If every sport was a Mario sport, I would have had much more fun in P.E.
Being able to simply pick up and start having fun playing a game is a great thing, and it's a quality whose importance is easy to forget in a long list of features. From my time with the latest demo of Mario Tennis Open for the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo and Camelot's latest sports outing has that quality in spades. It only took me a few minutes to get used to running around the tennis court with the Circle Pad and returning shots with either buttons or the touch screen. I even felt comfortable jumping into local 4-player multiplayer. I lost both matches but still enjoyed myself so much that I lost track of time and was surprised when the game ended.
Perhaps something that helped with the sense of no-worries pick-up-and-play was the roster of familiar Mario universe characters available for selection: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yoshi, Boo, Bowser, Bowser Jr., Diddy, Donkey Kong, Wario, and Waluigi. The characters had different specialties, some labeled as power, speed, technique, or just as all-around players, but in truth it was just as easy to pick a character emotionally as statistically. I immediately zeroed in on Princess Peach, who has been my go-to-choice for almost any game with a Mario universe roster (Mario Party, Smash Bros., and even Super Mario Bros. 2). In multiplayer, two of my fellow players raced each other to select the ever-popular Yoshi, with the slower of the two having to settle for someone else. Could character choice degenerate into a popularity contest? Maybe so, but that seemed to be part of the fun, as before the match my fellow players and I shared stories about who we liked to play best, not just in this game but in other Nintendo games too. And with each themed court not just affecting tennis factors like bounce strength, but evoking other Mario game settings, it felt like the laid-back fun of local multiplayer wasn't just on screen, but also in sharing the experience and conversing with my fellow players.
A new character choice for this game is your own custom 3DS Mii. Unlike the Mario characters, your Mii comes with no pre-determined specialties, but instead is customizable with rackets, wristbands, outfits, and shoes. In this way your Mii can wear a fully-matching Mario-themed set, or mix and match gear based on your individual playstyle and desires. In order to unlock more clothing options for your Mii characters, you can go shopping using coins earned simply by playing the game. Apparently I couldn't supplement my Mario Tennis Open coins by spending 3DS play coins, but thankfully it was easy to earn more dough just by playing the game: every match, every mode, even every win or loss seemed to reward me coins at the end. I can easily imagine getting absorbed in an hour or two of multiplayer and then discovering that I'd accrued enough coins to indulge in some light shopping. However, it appears that Mario Tennis Open does without the RPG-like leveling aspects of some previous iterations of the series, aiming to focus more on the action elements of the game of tennis.
Mario Tennis Open appears to make several efforts to use the 3DS hardware to add new features and touches to the game. It supports 3D graphics on the top screen, but in hectic multiplayer action it felt safer to turn this off in order to reduce distraction during the frenzied back and forth gameplay. By raising the 3DS to play from shoulder level the game can optionally switch to a behind-the-shoulder view of your character. This had the effect of limiting your strategic view of the whole court, but attempted to compensate for this with a slightly dynamic camera and a possibly better view of how to aim your shots, something which could prove helpful in some of the game's special modes. Mario Tennis Open also lets you return shots using the touch screen instead of pressing different buttons for different style shots. However, I found this a little difficult to fully utilize due to the touch screen layout not mapping directly to the button layout, a design choice I was told was intentional and that would make sense once I'd absorbed the way different shots were related to each other in the game's light rock-paper-scissors power shot mechanism.
Mario Tennis Open has also advanced the multiplayer component of the Mario Tennis series. Streetpass offers an asynchronous twist on the idea, as the game tracks your individual play style and uses streetpass to send AI simulations of you to other players, sort of like a dynamic tennis ghost. Local multiplayer, which allows download play for friends who don't own their own copy of the game, seemed plenty fun when I played not just straight up matches with other players, but matches based on the special game modes as well. I was told that online multiplayer, which I wasn't able to try for myself, would feature an auto-matching system of sorts, allowing players to join tournaments and games with others of like skills. You would also be able to create games with just your online friends, but the communities that Mario Kart 7 featured weren't going to be a part of Mario Tennis Open.
One of the more surprising additions to Mario Tennis Open was a set of special games, all based around tennis gameplay but with tweaked rules and objectives that could potentially challenge you to deepen your play of the game, or just have a lot of fun. For instance, the Ring Shot special game is focused on hitting the tennis ball through floating rings, earning more points for targeting rings early since they would expand in size over time and lower in value accordingly. Galaxy Rally places you on a Mario Galaxy themed court, challenging you to rally a certain number of hits with your opponent while quadrants of the court alternatively disappear, forcing you to aim your shots left or right, short or long. Ink Showdown has Piranha Plants firing tennis balls, or ink blobs, at you, which you must return to your opponent without them successfully returning the shot.
The most interesting special game available was Super Mario Tennis, which had you bouncing the ball against a wall that scrolled through levels of the original NES Super Mario Bros.. By hitting the ball against the scrolling level you could hit coin blocks, defeat enemies, and even enter warp pipes! You even get three lives as you try to get to reach the end of the stage and complete it. Super Mario Tennis was really inventive and nostalgic (eliciting discussions of the classic Mario music), really calling to mind when Nintendo went all out in adding Nintendo-themed game modes to Tetris DS back in 2006.
All in all, Mario Tennis Open surprised me with just how easy it was to pick up the game and start having fun. It surprised me with how comfortable it felt to jump into local multiplayer, and with how appealing some of the special games (don't call them mini-games!) turned out. And it definitely surprised me with how much I'd missed playing with a Mario roster of characters, with everyone from Peach to Wario to Yoshi to Bowser available. In the venerated mantra of "Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master", Mario Tennis Open certainly seems to already have half of the formula locked down.