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Mario Tennis is back! A long seven years after the excellent Mario Power Tennis was released on the GameCube, the memories are finally rekindled but this time on the small screen. With Wii Sports tennis being the signature title for Wii, there were hopes that this would eventually lead into a Mario tennis title for Wii. Sadly however, the New Play Control! port of Mario Power Tennis was the closest we ever got, and with Wii U on the horizon it is virtually impossible that a full-blown title would ever make it to Wii.

Camelot having developed all the titles in the Mario Tennis series, and Mario Tennis Open looks and feels a lot like Mario Power Tennis. Obviously this time the screen is much smaller and a little more 3D, but the vibrant graphics style looks quite stunning on the 3DS.

The basic controls will be familiar to anyone who has played any tennis video game, with buttons mapped to standard tennis shots – topspin, slice, or “flat”. Lobs are played by pressing A to set up then B to hit; vice versa for drop shots. For the casual gamer who cannot grasp the button system, a touch screen control system allows the bottom screen to display panels corresponding to the various strokes, but this involves reaching awkwardly across the console with the right thumb, as well as looking down to the screen for the appropriate panel. While the intention may be to simplify the solution tends to over-complicate things.

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Mario Tennis Open introduces “motion controls” which employ the 3DS gyro, whereby your character automatically moves to the ball and all you have to do is rotate the 3DS console left or right to direct your shot. Think of it as “First Person Tennis”. All this moving can’t be much good with the 3D screen I hear you say, and sure enough using this mode automatically switches the game to 2D mode. It’s not a very satisfying mode, and it won’t be long before you switch this off in the settings.

Mario Power Tennis featured “Power Shots” which was a character-specific special shot which could be played on attack or in defence. Power Shots had a mixed reception, and have now been replaced by “Chance Shots”. When you have your opponent on the back foot, a glowing circle appears somewhere on the court which allows you to deliver a wildly powerful or curving winner. There are a couple of problems with the new Chance Shots though – firstly they are generally far too powerful to defend against which makes for an imbalanced game, and secondly the game removes the animated cut-scenes preceding these special shots. While these animations annoyed some when used in Mario Power Tennis (largely by virtue of being unskippable), the removal of them as an option makes for a duller experience which is out of character with the usually over-the-top style of Mario games.

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The game’s graphics are visually appealing and different themed courts take you through various worlds in the Mario universe, but other than different surfaces they offer little variety otherwise. Mario Power Tennis had “Gimmick” courts which would mess around with the tennis being played on court, but these are missing from Mario Tennis Open. This recurring theme of removing features from the series with minimal “add-back” is a worrying one for Mario Tennis fans.

The main single-player mode will have you choosing to either play as your Mii or one of 16 Nintendo characters (4 of which require unlocking). There are 8 tournaments of progressive difficulty, and each can be played in singles mode or doubles with a frustratingly inconsistent CPU partner. Once you’ve won all the available tournaments, the end credits roll and replay value lies in repeating the feat with each of the other 16 characters. The game is not particularly challenging except for a sharp and unexplained rise in difficulty at the final tournament, and it will only be a matter for time before the game is fully unlocked if you have the patience to churn through. Due to the high success rate of Chance Shots, many rallies end up being “first to pull off a Chance Shot”.

To round off the offline single player modes, four mini-games are available, each of which unlocks a game character. As with most tennis video mini-games, the objective irrespective of the premise is to hit the ball to certain zones on the court, or to hit the ball in a particular trajectory. However the most notable of these mini-game is Super Mario Tennis, which takes hitting a tennis ball against a wall to a whole new level. In Super Mario Tennis, the original 8-bit Super Mario Bros. scrolls across a brick wall which you hit a ball against to keep it alive. Hitting coins, blocks, and enemies on the scrolling screen increase the time on the game clock, with the ultimate aim being to reach the castle at the end of the level. It’s a superb take on the Mario and tennis themes, and is the highlight of Mario Tennis Open.

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To encourage playing of the mini-games, coins are earned which are used to purchase items of clothing/costumes and new rackets for your Mii character. In order to buy items, they have to be unlocked progressively, which happens after every game win or lose. New Mii items improve your character’s abilities, so mini-games essentially are the route through which levelling up is achieved. New avatar items can only be used on Miis, so sadly you won’t be able to dress Mario up in a Bowser costume or a Peach outfit.

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Most would not buy Mario Tennis Open to play single-player tournament mode, and the most fun to be had as with previous Mario Tennis titles is in multiplayer. However unlike playing on N64 or GameCube, there are burdensome hardware requirements for playing local multiplayer – ie. each player requires their own $299 console. This is somewhat alleviated by the Download Play feature allowing up to 4 consoles to connect for a match using a single copy of the game. This is the best way to enjoy Mario Tennis but your mileage will vary considerably depending on your circle of friends.

Online play is only available within regions, meaning that while the game has already released in the US, I was unable to connect to any of the many players already playing this online in other parts of the world. The NZ/Australia version box states that this game can be played online with others from NZ and Australia only, so it remains to be seen whether players in the other major PAL region of Europe will be able to play with us online.

Online multiplayer offers single player games with friends or strangers in ranked matches, but against random opponents you can only play unsatisfyingly short tie-breaks or first to 2 game matches. There is StreetPass functionality which allows you to play against Miis you bump into on the street, but New Zealand 3DS owners may have difficulty securing matches in this fashion.

Mario Tennis Open is a good but not great title. There are many comparisons to be drawn with Mario Power Tennis which was a great game on the GameCube in 2005, but in 2012 it is difficult to be wowed by a title which feels much the same and in many ways offers less than its GameCube predecessor. Being a handheld title, many Mario Tennis fans were gagging for a return of the much-loved RPG mode offered in previous handheld games in the series, but sadly this was not implemented. Granted there is now online play, but with so few options available it does not seem a lot of thought was put into this mode. Mario Tennis Open is (disappointingly) is hard to make a strong recommendation for. A rental or EB Games “right of return purchase” would be worthwhile before making your final judgement.

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