One of the first things that you notice and which will impress you in Mario Tennis Open is the integration of Mii support to the game such that it just works. Itís a simple thing, so simple that at first you donít actually take any notice of it but soon enough you remember that the Mii is not a character in the game, but something associated with your 3DS system, and originally (most likely) your Wii. I make this point for a few reasons. One, itís typical of any Nintendo game (this has been developed by Camelot, yes, but the relationship is a close and long-lasting one) that it should work impeccably. The seal of quality may be long gone but the excellence underpinning it remains. Two, it makes for a different game than if you choose to play as Mario or Yoshi, and three, it personalises and focuses your efforts when it comes to multiplayer in a way that a Mario vs. Luigi game doesnít.
Despite this, Mario Tennis Open is not going to surprise the player in terms of what it offers. Tennis is tennis and Mario Tennis has been around since the Virtual Boy, with a Gameboy non-Mario tennis precursor as well which some may remember. This game builds on the seriesí history - much of which has been written by Camelot as well. It delivers a remarkably true tennis feeling, and does so consistently throughout the game such that it performs at least on par with the more obviously real-life Virtua Tennis when taken as exactly that - a game of tennis. Of course though, being a Nintendo creation, itís much more than that.
You have multiple tournaments in which to take part as well as exhibition matches and special events. When you first fire the title up you receive an invitation to take part in the Mushroom Cup where like any global Grand Slam tournament you come up against valiant foes and endeavour to become last man or woman standing at which point youíre showered with confetti, handed a big shiny trophy in glorious 3D and get invited to the next tournament. There are eight in total, none of which are particularly hard. In fact itís possible to win each game from the off without even knowing which type of shot youíre playing to start with. When you do have the knowledge and control it sets you up perfectly to ensure you still donít ever lose on your way to becoming the undefeated Mario Tennis Open champion. This might be a problem to some but of course multiplayer is available here and thatís where things get interesting (more on this later).
Part of the reason the game seems so easy is thanks to the special shots youíre able to pull off in true Mario style. Of course you can apply topspin, lob or play a drop-shot; what really hurts your opponent is when you use chance areas correctly and regularly. Chance areas are circular spotlights on the court within which if you stand and play the specific shot that chance area refers to (for example a red one allows for a super fireball topspin shot, and blue allows for the biggest swerve shot youíve ever seen) then that point is ninety-nine percent of the time won. Fantastically entertaining and easy to pull off - moving your character around the court and pressing the corresponding button is all thatís needed - it sexes up each and every game and entertains even in the final of the last competition. It isnít tennis but it is fun and applied impeccably.
Different shots are mapped to different buttons, or you have the option of three touchscreen setups differentiated by their complexity. Two have just some basic shots depending on your play style while the third has every shot colour coded (which is very helpful for relating to chance areas) and details the equivalent button press - helpful in case you forget what to do for a lob shot. There arenít enough buttons for all shots so some are edging towards beat Ďem up style combination button presses. Well, two buttons in succession anyway. This may push folks towards using the touchscreen controls preferentially but in practice it was much harder to learn and remember the colour compared to the button for a particular shot. This led to lots of glances down at the lower screen and misses of the ball given the inserted delay between needing to take a shot and actually doing so. This was probably years of muscle memory rather than anything else so new gamers may prefer the touch screen control setup. Regardless, the option is there at all times which is nice to see.
If you play as your Mii you get an element of role playing entering the game. You earn points along the way which allow you to buy new racquets and costumes. Depending on your item selections your stats will change and allow you to mould your Mii into the type of tennis player you want to be. Whether you go for the elegance and shot variation of a Roger Federer, or power hitting of Bowser is up to you. Whilst thereís not massive variation in the output (equally so when you choose Peach compared to Wario instead) observed - probably because it is an arcade game at the end of the day, and the incessant use of chance areas - itís an extra element of fun to an already enjoyable but throwaway game.
Throwaway because you are playing tennis on a handheld after all. Games are quick and easy and very, very portable. Itís a good thing that the developers have managed to make it like this given the platform, but for the more regular gamers amongst you thereís likely a limited shelf life with this game. Unless you are up for regular multiplayer sessions that is. Here there are many options - local and online multiplayer, with local allowing up to four people to play at once and all from a single cartridge. As you can imagine playing with chums is much less predictable and linear than the tournaments against the 3DS itself. The available shots here, combined with strategic use of the chance areas leads to some wonderfully entertaining matches and in my experience - likely to be the same for everyone - a pretty even affair. Itís kind of like Mario Kart in this respect. The game is simple to pick up and play and pretty intuitive for anyone who has ever seen tennis and/or isnít colour blind (matching chance areas to shots). Combine this with the blue shell effect and you have a rip-roaring entertainer and a balance between success and failure set to keep people interested but not really reward skill in the long-term.
Outside of tournament play and multiplayer matches you can perform in exhibition matches where you have the option to vary difficulty level (why not in the cups?) or take part in special events. These are glorified training sessions really, with a Mario twist. The highlight is the chance to play the original Super Mario Bros. by playing tennis - the levels you know and love scroll along a wall and instead of controlling Mario you hit the tennis ball to collect coins, Ďstompí on Goombas or activate power-up question mark blocks. Utterly wonderful and inventive and arguably more than enough reason to buy this game - especially if choosing between this and any other tennis game! One final feature to note is the first person perspective available to use - hold the 3DS up nearly vertically and the viewpoint moves to that of your avatarís. You donít control the movement using this perspective, only the shots. Moving the 3DS moves your head and affects what you can see. This isnít for those who demand the most interactive and compelling or complex gameplay but as another option, and a nod to other types of gamers, itís a lovely addition and touch from Camelot.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this game then when you come down to it. That may hint of faint praise and in part thatís intended. You donít get anything over and above what you may have expected and although there are differences compared to previous series titles, multiplayer and chance areas being the key ones, it is fundamentally the same game youíve been playing since your Gameboy (or Virtual Boy if you were cool). On the flipside, you do get to use the chance areas, play local or online multiplayer, have it on your shiny new portable games machine and, if so desired, glorious three dimensions (not that it adds to the gameplay at all, despite what you may think given the possibilities with the depth of the court). Advantage Mario, then.
Grand Slam or Minor?