It was with great anticipation that I opened the wrapping from the shiny new import copy of Mario Basketball 3 on 3, courtesy of our partners at Lik-Sang. They're also taking pre-orders for the North American version here. I’d never done an import review, and just having something in my grubby hands before it reached the United States was enough to put me in a euphoric state. Plus, I was highly interested in what Square-Enix would do with the Mario sports franchise.
Sadly, the throbbing pain in my wrist overwhelmed my interest. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do not own a DS Lite, and that may make a slight difference; however, many of the problems also lay in the control design and my lack of knowledge regarding the Japanese language.
But, I digress; this requires a bit more background. Mario Basketball 3 on 3 opens up with a colorful blast of J-Pop and that certain Mario je ne sais quoi. It beckons you to leave your gaming inhibitions at the door and have some silly basketball-related fun. The menu, while in Kanji, is simple enough to navigate through after some minor trial and error. It’s quite easy to find—and eventually distinguish between—the tutorial, tournament, and quick-play modes. It feels quite a bit like treasure hunting when you fail to understand what any of it actually means.
The tutorial is heaven sent. It quickly and simply teaches you the basics of the touch screen control system through demonstration; and once finished, you can proceed to learning more advanced moves. Soon after, you may decide to actually play the tournament mode, which follows the Mario Kart formula in that you play in three different arenas to earn a cup and open up more tournaments and characters.
The difficulty scales gradually as you proceed; with the cup-winning games being significantly more of a challenge than the previous competitions. Each session is very short and the scoring is interesting, to say the least. A basket is worth twenty points, but you can earn additional points by forcefully bouncing your ball on classic Mario Mystery Squares to earn coins. Each coin is worth an extra point. Also, there are certain shots that can earn a few extra coins/points if not successfully blocked.
The touch controls are extremely simple. Simply strike the stylus on the screen at the direction you’d like to pass the ball toward. A simple tap can change which side of your body that you’re holding the ball in order to confound defenders. And a stroke straight up the middle will launch a shot or lay-up depending on your distance from the goal. Two quick strikes will get you an extra-coin-earning slam dunk which is just as easy to have blocked as it is to perform.
The game is kept lively through Mario Kart-style attacks. These provide a myriad of methods to foil your opponent from red homing shells, shrinking lightening, and the magic mushroom that increases your speed. Firing a leader-killer just as your opponent is about to make a power shot can be quite satisfying, in a diabolical sort of way. To launch these attacks requires a simple button press or simply tapping the screen at your hated enemy.
The graphics are nothing short of gorgeous. The colors are lush, the animations varied, and the special effects superlative. That’s right, it’s a Square-Enix game. If there were no other reason to play it, the visuals would be enough to interest someone in at least seeing all the power shots, arenas, and characters. Add the super-happy-fun-time music, along with S-E’s patented magical sound effects, and you have a winning combination…at least, for a while.
There are a several odd minigames thrown in that can be figured out through trial and error, but are more dependant upon being able to read Kanji than any other part of the game. These games are reminiscent of the Mission Modes found in Mario Kart and add a bit more to accomplish before completion, however, they’re pretty simple. The challenge is in decreasing your time performing each required task (e.g. collecting 100 coins from Mystery Squares while an endless torrent of turtle shells are being fired at you) so you can demonstrate your complete dominance of all things Mario.
Now, as promised, I present to you: the bad news. The default controls are analogous to Metroid Prime Hunters. The direction your character moves is controlled by the D-pad whereas shooting, passing, and power moves are done using the touch screen. It all feels incredibly intuitive and—aside from a difficulty distinguishing between forward passes and taking a shot—spot-on.
Okay, that doesn’t sound like bad news, but it is. Any amount of gameplay on the more difficult modes, where quite a bit of dodging and passing is necessary, can cause excruciating wrist pain. Through a bit of noodling, I was able to change the control setup and utilize the buttons instead of relying on the touch screen. This mode is a lot easier on my poor wrists, but the power-moves then become impossible to perform. Not that it really matters; they aren’t necessary since goals are not guaranteed and require quite a bit of time to set up. The only reward to performing a power shot is the beautiful animation bursting forth to treat your eyes. Another issue is that, even on button-mode, navigating the menu requires using the touch screen, which is extremely obnoxious.
There’s more bad news, but this only applies to the import. The multiplayer for all intents and purposes, is broken. The only accessible option is single card download, which isn't terrible by any means. However there is no WiFi Connect mode, and you'd need another import owner to really enjoy the best the multiplayer has to offer. As such, the imported version of 3 on 3 remains a single player game, which greatly shortens its longevity.
In the end, importing Mario Basketball 3 on 3 is a bad idea. It’ll only be a short while until we receive the localized version, however, without WiFi Connect access, I look forward to it with less anticipation I had before playing the import version. Mario sports games tend to be more successful when they’re multiplayer focused, but I have little doubt this will be a nice addition to any DS library.