Camelot's revered Mario Tennis series has a split legacy: on home consoles as a primarily multiplayer-focused insane-o-thon, and on portables as a more solo-oriented sports RPG. Mario Tennis Open falls somewhere in between, trying to capture the best of both worlds in the most accessible way possible. In many ways Camelot succeeds in its goal of serving up a fun time with tennis, but forging this middle ground leaves behind a little of the spirit that made each of its branches truly smashing.
Scaling back the lunacy that riddled Mario Power Tennis on GameCube and later Wii, Open strips away the variables of items and overpowered character-specific special shots and places a much stronger emphasis on skill and tactics. Much of that comes in the form of the colour-coded shot circles that spring up around the court: fire off a colour-corresponding shot while in it and the shot gets a bit more oomph behind it, lending extra power to smashes or gnarly curves to spins. While on the surface it sounds like a basic addition, the circles open the door for novices to feel skilled and equal — and expert players can wrangle all sorts of strategy and mind-games from them to outfox their opponent.
It may seem at first that the circles are used to gently nudge players around the court, and when a colour appears a player's certain to try to get to it. In this sense it opens up the court, forcing players to keep alert lest they miss an opportunity to strike — or defend, as it were. But contrary to how it may seem at first glance, the circles aren't random; by thinking a few steps ahead a skilled player can manoeuvre an opponent to a certain section of the court and yield the desired colour to go for the kill. It's also possible to fool your opponent with them. The circle lights and rises when a player stands inside it and shines brighter and higher if said player hits the button for the corresponding shot, signifying that a specific type of powerful shot is coming your way. But that doesn't mean that you can't change your shot at the last second and throw them off.
It's fairly impressive how tight the actual tennis action feels in light of this seemingly simple addition, and it's an improvement that players will likely appreciate more than throwing a banana peel into play. Keeping track of the colours and shots is easy after a while, although up front the touch screen comes in more than handy — players can tap the corresponding colour-coded button to swing, or just use the display as reference. Knowing your colours is critical if you're to have any chance conquering the more challenging singles or doubles cups, in which the AI puts up a good fight without feeling too cheap. There certainly are a lot of cups and challenges to put your skills to the test, but after a while the few modes on offer start to feel a bit repetitive and mundane.
To encourage repeat play, there's plenty of gear for your Mii and characters to unlock and buy along the way. Items are unlocked for purchase through playing cups and matches, and bought with coins won in the four Special Games. The gear acts as a sort of substitute for the previous handheld games' RPG mode, allowing you to customise both the appearance and skill set of your Mii with rackets, outfits, sweat bands and shoes. The system works similar to Mario Kart 7's kart customising, but unlike there coins can't be earned in the main mode. The Special Games are the only place to earn scratch, which is a bit annoying if you don't much care for the extra modes on offer like Ring Shot or the novel Super Mario Tennis that involves playing racquetball against a customised Super Mario Bros. stage.
All told, the customising is nice but feels like a sidestep for the series — lacking an RPG mode, the gear only goes so far to scratch that same itch. The RPG mode wasn't really about customising as much as it was about feeling like there is more to do than just swat the ball back and forth; once you settle on a wardrobe that matches your play style, there's little incentive to grind out the rest of the shop. And that's where human opponents come into play.
As expected, multiplayer is the true star of the show here, and Mario Tennis Open is best when played in the same room as your favourite gang of knuckleheads. Regional online is available for the first time, ensuring that you'll never be short of human opposition, but it's a comparatively isolated experience.
The beauty of Mario Tennis on console, to which Open feels most kindred, is that there were virtually no barriers to entry for players who don't play a lot of video games — just grab a controller and huddle around the screen for fun, sometimes intense, plain ol' good times. If your friends own a 3DS then Mario Tennis Open may very well take a top spot in your multiplayer rotation, but considering having four units in the same room is a less widespread circumstance, Mario Tennis loses a bit of that human spirit that likely drew many to it in the first place. (Can you imagine playing Rock Band with non-gaming friends, to whom Mario incontestably appeals, and expect them to have their own set of plastic instruments?) Now that everyone is supposed to have their own handheld, well, let's just say don't unplug that Wii yet if you want some impromptu tennis action with friends.
The handheld versions didn't run up against this issue of isolation in the past because the RPG mode was there to give solo players their own experience, acting as a companion piece or alternate flavour to the multiplayer bonanza in the living room. With Open flying solo (that we're aware), it needs to deliver both flavours rolled into one — and while a good argument could be made that it delivers on what matters (the actual tennis game is no less fun or well done here than anywhere else), it still feels like you're playing on your own island unless under very specific circumstances, which goes against what the game truly can be.
There's no doubt that Mario Tennis Open is a strong and accessible entry in the beloved series, and a group of friends gathered round can lose themselves in it for a long time. Solo players can still have a good time perfecting their skills, and playing online is a nice way to keep things interesting, but the missing RPG mode leaves a pretty big hole that a lack of substantial single-player content struggles to really fill — and unless you're a part of a cabal of 3DS owners you'll miss out on the real heart of the game: punching your wily opponent in the arm after a hard-fought match.