The Mario Sports games are known for being larger than life and filled with color, bombast, and hyper-unrealistic movesets. Mario Tennis Open eschews much of this, following in the footsteps of some of Nintendo's earlier tennis games in an attempt to become a purer, more focused tennis experience. It doesn't quite hit the mark, falling somewhere between the two styles. Despite being largely stripped back, it manages to be convoluted thanks to a variety of jarring control schemes. Above all, while it's competent, it's also mundane, with little incentive for you to stick at it beyond the occasional bout of multiplayer with friends.
The setup is simple. Mario and friends are playing tennis. There's no usual Mushroom Kingdom plot and no backstory--it's simply all about 13 characters competing in tennis tournaments. Progressing through the three-match tournaments is a matter of playing them one after another. When you win the fourth tournament, you're given the option to promote your character to "star" status, meaning he or she can compete in the second set.
During matches, there are six shot types on offer: simple, topspin, flat, slice, lob, and drop shot. These shots can be performed with the face buttons, or by tapping the relevant icon on the touch screen. On the touch screen, the layout makes sense. The first four shots are laid out in a diamond, with topspin at the top, slice at the bottom, and simple and flat on either side. For some reason, however, the button layout doesn't mirror this, with topspin mapped to A on the right-hand side. Why the button layout doesn't match the touch screen layout is a mystery. It's especially odd given that the touch screen controls are largely hopeless, requiring you to look down at the bottom screen first, thus having to take your eye off the ball.
Then there's the option to use either gyro controls or circle pad controls. The latter sees you directing your player from a bird's-eye perspective, whereas the gyro controls angle the camera over your shoulder and have you directing your shots by tilting the 3DS around. This is another convoluted aspect of Mario Tennis. If you opt to turn gyro controls on, the game takes control of your player, directing him or her to where the ball is going to land. You can move around with the pad too, but with your player moving independently, it often feels like you're wrestling against the game. You also have to keep the 3DS vertical, as tilting it downwards will snap you out of that control method. Occasionally this happens mid-match, disorienting you.
Playing with gyro controls also disables the 3D, and this takes effect automatically, saving you the disorienting moment when you realize how incompatible gyro and 3D are. The 3D effects themselves aren't very impressive, with barely any depth even on the highest setting. Turning the gyro controls off gives you full control of your character via the circle pad and is the preferable option, not least because with gyro controls on, it's almost impossible to concede more than a couple of points within an entire tournament. Controlling your player with the circle pad also offers a bit more of a challenge, albeit only towards the end of the eight tournaments, thanks to a large difficulty spike in an otherwise incredibly easy game.
Spicing up the tennis somewhat is the "chance shot" mechanic. During rallies, glowing circles appear on the court, corresponding to one of five shot types. Performing a shot on the colored circle causes you to perform a smash shot that can stagger your opponents, curve around them, or lob over their heads. It's not too over the top--the focus is on largely sensible tennis mechanics after all--but it's enough to give you an edge in rallies. During earlier tournaments, these chance shots basically function as win buttons, and you almost always score a point if you hit one. This is particularly exaggerated if using the gyro controls, as the game will direct your character right into the chance shot spot. As if that weren't easy enough, while you can press the correct shot button (yellow for lob, red for topspin, and so on), chance shots can also be activated by performing a simple shot, which leads the game to perform the correctly colored shot without your having to worry about complicated things like pressing the right button.