The main difference between Mario’s typically hit-or-miss sports titles—especially Mario Golf and Mario Tennis—is that, no matter how well crafted the core gameplay mechanics are, they frequently tend to lack the dedication and IP-embracing flair Nintendo applies to all of its upstanding Mario Kart entries. When third-party developer Camelot is firing on all cylinders, taking into account the hefty aesthetic cravings of Nintendo’s fanbase, it can deliver ceaselessly habit-forming Mushroom Kingdom athletic forays; both the first Mario Golf and Mario Tennis installments provide boundless hours of cartoonish fun to this very day. It’s difficult to believe that 12 years have passed since the initial Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64, a game that managed to uncover a specific perennial balance between the wackiness of Mario Kart and a much more traditional sporting event-based contest. With the graphical capabilities and portability of the 3DS, not a soul could have been called a fool for thinking Mario Tennis Open could match up to the perpetually addictive qualities of its predecessors, and while those enslaving attributes do surface from time to time, Camelot has mostly bollixed a tremendous opportunity to make the perfect companion piece to 2011’s largely solid Mario Kart 7.
Even as Mario Tennis Open continuously excels in the visuals department, with bright, multicolored court settings that look great in a non-eye-straining 3D capacity, the overall experience otherwise feels incredibly bare. Camelot has basically manufactured a decent-by-normal-standards tennis game and pulled the silken skin of Mario’s universe tightly over its skeleton. Mind you, Mario Tennis Open’s bone structure isn’t thin by any means, simply tonally unimaginative and devoid of an honest-to-goodness Nintendo sensibility. Camelot implements the 3DS control scheme well enough, proving a sound equilibrium between the system’s touchpad operations and the classic arcade dexterity required to nail the perfect power shot dictated by various color-coded circles that intermittently appear on the playing field. Of course, gyroscopic functionality is attempted, with the player’s screen view shifting to a closer, lower angle rather than a slanted top-down view. Swinging one’s body rapidly, either from the hips for style points or directly at the arms gripping the device, from one side to another at just the precise moment does give the sensation of acing your opponent an extra boost of delight, but repeat rounds ultimately dwindle the gyroscope option to an unnecessary novelty.
One of the most memorable aspects about 2004’s GameCube title Mario Power Tennis, also developed by Camelot, was that each character had more to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack than just size, speed, defensiveness, and strength. Each Nintendo-centric competitor had specific techniques, usually special shots that could be used to get out of a late-level jam, that allowed them to stand out and thrive, creating different methods of play for gamers who wanted a certain type of match flow. Mario Tennis Open unfortunately excludes these deeper character-distinguishing maneuvers in favor of a much more streamlined approach, limiting competitive combinations with a smaller (but still worthy) cast and the addition of your Mii avatar. The majority of the customization (most importantly, an obtained item) is applied to your Mii and not to any other character you may have spent a considerable duration honing skills with. Attaining these bonuses is enjoyable to a certain extent. Every challenge, whether bungled or fulfilled, yields at least a single offering of loot available for procurement in the shopping center. Obviously, currency is awarded as victories are achieved, via versus the CPU or in online tournaments. The major issue here is that the effects of these aptitude augmentations to your Mii can’t be adequately displayed outside of the tennis arena, and what little information is there (dull-as-dishwater wheel diagrams) fails to present an accurate portrait of your ably earned accomplishments.
In addition to customary manners of play, Mario Tennis Open features a number of noticeable mini-games that, quite often, are more rewarding than the generally vanilla one-player mode. Ink Showdown, Galaxy Rally, and, my personal favorite, Super Mario Tennis (firing off shots at a wall dressed up like the eight-bit stages of Super Mario Bros., with coin blocks aplenty) all find interesting ways to get the player to focus on high-intensity volley placement and other valuable strategies. After you’ve unlocked the game’s ensemble of hidden characters, the mini-games provide not only the best way to earn spendable credits, but quite possibly the most efficient approach to avoiding the bulk of Mario Tennis Open’s pronounced imperfections.
Mario Tennis Open’s online scenarios are, like the rest of the presented package, more or less a letdown. StreetPass works relatively smoothly, but doesn’t provide much incentive to alternate from long-range WiFi duels to localized back-and-forths between up to four friendlies. Due to the gyroscope’s sky-high cheapness (players really don’t have to go to the ball, just thrust horizontally at the correct moment and you’ve struck the yellow sphere), anyone who doesn’t mind looking moronic jerking their 3DS to and fro will have a tough time being bested by those who stick to their manual guns.
Not so much a mediocre game as it is a blatantly missed opportunity, Mario Tennis Open, if nothing else, should act as a firm slap in the face for Camelot to realize the significance of cradling the grandeur of Nintendo extremely close. They’ve proved on many a prior occasion that they can fabricate an apt Nintendo sports title, but they drop the ball here not by central design but by losing focus on what matters: the Nintendo magic. Mario Tennis Open, then, is much like the familiar dilemma of a certain red-capped Italian plumber, finally arriving at the boss’s castle only to realize that his kidnapped woman is somewhere else entirely.