Playing Breath of the Wild on the go is great and everything, but a few delays on my commute and the battery's dead long before I've my slippers on and a cup of tea beside me, console in the dock and Link on the box. Which is why, since the release of the Switch, I've always kept a back up on me. And, now that it's armed with Mario Sports Superstars, the 3DS has dislodged the Vita from that position. For the time being, anyway. (My apologies to Final Fantasy IX.)
The five-discipline compilation features tennis and golf options much like their bigger, full-game brethren, as developed by Camelot Software Planning—only reduced, or concentrated if you prefer. Tournament modes are stripped back, play time cut down almost to coin-op lengths. Exhibition modes allow for settings flexibility, but even then these are very much The Basics. Which is fine by me, as the "proper" releases they're based on, Mario Tennis Open and Mario Golf: World Tour, are cracking portable titles where cartoon visuals mask surprisingly deep sports sims, if you set them up that way. Simplified versions of those are, unsurprisingly, still pretty damn decent.
It's not just Camelot on development duties—Bandai Namco brings its Mario Baseball series experience to the package. It's been nine years since the last time Mario and friends took to the diamond, in the Wii exclusive Mario Super Sluggers, and I don't think that absence's been a cause of consternation amongst Nintendo fans. Baseball here is much like baseball not here, just as tedious as the real-life game, as toads in penguin outfits and multi-colored koopas line up to swing and miss at curved pitches and forkballs. I can't say I like it much, but if you're into hot dogs and hollering at men in pajamas and peaked helmets, cool.
Which leaves horse racing—actually a pretty fun-for-five-minutes "Super Mario Colt" affair in which you're more likely to win races by staying with the pack, your stamina benefitting from the "herd effect", before bolting for the line, juiced up on collectible star power. And, finally, there's football—not soccer, football (that's what it says on my European code, and I am sticking to it)—which is probably the best of the varied quintet. And that's got little to do with my IRL affection for watching 22 sweaty men fight over a pigskin, and much more with the fact that it's the one sport here, the wholly new horse racing aside, that builds on its predecessors.
And it does that numerically, rather than by adding any radically new tournament modes (what there is comes strictly bracket-structure knockout style). Unlike either Mario Smash Football or Mario Strikers Charged, the titles of which vary depending on your region, teams in Superstars' version of the beautiful game are actually comprised of 11 players. I know, right. Third time lucky I guess.
You have a captain and a vice captain, both of which are an established Mario series character; the rest of your outfield players are made up of identical spikes or magikoopas, goombas or toads; and your keeper's either the equally bulky Pom Pom or Boom Boom, playing nice for a change. All together, that's more players on the pitch than you've probably got fingers and toes.
Microprose Soccer also had 11 players, and that came out back in the late 1980s. I had it on the Amiga—in fact, I'm nearly absolutely certain it came with it, when my dad bought it home from some shop in Southampton that may have been called Diamond Computers, or some play on precious stones. Anyway, it came in a cheap box, nasty brittle plastic barely bigger than the single disc itself, with a sleeve so basic it might as well have been a white sheet of A4 with a single smudge of blue crayon on it, for all of its aesthetic charms. It looked shit. It played stupendously.
You don't know joy in the company of a Nintendo game 'til you've seen Waluigi knee-slide into the corner flag in celebration of a goal.
Which is an exaggeration, obviously. If you put any football game from the ancient 16-bit era up against today's Pro Evo and FIFA offerings, it'd be like throwing Canvey Island into FA Cup third-round battle with Chelsea's under-18s: an absolute bloodbath played out in a fetid swamp, barely chalked into a pitch, at the mouth of the cursed Thames. But to someone who had no better football game available at the time, in the pre-Sensi era, it was everything.
The ball was too big. The players moved in a grand total of eight directions. The bend on the ball was truly ridiculous—you could adjust the "banana power" in the menus, and obviously we always set it to MAX. The jingles that played at kick-off, when time was almost up, when you scored a goal courtesy of said ridiculous curl: cheap, cloying, annoying. Seeing it on YouTube today, though? (Ah, that crack of thunder, that thwump of slide tackle.) All of the warmest memories come rushing back.
And I'm looking at it today because of Mario Sport Superstars, and its football mode. Yes, clearly this virtual kick-about has more in common with Smash and Strikers than it does the Sensible Software-developed (!) top-down affair I played before I was old enough to go beyond the end of the road without a grown-up. But with its oversized ball—more size 15 than regulation 5—banana-reminiscent special-move shots (which work like the ultra smashes in tennis) and overall feeling of arcade clunk- and chunkiness, which I mean in a positive sense, where there's something almost mechanical about player movement, it immediately had me casting my mind back to Microprose.
This one even has its own brand of annoying music when you hit injury time, or a nameless koopa belts one into the back of the net from 25 yards. Though, I suppose I could turn it off—it's there in the settings, right next to the option to change the sprint button to the same right shoulder you use in PES. But, y'know, it's Nintendo, isn't it? It lives and breathes its cheesiness, and you suck it up.
And I need it just here, in the backpack, for a while. None of the five sports in Superstars is likely to keep you hooked for the long term—though, saying that, I got so obsessed with World Tour a couple of drizzly summer holidays ago that I was dreaming about teeing off with bob-ombs for golf balls—but, for your 20-minute time-killing needs, they're pretty perfect.
Football, for me, "takes it", because of both the unexpected nostalgia and its own-terms fun—seriously, you don't know joy in the company of a Nintendo game 'til you've seen Waluigi knee-slide into the corner flag in celebration of a goal. But as a whole, Superstars is a valuable travel companion that doesn't deserve to be overlooked now that there's a newer, shinier handheld on the market. And who knows, maybe I can come to love this American game of rowdy rounders. If Southern Rail performs this year as it did last, I'll certainly have enough time to kill while crawling through the Surrey countryside.
Mario Sports Superstars is released for 3DS on March 10th in Europe, and March 24th in the US.