"A glorified game of Whack-a-Mole. Are you even trying, Nintendo?"
Review in Brief
Game: The latest in the Mario Tennis franchise starring the cast of the Mario series playing tennis.
Good: Good job scaffolding the player from basic to more complex skills.
Bad: Absurdly, insultingly simple: the entire game can be beaten just by tapping the flashing buttons on the touchpad; a ridiculously and uselessly simple online mode; broken AI; silly throw-away minigames; dumb gyroscope issues.
Verdict: I don't know what's sadder: that Nintendo isn't trying anymore, or that they might be and still can't come up with better than this.
Recommendation: I wouldn't recommend it if it was the last game on earth.
"A glorified game of Whack-a-Mole. Are you even trying, Nintendo?"
I don't know what's happened. I'm at a loss. There are no words to describe the repeated disappointment I've encountered every time I've gotten a new 3DS game. Every single game has disappointed me. Every single game has been subpar, average at best. Every single game has been a letdown compared to Nintendo's usually incredibly-high standard of excellence.
But Mario Tennis Open... somehow, this is the worst offender of them all. I don't even know if let down is the right word for it. I'm almost insulted that Nintendo would make such a simple game, that they would think that gamers couldn't handle more than such a simple game. This isn't another in the long line of appeals to a casual audience: a casual, simple game I could handle. If it was a game my mom could play, that would be fine: I understand the appeal there. But this... this is a game for toddlers. In the words of the reviewer Yahtzee, this must be Nintendo's latest entry for its "No Drooling Mongoloid Left Behind" policy.
I'll describe more fully how the game is so simple below, but really, believe me when I say: it's a glorified game of Whack-a-Mole. You press the things that light up. It's that simple. There is nothing more to the game than pressing the things when they light up. That's all. I won an entire significant portion of the game with the top screen covered up, which is where the game is actually displayed, because that's how simple the game is. You press the things that light up on the touch screen and you win. The end.
Mario Tennis Open is the latest in Nintendo's now long-running Mario Tennis series, following from the entries for Game Boy, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Advance, GameCube, and Wii. The concept is still simple and familiar: you're playing tennis with the cast of the Mario games. In this rendition, the game uses the control pad and the touchpad as the primary control mechanisms. Use the control pad to move your character around, and use the touch pad to select what kind of shot you want to use (lob, drop, power, topspin, flat, or regular). As you play, circles will appear on the court that tell you what the optimal shot would be based on the type of shot your opponent just made: if you use the shot indicated, you may receive a bonus.
The game's structure should be familiar by now. For single player, you can either play tournaments (eight tournaments in all of theoretically increasing difficulty), exhibition matches (one match), or a collection of special minigames. You can also play local or online multiplayer. I lack anyone with a 3DS to test out the local multiplayer, but the online multiplayer is divided into two modes: short matches (one-game sets) and "long" matches (best-of-three sets). Matchmaking is done randomly, as usual. There are also unlockable items that you can purchase with coins you earn in the special games and in other places.
I'm wary of this review becoming something of a bashing review -- although, at the same time, I guess when you're giving a game a score of 3/10, it's hard to do anything except bash the game. I'm not going to say that Mario Tennis Open isn't occasionally fun -- if it wasn't ever fun, it would get a much lower score. However, there is nearly nothing good to say about it. There's very little that increases the game's value or enjoyability. What's fun about the game is that it's a game: games all have some kind of basic natural appeal, but in the case of Mario Tennis Open, the fun of the game does not go any further than the enjoyment you would expect out of any other game; and by any other game I'm including things like tic-tac-toe, Simon, and hopscotch. All told, the game does exactly one thing particularly well.
If you are unaware, the term scaffolding comes from software development and basically refers to the way in which software can teach the user how to use it as they use it. Although it comes in many forms, its most basic form is to start the user off with some limited subset of abilities and knowledge, and slowly add to that knowledgebase over time. The user should never be given more information than they can handle, but should also be given new information, skills, and abilities right as they master the previous ones.
Of course, Mario Tennis Open does not explicitly prevent the player from using any of the available skills in the beginning; however, it does only slowly tell the player of the abilities they have at their disposal. The game starts with a very simple introduction followed by a one-game match against a very easy opponent. During this phase, the game introduces the player to the very basics of the game: using the control pad to move their character and using the touchpad to select what kind of shot they want to use. From there, the player is given the single-player mode. The single player mode, as with basically every other Mario sports spin off, is divided into eight tournaments: in order to access the second tournament, the player must beat the first tournament, and so on. Between each match in these tournaments, the player is presented with a tidbit about a skill or ability they may not have been presented with previously. For example, after the first match (if I recall correctly), the player is told that when icons appear on the field, they can make the shot indicated in order to raise their odds of executing a more difficult shot. After the second match, the player is told that the indicated shots correspond to the type of shot the opponent had just made. After the third match, the player is told that they can hold down their shot button to execute a more powerful shot.
