Mario Tennis seems to expand and contract with every passing game in the series. In one iteration it'll throw in special items and strange RPG elements, in the next it'll shave it all off again in favour of the fundamentals. Mario Tennis Open is one of the pared-down entries in the series, eschewing much of the weirdness of the last couple of games and focusing on the basics: smashing a tennis ball into Yoshi's stupid face as hard as you possibly can. Now in 3D.
As per ancient traditions, the Mario sports games have very little to do with realism. They're children's drawings of sports, with the chunky and colourful cast of the Mario universe rollicking around rainbow coloured pitches, fields and velodromes, kicking, putting, slapping, rolling and slicing all kinds of balls in a manner that only vaguely ascribes to a given sport's rules. It's a lot like when a PE teacher insists that sport isn't about winning but about having fun, when in truth it really is all about winning. Not just winning either, but humiliating anybody who dared enter into competition with you. Underneath Mario Tennis Open's friendly let's-have-fun veneer is an intense tennis game that will have you gritting your teeth in concentration, whimpering with frustration, yelping in triumph, squealing with delight and howling in defeat.
However, your introduction to Mario Tennis Open is not an entirely pleasant one, as it attempts to coerce you into using some of the game's brand new, hardware-specific features. For a start, the game will automatically switch to an over-the-shoulder viewpoint if the 3DS is held upright, enabling you to aim using gyroscope controls - that is, turning the handheld to the left and right like a mad person.
Slipping into this mode disables the 3D effect and removes the burden of having to move your character around the court. You can manually control your player's movement in this mode, but lift your thumb off the Circle Pad and your player will automatically move into the correct position to return the ball. The game pretty much starts playing itself.
Slightly more useful are the touchscreen controls. As you play, areas of the court will glow a certain colour. Move to that highlighted spot (they only appear anywhere the ball is headed) and, by using the special shot that corresponds to that colour, you'll unleash a powerful Chance Shot. Say, for instance, a glowing blue circle appears on your baseline. You would move into this circle, press B to charge a slice shot and, once the ball arrives, your character will launch a dramatically curved shot back into their opponent's court.Rather than press the corresponding face button, however, you can instead touch the corresponding coloured panel on the touchscreen, which flashes helpfully whenever a Chance Shot appears on the court.
This is useful for new players, though once you've had enough practice you'll build the required muscle memory to know which colours match up with which face buttons. Interestingly, if you play using the flashing touchscreen and the gyroscope controls, you can - and this is something we tested rigorously for this review - win a match without having to look at the top screen at all.
There's a certain degree of unwelcome hand-holding going on in Mario Tennis Open, and if you're even vaguely familiar with videogames you'll doubtless breeze through the first few championships without losing a single match.
Still, switch off these stabilisers and rise through the ranks of the Novice and Intermediate AI opponents and the classic Mario Tennis appeal begins to shine through. Mario Tennis Open stars a line up of 12 Mario characters, from Mario to Bowser, Diddy to Donkey and Peach to Daisy, with more unlocked as you play. Nine courts host eight singles and doubles tournaments of increasing difficulty, each with their own surfaces and characteristics to contend with and exploit.