Mario Tennis Open (3DS) review
"Mario Tennis is one of the most underrated spinoff series ever conceived. Ever since its debut over a decade ago, it’s gained a small, but devout following. While not quite as addictive or challenging as the Mario Kart titles, the games won over audiences with a blend of wacky personality and creativity. They demonstrated how the normally tepid sports genre could be made fun and interesting. Though Mario eventually branched out into other pastimes like soccer and baseball, his tenn..."
Mario Tennis is one of the most underrated spinoff series ever conceived. Ever since its debut over a decade ago, it’s gained a small, but devout following. While not quite as addictive or challenging as the Mario Kart titles, the games won over audiences with a blend of wacky personality and creativity. They demonstrated how the normally tepid sports genre could be made fun and interesting. Though Mario eventually branched out into other pastimes like soccer and baseball, his tennis matches remained memorable. After an eight year hiatus, the latest installment was finally announced for the 3DS. Hopes were high that Nintendo could take a classic game and improve it. Hungry for something new, fans eagerly awaited for what should have been an amazing handheld game.
Instead, they got Mario Tennis Open.
It seems fine at first glance. You get to play as one of several characters from the series, be it the Mario Bros., Bowser, Peach, Yoshi, Boo, Donkey and Diddy Kong, Wario, Waluigi, and a handful of others. Even your Mii can be uploaded and customized with various costumes and gear. Everyone has a specialized playing style; some focus on power while sacrificing speed, while others rely on tricks and maneuverability. The contenders compete in either singles or doubles tournaments, steadily racking up points and winning enough sets to earn a championship trophy. The further you go, the longer and more difficult the matches become. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you’ll amass an impressive collection of trophies and unlockable items. In terms of structuring and pacing, it looks like it has everything you could want from a tennis game…
Until you start playing.
Let’s assume that it’s your first tournament. It’s your turn to serve, so you press a button to get the ball flying. Your opponent has no problem returning the shot, and the next couple of seconds are spent dashing around the court and knocking the ball over the net. But as you wait for the ball to come back, something weird happens: a bright neon circle suddenly pops up from the ground. These “Chance Shots” indicate what type of hit best counters your foe’s attack. The blue Slice sends the ball soaring at an angle, the yellow Lob results in huge, slow arcs, the purple Drop Shot relies on speed, etc. By standing in the circle and pressing the corresponding button to charge up, you can overwhelm the opposition. The commands are also mapped onto colored panels on the touch screen, thus making the mechanics even easier to learn. It’d be a neat idea, if it didn’t completely break the game. Half the fun of playing tennis is developing your sense of timing, positioning, and technique; such things are difficult to master, but the results are satisfying. Mario Tennis Open waters these fundamental aspects down into a matter of matching colors with buttons. Since the circles show exactly where the ball is going to land, there’s no strategy or guesswork involved. Unless you’re playing on the highest difficulty, it’s ridiculously simple to outpace the AI-controlled opponents. All you have to do is walk into the circle, press a button, and repeat until the computer inevitably screws up.
It’s even worse if you try to take a closer look. Not content with the typical console-style camera, the game uses the 3DS’s gyro sensor to provide more dynamic views. If you hold the system closer to your face at an angle – usually when you’re fighting against a particularly diehard opponent and focusing on his or her movements – the screen will suddenly dive behind your character. The sudden shift in perspective is not only disorienting, but it drags the already tedious gameplay down even further. If you’re playing a doubles match, you’ll lose often sight of your partner and end up missing what should have been an easy shot. Your movement is affected as well; rather than allowing you to walk freely, the game automatically moves you into the next Chance Shot or the path of the ball itself. This destroys any semblance of potential strategy; since you don’t have to worry about placement or timing, you just press the correct button and wait for victory. It’s possible to win whole tournaments without even looking at the top screen. You’ll spend more time gazing at the touch screen and fumbling around with the 3DS as you try to direct your shots with the control stick and pressing the onscreen panels at the same time. While the gyro sensor mode can be deactivated, it’s poorly-implemented and detracts from the overall experience.
It’s also the only feature that utilizes the 3DS’s functionality. There are barely any online options at all. The greatest strength of the Mario Tennis series has always been its superb multiplayer, but it’s been almost completely ignored this time. All you’re given a choice between exhibitions with people on your friend list, or face random challengers in the ranked open matches. There’s not much to do; you can either have a quick tiebreaker showdown, or duke it out in slightly longer exchanges. Not only are they horribly brief and unsatisfying – depending on the skill of the opponent, a game could last mere seconds – but there’s no way to create teams, enter tournaments, search for people with similar rankings, view other matches, or save and upload replays. The occasional lag doesn’t help much, either. You’re awarded bonus points for each victory, but there’s no record of it besides a bland leaderboard display. With so little to offer, the online multiplayer comes off as lazy and shallow at best.
The game tries to distract you with its extras. You’re given a choice between four mini-games, none of which are particularly interesting or challenging. You can practice aiming via Ring Shot, in which you hit the ball through giant floating rings and rack up points under a time limit. The Ink Showdown focuses on hitting at certain angles while dealing with screen obstructions, but the simplicity and pacing are laughable. The Galaxy Rally revolves around keeping the ball bouncing while whole sections of the court appear and vanish like certain parts of the Super Mario Galaxy games. It looks challenging at first, until you realize how easy it is to place your shots. Retro fans will get more out of Super Mario Tennis; it projects the original Super Mario Bros. on a huge wall, then has you use the ball to kill Goombas, collect coins, and interact with the classic levels. Your efforts will be rewarded with coins that can be spent on new rackets and costumes for your Mii. Each object has unique power, spin, and movement stats, but they’re all represented by generic and uninformative pie charts. As a result, there’s no way to tell how customized gear affects the gameplay. But since there’s so little strategy or depth involved, it doesn’t really matter.
That goes for the courts as well. Super Mario Open’s locations are designed around stages from Mario’s previous exploits. You can smash the ball back and forth over the gigantic mushroom platforms from Mario Kart 7, the snowy, penguin-infested fields and shifting sands of Super Mario 64, and even the fiery depths of Bowser’s castle. Each court affects the gameplay in certain ways; some places have harder floors, thus resulting in stronger bounces and faster speeds than those of grass and clay-based courts. While this reflects how real tennis works, it’s also limited by the simplified physics and gameplay mechanics. Previous Mario Tennis games had more imaginative designs and interactive stages. This time, courts are essentially identical and merely hidden under various skins. There are nearly three decades of content to use, and that’s the best Nintendo could do? Only the Morph Court and its ever-changing, trajectory-altering surfaces present a remotely creative idea. But since the Chance Shot circles show the exact location of an oncoming ball, there’s absolutely no tension or randomness to be found. One of the few interesting aspects of the game is ruined by its terrible design.
It’s a shame. After so many years of waiting, Mario Tennis has returned and failed on nearly every level. It may look like a tennis game, but its design oversimplifies everything about the sport. The sheer lack of strategy and depth is almost insulting. It’s not fun or satisfying in the slightest. It’s just a matter of hitting whatever button that matches the shiny color on the screen. Not only is the gyroscopic camera awkwardly implemented, but it makes the matches even more tedious. The online multiplayer is a joke; aside from brief random matchups, there’s absolutely nothing to keep you coming back. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a game easier to understand, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of its quality. As a result, what could have been a great title is utterly ruined. Oh, Nintendo.
Community review by disco (June 04, 2012)
Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.
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