For a pudgy plumber, Mario is pretty athletic. Over the last 25 years he has really run the gamut of sports games, from soccer to dodge ball, there are very few games that he won't try (or put his name on). Looking back at the origin of Nintendo's fascination with sticking their mascot into sports games, two particular genres stand out as amazing games, no matter what characters are in them; Mario Golf (which was released on the N64 and Game Boy Color in 1999 and 2001 respectively) and Mario Tennis (which received the same treatment in 2000, as long as you overlook the Virtual Boy iteration). Developed by Camelot Software Planning those two games set the standard for accessible, character driven sports games, which Nintendo is still trying to capitalize on with their latest entry into the Mario sports franchise, Mario Tennis Open.
The fifth tennis game to bare Mario's name, Open is a return to the portable platform, and features a few new bells and whistles, the biggest of which is online play. 13 of the usual suspects make appearances at the game's outset, with a cast of characters ranging from Luigi to Wario, and include your Mii. The name of the game here is tennis, and that's pretty much all this game delivers; back and forth on the court either one-on-one, or doubles. In single-player you can tackle a series of tournaments, as well a handful of "special games" that will test your tennis skills. Local and online multiplayer allows for head-to-head competition, or some co-op doubles play.
At it's core, Open is a solid tennis game, offering the familiar gameplay of the previous titles (and the actual sport), without the ridiculousness of Mario Power Tennis. The volleys are straightforward, with a rock-paper-scissors type design for the assortment of shots. Additionally, there are chance shots that appear on the court that will help power-up your return as long as you use the appropriate type of shot. Ultimately, whatever way you slice it, it's still tennis, just tennis with Mario and his friends.
While fans of the series will be sad to see that the RPG mode from earlier games does not make a reappearance here, there is some light character customization using unlockable items. It's nowhere near as deep, but it does encourage players to work their way through the tournaments, where all of the items are unlocked, and the special games, where coins are won to purchase them. The more you play, the more you unlock, and the better your Mii looks and plays.
Mini-games have become a staple in Mario's sports games, and Open is no different. There are four different modes included, all of which will help you rack up shop coins. Three of them (Ring Shot, Galaxy Rally, and Ink Showdown) are pretty basic and will test your ability to return volleys under certain circumstances, however, Super Mario Tennis tests your ability to play Super Mario Bros. using a tennis ball. Instead of having Mario running and jumping across the screen, every return of the tennis ball will affect the play by potentially stomping koopas or goombas, or revealing hidden coins. Virtually everything you do to interact withe the levels adds time to the clock, and the challenge is to keep it going long enough to reach the flagpole. The four games actually hold up better than some other Mario mini-games, and it's a shame that there aren't a few additional ones included to help give the game a bit more meat.
Even though Mario Tennis is enjoyable, there are a handful of problems that stand out, and probably could have been avoided if they weren't trying to "take advantage" of the new hardware. For example, the game offers two views of the court, the traditional overhead style, and a peripheral-view-constricting gyroscope controlled dynamic view. While the dynamic view does make the player feel more like they're on the court, it makes it really difficult to see the whole court, upping the challenge significantly, especially when playing a worthy opponent. However, the most frustrating aspect of the dynamic view is that the game doesn’t remember your preferences when you back out to the main menu. This means that if you don’t like the dynamic view you have to turn it off almost every time you play a new game. Additionally, should you opt to not manually turn it off, the game will switch between views, on the fly, based on how you're holding the 3DS. Ridiculous.
One of the other things that throws the game off are the 3D options, which are actually quite confusing. Sure, the opening sequence and menus look great in 3D, but only the traditional view boasts the third dimension, ironically, the dynamic view does not.
For what it is, Mario Tennis Open is a pretty good game – just remember that it is a Mario tennis game. While it is simplified a bit from its previous iterations, it still manages to do tennis well, and offers enough enjoyment that it should tempt even the fair-weather fans. Dedicated "tennis players" should make sure to pick this up sooner than later, but if Nintendo decides to go back and offer previously released games as digital downloads once that becomes their thing, Mario Tennis Open should be a first day purchase. Best in small doses (which can be accomplished in almost any of the game's modes), Open is a solid game to have in your back pocket for when you have a couple minutes of downtime, even if it's just to work on your serve.