We've always known that our favourite tubby plumber was a bit of a groover: why else would his adventures always be accompanied by such a fabulous array of toe-tapping gems? That many of these show-stoppers have been rounded-up and grafted onto a Dancing Stage title sounds like an idea of stultifying genius that even our pretend pet cat, Eric, seemed pleased with the prospect of pirouetting around the living room in a shiny suit.
After the innumerable editions put out by Konami over the years, the phenomenally popular series seriously needed some novelty value attached to it to persuade us to review it all over again. Let's face it, not many of us fancy prancing around the living room to crap pop (unless you happen to have some sort of worrying kitsch fetish), yet somehow the idea of getting jiggy to the theme tune from Bowser's Castle is instantly appealing. How very wrong.
This is the story
This time around there's even a proper story mode to play through n'all, and plenty of silly mini-games interspersed throughout to break up the non-stop, foot-stomping, sweat-inducing action that inevitably ensues. Unsurprisingly, someone (can you guess who) has stolen the Music Keys that were locked up in Truffle Towers - thus breaking the seal and unleashing their chaotic power onto the Mushroom Kingdom. Call the cops! Actually, as per bloomin' usual, it's Mario (or Luigi) that's forced to do the dirty work: "legend has it" that dancing can make magic happen. Didn't work for Michael Flatley, did it?
Anyway. Yes. Dance. Recapture Music Keys. Save world. Sweat. Pass out.
As ever, the premise seems simple enough, but it all depends on whether you've got the funk or not. Once again, arrows scroll up the screen and it's down to you to hit the appropriate direction as it enters the 'step zone'. If you time it well, you'll build up your dance meter, and if you time it badly or miss it entirely your meter goes down. Simple.
But it doesn't end there. Consecutive successful steps build up your combo count, but if you misstime any subsequent step you'll have to start from scratch. Meanwhile, if your dance meter runs out at any point, it's Game Over, man. Needless to say, the game follows identical mechanics to any previous Dancing Stage game, with gradings dished out at the end of your little dance, and progressively harder difficulty settings to try out once you're comfortable with strutting your stuff.
While all this arrow-stomping nonsense is going on, all sorts of craziness occurs on the screen in the form of bizarre dance routines from Mario and the cast of adversaries that he meets on his journeys. Along the way you get to endure 'dance-offs' with his traditional enemies, such as Waluigi, Wario and of course Bowser. Over the course of the five 'worlds' in the story mode, you'll also face all manner of bizarre tasks, such as dancing your way out of an avalanche or boogieing along a rollercoaster track. You couldn't make it up: all in a day's work, presumably.
In between the stages you also get to try your hand (or should be say feet?) at 13 or so mini-games which help break it all up. Some are just simple coin-collecting exercises, with up to jump and down to duck, while others have you dodging giant snowballs rolling down the mountain, or trying to collect as many bananas as possible as monkeys lob them out of trees. No-one said it had to make any sense...
All of them are pretty simple score-based interludes, and none are especially challenging, but for young kids they'll be well-received and certainly help make the game feel a little more varied. You can even play them individually once you've unlocked them, giving you a chance to go for the high-score.
In addition, once you've had your fun in the Story Mode you can also return to a song of your choice in the Free Mode at one of the four difficulty levels - with a special 'Mush Mode' throwing in Goombas, Koopa Troopers, Ice Spinies, Boos and more into the arrow-scrolling mix, forcing you to think a little harder than which direction to hit. For example, Ice Spinies have to be avoided entirely, Goombas must be squashed with the appropriate arrow direction, Koopas have to be hit twice to get rid of them, while missing a Boo obscures the screen with a giant Boo.
If you're really determined to use the game as some sort of twisted, perverted exercise tool, there's also the Workout mode, allowing you to meddle with various calorie-count settings, and burn off those Christmas choccies. Or, just run on the spot for an hour to your favourite Celine Dion 'classic'. We're full of similar top tips. Just ask.
Two-player split-screen antics are possible, but using a joypad against the 'Action Mat' (as they call it) seems a little silly. For the full dance-a-thon experience you'll require a separate mat - and unless you've got a pal who's got a copy of the game, you're going to be forced to buy the full kit all over again. For those that do have access, though, a versus mode lets you show off who's got the best dancing feet to whatever songs you've unlocked. It's no more simple or complicated than that.
For the poor, deprived Cube owners out there that have been thus far denied the chance to strut their stuff in front of their TV, this is easily the best Dancing Stage title on any platform. That it's exclusive to the little Nintendo boxlet might just help make up for the long wait, and the fact that it comes in a nice big box with a mat included helps sweeten the deal. Sure, Dancing Stage Mario is nothing new, but it's an enduring, bizarre little concept with practically universal appeal, and a great way of wearing out super energetic kids.