak, players could import their characters over to the N64 version, rewarding them for hours of hard work at the academy. Add in the fact that players could focus on either singles or doubles play, and this mode adds a ton of replayability to an already fun sports title.

So, the first wave of Mario sports titles gave us a blueprint of what to expect – solid mechanics, and the ability to appeal to people beyond the sports crowd. I rented both N64 titles quite consistently, and always jumped at the opportunity to play them at a friend’s. Not only were they accessible, but as sports games, they often demanded a level of competition that didn’t ruin friendships like the Mario Party series, which often called for a blood sacrifice to a demented luck god, determined to…

Well, moving on to the Gamecube and Game Boy Advance era of the Mario sports titles. Again, we start out on the golf course. Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour released in 2003. My first impressions of the game noted its obvious similarities to Mario Golf, but with added game modes and impressive visuals. It’s an inoffensive sequel that doesn’t seem to strive to be better, but to bring the series back to the front.

Much like Camelot’s first Mario sports games, it’s tennis where they excel. 2004 was the year of Mario Power Tennis, my most played Mario sports title. Let’s start with the basics – much like Toadstool Tour, Power Tennis updates the formula and its solid mechanic, while adding some fun little additions like gimmick courts and Power Shots (which are both offensive and defensive, and depend on the character – they’re optional, but can change a game around if you don’t mind playing some non-traditional tennis).

Why do I enjoy Power Tennis so much? It really comes down to the difference between golf and tennis – tennis is an incredibly active and engaging game, and Power Tennis really captures how fast paced it can be, relying on reflexes and swift movement to stay in the game.

One of the many game modes of Mario Power Tennis.

One of the many game modes of Mario Power Tennis.

While I don’t mind sitting around, plotting out my next shot in a round of gold, Power Tennis constantly keeps my fingers ready to go, and I love when games get frenetic – this will play in with another wonderful Mario sports game I’ll talk about in the sequel to this article.

Of course, Camelot developed two handheld companions to the Gamecube sports titles: Mario Golf: Advance Tour and Mario Tennis: Power Tour, both on the Game Boy Advance.

Both games feature mechanics similar to the Gamecube counterparts, and both have an RPG style mode like in the GBC Mario Tennis. Advance Tour in particular gathered a lot of acclaim, while it was pretty clear that Power Tennis was much more deserving of your time than Power Tour.

Speaking of Power Tennis, it would later be released on the Wii with updated motion controls. I’ll stick with the Gamecube version, with its tight controls, but if you’re interested in motion controlled tennis, I suppose the Wii version isn’t a bad choice.

Anyways, I’ve covered Camelot’s years of prominence as a Mario sports developer – they cooled off considerably after this, and after Power Tour, it was a long seven years until Mario Tennis Open released in 2012. We’re only getting a new golfing game next month, after just under ten years – Mario Golf: World Tour looks impressive, and will include online tournaments, a nice addition to a game meant to be played against others.

Yeah, I'm pretty excited for this game.

Yeah, I’m pretty excited for this game.

Next time, I’ll be looking at what happens when other developers get into the Mario sports games, and talking some soccer and baseball with you all. Until then, you’ll have to be patient – go play some Power Tennis, trust me – it’ll pass the time like you won’t believe.