Arc System Works, most fondly known for the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series of 2D fighting games, also dabbles in the casual sports genre with its Family series for WiiWare. Those titles generally haven't been very well received, but the series' first entry into the eShop, Family Tennis 3D, is a happy reversal of that trend. It's fun, fast and charming — game, set and match.
Family Tennis 3D is an arcade-style take on classic tennis, starring a family of eight as the cast of playable characters. The main mode of the game is Tournament, in which you pick a character and play through four matches against different members of the family. The quest for familial domination will take you across six predictably themed courts, including a beach, a forest, a slippery ice castle and the moon (with accompanying gravity loss). There are three difficulty levels, and by completing Beginner you'll unlock Journeyman and Pro — beating the tournament on Pro unlocks character art in the gallery. It's easy enough to slice through Beginner, but by Pro mode the AI poses a real challenge. There's also Free Play mode, which allows you to choose your opponent, singles or doubles, court and number of games and sets, and a Quick Play mode that drops you instantly into a randomly configured game.
In addition to the main game modes, there are three mini-games on offer: Human Backboard, Survivor and Roulette Rally. Human Backboard is a rally contest (first to 100), and in Survivor you're tasked with beating as many family members in a row as possible. Roulette Rally is a more creative concept which has you aiming for panels with numbers indicating their point value on the other side of the court, trying to reach 1,000 points before your opponent. The catch is that if you lose control of the ball, you lose the points you'd gathered in that rally. It's fun and makes for a nice switch from the straight tennis action, though the other mini-games are unlikely to hold your attention for long.
The controls in Family Tennis feel quick and responsive, and there's a lot of depth in the various shot options. The face buttons cover the three main shots (topspin, slice and lob), with a dedicated jump button, while the Circle Pad both moves your character and determines the trajectory of a shot, as indicated by a marker on the other side of the court. More advanced shots can be made with either combinations of the Circle Pad and buttons (down and X for a drop shot, for instance), or by hitting the right button at certain times: pressing Y up against the net will yield a volley, while hitting A where the ball lands will send it over with a powerful smash. True to the accessible spirit of the game, there's an Easy Mode in the options menu which simplifies the shot controls down to just the A button, with the AI picking out the best shot for you every time. Regardless of how you choose to play, Family Tennis is quite generous in letting you dive for and connect with far-off shots, but it feels snappy and arcade-like, rather than cheap. The only exceptions are the jump shot combinations, which seem to require a much higher degree of precision and can lead to some spectacular and unexpected leaps over the ball.
Arc Systems' Guilty Gear heritage gets an unexpected nod here in the fighter-inspired Super Shots — show-stopping, lavishly-introduced smashes unique to each character that can be activated with the shoulder buttons when the Super gauge is full. These range from the kids' comparatively pedestrian super-speedy or zig-zag shots to Gramps' fantastically-named “Trigenerational Shot”, which returns two 'fake' tennis balls along with the real one, and Nan's “Telekineses Shot”, which lets you steer the ball directly before the first bounce. Daddy, whose bio reads “Always has a smile for his children, though he panics whenever Sarah cries”, has a super shot that “explodes upon landing, blowing the opponent away”. Incongruous, perhaps, but a lot of fun.
Graphically, Family Tennis 3D is a mixed bag. The 3D effect works well, and a few of the courts have some nice three-dimensional touches, like leaves or snowflakes falling gently in the foreground. Unfortunately the 3D effect also highlights the fact that most background elements in the game are of the cardboard-cutout variety, and they look extra out of place in stereoscopic 3D. That said, the character models are good and the colours are bright and cheery, making for an anime-inspired aesthetic. The audio side of the experience complements this nicely: tunes are catchy and upbeat, and the voices are in the original Japanese. Sarah's bawling every time she loses a point is as annoying as it sounds, but other than that the voice acting works well and adds some personality to the characters. So while the graphics aren't very impressive technically, when combined with the audio they form a charmingly light-hearted package. Watching both characters diving all over the screen and sliding on their faces during a heated back-and-forth, or seeing Gramps flip his racquet to ready his trigenerational tennis ball bonanza can be genuinely hilarious.
One drawback to Family Tennis is the lack of any multiplayer, which is particularly disappointing because the game would be so well suited to playing with friends. There also aren't any leaderboards, and the only mode that saves high scores is the Survivor mini-game, so your replay mileage will boil down to beating the tournament mode with different characters to unlock their art in the gallery, and playing single matches in Free or Quick Play. Luckily, the characters do feel different enough that it's enjoyable to play through with each of them, and the fact that Family Tennis is an eShop title helps here as well; it's exactly the kind of quick-fire gameplay that's fun to have in your 3DS menu for the odd spare moment.
Family Tennis 3D is a welcome dose of Japanese-flavoured tennis action that succeeds in its goal of being a game anyone can pick up and enjoy. Casual gamers can jump right in with Easy Mode, while more experienced players will still find a challenge on the Pro difficulty level. It's a shame that you can't throw down with anyone outside the family in a multiplayer mode, but even as a solo affair, it's a whole lot of fun. If you like arcade-style tennis that doesn't take itself too seriously, you should have a great time with this one.