Mario checks Princess Peach hard, steals the gleaming, golden coin-shaped puck from her stick, and begins his breakaway through the dirty, cacti-strewn desert. A large metal disc between the blue lines begins rotating, but our red-capped, rollerblading plumber's experience with such patent video-game obstacles shines through as he nimbly navigates the platform. He draws back his stick for a powerful slapshot. Then disaster: A train comes barrelling through the net, its engine serving as a fearsomely capable makeshift goalie. Its grill flicks the coin away with a ping before plowing through our would-be hockey hero, sending him sprawling across the dirt.
Welcome to Mario Sports Mix, Nintendo's latest collection of sports-themed games for Wii. I use the phrase "sports-themed" because, as illustrated above, these games - hockey, basketball, dodgeball, and volleyball - have only the most rudimentary resemblance to their real-world counterparts.
But that's okay, because the whimsical elements make the game stand out from the countless second-rate sports compilations being shilled by studios eager to take advantage of the Wii's casual gamer audience, many of whom understandably have difficulty distinguishing the diamonds from the detritus on the densely packed shelves of their local game stores.
And the wacky rules and weird venues are more than just a shtick; they help keep the experience fresh from one event to the next.
For example, I began a basketball tournament playing on a traditional court, where I witnessed nothing more exotic than Donkey Kong and Luigi tossing the occasional bomb or banana peel at one another. However, succeeding matches delivered a host of unpredictable shenanigans, from a high tide in a beach arena that would occasionally wash up collectible coins that added points to each basket scored, to a floating barge that served as the court, creating perilous water hazards capable of swallowing reckless mustachioed hoop stars whole.
This madcap style of play won't be ideal for hard-core sports-game enthusiasts, but it can be great fun for families looking for something simpler and less intense, especially when playing as part of a group.
Outside of the exhibition and tournament matches that make up the meat of the Mario Sports Mix experience is a small set of quirky party games. Most, such as a dodgeball-themed game that has players doing little more than evading bombs, deliver a few minutes of fun, but are ultimately forgettable.
However, a volleyball-inspired music mini-game filled with memorable ditties from past Nintendo titles - such as the classic underwater theme from Super Mario Bros. - stands apart from the rest. Up to four players work together to bump coloured balls representing a song's notes in an effort to keep the tune going and rack up points. My family has spent hours with this one.
Solo players would be better served by one of Mario's platform adventures, and serious sports-simulation fans may be turned off by the outlandish rules and arenas. That said, as accessible, all-ages team-sports compilations go, Mario Sports Mix sits atop the podium.