There are three certainties in life; death, taxes and the guarantee that all sport is more fun when seasoned with a sprinkling of Nintendo’s lunatic dust.
In the past our plump-plumber has spiced up the mindless mundanity of golf, transformed Association Football into something that would make Alan Hansen sick in his mouth and most famously, has made a generation of nerds live in fear of banana skins through the cult of MarioKart.
Mario Tennis Open for 3DS is Nintendo and developer Camelot’s latest attempt to destroy everything the All England Lawn Tennis Club hold dear.
The previous game in this series, Mario Power Tennis (GameCube, Wii), was arguably the most bizarre Mario spin off Nintendo have ever dared to release. This was a game in which earthquakes interrupting rallies, racquets turning into electric hammers and contestants transforming the court into a swimming pool were something you just had to accept and deal with. In fact, the only thing that could have made it more surreal would be if Cliff Richard came and screeched Bachelor Boy directly into your face... dressed as Princess Peach, natch.
You want to be thinking “why the HELL hasn’t my character thrown lightening at this chump and made off in a hot-air balloon with the trophy?”
Ridiculous as it was, Mario Power Tennis was extraordinarily fun and its unique unpredictability made it one of the most enjoyable multiplayer games of the last generation. So how does the handheld's new title stand up to its predecessor?
Mario Tennis Open looks fantastic. The characters look right, the courts are themed in a way that no Nintendo fan could object to and the music references all the correct games to get nostalgic fanboys misty-eyed.
The bulk of the game involves working your way through a series of tournaments on themed courts, battling it out with all of the Mario franchises’ most famous characters. Each achievement unlocks something from the enormous catalogue of bonus items which features clothing, racquets and other quite cool accessories. These new items can only be applied to your Mii, which seems a little pointless as your Mii character is never going to be who you actually want to play with.
There are also a few mini-games, although other than a rally competition which is brilliant first thing in the morning when your brain has yet to kick in, none of them are particularly fun. This is a shame as quirky mini-games have for a long time been something Nintendo have done better than anyone else.
Unfortunately the game’s shortcomings don’t end here.
The control system tries very hard to make use of the console’s unique features. Annoyingly, it does so to the game’s detriment.
There are several ways to control the game, but in brief you will either find yourself playing from an above the court camera angle. That means using the 3DS’ joystick to move around the court. Or you'll be playing over your player’s shoulder, where you use the console’s tilt function.
Moving between the two is decided by whether you hold the console in the normal horizontal position or vertically. After about 10 seconds you will find yourself going to the game settings to turn this function off, as that’s how long it will take for the camera angle to change against your will more times than anyone’s temper can tolerate.
How you hit the ball is another unwelcome world of options. You can either use the standard buttons - as one might on a games console, for example - or you can use the 3DS touch screen, which has exactly the same shot options laid out on a colour-coded touch grid. The colour-coding actually makes the game considerably easier, as in play a ring of light appears around where the ball is going to land in the colour representing the most advantageous shot type.
Once you’ve mastered the controls it becomes apparent that the game is stupidly easy. After an hour of playing it’s possible to take on a computer opponent at expert level (the game’s hardest setting) and take them all the way to a tiebreaker.
All of these criticisms could also be levelled at the previously mentioned Mario Power Tennis. However, MPT did something which Mario Tennis Open repeatedly fails to do.
The whole point of placing anything as ordinary as tennis inside the Mushroom Kingdom (the universe Mario and co inhabit) is that you can move as far away as you like from the realms of reality. When playing a Mario sport game you don’t want to be thinking about whether top-spin or a lob is the more beneficial next shot, you want to be thinking “why the HELL hasn’t my character thrown lightening at this chump and made off in a hot-air balloon with the trophy?” That’s what Mario characters do, and it makes playing sports as them stunning.
Mario Power Tennis left you speechless at every turn. It did it through novelty courts that influenced the game, it did it through weapons you could throw at your opponent during the match and it did it through each character having unique abilities. All of these factors combined meant that playing with friends resulted in hours of uncontrollable hysterics. By contrast, Mario Tennis Open is quite a fun single player game for the first few hours, but once the novelty factor has worn off is little more than an average tennis game, the sort that you would never consider playing with other people.
At this beginning of this review it was said that all sport is more fun when a sprinkling of Nintendo’s lunatic dust is added. Sadly for Mario Tennis Open, not enough was applied, leaving us with something entirely ordinary and certainly not worth £30.
Mario Tennis Open is released across Europe on 25 May for £30