Review by Tom Clark
Super Mario? Balls!
Mario has had some truly ace adventures in the past. He's taken on a scaffolding-loving, barrel-throwing giant ape in order to protect the lovely-but-since-dumped Pauline. He's fought Bowser countless times to protect the Mushroom Kingdom. He's gained a dimension to rescue Peach in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, and he's shed a dimension to save her in the Paper Mario games. He's done battle with Koopa Troopas, Bullet Bills and Goombas on your television screen, and on the go thanks to his various Game Boy outings. He's turned his hand to various different sports. He's had over half-a-dozen parties. He's danced. He's starred in a cartoon show. He's been Bob Hoskins in a big screen, big-budget blockbuster. He's had his own brand of lemonade. And all the time, he's been great fun to boot (well, apart from the movie, but we blame John Legizizizizimo for that. The bastard). But all that is sadly about to change. Like an unwelcome and suspicious rash on the previously blemish-free trouser-region that is the Mario universe, the dungaree-clad plumber is charging back onto your GBA. And his latest adventure is, quite literally, a load of old balls.
It's carnival time in the Mushroom Kingdom, and our gang have all gone to the fair. It seems that the year's hottest new attraction is a machine that - in open defiance of any skeletal structure or pain threshold that the Toad race may have - crushes anyone foolhardy enough to use it into a perfect sphere, before shooting them out of a cannon (and you thought that Alton Towers had some wacky rides....). Naturally, Princess Peach steps up to have a go, but while she's being crushed into a human pinball, some dastardly goombas turn the cannon around, and Peach is shot straight into Bowser's castle. (I'll leave a second for the sheer ridiculous nature of this - even by Mario standards - to sink in) Honestly, as evil schemes go, it seems like Bowser and his boys are really phoning it in this time. Despite the genuine crapness of Bowser's 'masterful' kidnapping - and the fact that this time Peach quite literally brought in on herself - Mario enthusiastically volunteers to be sphere-d in order to rescue the fair maiden (despite the fact that having every bone in his body broken would surely put him at a disadvantage....). Welcome to Super Mario Ball - quite genuinely the most ill-conceived, poorly designed and shamefully executed game to ever feature Nintendo's loveable mascot.
Surprisingly, though, initial impressions of Super Mario Ball are quite favourable. Despite the fact that the plot is utterly ludicrous, it is all presented very well in an FMV video sequence that must really push the GBA to it's limits. What's more, when you first fire up the GBA you are filled with a sense that everything is truly right with the world. You get the familiar, lovely bing as the GBA turns on. Then the Mario Pinball rolls across the screen - complete with Charles Martinet's usual high-quality Mario-moans - leaving the Nintendo logo in it's wake. Jolly good. And then, like an unexpected and underdressed guest at a high class dinner party, another logo appears on the screen. Fuse Games? Who the Puff Daddy are they? Yes, Nintendo has whored out their favourite son to a bunch of nobodies who told them that they could make a good pinball game. And despite the fact that Nintendo have a history of making some of the very best hand-held pinball titles over the years (Revenge of the 'Gator, Pokemon Pinball, and the seminal Kirby's Pinball Land) they agreed to let these bold young upstarts have their wicked way with our pot-bellied pipe-fixer. Admittedly giving over control of a major franchise to smaller developers has worked in the past (as Metroid Prime or the Zelda Oracle games proves), but here, it's a fatal mistake. Like some sort of developmental terrorists on an anti-fun Jihad, Fuse Games have seemingly struck out to destroy the gaming world's most beloved icon.