The value of this approach is important: some games (I'm looking at you Pro Evolution Soccer 12) basically just give the player the instruction manual and trust them to figure everything out. By slowly building up the player's skill set, Mario Tennis Open is able to more effectively and efficiently teach the player how to play the game by forming a foundation of basic skills and adding on more skills in a controlled and deliberate fashion. Of course, this would be better if the game had more skills to teach in the first place, but that's a criticism for the next section.
In case I haven't made it perfectly clear so far (ha), the main problem with Mario Tennis Open is how insultingly simple the game is. It boils down to a glorified game of Whack-a-Mole. That isn't the only problem, though: it has balance issues, an disappointingly simplistic online mode, quite silly minigames, and a very stupid gyroscope issue that, quite frankly, may be emblematic of how little effort Nintendo put into this game.
In order to help you understand how insultingly simple Mario Tennis Open is, let me walk you through my experience with the game early on. When I first begun playing, I was playing the way I deemed to be the right way to play: I would use the control stick to steer my character to the places where the ball was coming, and I would do my best to select the shot that corresponded to the glowing circle on the tennis court. It was pretty obvious that if the ball was going to land in a spot that was highlighted blue, then the game recommended using the shot that was labeled with a blue button. So, I would run towards the ball and tap the right shot button on the touchpad at exactly the right moment. At some point, however, I noticed that the game did the player the "favor" of highlighting on the touchpad which shot it recommended for a given return. The ideal way to play the game, then, was always to tap Which ever shot was highlighted. On top of that, I started to notice that timing really didn't matter. Your character walks slower after you selected a shot, sure, but if you're already standing where the ball is going to land, you can go ahead and press the shot button anytime and your character will return the ball just fine.
So with that experience in mind, I did little experiment. First, I tried ignoring the recommended shot: instead, I just tapped in the same location on the touchpad for every shot. It was obvious that the results were not as good as they could've been, but was more obvious was that as long as I was standing anywhere near the ball was coming and as long as I had tapped any kind of shot at any point before the ball's arrival, my character would return the shot just fine. There was no timing involved: just run to the spot and tap anywhere on the touchpad. Then, I tried something else: nearly every time I would just tap the recommended shot the moment my opponent struck the ball. In almost every case, this still works just fine: my character starts charging up their return early, and typically the opponent hits the ball somewhere in their normal range anyway.
So to summarize, the entire gameplay of the entirety of Mario Tennis Open -- and I'm not simplifying this for effect, this is an accurate description -- is to use the control pad to move your character towards a highlighted spot on the tennis court and tap the flashing button. That's why I describe it as a glorified game of Whack-a-Mole: you're basically just tapping whatever button happens to light up on a given return. That's the entirety of the game, folks. Sure, you can add a little bit of strategy by angling your shot to the left or right, but all that does is shorten the length of a certain volley: if you are in position to return the shot in the shot will be returned no matter where you directed it. But I say, without exaggeration, that aside from the occasional glance upwards to see in which way you should run, you can basically win every game by just pressing a highlighted button on the touchpad. There is no skill involved. You don't even have to learn the locations of the different types of shots on the touchpad: all you have to do is tap the one that's flashing. That's all. I don't see how it could get any simpler than that. There is no skill, there is no strategy, and there is no depth. And if you think the need to move your character towards the ball with the control stick is what makes the game more than glorified Whack-a-Mole, then don't worry: by using one of the game's "features" that I'll talk about later, you don't even need to do that. I honestly won an entire tournament without ever looking at the top screen just by pressing the flashing button every time one came up. Tap the flashing button. Tap the Flashing Button Open 3D would be a perfectly descriptive title for the game.
After playing for a little while, though, I started to notice something. As mentioned above, six different types of shots exist in the game and the color of the circle on the tennis court that appears for you to run towards indicates which shot is recommended by the game. One of these is the drop shot: it is marked by a white circle, and the button for a drop shot is in the bottom left-hand corner of the touchpad. I started to notice that when the game recommended to drop shot it was almost a guaranteed victory for that particular volley: my opponent can only return it maybe 10% of the time. So, I started to use the drop shot even when the game was recommending other shots. At one point, I won eight consecutive points over the span of two non-consecutive games simply by returning every one of my opponent's serves with the drop shot. They just weren't capable of returning them.
