Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: Mario Tennis Open (3DS)

Camelot proved it could do a fun Tennis game back on the N64. The original Mario Tennis is a genuine multiplayer classic, and I recommend everyone with a Wii to pop on over to the Virtual Console and pick it up. That said, what Camelot has yet to do is prove it can do a good tennis game.

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.

What does all this have to do with the 3DS Mario Tennis Open? It introduces my main problem with the game: once again Camelot has proven that they don’t actually understand the game of tennis. While there’s no super shots this time, instead there’s a broken system of coloured shots. Topspin, Slice, Lobs and drop shots are all colour coded. When the opponent hits the ball, a little coloured circle appears on the court where the ball will land. Your goal as player is to execute a shot that matches the colour – do so and you’ll hit a shot that’s harder to play back, giving you an advantage in the rally.

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.

There’s also very little skill involved in the game. It’s almost impossible to hit the ball out of the court, or into the net. With very little risk involved in going for the killer shots, the game quickly degenerates into a process of standing in the path of the ball and hitting back the most powerful shot possible. Eventually you’ll get in a position to hit a smash or winner, and then it’s on to the next point. That’s not tennis – that’s more like Pong.

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.

Those upgrades are the only real progression to be found in the game, and they’re quite costly in terms of the in-game currency. So in other words you’ll need to grind a whole lot in the limited, dull, practice minigames to unlock everything. Dear Camelot: grinding in a Mario Sports game is never a good idea.

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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