Let me explain: It’s one thing to make a simple party game, but the difference between the good Mario sports games, and the “ok fun but not great” ones is the simple fact that sports games, even cute ones, work better when they still act like the sport they’re based on. Mario Golf, for all the cute visuals and occasional warp pipe, also featured a very workable physics engine that effectively captured the challenge and skills involved in a real game of golf. At the other end of the spectrum, the problem with Mario Sports Mix was that in the drive to be a fun party game, Square Enix tore much of the actual sport out of basketball, volleyball and so on and left us with simple, shallow, minigames.
Mario Tennis tends to fall on the wrong side of that spectrum. The original game played things fairly well down the line, but it got the court physics all wrong, severely unbalancing the experience in the process. It was impossible to beat Yoshi on a clay court, for instance. I had high hopes when it came to Mario Power Tennis on the Gamecube that the development learning curve would fix that, but the sequel was even worse, throwing in powerups and broken characters. Boo’s physics-breaking curve shots, and Petey Piranha’s knockback ability made it impossible to use real tennis tactics to play against them.
It’s a fine idea in theory, but in execution the game asks players to hit shots that are tactically incorrect for the sport of tennis. As someone who was as a youngster a serious, competitive tennis player, rarely would I have opted to hit a topspin shot when the game tells me I should. I would never execute a lob when my opponent is standing at the back of the court – that’s tactical suicide – but that’s exactly what happened often. On the higher difficulty levels of AI, you’re punished if you don’t do the shots the game tells you to, so in the end you’re playing a game that’s not even a close approximation of tennis.
Now, you might say “yeah, but this is a Mario game, it doesn’t need to be realistic!” I couldn’t disagree more. A sports game – even a Mario sports game – still needs to be accurate. Telling players they have to hit strategically unsound shots does not make for an engaging game.
Making matters worse, if you do what the game tells you to, then the AI isn’t especially difficult – I’ve yet to lose a match except on the very highest difficulty setting. That brings me to my next problem; this is an incredibly limited game for something that’s full priced. You’ll fly through the tournament cups and other than an exhibition mode, there’s no other way to play a game of tennis here. There’s a handful of minigames, though, and despite being about as entertaining as hitting a ball against a wall (ie. Not very entertaining at all), those minigames are the only way to earn in-game coins, which can be spent to buy upgrades and costumes for your Mii character.
Things pick up in multiplayer as you’d expect: Because you’re both grappling with the misinterpretation of tennis it doesn’t matter so much that Mario Tennis Open is not much deeper than a Mario Party minigame; it’s still a bit of dumb fun. But, of course, the game wants to be difficult so it’s only possible to play online in your region or with friends. As an Australian it was just wonderful to log in to the Nintendo network on the day the game was released to find the servers are already quiet.
Throw in the fact that despite the region restrictions the online experience isn’t always smooth (why the hell didn’t Camelot use whatever technology Nintendo used for the stable, quality Mario Kart 7 experience?!?) and you’ve got a wasted opportunity for the 3DS’ new killer multiplayer experience.
Unless you’re a diehard, just stick to Mario Kart 7. Its does the party game thing better.
- Matt S
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