Review: Mario Tennis Open serves up fast, addictive court action

Mario Tennis Open is a truly fun, hard-to-put-down game full of the charm and excellence you’d expect from Nintendo and Camelot. Its pick-up-and-play nature and smooth, fast online modes make it a perfect anywhere-anytime title. There’s a rhythm to single player progression that takes a little while to grab hold, but — once it does — Mario Tennis Open blossoms into a very fast-paced, addictive experience. This rhythm relies on the game’s two most prominent features: online play and the mind-boggling number of unlockable items for your Mii. Unlike previous attempts to give Mario Tennis an RPG-like structure, MTO’s central “career” line bounces you rapidly between tournament cups, exhibition matches, mini games and the equipment shop — all focused squarely on upgrading and decking out your Mii for online matches. And those online matches are so quick and easy to jump in and out of that it all becomes part of one big, fun cycle.

In other words, though the game features the Mario Universe in full bloom for you to enjoy, single player career mode is very Mii/online focused. That design decision won’t make everyone happy, but I’m finding it a refreshing change of pace for the series.

At first, the game appears a bit light on content, but that impression stems from the fact that — aside from the Mii accessories — nearly everything seems to be unlocked at the start. You can pick a favorite character, a favorite court, a favorite mode and dive right in. It’s almost too open-ended for its own good.

Dig deeper, however, and the game reveals extra layers: higher levels of difficulty, more tournaments, unlockable courts, hidden characters and bonus modes. Along the way, one factor becomes very clear: everything offered is incredibly fun and highly replayable.

Despite the optional gyro controls (I turned them off) and touch-screen panels, Mario Tennis Open is best enjoyed with classic pad-and-button controls. With obstacle-free courts and no character-specific crazy moves, this game provides a much more classic-feeling game of video tennis, with the “chance shot” elements providing just the right amount of exaggeration. As someone who still loves the original N64 Mario Tennis, I call this is a welcome return to basics.

The overall presentation is streamlined but beautifully produced. The game’s packed with great, funny little details — like the toucan perched on the ref’s tower on the DK court, or the way Wario yells, “FORE!” as he serves. The courts and characters look terrific and the music is superb, highlighted by some fantastic, high-energy remixes of classic Mario tunes. The 3D, however, is a bit of a disappointment (you’d think this genre would be perfect for the effect, right?), really only making an impact in the Ring Shot and Galaxy mini games.

There are four minigames, and all are great fun — which is very good, because you’ll return to them often to earn cash and unlock hidden characters. My favorite is the smooth and hyper-addictive Ring Shot, though the new Super Mario-themed game is a work of genius — basically a perfect combination of racquetball and a shooting gallery.

Online play launches quickly and the rapid-fire match-ups are intense, funny and unpredictable as you collect portrait medallions of every Mii you vanquish. At this point, I’m experiencing a bit of occasional lag, but nothing game-breaking. Hopefully, Nintendo can iron this out; in the meantime it’s worked fine for me 90% of the time.

I’ve been having a blast with Mario Tennis Open, though I can understand why its new form of single-player progression might not appeal to everyone. Make no mistake, though, if you want some intense, quick gameplay online and off, and you’re looking forward to unlocking a ton of kookie outfits for your Mii, this game will keep you entertained for a long time to come.