It’s NHL playoff season, but, even through two nail-biting scoreless periods of Saturday’s Rangers/Devils conference match-up, my head hasn’t exactly been in the game. It’s also been in my Nintendo 3DS.
Handheld systems aren’t widely regarded for their stable of top shelf sports titles, and 2K Play’s portable iteration of genre mash-up Nicktoons MLB doesn’t exactly redefine the experience, but it is a fun title that seems fairly well tailored to the hardware’s design even if it fails to take advantage of many of the system’s most impressive features. Boasting 175 major leaguers and 27 Nicktoons characters – including favorites from older series like Avatar, Invader Zim and even Ren & Stimpy – it’s got a satisfying stable for young sports fans and cartoon lovers alike.
Visually, Nicktoons MLB 3D is nothing special; the graphics are competent, but never mind-blowing. The same can be said for the generic soundtrack and repetitive voiceovers, although the commentary is a little easier to swallow when coming out of the mouths of Spongebob‘s Perch Perkins and Zim‘s Gir.
But lovable characters aside, the title’s greatest success is its accessible, arcade-style controls. You can control where a pitch is thrown via the thumb stick and choose your pitch type via the face buttons: slider (A button), fastball (B button), changeup (X button) or curveball (Y button). Press once to select the pitch and a second time when the power meter reaches the desired level.
On a hit the control pad moves your fielders and the left trigger toggles control to the closest player. The buttons, which are already arranged in a convenient diamond pattern, make throwing to a base a breeze, and you can use the same method as pitcher (in tandem with the L-trigger) to pick off stealing opponents. The lower touch screen provides a nice overhead view of the field, complete with the current score and stats, which proves helpful as the game-controlled teams tend to steal at every possible opportunity. Batting offers a trio of swing options from the wild power swing to the guaranteed contact of the noble bunt, again mapped to the face buttons. There’s also a Turbo meter that rewards players for exemplary pitching, fielding and batting, and can be toggled on to increase speed and accuracy.
With Quick Play, Single Game, Season and Tournament options, as well as a smattering of mini-games and the requisite multi-cart multiplayer, Nicktoons MLB 3D offers exactly what you’d think. Still, collectibles (in the form of cards) and overall cartoon-y charm help make up for at least some of its repetitive nature and occasional clunkiness. My one word of warning concerns the single AR mini-game Frosty Freeze Toss. The game card printed in the manual simply does not work. Instead use the card that came with your 3DS. It’s a minor inconvenience, but one that’s fairly symptomatic of the title’s overall design.
Coming from a significantly more impressive gaming pedigree is Nintendo’s latest Mario Tennis Open. Developed by Camelot, who also gave us amazing handheld Mario tennis and golf titles on the GBA, this game offers that same brand of vibrant Mario-themed design, but sadly largely excludes its engaging RPG aesthetic.
In the spirit of, well, any Mario sports title, it offers over-the-top arcade-style sports action wrapped in the brightly colored splendor of the Mushroom Kingdom. You can control any of the usual lineup of player characters, each with his or her own unique stats and play style, but you can also play as your Mii avatar. As opposed to these established characters, the Mii is a stylistic blank slate that can be customized by equipping character-themed accessories available at the in-game Item Shop.
While not up to par with the visual mastery of system-movers like Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Tennis Open does look great, and it offers everything from robust single- and multiplayer options (including online) to Streetpass functionality. In each mode, however, the game controls are the same, and that is also exactly where this title truly shines.
Mario Tennis Open maps basic shot commands to both the face buttons and the touch screen, and players can easily stick to a single preferred method or switch interfaces on the fly. This is also true with regard to the game’s movement and aiming controls. In the standard view the analog nubbin does a fine job of moving your avatar around the court and positioning shots within a single wide frame of the entire court area, but lifting the system upright shifts to the close-up Dynamic View. In this view character movement is automatic, but a special emphasis is put on shot placement. You can simply hit to the left or right by turning the system slightly in the corresponding direction. It’s important to note that 3D visuals are suppressed in Dynamic View, a wise move for Nintendo as the combination of system movement and fixed-point 3D failed spectacularly in previous titles like last year’s Star Fox remake.
Another of Mario Tennis Open‘s true high points is the title’s bundled mini-games. Dubbed Special Games, these actually serve a purpose, as opposed to the generally boring filler we see so often shoe-horned into other 3DS titles. They teach valuable skills like ball control (Ring Shot) and shot placement (Galaxy Rally), and even the more superfluous excursions (like the old school-themed Super Mario Tennis) still manage to seem entertaining outside of the core game experience. Playing these Special Games is also a great way to rack up additional coins for use in purchasing stat-shifting accessories for your Mii.
This level of character customization is supplemented by additional unlockable costumes, the first of which Club Nintendo is currently distributing via QR code. It’s just one more way that Mario Tennis Open lets you as a user control and alter the game experience to your liking. Of course this is a Mario sports game, so there’s also an occasionally annoying element of randomness. This unpredictability, in the form of the Chance Shot, occurs when a character stands in a colored ring on the court and presses the correspondingly-colored touch command. This unleashes a specialty shot that, even more so than standard shot-charging and clever use of the slice/lob/spin system, mostly just serves to screw the opposition.
Still, Mario Tennis Open hits more often than it misses. Yes, there’s a bit of repetition, and the difficulty – particularly if you spend a lot of time honing your blank slate of a Mii into a well-accessorized tennis machine – can seem oddly uneven at times. But the game itself is what most of us want in a portable title: easy to pick up and fun to play in small doses, but still boasting an expansive array of overall content.