Mario Tennis Open review: Nintendo serves up a return to form
17th May 2012 | 09:09
That time of year is drawing upon us. The time of strawberries and cream; of immaculately white shorts; of Cliff Richard awkwardly hoping to be asked to sing whenever a light shower hits centre court; of screeching at Andy Murray as he valiantly fails to win yet again.
Yes, Wimbledon draws near, but for those of you who just can't wait another month for your tennis fix (and have, in that proud British tradition, forgotten there are actually three other Grand Slams every year) Mario and company have the antidote you need. And it's absolutely nothing like a proper game of tennis.
Considering his recent success on the Olympic circuit, it's a surprise we've had to wait this long for Mario and friends to rediscover their racquets. Perhaps we should blame the Miis - those workshy little androids, sunning themselves over on Wuhu island, have taught a generation of Nintendo fans that tennis is all about the swinging motion, and neglected the rather important bit where you run over to the damn ball in the first place.
For those of you who've only ever played Nintendo's motion controlled ball-whacking outings, then, here's a recap of what Mario Tennis is about. A roster of well-loved Nintendo characters, and some less loved has-beens brought in to make up the numbers (sorry Daisy!), compete to win four cups named according to the Mario Kart tradition of escalating difficulty - all the way from the squidgy soft Mushroom Cup to pointy, hard-as-nails Star Cup.
Just like Mario Kart, different characters have different attributes on the court. Bowser and Donkey Kong are all Andy Roddick-style hard serves and powerful returns, Daisy and Peach display Sharapova-speediness, while Mario and Luigi are the Federer-esque all-court experts. (Only, of course, they're not quite as awesome as Federer, because that would make the game as unbalanced as, well, tennis was when that guy was at his peak.) There's also your Mii, which is kind of Goran Ivanisevic wild card.
The tennis itself follows the rules of the real-life game - with a few brightly coloured exceptions. Those exceptions would the 'chance shots' - special strokes activated by being in the right place at the right time - and then managing to press the right button, too. All the usual tennis strokes appear in Open - drop shots, lobs, flats, topspin and so forth - and each one is colour coded.
Pulling off a chance shot - a supercharged extra-uber version of whatever shot you use - requires you to run to the glowing emblem that appears on the court when the ball is in the air, punch the correct button (or, on occasion, button combo) - and then cackle maniacally as your return volley swerves like a bus driver on a collision course with a pack of schoolkids.
The truth is, these chance shots are just a bit overpowered. A regular drop shot is balanced perfectly, gently bouncing off your racquet and forcing your desperate opponent to run into the net. The chance shot version, meanwhile, turns the ball into a physicsdefying lump of dark matter, barely able to offer a feeble bump off the ground before it bags you a point. And as for the slice? That takes on an arcing trajectory not unlike a comet in elliptical orbit - curving impossibly around your opponent before bouncing behind them to win the game. A powered up topspin is more direct - it simply smashes your opponent in their big stupid face if they're not quick enough to respond.
Of course, both players have access to these moves, and they're certainly not as powerful as the Mario Power Tennis power shots, which would see play actually stop momentarily while the characters charged
up the tennis equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. Once you learn to take them into account, in fact, the chance shots become tightly woven into the rhythm of the game. You learn how to counter them, and even develop a sense for when it's best to surprise your opponent by ignoring them altogether.
Multiplayer matches should benefit in particular from both players understanding the nuances of these moves - as we'll find out for ourselves when we get a proper chance to test Open's online functionality once it's released. Regardless, in theory you're supposed to respond to a chance shot by returning them with a shot of the opposite type, but in practice it's hard enough to keep track of what colour signifies what shot.
Mario Tennis Open's touch screen controls should make this simple. Take one look at the bottom screen, however, awkwardly chopped into coloured pieces like toddler's first jigsaw puzzle, and you'll soon realise that's not going to be the case. There are simply too many moves squeezed into a small space - try to jab them with your thumb at short notice and you're just as likely to to send the ball flying skywards, setting your opponent up for a blistering finisher, as you are to slice it past them at speed.
The 3DS gyroscope does offer an alternative, but it's one that massively changes the feel of the game. When enabled, the camera zooms low for a dramatic over-the-shoulder view - and, just like in Wii Sports, your character will start automatically running for the ball.
In this mode, the idea is that you adjust the aim of your shots by tilting the unit to the left and right. It works - surprisingly well in fact - but it's definitely better for aiming than returning: over the shoulder views might be great for placing your shots, but they're not really much good for tracking the angle of your opponent's return. In this battle for control-input dominance, in other words, it's the good ol' circle pad and face buttons that win out.
Outside of tournaments and exhibition matches, there's a small batch of special games. Of the bunch, only one feels gimmicky - which isn't bad going considering that they're all variations on hitting a ball over a net. One returning classic is the brilliant Ring Shot, where you and a partner team up to keep a rally going for as long as you can, hitting the ball through bright gold rings in order to ratchet up your score.
Another similar game is Galaxy Rally - this borrows the shrinking tiles from Super Mario Galaxy and builds a tennis court out of them, the inevitable outcome of such an egregious design oversight being a surface that disappears whenever a ball hits it. Again, you and a friendly Luma must keep a rally going for as long as you can, the Galaxy theme music spurring you on all the while.
Ink Showdown, meanwhile, is the rubbish one - in that it's basically an ordinary game of tennis with the added bonus of piranha blots splatting the screen with an ink effect shamelessly borrowed from Super Mario Kart. Super Mario Tennis, however - now this is a minigame.
It's a twist on the "play against a wall" game that's featured in the series since Mario Tennis, except the wall just happens to be emulating Super Mario Bros - a pastiche of levels from that game autoscrolls across the wall, and you get points for hitting goombas, coins and question mark blocks. It's target practice, but the second you're rewarded for hitting the topmost part of an end-of-level flag with a lob shot is the second you'll agree it's the best target practice ever.
Meanwhile, StreetPass provides the last drops of entertainment value. Your carefully crafted Miis can be exchanged through the 3DS' wireless magic. Once you've got another person's Mii, you can play against it - it's a multiplayer match, in other words, just without the other player.
So, Open's not quite as good as the N64's Mario Tennis. But it's better than the GameCube's Mario Power Tennis, and it completely destroys Mario's Tennis for the Virtual Boy. Like Mario Kart, there's something that just feels right about livening up this sport with a dash of Murshroom Kingdom charm - and Mario Tennis Open is almost a return to form.