There are currently four Mario titles on the Nintendo 3DS, a console that has been out in New Zealand for a just over a year.
Every one of them is a variation on what's come before – Super Mario 3D Land, the handheld's flagship title, is a multi-dimensional mash-up of the classic 2D Mario games and Super Mario 64; Mario Kart 7 is another instalment in the stalwart karting series; Sonic & Mario at the London 2012 Olympic Games is the follow-up to their 2008 excursion to Beijing for a spot of sport.
Another, Paper Mario: Sticker Star, is the latest sequel to the popular, self-aware Paper Mario series.
Mario Tennis Open nestles comfortably among those games, and amongst the vast majority of the Mario back catalogue, as an offering averse to risk. It's positively chuffed to be your typically polite, inoffensive, easily charming Mario game.
The drawcard here is ostensibly Mario and friends playing tennis, but we've been well past that novelty since at least Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. The attraction's evolved into Mario the atmosphere, Mario the concept, Mario the brand. Mario has become shorthand for a specific aesthetic and a specific style of gameplay, and while the triple-A platformers may have the freedom to deviate at will, the sports games will be stuck in that rut for as long as they'll net profits.
Perhaps there is a place in this world for games like Mario Tennis Open – scratch that, there's definitely a place in this world for games like Mario Tennis Open. Videogame tennis never evolved that much beyond Pong – the court got deeper and the shots got varied, but the mechanics remained roughly the same, and Open goes to no great lengths to change that. Thus, as a puzzle game that tests one's rhythm, timing and colour recognition, among other things, Open is perfectly solid.
It's a great timewaster, even, with some decent mini-games and a sturdy online mode. The difficulty curve is manageable enough for it to be challenging for the children and the dextrous nerds in the audience, and the Chance Shots add a fun layer to the game as players race to deliver a potential game-winning shot. The graphics are cheerful, the music is triumphant and the characters are full of personality. It even has a neat mode in which the original Super Mario Bros can be played through shots. It could do with more tournaments and more mini-games (four seems to be developer Camelot's lucky number – four mini-games with four stages, four tournaments in each of the two Opens, four difficulties to unlock for Exhibition mode, and so on), and the different playing 'styles' of the characters aren't especially significant, but it's an agreeable distraction all the same.
The issue is that there isn't anything here that hasn't been seen before. The market for video games is exceptionally crowded, even on the Nintendo 3DS, and Open rarely does anything interesting enough to warrant the investment of time and energy to play it. In their slavish loyalty to Mario shorthand, Camelot has delivered something politely, enthusiastically middle-of-the-road. Time spent playing Open feels like time wasted, rather than time invested in something worthwhile. It's aggressively chipper about its lack of substance, to the point where players may even feel bad for sinking the time into beating the Champions Cup.
Mario Tennis Open is light, comfortable fun, yes. This much is a given. But, like many franchises that have run for seventeen years or more, it raises the question of what, exactly, it's doing to stay relevant. How is it trying to be something that commands players' attentions in a sea of works fighting for their money and time? How is it justifying its existence, the resources that went into creating it? In Open's case, it seems the answer to all these questions is 'by being on the 3DS'. And that's really not good enough.