Of course, the more difficult opponents were not so easily beaten by that tactic, but even at the higher difficulty levels it still worked with remarkable effectiveness. Drop shot became my default return, and half the time I didn't even bother with what the game recommended. Even late in the game, on the higher difficulty levels, drop shots still had a remarkably low return rating. On one late-game match, I even counted it, and my opponent failed to return my drop shots 10% of the time: now, 10% might not sound high, but consider that a volley can consist of dozens of shots back and forth. With that many shots, I shot with a 10% success rating is very powerful.
It's possible, though, that this is not a problem with drop shots so much as it's a problem with the game's AI as a whole. As I mentioned, against one opponent he was utterly incapable of returning a drop shot return of serve. For another opponent, he was able to, but he always returned it in exactly the same way: that return then set up an easy flat shot down the line. That I was able to do eight consecutive times as well. It may be that the opponents are not just susceptible to drop shots, but rather that there are very simple sequences of shots that "break" the opponent's AI. These kinds of broken strategies that rank as ludicrously overpowered are an incredible weakness to any challenge the game may have supplied. So, to summarize, you can win any match just by pressing the highlighted button: and you could win any match faster by noticing what shots your opponent has trouble with and spamming them. Again, it could not be any simpler.
Overly Simple Online Mode
After completing as much of the single player mode as I could tolerate, I figured I would go try the online mode. What really I assumed was that the game had more nuance and strategy to it than the single-player was able to display, and the infinite capacity of human beings to learn would ensure a greater challenge online. However, any challenge the online might present is extremely and frustratingly handicapped by how ludicrously simple the online structure is. In playing online, you have only two options: a quick game or an extended game. A quick game is literally one game: if you're unfamiliar with tennis terminology, one game is basically the first player to win for volleys. The "extended" game is doubled in length: a best-of-three one-set match. A best-of-three one-set match takes at absolute most about three to four minutes to complete. It can be beaten in as few as eight volleys if one player wins them all; if the players are fairly well matched, it is still unlikely to go more than around 30 volleys. Then, the match is over. There is absolutely no time to learn your opponent's strategy, tendencies, or habits. There is no skill involved on the basis of learning another humans way of playing. By the time you can notice a tendency of theirs, the game is over. For comparison, tennis matches in the real world are comprised of five sets with a minimum of six games each. That means the longest a Mario Tennis Open online match can possibly go is the equivalent of one-sixth of the length of the shortest real world match and one-twentieth the potential length of a real world match. That just isn't nearly long enough to be fun. I understand the value in having a short option; some people will always want that. However for a game like tennis, a longer match is absolutely essential.
More importantly, I was wrong about there being more nuance and strategy to the online mode against other human players. I played several matches against individuals who, despite the game's young age, have already racked up surprisingly high player ratings. Against basically all players, I won approximately half my games. There was no rhyme or reason to who I won against and who I lost to: it seemed like every game was basically a coin flip except for those individuals who seemingly had just started playing the game and skipped the single player mode. Nowhere, even against the highest rated players I've played, did I see a strategy they did not boil down to pressing the highlighted button. The drop shot was no longer overpowered against real human players, but beyond that the game really just did boil down to running to the highlighted spot and pressing the highlighted button. Several times I tried strategies that went outside of that simple idea, and every single time they gave me worse results. The only thing that differed between online mode and single player mode was that angling shots was slightly more important. That's all. There just isn't enough skill in the game to improve at it. Getting better at Mario Tennis Open is like getting better at setting your microwave. You press the highlighted button. That's all. The online mode doesn't even have a doubles mode.
What's funny is that after I posted this review the first time, the major hatemail I received was basically, "Well sure the single-player is bad, but you're ignoring the multiplayer!" Apparently readers didn't read to this section, so let me make it more clear: if this game had a good multiplayer mode, one that let the player choose more than a single best-of-three set, one that had a ranking system that was actually serviceable, one that had a matchmaking system that felt like it was made at some point in this decade, then the game might be fine. An excellent online system could have gotten this game at least a 6 -- a 7 if it had some nuance and skill to the online matches. But it doesn't have that. All it has is a ridiculously simple online system predicated on 3-minute matches against completely random opponents (with no apparent attention paid to relative skill levels... not that it matters since there's no skill in the game). Make no mistake: the online system is a failure. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Silly, Unengaging Minigames
In addition to the standard single and multiplayer modes, the game also supplies four minigames using the same engine. The first involves trying to hit the ball through randomly appearing rings as you play. Considering how narrow your options are in where you hit the ball, the game really involves no skill or strategy at all. The second appears to be unique and creative: it has you "playing" a classic Super Mario Bros.-style game displayed on the wall where the net would be. You hit coins with the ball to collect them, Goombas with the ball to defeat them, and pipes with the ball to enter them. At first it seemed kind of fun, once again, the narrowness of your ability to interact with the game -- that is, the limited number of shot types and the very limited amount of control over the ball's trajectory -- makes it more aggravating than entertaining.
