Mario Tennis Open
3DS | Nintendo / CAMELOT | 1-4 Players (local multiplayer/co-operative play) / 1-4 Players (online versus) | Out Now (North America) | StreetPass Support
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18th May 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
First and foremost, let's talk about the controls since that's what most are probably actively concerned about. During gameplay, the Circle Pad will move your character on the court while the Touch Screen is used to house three different layouts of what are called Shot Panels. Two of these are more for beginners, only allowing for Lobs, Drop Shots, and Simple Shots; the other is for advanced users, offering Topspin, Slices, and Flat Shots in addition to the three just described. Simply tapping the panel will perform a quick swing, while holding it down will charge up your shot for a stronger follow-through. And for those who might be worried about jumping the gun when it comes to charging up, players do have the ability to change shots even after a panel has been tapped, thus replacing the need for a cancel shot. Needless to say, the usefulness of each shot type will vary depending on the circumstance, but, as you'll soon find out, the game doesn't leave you guessing or trying to figure this out for yourself.
Mario Tennis Open makes use of special Chance Areas, which are coloured circles that correspond to each of the available shot types. Think of these almost like the star-shaped smash points from previous entries. Standing inside one of these areas will perform a powered-up version of the ordinary shot, adding speed, power, and an eye-catching trail. Whenever an opposing player charges and then swings at the ball while standing in one of these Chance Areas, an icon will instantly appear on one of the panels, directing you to use a particular move as a counter to the special shot. For example, your character will have less of a shaky reaction if you use Topspin to counter a Drop Shot over any other move. As a means of simplifying things even further, Simple Shots can be used in lieu of, say, a Lob and still produce the exact same effect. So what this essentially means is that instead of having to remember button combinations or when to use certain moves, you can just stick with the Simple Shot and it will do the work for you. While I do think there's good ball control overall, that aspect to the system does irk me quite a bit, as it removes the level of challenge and depth you would otherwise expect from putting time into learning the ins and outs of the available movesets.
On a broader scale, I can certainly understand why some may want to resist using touch controls, whether out of fear for the learning curve or because of being so used to using buttons across the other iterations of Mario Tennis. For these individuals, button equivalents are available for each of the actions, and on the whole, it shouldn't be seen as a steeper hill to climb just to get used to these over touch controls. One thing that comes in handy for Doubles matches is the ability to claim that you've got the next shot using the L Button. I thought that was a good idea within the context of a multiplayer match with friends. The R button can be used to leap or dive for the ball, but this is an impractical button choice if you're using the Touch Screen to play since you'll be holding the stylus in the very hand you need to press it.
On a somewhat related note, I must say that the inability to do air smashes is something that surprised and even bothered me. I really missed being able to jump in the air with my character and totally disrupt a strategic move. For some reason, Nintendo wanted everyone to stay on the ground this time, which isn't entirely in keeping with what Mario Tennis has stood for up 'til now. But I digress.
Getting back to the touch controls, while it will take some time before you can respond to things at the snap of a finger, a point is reached in your personal progression where they become almost second nature. Great as that is, it isn't necessarily an indication of the control system being exceptional at its core. Yes, the quick interactivity that the Touch Screen offers is good in and of itself, but there are definite flaws associated with the core gameplay that leave me feeling uncertain about how players will respond to key attributes that the game lacks.
In trying to bring strategy and skill together, there are some balancing issues with Mario Tennis Open stemming from the control systems that detract from the overall experience. And just to be absolutely clear, I'm not just talking about the AI in this scenario. No, there is more at fault here. The entire structure is one that rewards those who stick to the back more than the employment of a similar strategy would afford in other tennis games; thus, it becomes riskier than usual to go up to the front of the net unless you have one of these Chance Areas turning up in the same region. The continued reliance on Chance Shots to sneak the ball past opponents where skillful strategy and well-timed shots just won't do -- or won't be nearly as effective mathematically -- leads to a situation where delivering satisfying plays becomes highly questionable. Instead of feeling satisfied that you outsmarted them, it feels either like a fluke when you do sneak a ball past an opponent or that the AI is cutting you some slack.