On paper, Super Mario Ball actually sounds like quite a good idea. Rather than being a traditional pinball game where you simply need to rack up the highest score possible, Fuse have opted to create a genuine adventure where the main character just happens to be a tiny, flipper-phobic beachball. This basically translates to a game where you must travel the various different worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom (such as the ever-faithful Desert and Water environments of old, as well as ghost houses, the funfair itself, and a Sunshine-esque - and slightly Dutch - windmill area, among others) battling foes (instead of bumpers and other traditional pinball obstacles, the screens in Super Mario Ball are littered with Shy Guys, Koopa Troopas and Boos that must be dispatched with a well-aimed smack from a pinball), using traditional Mario power-ups like invincibility stars, finding hidden areas to explore, and collecting Power Stars in order to progress to the boss of your chosen world. The stars - in true Super Mario 64 style - are gained by achieving certain goals on each single-screen 'table' - though to be fair that usually consists of clearing all the foes on the screen - essentially Fuse Games have made a Mario game, and pinball-ed it up, rather than taking a pinball game and throwing in a few Mario-themed tables. This is an interesting take on the genre, and could have proved a very refreshing and unique handheld blast. However, despite a genuinely decent premise, there is so much that is wrong with Super Mario Ball.
You know that the game is in trouble from the very start. Opening in the fairground, which serves as a hub-world, it's easy to be impressed by Super Mario Ball - this is the busiest screen in the game, with a tantalisingly locked Ghost House that promises to be explored once you have enough stars, patrolling Goombas waiting to be defeated, a looping rollercoaster weaving in and out of the stage (complete with a carriage of Toads going for a ride), a test-your-strength game that is just waiting for you to strike it as hard as you can with your ball, and a big top where Toad waits to sell you some power-ups. The main attraction, though, must be the cannon in the middle of the screen that will shoot you to whichever of the worlds you wish to explore first. You take aim with the flipper, ready to send Mario into the cannon, and that's when the crushing disappointment sets in, because even simply trying to reach what is essentially the level select screen becomes a Herculean challenge.
The major flaw with Super Mario Ball is that it's nearly impossible to accurately control Mario. The pinball physics feel so light and airy that at just the barest tap of a flipper Mario will float around all over the screen, melodramatically bouncing off the walls, the enemies and the scenery, while you just sit watching what's going on like a passenger - Maz spends far too much time in limbo and not enough time making contact with the flippers (which are the only two things on the screen that you can control directly - there's no 'tilt' button to be found) for you to ever feel like you are genuinely causing whatever may be happening on screen. And, what's worse, when you actually do get a brief chance to smack the wee fella with your Mighty Flippers of Justice, the flighty physics have a frustrating and unfailing tendency to send the ball in completely the opposite direction to that which you had hoped - you basically just watch Mario do his own thing, occasionally using the flippers to suggest that he heads in a certain direction, before sitting back and watching him go in completely the opposite way to that which you intended. The most basic requirement for a pinball game (even one that tries to be something a little different, as Super Mario Ball does) is precise, tight controls - getting that high score (or star, in this case) should be a test of skill, not luck. Super Mario Ball completely and utterly fails in this regard: in short, the pinball essentially does not work. And that is completely unforgivable.
What makes Super Mario Ball even more unappealing is the genuinely poor level design. Each level consists of several interlocking, single-screen tables, with doors leading to the next table that can only be opened once you have enough stars. It sounds fair enough, but each table is so completely charmless and dull. For the most part these square areas vary only through the different enemies they contain, or the different position of the token 'thing to bounce off' - be it a beehive, snowman or whatever - and gaining access to a new area soon starts to feel like a chore because of this. Rather than there being a genuine sense of excitement being gained every time you enter a new screen for the first time, there's just a dull sense that you've seen it all before. Even when you do manage to find something relatively unexpected in the game - such as the time you manage to gain access to the sunken galleon, or the time you unearth the giant pyramid and manage to get inside - you never feel too involved because the awful controls mean that you probably found this secret by accident, completely robbing the game of and sense of discovery. What's more, the various different environments offer nothing but a superficial change in scenery - it's entirely possible that the ice levels - for example - see the ball slipping and sliding more than usual, but honestly the whole game is that hard to control anyway that it's impossible to tell.
