What do you get when you combine NBA Jam, Super Mario Kart and the Nintendo DS touchscreen?

Mario Hoops was met with much skepticism when it was first revealed. Why was Square-Enix making a sports game? Why would anybody want to control the basketball like a real basketball on the touch screen? After all, since when has any sports video game made players actively dribble the ball? It seemed like too much work. Having had a chance to try out the game at E3, however, I was already pretty excited. Now with the full game in hand, I can say Mario Hoops 3-on-3 is a welcome addition to the Mario sports franchise.

At first, it may seem disorienting to have direct control over the game rather than using buttons like regular sports games. However, after a few minutes of play, the controls become very intuitive. Move your character with the D-pad. Tap the screen to dribble. Want to pass? Motion the stylus in that direction. Want to shoot? Fling the stylus upward. Want to lay the smackdown on an opponent? Then just enact that motion right on the screen. Fancier evasion, blocks, spins, and dunks are performed almost as easily. Additionally, your character will automatically dribble without your tapping, just at a slower and more easily stealable pace.

Square-Enix anticipated people needing time to adjust to the new controls and included a tutorial mode. Completion of each task in the tutorial mode yields something that could only come from a Square game: an over-the-top victory fanfare. The game also includes Exhibition and Tournament mode. Tournament mode has your three chosen characters climb the bracket, facing off against three other sets of three characters. Completion of Tournament mode is necessary to unlock a variety extra cups, courts, and characters.

For those who really don't want to use the touch screen controls, D-pad controls are available. The option is easy to miss as the setting is referred to cryptically as "Help Button." Honestly though, I found the touch screen controls much more intuitive and enjoyable than the button-based controls.

While technically not Mario's first major foray into basketball (see EA's NBA Street V3), this is the first true Mario basketball game. Mario Hoops truly feels like a Mario sports game, with the standard attacks first introduced in Super Mario Kart. Even the power-up activation is closer to Super Mario Kart than newer Mario Kart games: players dribble over flat "?" panels found on the ground in order to pick up coins or items.

And of course it wouldn't be a Mario sports game without special moves. These moves are activated by tapping out a specific sequence of locations, which usually represent the character (an "M" for Mario, for instance). While it is quite easy to go through the game without performing stunts, the game was meant to be played with style. Special moves are reminiscent of the classic NBA Jam with a bit of dazzling Final Fantasy magic attack thrown in.

Mario Hoops starts off very easy; granted, I did play the game a bit at E3, but in my first real match, I maxed out the score counter with a final tally of 999 to 32. Thankfully, the challenge definitely does ramp up later in the game, particularly with the introduction of the Final Fantasy characters. Final Fantasy characters? Yes, Square-Enix included the Black and White Mages, Ninja, Moogle, and Cactaur from the Final Fantasy series. Just like the Mario characters, each of these characters has their own unique special shot and accompanying animations.

As it is a Mario sports game rather than a serious sports game, expect ridiculous scores. Standard "2-point" shots are worth 20 points and shots from 3-point range are worth 30 points. Super shots yield 40 points. However, players can also collect up to 100 coins per turn by dribbling over coin boxes or performing mid-air spins while dunking. Thus, each goal can end up with scores rivaling those of an entire regular basketball game. After each successful goal, the shot is replayed from several angles. Oddly, these replays are devoid of all characters besides the one who made the score. Putting a focus on coin collection forces players to do a little more than just run and shoot for a goal every time the ball comes into possession.

Mario Hoops 3-on-3 often plays more like Mario Hoops 1-on-3. Computer teammates are fairly useless as they don't really do much besides stand around waiting for a pass. Mario Hoops includes multiplayer, but unfortunately, it is limited to only two-player offline play. There are a few minigames included as well, sort of like Mario Party minigames, which can be played by up to four players. The games are fun if you can find some friends to play against, though it would have been much more preferable to have online play instead.

The sound and graphics in Mario Hoops are excellent, something that people have come to expect from Square-Enix. This developer really knows how to squeeze systems for all their potential. The presentation of the game just exudes fun, and luckily there's some real gameplay to back it up. Nintendo's diversifying of their Mario sports developers was definitely a good thing since we get to see more original ideas. If you want a unique basketball experience, or a fun game to pick up and play, definitely check out Mario Hoops 3-on-3.

Pros & cons
  + Fun and intuitive controls, excellent graphics and sound
  - Limited multiplayer, inconsistent AI abilities

Ratings (scale: 0.0 - 10.0)
Graphics:9.5Mario Hoops is easily one of the nicest looking games for DS. And while the 3D graphics are good, even the 2D art created for this game is very clean and crisp and the manual harks back to the day when original Mario art was drawn rather than the 3D renders we usually receive nowadays.
Play control:9.0The game is all about control. The gesture system is very intuitive, but control can also be set to the face buttons.
Gameplay:7.0The gameplay is good in general. Given the genre, there isn't a whole lot of depth, though it could have been made better with stronger multiplayer support.
Replay value:7.0There are plenty of unlockables, though the main game itself doesn't vary significantly.
Sound:9.0In short, sound is very good. Usually I find Mario voices annoying, but the ones in this game often make me laugh instead. The lighthearted nature of game is readily apparent with Mario's exclamation of "Booyah!" Additionally, the peppy music, often including light vocals, is fantastic.
Final score:7.5I can't say Mario Hoops is my favorite Mario sports entry, but it's still a solid game with plenty of fun and an excellent presentation.

Review by MEGAߥTE, 10/01/2006