To be more specific, I have a problem with the way Flat Shots are like guaranteed score advantages, as opposed to opportunities. If you aim the ball away from the direction of your opponent while standing inside a purple-coloured Chance Area, 99% of the time the CPU won't return it. And some of the shots they miss sometimes are within their reach, too. Furthermore, what all of this does is turn what would otherwise be a simple and fun tennis game into an almost repetitive pattern-predicting activity where staying toe to toe with a tough rival who won't let up amounts to waiting (even stalling) for these specific circles to show up. Granted, you can still go against what the game suggests when trying to counter a Chance Shot or execute one yourself, but once again there is definitely a problem with respect to delivering satisfying plays. It takes much of the fun out of it knowing all of the above, and part of the reason why wins don't feel too satisfying is because you feel like you had a lot of help.
Looking at Mario Power Tennis for a second, I would argue that even with the presence of the Power Shots, there was still a great deal of skill involved just to go far in that game. I bring this up because I know there are some who disliked the dynamic that came with that particular gameplay mechanic. And while this revised system isn't the same as the star markers or the Power Shots, this doesn't mean Mario Tennis Open is innocent of falling victim to the same underlying criticism that some may have had; no, this comes through in other ways that might arguably be seen as more serious for the reason stated above -- that even if you disliked Power Shots, Mario Power Tennis was still challenging and really satisfying to play. The argument can definitely be made that the overall pacing, resulting flow, as well as other elements contribute to the lack of satisfaction that comes from making these consecutive shots.
It must be acknowledged that some of what I said may not translate perfectly to a multiplayer experience with humans. Computers often stand there waiting for you and are then seen leaping into place, whereas the average player would put themselves in a better position for a counter beforehand. So it's a bit half and half in that respect. It still remains a constant that having to constantly run to these markers as sources of empowerment can lead to a somewhat shallow experience where skill fades a bit into the background and is replaced by being in the right place at the right time, or just having to rely on these so much over using moves your opponents wouldn't see coming.
Believe it or not, there are still some other concerns that need to be brought up, but these are of a more physical nature. Perhaps it's just me, but I found this game drained the battery faster than some of the other 3DS games I've played -- and that's even without 3D on all the time. On a more serious note, those who take up with issue with having numb fingers and the like while playing games in general will want to be aware that sinking in considerable time into this without taking any breaks could very well leave your left hand feeling stiff or in a bit of pain -- your thumb potentially bearing the brunt of this. Whenever I had intense matches, I especially felt this to be the case. There was a tiebreak between myself and a Star Character that was going on for what felt like 10 minutes. It was during this period that I had to put the game on pause for a few seconds to rest my hand for a bit before getting back into it. As I am detailing my own personal experience, it's possible that you won't encounter these same issues that I did, but even still it's something to be cognizant of.
Mario Tennis Open tries to strike a balance between single-player and multiplayer, and although the single-player focus ends up winning out in the end, it's hardly worth celebrating when you consider how divided the game feels. At any rate, Tournament Mode -- the main option of choice -- has you initially progressing through four different cups with the goal of earning Star accreditation. Interestingly, progression isn't strictly individualized as it has been in the past. Once one character clears all four tournaments, they will become available for every single character. This means, then, that in order to become a Star Character, you essentially only have to complete the Champions Cup. Some may be okay with that in the interest of cutting to the chase and doing away with formalities, as it were. Others, on the other hand, who may want to get more out of the game may be a bit annoyed by the fact that they can earn this quite easily (relatively-speaking). After completing the first batch of tournaments, you'll unlock the Star Open and have to complete another four cups with even more difficult rivals to face if you feel so inclined.
It should be noted that as a means of simplifying gameplay (see: covering themselves from potential criticism), you'll notice they have done away with Gimmick Courts almost entirely. The only exception is the Morph Court for the Galaxy Arena, which features surfaces that change fairly regularly. This is one reason that has contributed to the seeming light feel of the included content, even though there are eight courts in total to choose from. This does not mean, however, that you only have the basic Tournament and Exhibition modes to entertain yourself with. Adding to the single-player experience, you'll also find a host of Special Games that attempt to carry the tennis experience in different ways. Familiars to the series will know full well that Ring Shot isn't a new one by any stretch, yet it's still surprisingly fun to play. Even more surprising is the fact that the gyroscopic controls are useful -- more so here than in a normal match -- when it comes to angling your shots just so. Unlike Ring Shot, Galaxy Rally is a new idea that attempts to combine the basics of what you'd find in precision-focused mini-games from other tennis titles with a layer of strategy and visual aesthetic to the mix by through the use of Star Chips and Star Launchers. I found this to be the best of the bunch as it's one I'd actually go back and play from time to time, whereas the rest...well, let's continue.
