There’s no denying that the most recognizable face in video games is a pudgy Italian plumber named Mario. He truly revolutionized the video game scene, beginning with jumping over barrels in Donkey Kong, right up to do where he zips past you in a go kart (Mario Kart DS), hits up the links (Mario Golf), and smashes an ace down your throat (Mario Tennis). The latest in the Mario-themed sports trend is Mario Hoops 3-on-3 for the Nintendo DS. Here are my initial impressions:

Also known as Mario Basket 3-on-3 in Japan and Mario Slam Basketball in Europe, Mario Hoops 3-on-3 is pretty much what you would expect it to be. This is no ordinary basketball game (if you want realism, look to something from Electronic Arts. Madden is great for football, NBA Live for basketball, and so on). Instead, each basket you make is worth at least 20 coins, but if you perform any number of manuevers, or dribble the ball incessantly on the drifitng question marks on the ground, you can accumulate up to 100 additional coins for that basket. In effect, each time the leather ball goes swish through the twine, you can get up to 120 points… er, coins. The three character team with the most coins at the end of the match wins.

As expected, they’ve thrown a bunch of over-the-top twists to the game. You can pick up Bo-bombs, green shells, banana peels, mushrooms, and other weapons (just like you can in Mario Kart DS, one of the must-have titles for the Nintendo DS), and the primary interface is through the touch screen. Just like Metroid Prime Hunters and Star Fox Command before it, this control scheme in Mario Hoops 3-on-3 took a little getting used to.

Imagine that your player is in the middle of the touchscreen. Depending on where you tap on the screen, your avatar will dribble in the corresponding area around him (or her). Slide the stylus across the screen to pass and vertically to shoot. While on defence, you slide the stylus down to attempt a steal and up to jump. Sounds simple? Well, it’s certainly more intuitive than the challenge with Metroid, and doesn’t have as steep a learning curve as Star Fox Command.

Of course, Mario and his crew are hitting the court in full force, with the likes of Donkey Kong, Luigi, Peach, Wario, Waluigi, Bowser Jr., Diddy Kong, Birdo, Paratroopa, Fly Guy, and Boo joining the fray. There’s a bunch of non-typical entries as well from other games. These characters are a little unexpected but more than welcome, including Ninja, Moogle, Cactuar, and more (yes Final Fantasy is here. That’s because Square Enix developed Mario Hoops).

I’ve only played Mario Hoops 3-on-3 for about 20 minutes, and here’s what I have to say:

The training mode is very good. Without it, I don’t think I’d have any idea what I was doing in the game. With it, I feel better prepared to tackle the hardcourt with full fervor. The AI probably gets better later on in the game, but I found that the computer controlled characters (both on my team and my opponents’) was far too stupid. I could just stand on a question mark and bounce away without too much interference, racking up the coins, and winning games with scores like 823-30. Yes, it was that easy. I’ve heard that the AI later on (especially when you take on the Final Fantasy team) is impossibly difficult. I’ll let you know… if I get that far.

The graphics are colorful and vibrant, the “radar” on the lower screen is quite helpful, and the characters are always enjoyable, but I think the control scheme needs a little work. Sometimes I’d shoot when I wanted to pass, and it would be nice if I could do more “manuevers” or more “super shots” like how you have in Mario Golf and Mario Tennis. One thing that is noticeably missing is support for Nintendo’s lovely Wi-Fi Connection.

No online play makes me a sad panda.

Initial score: 7/10