The third minigame makes use of the disappearing platforms from Super Mario Galaxy. The opponents court is made of four platforms, and hitting one of the platforms with the ball makes it disappear until another platform is hit. Your goal is to keep a volley going without having the ball fall to the court. It's fun for about a minute until you realize that a drop shot will always land in the front of the court and the lob shot will always land in the back of the court, allowing you to alternate between the two ad infinitum. The final game consists of three Piranha Plants shooting balls to you like the world's most intimidating batting practice. Your goal is to return the balls such that unsuspecting Princess Peach on the other court can't return them back to you. Again, it's fun for about a minute, until you realize that the only way to win is by standing right at the net: and if you do this, you're guaranteed to return every ball outside of her grasp. So to summarize, two of the minigames don't give the player sufficient control to be fun, and the other two are so simple that they can be mastered beyond ever being challenging in under a minute.
Stupid Gyroscope Issue
I think the gyroscope issue is proof of just how little effort and thought Nintendo put into this game. When the gyroscope is enabled, lifting the 3DS to a vertical position will put the player in something of a third-person mode: the camera will zoom in very close behind the player's character and play the game from that perspective. There are two major issues here. First, and annoyingly, the gyroscope setting is reset after every match. Every match it is turned on by default, and the player has to manually turn it off. Odds are, however, the you won't notice it's on until you shift in your chair and suddenly have the camera for the entire game move drastically. Then you have to try and fumble for the pause button to turn it off without losing the current volley. I can't think of any logical reason whatsoever why the game wouldn't save your preference for the gyroscope.
That's not even the biggest problem, though. When you turn the gyroscope on and enter this third-person mode, the game no longer requires you to manually run towards the ball: it does that part for you. Previously, the entire game consisted of moving your character towards the ball with the control stick and tapping the flashing button on the touchpad. Enabled the gyroscope, and now literally all there is to the game is tapping the flashing button. I find the gyroscope annoying considering I tend to move around while I play, so I typically disabled it. Just for fun though, I enabled it just to see how well I would do if I didn't even bother looking at the top screen at all. I won the tournament and never lost the point. That's downright pathetic.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I don't even really know what to say anymore. Nintendo has always been one of the best game designers in the world. Yet, every single game that they've released so far for the 3DS has fallen far short of expectations. Mario Kart 7 was completely unremarkable. Super Mario 3D Land was as uninspired as any Mario platformer I have ever seen. Kid Icarus: Uprising had a lot of potential, but was done in by such basic mistakes that I cannot believe Nintendo could still make them.
Yet of all of them, Mario Tennis Open is by far the most egregious offender. I'm somewhat uncomfortable giving it a score as low as 3 since it can be kind of fun at times and since it is visually appealing, if nothing else. However, the absurd simplicity of the gameplay is just unforgivable. Gameplay is the driving force behind the game. How can you give a game they can be one simply by pressing a flashing icon touchpad over and over a score any higher than 3? Tetris had more depth and skill than this. Pong had more depth and skill than this. This is blatantly unacceptable. This is a borderline insult to owners of the 3DS. This is pathetic: there is no other way to describe it. Nintendo has released a game for one of its marquee franchises on its marquee console at the moment that boils down to tapping the flashing button. It is a glorified game of Whack-a-Mole. I don't even think they're even trying anymore; and, sadly, it's almost more depressing if they really still are. If they're trying to put out quality games and this is still the best they can come up with, the Nintendo will be out of business within three years. My only hope for the company is that they've devoted so many resources to developing the Wii U that they just didn't have any good ones left over for Mario Tennis Open. That's the only justification I can think of for releasing a game that has one-tenth of the entertainment value of any random Flash game you could find online. This is just pathetic, Nintendo.
Don't even bother. Yes, I know how lacking the 3DS's game library is: that's just how worthless this game is. It could be the only game on the console and I still wouldn't recommend even renting it. It's that pathetic.
Reviewer's Score: 3/10
Game Release: Mario Tennis Open (US, 05/20/12)