As you can see, the Special Games are very much a mixed bag, and you know what, I think it's safe to say that even Nintendo knew that the motivation wouldn't be there to go back to these again and again. To offset this, they've made it so that you're basically required to play these if you hope to purchase goodies in the Item Shop. These include new rackets, outfits, wristbands, and shoes that you can customize your Mii with once you've unlocked them in Tournament Mode. These do more than just give your Mii a tennis makeover; they actually affect the stats of your character. All of this can be adjusted at the Clubhouse, the same place where you can change your StreetPass greeting and view records.
Speaking of extras, one aspect to the game that will no doubt serve as a huge reason for purchase is the addition of online play, with the new Nintendo Network at the helm. The game's online mode utilizes simple matchmaking and a simplified leaderboard to display leaders of the month for you to compare your place with. Remember how I mentioned earlier that you can view your best records in the Clubhouse? Well for some reason, the team thought it would be a good idea to have you go here to view leaderboard standings, and not the actual online hub itself. That's a bit silly.
Online multiplayer is limited to exhibition matches with friends or random rivals that take the form of Tiebreakers (Quick) or a 2-game, 1-set bout (Extended). It's functional, albeit a tad light in terms of what you can do in addition to the ordinary stuff. A bigger area of concern that will undoubtedly cause frustration has to do with lag. Now, it's very possible that because the game has yet to be released officially (as of the time of writing), the servers will tighten up considerably once the masses flock to this mode. But everyone should be aware that this does exist and prepare for the possibility that this will interfere with the amount of fun they have with this portion of the game.
In addition to its online functionality, Mario Tennis Open also features some neat StreetPass usage where you can challenge people you've linked up with to a simple match or even play a game of Ring Shot (don't ask me why this is absent from the online mode). There isn't much incentive for participating in these match-ups, but it's still a nice bonus nonetheless considering the alternative routes that other third-party developers have taken.
As far as presentation goes, the game performs fairly well. The graphical style feels familiar overall, and aside from a few niceties in some isolated instances, I didn't find the game to be impressive on any level. I will say, though, that the use of 3D helped in the case of the Galaxy Arena and Bowser's Castle courts. However, on the overall spectrum, the use of 3D in this game did not serve to benefit the game very much, which I was a bit surprised by.
Even more surprising for me is how relatively average the music is in this game. I expected something much more forceful as a reflection of the tense gameplay style they were going for, but only after a few hours did I actually encounter a track that carried some detectable level of tension and was worth listening to. There are a few tracks that are revisions to some original songs featured in such games Super Mario Galaxy, and I found these to be especially memorable. But as a whole, the soundtrack left me wanting more.
Considering all that has been said up to this point, I'm very much reminded of the adage, "Ignorance is bliss." Play this game for several hours and the flaws will start to show to a point where you find yourself keeping it on the shelf more than you are keeping it in your system. Quite a bit of effort has gone into this to make this latest entry a rousing experience that will prove to be as ace as previous iterations. But the fact is Mario Tennis Open's mechanics don't always feel tried-and-true and actually prove to inhibit the flow of gameplay as a means of streamlining the experience for even the most casual of players. Some of the flaws point back to a push towards casual-focused principles, while other flaws are simply a by-product of them trying to spruce up gameplay as a strange way of paying tribute to the game's earlier roots. Either way, the turn-out isn't as strong as I hoped, and while it isn't thoroughly disappointing, I have some reserves about recommending this game as fully as I would have liked.
21/30 - Good
Gameplay 6/10 - A number of concerns associated with the Chance Shot system, need to rely on Flat Shots in particular, chips away at certain key principles
Presentation 7/10 - Visuals are pleasing but not that impressive, 3D doesn't always prove beneficial, a few great songs, expected more from the soundtrack
Enjoyment 4/5 - Personal progression to be experienced, system serves as a conflict towards feelings of satisfaction, intense, subdued sense of strategy
Extra Content 4/5 - Modes you would expect, Special Games are a mixed bag, online multiplayer is merely functional, good StreetPass incorporation
Equivalent to a score of 70% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System