Mario has done just about everything in his career – besides being a plumber by trade, he’s also been a doctor, go-kart driver, brawler and, yes, a tennis player. And it is that athletic prowess that is the basis for the latest Mario outing on the Nintendo 3DS: Mario Tennis Open. Coming off the back of the mega-successful Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Tennis Open has a lot to live up to. A successful rendition of the basic gameplay of the Mario Tennis series for the 3DS, Mario Tennis Open nonetheless doesn’t quite serve as many aces as it should. It lacks some of the depth of the past Mario Tennis titles and is by far the weakest of the 3DS Mario titles to date.
It’s pretty hard to get confused by the basics of normal tennis as it translates to the Mario universe, though there are certainly differences. You hit the ball with your racket, making sure it goes within the lines of the court on its first bounce, and scoring a point when it thereafter goes outside the lines. Simple stuff, but Mario Tennis gives it a twist. You’re assisted in what kinds of shots you can pull off with thanks to the touch screen or various button presses. The simple shot is a bit of an everyman shot, which adjusts to most situations but doesn’t have quite as much power as the standalone shots, which include lobs, slices, drop shots, flats and top spins. As your opponent hits the ball into your court, you’ll often get the benefit of a circle lighting up to run towards. Sometimes there may be a bit of distance between you and that circle, so you’ll have to do a running dive to make a shot. That circle lights up in different colours to indicate which shot is the best in your current situation. You can then press and hold the shot type to charge up some power to then hit the ball with as much force as your character can muster.
It’s the individual characters that you’ll find the most variety of the game. Different characters have different strengths on the court. Mario is a great all-rounder, while Peach is a technician and the likes of Donkey Kong and Bowser excel in power. You can also control a Mii. The Mii doesn’t have any inherent characteristics, but you can upgrade it with different items you receive upon winning matches, which will then ascribe attributes. Collected items are based around already existing characters and are tied to their attributes – acquiring Bowser’s racket will boost your power, but Mario’s will not. Of course, as you progress through the different tennis cups, the characters you face off against will be a lot tougher and items will be subsequently more difficult to acquire.
The ability to upgrade the Mii is something that harkens back to the past games in the Mario Tennis series but doesn’t quite equate to the RPG-like qualities of the the past Mario Tennis games, and it’s something that really hurts the enjoyment of Mario Tennis Open. Each of the characters in the game may have their own strengths, but they more or less play the same as one another. Gone are the unique power shots which gave characters a greater level of distinction from one another. You also cannot build on a character’s existing strengths, and all the items you buy or unlock can only be used on a Mii and nobody else within the game. Were it the case that you could give Diddy Kong a defense boost with Waluigi’s shoes, it might enliven the playing experience somewhat.
That’s not to say Mario Tennis Open is a flat experience, however – it is a lot of fun to play and functions as well as we’ve come to expect Mario titles to be. The touchscreen controls are finely-tuned and reach perfectly to your shot requests, and the in-game camera works fine, no matter which input method you use to swivel it around. And outside of the main game, there are four minigames that you can play that are very different from one another. Excelling in them will earn you both coins and the chance to unlock some of the game’s hidden characters. Meanwhile, the arenas of the game all have a lot of variety about them as well – they may not have an impact on the overall gameplay, but they’re at least a great level of window dressing which the 3DS’s graphical grunt represents in a wide palette of rich colours. The 3D effects look fine, but don’t really have any positive or negative bearing on the gameplay.
Mario Tennis Open is a entry into the Mario Tennis series that is finely-tuned enough, but you can’t help but feel that it could have been so much more. There are glimmers of variety, creativity and quality – lots of great-looking arenas, fine minigames and the Mii upgrades are a nice addition. But at its core, the gameplay of Mario Tennis Open is too simplified for those who have played Mario Tennis titles or even the Mario series in general, where variety is king and individual players can come up with so many ways to win, lose or draw a game.