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Mario Tennis Open review: Nintendo serves up a return to form

Not quite as good as N64, but better than GameCube...

That time of year is drawing upon us. The time of strawberries and cream; of immaculately white shorts; of Cliff Richard awkwardly hoping to be asked to sing whenever a light shower hits centre court; of screeching at Andy Murray as he valiantly fails to win yet again.

Yes, Wimbledon draws near, but for those of you who just can't wait another month for your tennis fix (and have, in that proud British tradition, forgotten there are actually three other Grand Slams every year) Mario and company have the antidote you need. And it's absolutely nothing like a proper game of tennis.

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Considering his recent success on the Olympic circuit, it's a surprise we've had to wait this long for Mario and friends to rediscover their racquets. Perhaps we should blame the Miis - those workshy little androids, sunning themselves over on Wuhu island, have taught a generation of Nintendo fans that tennis is all about the swinging motion, and neglected the rather important bit where you run over to the damn ball in the first place.

For those of you who've only ever played Nintendo's motion controlled ball-whacking outings, then, here's a recap of what Mario Tennis is about. A roster of well-loved Nintendo characters, and some less loved has-beens brought in to make up the numbers (sorry Daisy!), compete to win four cups named according to the Mario Kart tradition of escalating difficulty - all the way from the squidgy soft Mushroom Cup to pointy, hard-as-nails Star Cup.

Just like Mario Kart, different characters have different attributes on the court. Bowser and Donkey Kong are all Andy Roddick-style hard serves and powerful returns, Daisy and Peach display Sharapova-speediness, while Mario and Luigi are the Federer-esque all-court experts. (Only, of course, they're not quite as awesome as Federer, because that would make the game as unbalanced as, well, tennis was when that guy was at his peak.) There's also your Mii, which is kind of Goran Ivanisevic wild card.

The tennis itself follows the rules of the real-life game - with a few brightly coloured exceptions. Those exceptions would the 'chance shots' - special strokes activated by being in the right place at the right time - and then managing to press the right button, too. All the usual tennis strokes appear in Open - drop shots, lobs, flats, topspin and so forth - and each one is colour coded.

Pulling off a chance shot - a supercharged extra-uber version of whatever shot you use - requires you to run to the glowing emblem that appears on the court when the ball is in the air, punch the correct button (or, on occasion, button combo) - and then cackle maniacally as your return volley swerves like a bus driver on a collision course with a pack of schoolkids.

The truth is, these chance shots are just a bit overpowered. A regular drop shot is balanced perfectly, gently bouncing off your racquet and forcing your desperate opponent to run into the net. The chance shot version, meanwhile, turns the ball into a physicsdefying lump of dark matter, barely able to offer a feeble bump off the ground before it bags you a point. And as for the slice? That takes on an arcing trajectory not unlike a comet in elliptical orbit - curving impossibly around your opponent before bouncing behind them to win the game. A powered up topspin is more direct - it simply smashes your opponent in their big stupid face if they're not quick enough to respond.

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Of course, both players have access to these moves, and they're certainly not as powerful as the Mario Power Tennis power shots, which would see play actually stop momentarily while the characters charged
up the tennis equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. Once you learn to take them into account, in fact, the chance shots become tightly woven into the rhythm of the game. You learn how to counter them, and even develop a sense for when it's best to surprise your opponent by ignoring them altogether.

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