Finding new sports for Mario to take up is getting seriously tricky. Let's see what out favorite Italian stereotype has left to play, shall we? How about "Mario Angling"? That might be fun, but we'll save that one for the Wii-mote. "Donkey Kong Zorbing"? Nah, too much like Super Monkey Ball. Ok, got it: "Princess Peach Buzkashi Party". See how the word "party" makes it all seem more fun and accessible?
Those are the two qualities Mario Hoops shoots for, thanks to its never-before-touched all-stylus control scheme. But after feeling around for an hour, you'll realize that learning to play ball in the mushroom kingdom is more challenging and more fun than actually playing - mostly because the stylus interface design is thorough in its use of every possible type of stylus command: swipes, double swipes, taps, double and triple taps, gestures, and holds.
[image1]An upwards swipe will shoot or block, a downward stroke will steal, and left and right swooshes will pass to either or your two teammates. Tapping around the touch screen will make your character dribble the ball there, so you can put your hairy body between the ball and a steal-happy defender. Hold the stylus against the screen for a few seconds while in possession to charge up then stroke up to let a high percentage charged shot fly. Do the same on defense and you'll make a barrier in front of you to halt a dribbler's penetration, then swipe down to do a charged steal. Lastly, tapping out gestures to make shapes like M, W, N, B or L you'll pull off a fancy special move.
It’s easy enough to learn the basics, but trying to remember the other seventeen special moves takes some serious brain agility. Fortunately, they are all outlined well in a lengthy tutorial mode that turns out to be a large part of the available gameplay. At some point the strange control scheme just gels, and suddenly you’re a natural.
It's all in good fun, but you'll wish there was more game besides the quick and easy Tournament mode. You'll drive right through all twenty-or-so, five-minute matches at a blistering pace, utterly trouncing the infantile A.I., and grab the four available cups faster than you can spell A.D.D.
Though the A.I. ramps up slightly from one league to the next, they remain exercises in stealing basketballs from babies - which you'll be doing a lot of because of the game’s coin-based point scheme. Simply put, the more coins you have when you sink one, the more points you get. So all you need to do in any game is quickly tap the touch screen to repeatedly dribble for the coins that litter the floor. Then you run right past the Special Olympics defense, mosey on up to the basket, and dunk, scoring a shell load of points your opponent will have no chance of topping.
[image2]You won’t need any other shot than the dunk either, because it always works, unlike the myopic accuracy of the ranged shots. Why did you run through the tutorial mode again? To be fair, there are harder modes to unlock, but they should have been available from the beginning, rather than making you play through the tediously easy tournament.
Fortunately, Mario Hoops gets a bit more entertaining, because you get swept up in the addiction of unlocking all the colored basketballs, courts and players. But the fun stops pretty quickly as you start to realize that all the unlockables are just new skins for the balls, teams and courts you already had.
And those were mostly the same anyway. Though there are supposedly different play styles - Peach is "technical", Wario is "powerful", and Diddy Kong is "speedy" - they all basically play the same as Mario, "well-rounded.” A nice bonus, and the only trace of developer Square-Enix, is the ability to unlock a Moogle and a Cactuar, among others of Final Fantasy fame. Too bad they play just like everyone else.
The same goes for court and weapon variety, which naturally run the gamut of fifteen-year-old Nintendo cultural icons. Some environments will have cannonballs landing or cheep-cheeps flying all over the place, but their gameplay effects are little more than cosmetic. Expect to see every weapon you've seen before, from colored shells to bombs, and if you've played Super Mario Strikers or Mario Kart DS, you can already play this game in your head.
It's amazing what playing against a live opponent will do for competitive games. Well you're out of luck as far as DS Download play goes, since all you get are two novelty mini games to waste precious any-other-game time on. Without online support, which Mario Hoops could have definitely used, the only way you can ball with one to three of your buds is through LAN play, one copy of Mario Hoops per DS. Too bad it didn't launch at $20; but trust us, it'll get there.
[image3]Although the pretty graphics will certainly keep it out of the bargain bin for a while. Mario Hoops is as clean, as smooth, and as tight as any Mario game before it. The top screen is dedicated to showing you on-the-court action, while the touch screen is a bird's eye, icon-filled view of the floor. The action is smooth and colorful and has much better 3D graphics than we’ve come to expect from other DS titles.
A lower point is the audio, which features a cross section of shabby, repetitive music along with shrill, repetitive character emotes, made all the more annoying because each character only says two things – one for happy and one for sad.
One last problem in the presentation is how much time Mario Hoops spends in transition after every basket. It takes a while to load and skip replays, bogging down otherwise quick gameplay. After you've waited through your hundredth highlight, you'll want to just be able to turn replays off. And hey! Guess what? You can't.
But you can always turn on the "rent" option. Mario Hoops is a decent, little game that's a bit too decent and way too little. It's good for a laugh or two, but it fails to capture the fast-paced fun factor of previous Mario sports titles. Mario Caber Toss, here I come!