Square Enix does sports and comes out ahead.
When Mario Hoops was first announced, many people scratched their heads. Why would Square Enix make a Mario Sports title? The result is a very entertaining title with the level of polish that Square Enix is known for.
Mario Hoops is one of the best looking DS games to date. Character models are detailed and well designed. Animations are different for almost every character. Everything looks great. The visuals only come up short in one spot, and it's an execution issue. The game includes an exciting multi-angle replay system after great plays. The only problem is they usually look less like a game and more like a slam dunk competition. For some reason every character and item but the player with the ball gets removed from the picture. Mario could unleash a huge dunk right in the face of Luigi, and the replay would make it look like he was all alone on a break away.
The single player modes are consistent with most of the Mario Sports titles. There is a series of tournaments to compete in, ranging from Mushroom Cup to Rainbow Cup. Difficulty ranges from stupidly easy to almost impossible and ramps up between the two fairly evenly. Consistent with how Square Enix makes most of their games, Mario Hoops may just be the hardest Mario sports game yet. The tournaments themselves are either three or four rounds. If you lose at any level, you are free to try again without starting the entire tournament over, but you can't select new characters.
Besides the tournament mode, you can also play exhibition games, compete in dribble races, practice each player's special shot, or run through some tutorials. The tutorials do a great job of explaining the rather complicated gesture-based controls. Gestures are used for most everything, including passing, shooting, stealing, and spin moves. The scheme works most of the time but has its problems. Spin moves can turn into throwing the ball in the back court. Pass attempts can often turn into shots. The dribbling possibilities make up for some of this though. This is the first basketball game I've played where how you dribble the ball can drastically affect your opponents' ability to steal it from you. Where you tap the screen directly translates to where your character dribbles. This can be used to power dribble away from your opponent while standing still, or crossing over while running up the court. If the ball isn't near your opponent when he tries to steal it, he won't be successful. It really feels like the next best thing to actually dribbling a ball.
The best part of every Mario sports title is the multiplayer. Mario Hoops comes up a little short here. The amount of effort put into things like your personal profile makes it seem like there were bigger plans for this title. There is even a feature you can turn on while playing the single player mode that searches for other players over local Wi Fi. It's hard to figure out why such a cool feature would be included if you can't play the game online. They didn't even take local multiplayer as far as most would like. There is a single-card mode, but it doesn't include an actual game of basketball. With one game card you can play either dribble race or coin hunter. Dribble race is the same mini-game as in the single player mode. Players race to collect 100 coins as fast as possible. This is about as exciting as it sounds. It's fun the first one or two times you do it, then it gets boring. Coin Hunter is a little bit better. This mode has nothing to do with basketball. Instead, players run around collecting items and attacking their opponents. It's an interesting change of pace and can be entertaining. Most people buy a basketball game to play basketball, though.
When two people each have a copy of the game, you can actually play basketball together. The games can get very competitive, and it does a good job of tracking personal records. Players can even choose what their basketball looks like. As fun as multiplayer is, I have to wonder why you can only play against one other person. “3 on 3" is in the title. It would be nice to take part in some six player games.
It's hard not to fault such an otherwise entertaining game for the lack of strong multiplayer support. This game could easily be better if it were online and supported six players. It almost seems as if it was planned all along, but the developers ran into a problem at some point and had to drop those features. Still, Mario Hoops is an innovative adaptation of the sport, and the multiplayer is worth trying, even with just two players.