Mario has been hitting the tennis the courts for well over a decade now, starting with a now somewhat infamous role as a pack-in for the doomed Virtual Boy console. Developed primarily by Camelot, the series has progressed to become one of the dependable stand bys in the Mario sports genre. Mario Tennis Open is the first appearance on handhelds since the Gameboy Advance’s 2005 version, skipping the DS generation in the process. Those familiar with the earlier titles will wonder if some rust has built up in Mario’s swing over the seven year absence. The answer may depend on what you like most about the game.
Mario Tennis Open offers several modes of play. Starting with single player, you can participate in singles or doubles tournaments, exhibition one-off matches, and special games designed to improve your skills. The tournaments are pretty straightforward and only consist of three rounds so they’re very quick to churn through, with difficulty only increasing mildly along the way. You can choose among several of the Mario characters each with their own focus: All-Around, Technique, Speed, Tricky, Defense, and Power. Or you can play as your Mii, which can have its abilities customized by unlocking and purchasing tennis gear with coins. Once you clear the Champions Cup with a character, it becomes eligible for the Star Open set of tournaments, which are a bit more difficult but not incredibly so. If you want a challenge I recommend playing exhibition matches on Expert or Pro difficulty, because otherwise the CPU just serves up a lot of easy Smash Aces. There’s also local and online multiplayer of course. You can either do matchmaking for a quick singles game against regional opponents or set up a game with friends where you can even do doubles action. There is an overall ranking system as well and the games were lag free in my experience, with the matchmaking only taking a couple of minutes at most. Finally you can play games against any Streetpass Miis you picked up in a separate mode.
The special games are pretty fun, actually. Ring Shot just involves hitting the ball through rings with your AI partner, racking up as many points as you can in a time limit. Super Mario Tennis is a clever take that combines racquetball with the original Super Mario Bros. Each level scrolls by and you can hit the item blocks and enemies, collect coins, even go down the pipes by hitting them. You work against a time limit and have to hit the final flag pole before the clock hits zero. Galaxy rally is a Super Mario Galaxy tie in that involves keeping the ball alive while parts of the court disappear, collecting star pieces along the way. Finally you have Ink Showdown, a game where you must return ace balls spit out of piranha plants while also dispersing ink blots before they block your screen. All of these games allow you to gather coins for use in unlocking gear for your Mii character.
Overall the base gameplay is fairly simple, though this version of Mario Tennis gives you a few control options that mix things up. First of all, you can use the tried and true thumbstick and buttons method, with the button and how long you hold it determining the type and strength of the shot, and A-B, B-A combinations for lobbing and drop shots. Another option is to use the bottom touchscreen to determine your shots. This has the advantage of instantly signaling to you what type of shot is best to return what is coming towards you by flashing the appropriate button, but also ends up distracting you from the court. You also have the option of holding up the 3DS more vertically and using the gyroscopes to control the camera and aim. While an interesting concept, this is the least effective mode of playing the game and has the added disadvantage of automatically turning off the 3D on your display. Fortunately you can turn off the gyroscope detection altogether as it can accidentally trigger during normal play at times.
Ultimately the game plays just like previous Mario Tennis games on the GameCube and Nintendo 64. The main difference is it tends to revolve around what’s called Chance Shots, glowing circles on the court which appear after the opponent returns the ball, either by chance or by a poor return. Hitting a standard shot within these circles unleashes a special shot, the Smash Ace designated by a star being the most devastating, but there’s also trick shots where the ball curves unpredictably towards a corner, or towering lob shots, as well as drop shots that hardly bounce at all. It does cheapen the game a little in my opinion, but there is still strategy involved in responding to Chance Shots and setting up the opponent for them. I didn’t see a way to turn them off, not even in multiplayer, so it is a bit of an odd design decision that may disappoint some Mario Tennis veterans. Also disappointing is the loss of the RPG progression some may remember from previous games, though the Mii customization may replace that a bit.
The graphics in Mario Tennis Open are certainly the high point of the title. Everything is modeled gorgeously and you could argue it looks better than Super Mario 3D Land or even any Wii title, though that could be the smaller screen masking any flaws. The textures and stadiums are fairly detailed and the effects of all the shots are brilliant. The replays really show off the 3D well and the overall presentation is spot on. All of this praise applies to the sound as well, each stadium having an appropriate soundtrack with the pace picking up in the latter stages of matches, each shot having a distinct sound as well.
So is this the Mario Tennis game you’ve been waiting for? With the changes made to the gameplay and the subtraction of RPG elements, probably not if you’re a diehard fan of the series and the way things used to be. Is it a particularly bad game though? Not at all. The special games are a fun little twist worth going back to and if you like unlocks there’s plenty of that to go around, too. Multiplayer will keep things fresh for a while yet. If you’re new to Mario Tennis or not so attached to the past then I can fully recommend this as a good showcase of the system and a nice change of pace from a library thin on sports titles at the moment.