Less is less.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long since the last Mario Tennis outing—over six years—but it’s good to see it back again nonetheless. After the last couple of handheld Mario Tennis titles (especially the excellent Game Boy Advance installment), expectations for the 3DS entry have been soaring. But does Camelot’s latest live up to the legacy of its namesake?
As the title screen fades in, we’re greeted with a familiar Sakuraba-style Mario Sports tune followed by an exciting array of play modes and options. There’s the typical single-player tournament and exhibition modes, four different mini-game modes, character customization for your Mii, and local and online multiplayer. At first glance, the breadth of content seems perfectly adequate, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
One of the (relatively few) new ideas to be found in Open.
First, let’s talk about the gameplay. Mario Tennis Open is built with layers of gameplay that coalesce to produce a respectable sense of depth. It takes a bit of getting used to (especially if you haven’t fooled with the series before), but it won’t be long before you’re fluent. During matches, there are several different types of maneuvers: a standard “simple” shot (X), topspin (A), or slice (B); a flat shot (Y); lobs (A, B) and drop shots (B, A), and dives (press R to attempt one). This stuff takes some getting used to, but it’s fun to have several different options at your disposal for quick access. There’s also the touch screen method, which displays several colored panels corresponding to each type of shot which can be pressed to execute—but this is a little wonkier than just using the buttons in most cases.
As you play, tiles appear at the landing points of each shot both to indicate its destination and offer an opportunity for a devastating return. These tiles are color-coded to match the shot panels on the touch screen, and by stepping into one and performing the corresponding stroke, you’ll fire back a formidable response. This is a fun way of spicing up the gameplay and ensuring that skill and quick hand-eye coordination rules the match.
There’s also this weird new mechanic where you can position the 3DS vertically to quickly enter a free-look mode that leverages the gyrometer to control the angle of your view during play. This wisely disables 3D for the moment to prevent any jarring distortion throughout the process, but I still never had any luck in making it work. Disabling it permanently requires you to regress to the Clubhouse in the main menu and explicitly switch it off, which is also a bit strange. Once it was disabled, however, I quickly forgot that it ever existed to begin with.
Other gameplay modifiers include each character’s unique abilities, the somewhat varied properties of several different available courts, and lots of aforementioned accessories which can be used to dress up your Mii and simultaneously augment his abilities. The latter can be unlocked throughout the course of the game, after which they must be purchased using coins at the Clubhouse. It’s a fun modifying factor that harkens back to the RPG days of previous handheld Mario Tennis games.
But mere harkening isn’t enough, and therein lies the first and most significant problem with Mario Tennis Open: it’s sorely missing any sort of Career Mode or other RPG-driven single-player experience. Instead, we’re left to entertain ourselves with standard tournaments and exhibition matches with very few bells and whistles. Even with the different courts and characters at play, each match invariably blends into the next, as the differences introduced by such variables are much subtler than is generally the case in Mario Sports titles. And since many of the tennis matches consist of multiple sets, it’s easy to quickly grow bored of the surprisingly repetitive action.
This is probably the coolest idea in the game.
What about the mini-game modes, then, you ask? A few of them are par for the course (Ring Shot, Galaxy Rally, and Ink Showdown), though the final one is particularly creative. Let’s quickly run through the list:
Ring Shot – Classic Ring Shot action, a mainstay of the Mario Sports series. It’s simple: you and a partner volley the ball back and forth while rings appear randomly overtop the net. Each ring grows in size over time, losing value all the while. The goal is to volley the ball through as many rings as possible (ideally just after they appear and are still very small for maximum points) as quickly as possible. Combos count for extra, and missing a return costs precious seconds.
Galaxy Rally – Volley back and forth with a luma on a galactic court. The goal here is simply to return the ball as consistently as possible without breaking the streak—you get three misses before it’s Game Over. Complicating matters are disappearing panels and some score boosters, such as star pieces and launch stars. It’s fun, but nothing breathtaking.
Ink Showdown – Three piranha plants line the back of the opposing court, ready to serve tennis balls (and the occasional ink blot, which obstructs your screen if missed). Your job is to hit them back at the opposing player without allowing them to touch the shot. If they so much as make contact with it, it counts as a miss—and three of those drops the curtain. This is personally my least favorite of any of the four mini-games as it’s just not really that much fun.
Super Mario Tennis – Easily the most creative and notable of the four mini-games, Super Mario Tennis is, well, Super Mario Bros. played with a tennis ball. Of course, it isn’t the actual unmodified game—that’d be pretty lame considering it isn’t designed to be played this way. Rather, it’s a collection of a few different new levels specifically constructed to work tennis context. The screen auto-scrolls as you fire the ball at it, looking to make contact with blocks, coins, and enemies, all of which predictably raise your score. Meanwhile, a rather fierce and unforgiving timer ticks down, ready to expire and drain one of your three lives. Every block, coin, power-up, and enemy you hit adds a bit of time back on the clock, but it’s not an easy game by any interpretation. Speaking of power-ups, you can grab mushrooms to increase the size of the ball, fire flowers to produce fireballs with each bounce, and 1-Ups to compensate for the many times you will either run out of time or miss a return. It’s a lot of fun and freaking difficult—I still can’t complete the fourth level!
The character customization is neat, but it just isn't enough.
There’s also local multiplayer, of course, as well as a surprisingly thin online experience (I was under the impression that Nintendo had shaken these demons, but this feels more like 2006 Nintendo than 2012 Nintendo). One cool addition is that you can actually play full matches with friends who don't own a copy of the game via Download Play.
As much fun as these games are, however, they’re still merely accompaniment for what is typically expected to be a much more robust single-player campaign than Open provides. That’s a shame, because had it been equipped with a comparable Career mode to Power Tour and perhaps some more variety in the way of courts and power-ups, it might be much harder to close the 3DS on Open.