The mustachioed plumber’s handheld tennis and golf outings have an RPG history able to trigger warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia in all who earned hand cramps from them at one point or another. Those feelings won’t be triggered by Mario Tennis Open on 3DS as it eschews levelling up solo in favour of multiplayer mayhem, but the potential for fun-induced hand cramps remains dangerously high.
In this way, Open is more of a missing link between the original Mario Tennis on N64 and GameCube’s Mario Power Tennis — it plays a relatively straightforward game of tennis by removing variables like items on the court or devastating Power Shots. In their place are two additional base shots and colour-coded rings on the court that correspond to a type of shot. The changes smooth out rallies and ultimately equalise match-ups in a way that rewards skill over luck, making Mario Tennis Open feel a lot more fair compared to Power Tennis.
Court rings are a particularly clever touch. For instance, a slice shot has a blue tail, and if a blue ring appears on the court and you slam off a slice inside it then the shot will have a bit of extra oomph to it. They pack a punch but aren’t automatic win buttons; advanced players will have no trouble fending them off, while also empowering novices with a show of strength. In case you forget which shot matches what colour, the bottom screen keeps such information accessible via colour-coded buttons.
Standard and expected exhibition and tournament modes are playable both offline against AI and in online or local multiplayer, which, judging by our PAX thwomping, should have no issue sucking away hours upon hours of court time. Open gets more fancy in its extra modes; the Super Mario Galaxy-themed Rally has you face off against a Luma on a court with disappearing segments, while Ink Showdown throws view-obscuring ink splatter a la Mario Kart 7. The most novel mode is a score-based one simply dubbed Super Mario Tennis: playing more like a game of racquetball, an optimised stage from the NES Super Mario Bros. scrolls on the wall and you pick up coins, go down pipes, bonk enemies and so forth by slamming them with the ball. Which is easier said than done as you’ll need to pull out the right shot at the right time to hit your target. In the interest of time we were only able to make it to World 1-2, so we look forward to seeing just how Nintendo adapted the rest of the 8-bit game to fit the new mode.
Coins are earned along the way, which are spent on buying gear to customise your Mii. More than just cosmetic enhancements, each racquet, sweatband, outfit or pair of shoes affects attributes on the court to a degree. Equipping Wario’s outfit boosts power at the expense of speed, which can be balanced out or underscored with other characters’ gear. It’s not exactly the levelling system of old, but it’s a fun system reminiscent of the kart customising found in MK7. Also like MK7, StreetPass sends over custom Miis for exhibition matches.
It would seem that Nintendo will have another hit on their hands among both the core and casual crowds as Mario Tennis Open smashes into stores next month. Some may decry the lack of an RPG mode despite the customisation options trying to fill the same shoes in a simplified way, and its absence is indeed saddening since few games scratch that same itch. However, the greatest strength of Mario Tennis has never been about watching meters fill, but rather gathering friends for accessible, intense and downright fun match-ups. With console-quality gameplay and more ways to play together than ever, Mario Tennis Open will have no trouble living up to its legacy.