After developing something of an unenviable reputation on WiiWare, Arc System Works' Family series of sports games has been reborn as a dependably decent option on the 3DS' eShop. Following on from Family Tennis 3D and Family Kart 3D, Family Table Tennis 3D is the latest in the line, and while it isn't quite up to the standard of those last two games, it still offers up fun, small-court service with a friendly arcade atmosphere.
The family in Family Table Tennis 3D is the anime-inspired clan of Japanese everyboy Billy and his sister Sarah. Besides the kids, you can choose to play as Daddy, Mommy, Auntie, Gramps, Nan, and Cuz. Each character has different ratings for speed, power, accuracy, and control: Billy and his mom are average across the board, Sarah is speedy but weak, Daddy is strong but slow, and so on.
In the game's main Tournament mode, you'll choose a family member and a difficulty level (either Beginner, Journeyman, and Pro), and challenge a set of four opponents in a row for a title. There's also Free Play, which lets you select a difficulty, character and court before tweaking the scoring and number of games per match to your liking, and a Quick Play mode that jumps you right into a random exhibition match - a great option for getting in a game-on-the-go.
No matter which mode you pick, once you get on the court the gameplay is simple, arcadey fun. You'll serve and volley across a tiny table, with two shots at your disposal: hitting the 'A' button rallies up a straight, powerful drive, while 'B' pulls off a slower, sidewinding cut. Everything controls well, and there's certainly some classic strategy involved in just those two choices, but a bit more spectacle comes into play with the game's 'stagger' system. By hitting the ball far to one side and making your opponent dive for it, you can make them lose their balance. If they manage to return the ball while off-kilter, you'll see an exclamation mark above your character's head, indicating that you're set up for a smash - a super-powerful shot that's tough (but not impossible) to send back.
These smash shots are a lot of fun to pull off, but unfortunately, the character-specific smashes that gave Family Tennis 3D such personality are entirely absent here, and they're sorely missed. Each family member controls differently enough to feel distinct, but the simple back-and-forth volleys can become a bit predictable without anything to mix it up. Success boils down to serve, smash, repeat - and while that's still fun in the way that other tennis games (and - to be fair - real-life table tennis) are, we miss the delightfully dysfunctional whimsey of watching Daddy clobber his children with a super-charged Ballistic Smash.
If you're looking for something beyond typical table tennis, there are also three Minigames that add some welcome variety. Human Backboard is a volley competition where the aim is to keep a back-and-forth going for as long as possible; when one player slips up, the other gains the points, and the first to 100 wins. Survivor mode - as the name implies - tasks you with besting as many members of the family in a row as you can, but aside from potential bragging rights, it doesn't really offer anything new.
By far the most interesting mini-game, however, is Hit and Split Table Tennis. Here, the table is divided up into blue (left) and red (right) sections, and your goal is to match your opponent's moves for both shot-type (drive or slice, as indicated by different coloured ball trails) and location (red or blue sides of the table). It's an engaging gameplay mix that requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, and for score-chasing types, trying to top your best run can quickly become an addictive challenge.
As with the other eShop Family games, multiplayer of any kind is conspicuously absent from Table Tennis 3D, and it's a massive missed opportunity. The AI is certainly decent enough, and gives a good challenge on the Pro difficulty, but arcade-style sports games like this practically beg to be played with real people, and the family-filled roster of this series in particular calls out for some friendly intra-clan competition.
Graphically, Table Tennis 3D continues the Family tradition of a colourful but unremarkable aesthetic that's more functional than flashy, but the edges feel a little rougher here. The smooth, anime-style character models look good, smash shots are visually exciting, and the thickly cel-shaded ball is a nice touch, but the low-resolution background textures are almost distractingly bad. Perhaps it's because of the zoomed-in view, but the blurry, blocky courts look straight out of a first-generation PlayStation title, and are noticeably at odds with the more modern character models. There's also an unfortunate tendency for the ball to bounce right through your player, which - aside from any visual sloppiness - makes lining up last-minute shots trickier than it should be. At least the courts are appropriately quirky; six are available from the start, and they're all firmly in the video game vein, with a beach-side setup, a forest, a school gym, an enormous carousel, an ice palace, and even the moon.
The audio accompaniment is thankfully more consistent - it's upbeat and fun, with sweetly catchy songs and snappy sound effects. Unfortunately, if you've played Family Tennis 3D or Family Kart 3D, you've heard it all before; pretty much everything seems to be recycled from these earlier efforts. The Japanese voice acting is a great fit - even if it's a bit over the top at times - and hearing players chime in throughout the matches adds some wonderfully unintelligible charm to back up the game's anime style.
Family Table Tennis 3D is a fun, friendly game that should satisfy anyone looking for a simple match, but players expecting a deep or polished experience are better off at another table. One particularly appealing mini-game makes up a bit for the lack of multiplayer, but the absence of any character-specific shots or abilities and a rough graphical presentation are more conspicuous faults. If you're a true table tennis fan looking for a digital fix, this is a solid service of arcade-style gameplay; but if you're just looking to get in a few volleys and don't mind a slightly larger playing field, Family Tennis 3D unquestionably serves up the better game.