Anybody who's ever watched the end of a blowout basketball game can see the value in a super-risky, ultra-rare power-up 20-point basket.
Multimedia: Mario Hoops 3-on-3
Platforms: Nintendo DS
Number of players: 1-4
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: Square Enix
US release date: 2006-09-11
Deep into March and I'm well soaked in basketball. All seems right. I've recently made it my business to drag my raggedy butt over to Brooklyn's Dodge YMCA Saturday mornings to hoop for at least an hour, something I haven't done so regularly since, well, college. It shows in the jumpshot (and wheezing). And need I mention we are well into March Madness? It hasn't been a particularly exciting tournament so far, but if you love basketball, several teams have put on some fine displays. Tennessee was looking silky smooth in the first round -- a joy to watch, they converted fast breaks and sank jumper after jumper (and here I always thought Tennessee basketball was a girl's sport). So in the midst of this surging love of a sport I've held dear for so many years, I thought I would pick up Mario Hoops 3-on-3. After all, 3-on-3 is my favorite variant of basketball. I'm not the best ballplayer, and keeping track of nine other players running around the court is a lot to ask of my little brain -- five I can track. I fingered the DS packaging and thought, "Hmm, this little Mario character and his little game would seem to combine my two current obsessions, basketball and video games. Iconic game, iconic plumber."
As soon as the loading screen finishes, you find yourself in the typically surreal world of Mario, Luigi and Princess Peach. For a generation of game fans this is a world that has come to seem as familiar as the basketball court. And though each Mario game has a different goal and different rules, the physics, basic lunacy and lust for gold coins remains the same.
The mixture can be a little odd -- seeing your two favorite things combined can sometimes create rather unholy unions -- witness Nacho Sundaes. Along these lines, playing Mario Hoops gives me the befuddled feeling you get when taking your seat at a new production of Hamlet expecting the austere tale of a confused prince, but instead finding the director found it necessary to move the play from the haunted halls of Elsinore to the set of I Love Lucy. You have to ask yourself why someone would want to mess with something so close to perfection. Why not just make Mario Hoops simulate basketball accurately?
Instead, you spend half your time in Mario Hoops running around and pounding your ball on hardwood question marks to release gold coins. Once you've loaded up, you drive to the basket or hoop or gigantic angry fly trap and shove the ball down its throat. And while you don't take as many shots as you might in basketball, the excitement of rushing around, of avoiding defenders is amplified through the coin collection.
In Mario Hoops you construct teams of three and then play through the games tournament-style. Each character, from Mario to Luigi to Bowser has slightly different special abilities and skills. You spend your time controlling one character but can move the ball around from player to player by passing to take advantage of different players. Mario Hoops is recognizably basketball, but radically different as well. Instead of just trying to score baskets, you must guide your team around the court and dribbling on "?" squares to release gold coins. Once you feel you've collected enough coins it's time to drive to the basket and shoot, scoring the coins you've collected. This mechanic adds an interesting tension to the game As you collect coins you become all the more vulnerable to the defense and risk losing the points you've collected if you don't make a basket and officially score them. This mechanic could be said to actually (gulp) fix an issue with basketball -- it allows a losing team to catch up, even when tragically behind. It adds balance to basketball, where before teams could easily just run out the clock if they were ahead. Anybody who's ever watched the end of a blowout basketball game can see the value in a super-risky, ultra-rare power-up 20-point basket.
During play, the game makes effective use of the DS touchscreen, forcing you to tap as you dribble and make long sweeping gestures to shoot. The tapping to dribble works quite well, allowing you to express yourself through your dribble, bouncing the ball hard and fast when angry or a bit more laconically when up by 75. Meanwhile, you control your direction with the left thumbpad. These motions certainly capture the spirit of basketball better than normal joystick controls, but this brings us back to the central question the game raises: How much basketball do you really want in your basketball video game?
The controls are effective and allow for quick casual play, as well as the ability to slowly master the game and develop a deeper sense of skill. But eventually, I found them kind of cramped. For one, while the two-handed control system simulates basketball well, I found my left hand cramping as I tried to simultaneously guide my players and hold the DS steady while furiously tapping on it to dribble. The coin collecting contributes to the cramped feeling. You must constantly dawdle in one place to collect coins, often leading Bowser or some other player to smash you a good one and send your gold booty spinning across the hardwood. Shooting feels disconcertingly slow, requiring time to charge up for accuracy. This robs the game of the jackrabbit feeling of real basketball. Instead, I would charge up even as Luigi would get up in my face, no matter what I did to fake him out. Of course, my head fake at the gym only fools them once and my ups after I get people in their air don't compare well with Princess Peach. Still, basketball's a cramped, frenetic game, so while it doesn't imitate the rules exactly, there is something about Mario Hoops that gets the spirit right.
These controls combined with the admirably smooth animation and 3D stylings give Mario Hoops an excellent physical feel. Square Enix has done an admirable job making the portly plumber look even more natural on the court than I do.
Mario's world is a far cry from street basketball, or even Dodge YMCA basketball. The Dodge Y plays host to a lot of families, so our court is constantly clogged with little kids adding new moving obstacles to the game. I've found that the purists I play with like to shoo these kids off the court, saying "Hey, kid, stay over to the side," or more succinctly, grabbing their ball and tossing it the sidelines. I guess my fellow players haven't yet come to understand the benefit to be had by spicing up basketball a bit. They're such formalists. Personally, I've begun to think of these eager little munchkins as delightful little power-ups that I never knew the game of basketball was missing. Now if only I could bounce my ball on their head to release their gold coins.