Today, "Mario Tennis Open" goes online, offering fierce on-the-go 3D tennis matches by way of the Nintendo 3DS. Electronic tennis dates as far back as video games themselves, starting with "Pong" on the Atari back in 1972. So how has the electronic sport changed in 40 years?
Nintendo has been here before, on the Virtual Boy back in 1995. Hands down the best title released for the short-lived system, Mario's Tennis was one player … and one color, red. Playing against a computer was fun, but lacked the unpredictable excitement of facing off with a friend. Given that even Pong was for two players, it's clear to see why even a decent entry like Mario Tennis couldn't save Nintendo's pioneering system.
In 2000, Nintendo took another crack at tennis, on the glorious, polygon-heavy Nintendo 64. Mario Tennis was beloved among my college friends, which may or may not have been because my buddies turned it into a drinking game. The controls were tight enough to make tennis a competitive and addictive multiplayer challenge for the first time on a Nintendo system. With the title's success, Nintendo officially had a character-branded sport worth revisiting on their hands, akin to Mario Golf or Mario Kart.
The Nintendo GameCube's 2004 release of "Mario Power Tennis" was generally held in high regard, so much so that Nintendo opted to re-release the game for their Wii system four years later. Mario Tennis for Wii was modified to accomodate motion controls for the new system, and critics cited that because the game wasn't originally designed with motion control, it did not play well post-conversion.
With the popularity of Wii Sports tennis, there was a bit of disappointment in 2009 when the Nintendo team skipped on a new tennis title from the Mario gang. It seemed like a no-brainer: Take the minigame that got so many playing on the Wii and flesh it out, adding online gameplay and smarter motion controls with the WiiPlus, providing a wider range of characters with their own strengths and weaknesses and offering unlockable courts and tournaments. But that dream title never came, and Mario Tennis never became the Wii staple many expected.
Now Mario Tennis Open is arriving on the Nintendo 3DS. Hitting a ball back and forth over a net has never been more entertaining.
The controls are a bit odd. You're given the choice to use the motion sensors in the system to aim your shots, but swinging the portable around throws off the 3D effect and is distracting as you try to keep an eye on the ball, make your way to a power-up circle and charge up your shot.
Nintendo allows you to play with the touch screen, but it's sectioned off in an odd, bubbly way that was hard to use when my eyes were trained on the upper screen. So stick to the system's buttons.
You can play friends or strangers over Nintendo's network, or play friends locally via Streetpass. Local pals won't even need a copy of the game. One cartridge between two 3DS systems allows you to play against each other, though with limited arena choices. You can also play on your own against tough computer opponents.
After playing a handful of strangers online, I realized that the in-game tutorial and paper control guide were lacking. Folks had figured out how to spike and spin balls in ways not touched upon in the single-player gameplay. After eight hours sunk into the game, I am still not clear how to put spin on a ball or how to charge a serve correctly.
As you play, you'll unlock items like outfits and new rackets in the store. To get any new item is a two-step process: unlock it by playing in a tournament, then purchase it with money earned from playing a series of so-so minigames. But once you purchase a new racket with improved power shots and shoes to speed you down the court, don't expect to apply the new duds to any Mario universe characters. The accessories are designed for your Mii avatar character, a bummer if you enjoy playing as Diddy Kong or Peach. I understand it would be hard for a shirt and shorts to fit on, say, Boo the ghost, but the Nintendo team could have had fun and been a little creative when skinning the franchise characters.
At times volleying can be as fun as an intense game. Other times I found myself bored, waiting for a power up to just end the match.
Pausing is extremely hard to do, but this is inherent in the sport. So be warned, once you start up a Mario Tennis volley, don't plan to put it down or talk to anyone for an undetermined period of time. Apologies to my wife in advance.
The game's 3D is serviceable. Nintendo's team knows how to design and execute 3D space best, though Mario Tennis Open is focused on making the court a shadow box of depth rather than sending objects flying at the screen. There is no "first person" mode.
Suggested retail price is $39.99, a fee worth paying if you are itching to face off with friends. This is the game's biggest strength. Otherwise, if your friends aren't carrying 3DS portables with them, you're gonna have a bad time. For the same money, a game of this caliber would likely cost $4.99-$9.99 on say, an iPad. We wouldn't go as far as to say Mario Tennis Open is a 99- cent minigame, but the limited possibilities of tennis gameplay should probably never call for a price over $20.