This simplicity makes it easy to pick up and play, with the unfortunate side effect of making it lose its challenge too quickly. It's a satisfying game and packs some exhilarating moments, but it exhausts its mechanics too soon.
Tennis volleys are handled via button presses or touchscreen commands. I could formulate some level of strategy to trip up opponents with normal shots, but more often my win came down to the all-important Chance Shots. When a colored panel on the ground appears, you can run to it and hit the corresponding strike to send a more powerful version of that shot. Once you learn which colors match the commands, the game mostly boils down to waiting to hit an ace with a Chance Shot.
It's a decent approximation of the tennis experience, but when shots only consist of a handful of options, the simplification gets tiring fast. That feeling is exacerbated by overlong tournaments, and plenty of them. The Singles and Doubles single-player tourneys consist of 8 cups, each featuring three opponents. Sets are won by the best of three games, and harder opponents require best of three or even best of five sets to win the match. That means that even if you win every time, you'll play around 100 games to complete a single run of all the cups with one character.
Longevity isn't a blessing when each of those games consists of volleying, waiting for a colored panel, and then striking the corresponding button -- over and over again. Opponents would occasionally score on me, or even win a game, but sticking to the tried-and-true Chance Shots would almost always win a set. By the time I was halfway through the various cups, I didn't feel challenged anymore. Finishing them ceased to be exciting. Fortunately, a Quick Save option makes it easy to jump out of the tournament and into the other game modes for a change of pace without losing progress.
The bottom screen is used as a touch panel for each command, but I found more luck in using the face buttons. Memorizing panel positions and holding onto the system felt too awkward to be a viable control method, and it would've been nice if the bottom screen had more usefulness for those who choose to play the old-fashioned way. As it is, the screen serves as a cheat sheet in case you forget a shot type, which ceases to be a problem after an hour or two.
Lifting the 3DS to a 90-degree angle places the player into an over-the-shoulder "Dynamic Mode." This seems like it would be the perfect mode for the 3DS's 3D feature, but that's curiously disabled using the view. Your character's movements can be controlled in Dynamic Mode, though it's mostly unnecessary. The character will move on his or her own, making it a sort of easy mode. It looks more visually interesting than the standard view, but players seeking more of a challenge will probably want to switch it off completely in the settings. The system's tendency to swap automatically can be disorienting.
The characters are nicely differentiated among types like Technique, Speed, Defense, Tricky, and the balanced All-Around. Some shots will work better against certain types than others, so learning each of their types can be an advantage. Even then, though, it usually comes down to which Chance Shot is available at a given time. If none of the Mario characters strike your fancy, you can play as a Mii and equip clothing and rackets to alter his or her stats.
These items are purchasable using Coins earned in the standout Special Games. These clever tennis take-offs offer increasing difficulties and score challenges. Each emphasizes a different aspect of tennis, making them good spots to hone any deficient skills. Galaxy Rally focuses on aim towards the other side of the court, while Ring Shot requires precise aim and timing over the net. Ink Showdown relies on quick reaction time, and Super Mario Tennis is effectively fast-paced wallyball with a clever 8-bit twist. All of them add a much-needed layer of variety to the game.
The multiplayer modes allow exhibition matches or tie-breaker games against friends or random opponents, and provides more challenge than the tournament AI. Doubles matches open the way for co-op play as well. With a human opponent, the Chance Shots aren't nearly as reliable, and quick-thinking feints can make the difference between winning and losing. It's an improvement over the too-easy tourney opponents and certainly gives the game legs, though I would've appreciated access to some form of the Special Games with a co-op partner.
Mario Tennis Open is a game best taken in small doses. Playing tournaments, exhibition games, and the special modes can be great fun for a few matches at a time. Multiplayer helps mix in smarter opponents and a layer of strategy as well. But overdoing it exposes the inherent simplicity and makes the game too redundant. Like its real-life equivalent, too much tennis might just leave players sore to the whole experience.
This review is based on a retail copy of Mario Tennis Open, provided by Nintendo.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.