There are few safer bets in the world of video games than those that come with the word 'Mario' in their moniker, but Mario Tennis Open, the first fresh Mario tennis game in eight years, doesn't quite live up to the white-gloved plumber's stellar reputation.
Strangely, any sort of compelling solo mode is absent for this 3DS title. There's no story or career. Instead, we're offered a series of quick cup tournaments that do little more than provide players a chance to learn the game's different control styles and special Mario-themed rules.
Not that the practice is unappreciated.
The game's standard circle pad mode is familiar enough, but a gyro-enabled alternative that shifts the camera down to court level and puts avatar movement in the hands of the computer, allowing players to aim shots by physically swivelling the 3DS, takes a little getting used to (though it may end up proving easier and more appealing to rookies and younger kids).
And while standard rules of tennis apply, it takes time to fully understand and exploit the game's more fantastical elements. For example, you'll often see a flashing circle around the area where the ball is expected to land. Hit the shot type that corresponds with the colour of the circle and you'll whack a powerful special shot that has a better chance of getting past your rival.
But once you've got everything worked out and have settled on your preferred control method, you'll go looking for other things to do, and this is where the disappointment begins to set in.
You won't find much other than a basic exhibition mode and a quartet of quick mini-games, the most interesting of which is a Super Mario Bros.-themed challenge that has players hitting the ball against a giant screen displaying levels from Nintendo's classic platformer and earning points for striking goombas, coins and bricks. It's quirky and curious, but proves little more than a geeky novelty. I lost interest before making it to the first castle.
With a lack of activities that appeal to solo gamers, players will be forced to search out fun in multiplayer, where they can hook up with others in both local area network or online play (the latter restricts games to one-off single player matches when not playing with registered friends).
Playing against humans – even strangers – can be more challenging and rewarding than going up against computer-controlled opponents, but no more long-term appeal exists here than in the single-player mode. There are no stats, no ranked tournaments, no levelling. It's simply free play with no real goals other than to beat the person you're currently playing against and perhaps climb up the global leader board.
In the end, the most compelling reason to keep playing may simply be to collect goodies. We earn coins throughout the game that can be used to purchase attribute-altering bits of clothing and gear in the game's virtual shop that players can use to dress up and augment their Mii avatars. They don't significantly alter abilities, but younger kids may have fun mixing Peach's golden bracelets with Donkey Kong's banana costume, and older players might take pride in slowly collecting every available item.
But even taking into account the clubhouse shop, I feared I'd somehow missed the central part of the game. I kept hunting for other things to do, finding nothing. And it just felt wrong. Nintendo all but invented story-driven sports titles brimming with objectives and rewards with the original Mario Tennis and Mario Golf games for Game Boy Color. These were sports games you could lose yourself in for weeks or months.
Not so for Mario Tennis Open. It may sport sleeker graphics, more advanced controls and online play, but it feels like a hollowed out version of its predecessors. That's an unexpected step backwards for Nintendo's sports line.
Mario Tennis Open
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Released: May 20th, 2012