The coolest feature of the upcoming 3DS game Mario Tennis Open is the ability to play the original Super Mario Bros.… by hitting a tennis ball against a wall.
That may sound strange, but it feels very natural once you see it in action. It's easily the most interesting part of the game, which for the most part feels fairly basic.
In the minigame, which is called "Super Mario Tennis," it's as though your character is hitting a tennis ball against a wall upon which is projected a a modified version of original Mario game. (You can see it in action in the video above.)
The ball acts like Mario himself, breaking blocks, picking up power-ups, and smashing enemies. If you hit a mushroom and your tennis ball becomes "super" and gets the ability to break blocks. Hit a fire-flower and the ball will shoot fire into the wall every time it connects. It's fun, weird, and most importantly, it teaches you how to use Mario Tennis Open's different shot types to hit your ball where it needs to go.
It's all part of "Super Mario Tennis," one of the four of Open's "special games" I saw when I met with Nintendo earlier this week to play the game. The other three special games were also fun in their own way: "Ring Shot" had me aiming my ball through gold rings that would grow on the court and give more points the smaller they were when I hit them. "Galaxy Rally" made it so that I couldn't hit to a quadrant of the other side more than once, lest my ball fall down into a black hole.
"Ink Showdown" was the only one I didn't quite understand; the goal was to hit the ball to where my opponent couldn't see it, but also to hit the ink-balls thrown by the ink-plants on the other side. If I missed, I got ink on my screen. I'm sure it gets more interesting in the higher levels; all of the special games have multiple unlockable stages of difficulty.
The special games are partially intended as training, but they're also plenty of fun on their own. "Ring Shot" was even even playable as a multiplayer game (the other three were not). That makes sense, given that Mario Tennis Open is a very multiplayer-focused game.
At the hands-on session, I played through a bunch of games with three other players; the local multiplayer was seamless and fun, and while we were each playing with our own copy of the game, I was assured that there would also be download play options.
The general vibe is similar to other Mario Tennis games—Open is an arcade tennis simulator with a fair amount of strategy to consider when deciding how you hit the ball. You've got five options, (for example, top-spin, flat shot, slice), each of which determines what kind of spin you'll put on the ball and whether your swing will be an appropriate response to the hit that's coming at you. When a player does a specific kind of hit, the ball's tail lights up a specific color, making it easier for quick players to make snap decisions about what kind of swing to use to counter. You can also just hit the "X" button to automatically assign an appropriate swing, but it'll be less powerful than if you choose one manually.
There are a few alternate control schemes for Mario Tennis Open, but none of them did much for me. If you want, you can choose your swings using the touch-screen rather than the face buttons. I'm still not sure why someone would do that, but then, I don't really like playing most action games that require a stylus.
An odd and possibly neat feature involves the motion sensor—if you pick the 3DS up and hold it in front of your face, the camera zooms in for an over-the-shoulder view and the 3DS' built-in gyroscope helps you aim. Interestingly, the 3D effect turns itself off when you do this, since it was apparently deemed to be disorienting. That's gotta be a first—a game that turns off the 3D effect at certain times to optimize the experience. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of 3D gaming, but hey… no one will buy Mario Tennis Open for the 3D effect in the first place, so.
I found the over-the-shoulder view to be a little too close, and inferior to the standard bird's-eye view of the entire court, so I toggled it off and stuck with the main camera angle.
I'm out of shape when it comes to tennis games, so I didn't start off playing particularly well. But after working my way through the special games I found that I had already greatly improved. The core tennis in Mario Tennis Open is fun stuff, and I'm hopeful that online multiplayer will work as seamlessly as it does in the 3DS' Mario Kart 7. If so, it'll be a very fun game to play online.
It's a good thing, too, since the single-player has been significantly stripped down when compared to some past Mario Tennis games. It looks like the distinctive RPG elements that made the story mode on past games distinctive have been set aside—the closest you'll get is unlockable outfits and racquet that you can use with your Mii (but not with famous Mario characters). Also, characters won't have unique powers that you can unleash—there are fast, powerful, and versatile characters, but in the interest of balance, unique powers have been eliminated.
Outfits aren't purely cosmetic, and are awarded in a random order for winning matches in online and offline play. So, while there is a reward for playing, the "story mode" really just looks to be a series of bracketed tournaments a la Mario Kart 7. Then again, I didn't see it, since we didn't really get to play any of the single-player.
It would seem, however, that Nintendo has made the decision to streamline the core game into something that is balanced and focuses on multiplayer. Rather than implementing crazy powers and involved storylines, the game is a more pure tennis game.
That's fine—Mario Tennis Open felt good to play, and would be enjoyable with a group of people. And hey, Mario Kart 7 was also fairly simple, but it was incredibly fun to play.
That said, there did seem to be something missing; Mario Tennis Open felt just a bit hollow and overly simplified. Special games help alleviate this feeling, as they add a bit of truly different-feeling gameplay to the whole thing, but Nintendo wasn't saying whether or not there will be more than four of them.
We'll see if Nintendo unveils something more than the fairly simple game I saw this week. Though Mario Tennis Open releases in just over a month and a half (on May 20th), I didn't see every feature the game has to offer. It'll be a fun tennis game no matter what, but I hope to see more bits of inspiration on par with the "Super Mario Tennis" special game in the final product.
I guess I want to play more retro games with a tennis racquet. Who knew?
Keep it simple, man.
Just the racquet; just the ball.
Classic on the wall.