The game suffers further by virtue of being one of the most frustrating experiences ever to grace the GBA. Every time you leave a table absolutely everything resets, which can be a pain when Mario tends to go wherever he likes. You'll often find that you'll struggle with the terrible pinball physics and lack of control, and against all odds somehow manage to beat the enemies on screen (or more frustratingly the giant, table-filling boss character) only for Mario to happily float and bounce his way into the next room while you try in vain to actually collect the star that is left as your reward. And as soon as Mario has trickled through the ill-placed door into the next room, you'll have hell-and-all time trying to get the rotund gimp back through the door and into the room where you started, at which point you'll have to start trying top earn the star from scratch again. The first time this happens it's irritating. The second and third times it's a royal pain in the arse, but when it's happening on every single table in the game it's enough to make you want to cast the game aside in rage, never to be played again. It's inconceivable to think that Super Mario Ball has been playtested at all, so glaring are these major flaws.
For all these terrible flaws, though, it has to be said that Super Mario Ball looks absolutely lovely. The sprites are all 3D, and the game is viewed from a quasi-3D angle that gives a genuine sense of depth. It may not be up there with the finest that the DS has to offer, but Super Mario Ball is a game that would genuinely not look too out of place on the GBA's new stablemate. The colour scheme is delightfully bold and in your face, and the animation is surprisingly smooth. On top of that, the opening FMV genuinely is stunning - a full 3D movie detailing the events that lead to Mario being turned into a human pinball in glorious detail - even with such care taken over the animation of the main characters during this mini-movie, there is a huge amount going on in the background at the same time - you can almost hear the inner-workings of the humble GBA straining to keep up. However, as amazing as the graphics are, it soon starts to feel like pulling Paris Hilton in a nightclub: at first you think that you're awesome for playing with something so good-looking, but you swiftly realise that it means nothing when your new toy is as shallow, unresponsive and racially insensitive as this.
The music, while not as stunning as the graphics, is quite impressive, in a sunshine-soaked, bubblegum-flavoured way. Aside from the heart-warmingly familiar tune that plays when Mario becomes invincible, all the tunes on offer are brand new to this game, and while there is absolutely nothing memorable on display at all, the tunes are well-crafted, and again underneath the main tune there is quite a lot going on (plug some headphones into your GBA and you'll see just how much care went into crafting the music in Super Mario Ball). The special effects are less stellar, though, and it's very easy to become fed up to the point of genuine anger with Charles Martinet's yammering away. He'll let out a dizzy moan if Mario takes a lap of the table, he'll cheerfully tell you when you've managed a 'combo' (which basically consists of killing two enemies at once - more by luck than judgement) he'll 'Ya-hoo!' when there really is nothing to 'Ya-hoo!' about. After a couple of minutes it's enough to drive you to despair - not helped by all the other frustrations that this game causes.
As well presented as this game may be, it's easy to be fooled into thinking that with such high production values Super Mario Ball must be a high-quality product, but nothing could be further from the truth. It may be one of the best looking GBA games out there, but that counts for nothing when it plays as abysmally as this. It's near impossible to control, and even if you do somehow manage to master the pinball physics to the extent that you can actually make the game do what you want it to, you'll discover that there's only a couple of hours of gameplay buried in the cart. The poor gameplay mechanics see you forced through no fault of your own to repeat whole sections over and over again until you simply can't bear the thought of playing one more second. The level design is uninspired and tedious. And to make matters worse the bastard thing has a tendency to happily delete your save files and high scores and reset to it's factory settings with absolutely no explanation. The most painful thing about Super Mario Ball, though, is the knowledge that deep down under all the crap it essentially is a decent idea. At the hands of competent developers (or if Nintendo themselves had actually bothered to make it) it could have been a mini-classic, but left to the blundering, inadequate devices of the mysterious Fuse Games is simply reeks of missed opportunity - a complete waste of your time and money.
It looks amazing, but it borders on being quite literally unplayable. The unthinkable has happened, and Mario has starred in a complete and utter stinker (Mario is Missing doesn't count - that one was all Luigi's fault). It's best if we all forget about Super Mario Ball, and try and pretend that it never happened.
Rating: 0.5 - Unplayable
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