Review: Mario Tennis Open

MarioTennisOpen

Mario is no Novak “Djoker” Djokovic, and nobody’s mistaking Princess Peach for the second coming of Maria Sharapova, but that hasn’t prevented the Mushroom Kingdom crew from mashing it up on the tennis court. As far back as the freaking Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s stars have been running their racquets, with varying degrees of success.

Which brings us to Mario Tennis Open, the new 3DS entry in the Nintendo Grand Slam.

Even though it sports the traditionally rainbow-bright Mario sports-game sheen, Mario Tennis Open is a surprisingly frills-free experience. There’s no story to speak of—Bowser doesn’t even so much as steal Peach’s pink racquet cover. It’s just 12 Nintendo characters and your very own Mii, serving and volleying at each other in singles/doubles matches and tournaments that are differentiated only by the surfaces on which they’re played. It’s also sorta schizophrenic, like McEnroe on an especially bad line-judge day: You expect a certain level of craziness when you suit up with Donkey Kong and Daisy, but Mario Tennis Open aims to mix in a serious tennis approach with its arcade cocktail. By trying to serve the ball both ways, it doesn’t really ace either.

Case in point is the game’s most interesting and puzzling feature. Most real-life tennis matches are won by moving your opponent out of position and taking advantage with a well-placed volley, smash, or drop shot. In Mario Tennis Open matches are won almost exclusively with a little something called a “chance shot.”
Throughout each game, colored circles pop up on the court, each one coded to a particular type of shot (blue for slice, yellow for lob, red for smash, etc.). If you can dart into the circle and hit the appropriate button, you can unleash one of these little beauties. And they are impressive, whether it’s Boo launching a fiery slice that boomerangs behind Bowser to land just inside the baseline, or Mario soft-touching a nasty little drop shot that dies just over the net, sending Luigi huffing and staggering to defeat once again. Acing one of these makes you feel like Federer, Nadal and McEnroe rolled into a single cartoon package.

One small problem, however: Mario Tennis Open may have all the trappings of tennis, but this isn’t really tennis. It’s really difficult to win points without relying on chance shots, and in this sense, it’s the AI, not the player, that’s dictating how (and when) the opportunities to score points will come. You still have to execute them, yes, but chasing colored circles around the court turns the proceedings into Rock Band with a tennis racquet. That’s not a killer issue if the game’s openly embracing an arcade vibe, but you can’t say that about Mario Tennis Open. Of the eight different tournament cups awaiting your power serve, only one of them tosses a cartoon gameplay curveball—that’d be the final Galaxy Court, where the court surface shifts with every successful smash, including a black hole surface that sends each shot skittering in weird directions. It’s a fun twist, and actually made me wish there had been more of these typically arcade touches sprinkled throughout the gameplay.

The control options here are, well, interesting, like some of Bud Collins’ more flamboyant bow-tie selections. Hold the 3DS vertically in front of your face, and the camera shifts into an over-the-shoulder look that eliminates the 3D but really puts you in the action (and makes it much easier to handle returns). Drop it into your lap and the camera goes 3D/isometric, giving a broader view of the action and making shot placement a little easier. Both views work fine, although it’s a little weird that the game’s gyroscope function is incompatible with the system’s 3D functionality. Face Raiders managed both, fer chrissakes.

Hitting your shots is another adventure. Unless you’d really like to make your game a random experience—as in disastrous and defeat-laden–don’t even think about trying to use the touch controls, which are arranged on three different degrees-of-difficulty option screens. The advanced screen lays out the six possible shots in a pinwheel formation, but using it is a non-starter, since tapping accurately means taking your eye off the upper screen, and by extension, the ball. When you’re holding the 3DS vertically, it’s possible to try to aim your shots using the system’s gyroscope, but to pull it off, you have to cede control of your character’s movements to the AI, which feels even less like tennis than holding a 3DS in the air three inches from your face. No matter which way you hold the 3DS, your best option is relying on the circle pad for movement and shot direction, and on face button combos for shot selection. Once you get the hang of these, you’ll be volleying like a cartoon pro.

In addition to scaling the tournament trees, there are four minigames here to break up the versus action, each of which is disguised as a tutorial to teach you the finer points of controlling your shots and scoring return aces. They’re all entertaining, but far and away, the best of these is Super Mario Tennis, a little number that finds you whacking the ball at a wall on which screens of the NES version of Super Mario Brothers are scrolling. Not only can you score coins to buy upgrade objects by hitting targets, but it’s also a great way to get a handle on the various types of shots you’ll be deploying in the tournament brackets. Given that your targets are always changing, there’s a built-in incentive to keep trying for higher levels and higher scores.

The game also shines when you go multiplayer, either mixing it up one-on-one or collecting three friends for a local or online doubles match. Playing against human opponents removes some of the chance-shot auto-kill vibe that unbalances the single-player game and also dampens the tendency to spam the AI characters’ signature weaknesses. Put it this way: Chances are good your friends aren’t going to fall for a drop shot up the middle the way Luigi does.

Assuming you’re willing to put up with limited gameplay options and don’t mind chasing colored circles around the court, Mario Tennis Open has plenty of fun features to recommend it, especially if you’re playing with friends. Just don’t expect it to monopolize your 3DS card slot.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Pretty presentation
+ Nailing a chance shot slice can make you feel Federer-esque
+ Super Mario Tennis mingame!

Cons:
– Chance shots reduce winning and losing to AI-controlled luck
– Each new control option comes with a significant drawback
– Not a lot of gameplay variety

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Camelot
Release Date: 5/20/2012
Genre: Sports – Tennis
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1-4 (local and online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.