Mario Slam Basketball (aka Mario Hoops 3-on-3)
| Mario Slam Basketball

As with most American sports, basketball is a high-scoring game of speed, spring-heeled acrobatics, and relentless attacking. Bring Mario on court in the form of Mario Slam Basketball and the whole thing becomes even more insane.

This is basketball where collecting coins on the way to a slam dunk can net you over one hundred points. This is basketball where you can pick up staples such as red shells and lightning to throw at your opponents. This is basketball where the final score can be 480-194.

Like all the best sports games, the action in Mario Slam Basketball veers from stupidly fast to bulging-eyes frantic. In ye olden days, it's what would have been termed a 'button basher'. In our super-enlightened Twenty-First century Nintendo DS yoga-and-spiritual learning epoch, we'll call it a 'stylus scraper' instead.

See, dribbling in Mario Slam Basketball requires nothing more complicated than tapping your stylus on the touchscreen. Scrape your stylus diagonally up while holding the L1 button and you'll pass to one of your two team mates. Your team mate – let's says it's Donkey Kong – then charges up a shot as you keep the stylus pressed down. Kong shoots but, agonisingly, the ball rebounds off the ring. Your third team member – in this case, Baby Bowser – rushes in, and with a quick slash of the stylus, slams in the rebound. High fives all round.

So far so quick, but does Mario Slam Basketball's control method offer anything more than cheap arcade sports thrills? Well, play a little longer, and the subtle genius of the stylus system becomes more apparent.

Jiggle the stylus sideways while charging up a shot, for instance, and you'll evade the ball-stealing swipes of opponents. Similarly, sharp defence-beating turns of NBA quality can be achieved by scraping the stylus down and then diagonally up.

You'll also need to attain serious stylus mastery to pull off your character's special moves. These point-scoring bemani bonanzas are performed by rhythmically tapping letters onto the touchscreen.

At this point, Mario Slam Basketball is probably sounding terribly complex. Cynics will be beginning to wonder whether it might be more effective, and less hassle, to simply dementedly scribble with the stylus, rather than play the game properly.

To an extent, the cynics are right. Sometimes you'll find yourself accidentally passing when you meant to shoot, or blocking when you meant to jump. Using the buttons is also faster.

Equally, the game is laden with power-ups that distort the sport's natural ebb and flow. And the courts are booby-trapped! Crates will roll onto the screen to flatten your Baby Bowser just seconds after he's dished out a Michael Jordan-esque lesson in dribbling. Bombs will walk onto the court to blow you up just as you were about to level the scores.

Sometimes, there's so much action crammed onto the court, the game feels like it's spiralling out of control. As a result, matches can feel totally random; you'll win when you deserve to lose, and you'll dominate but be soundly beaten. (A flavour of play that never harmed Mario Kart, of course).

Another problem only becomes more apparent as you spend more time with the game – the quality of the computer controlled characters you play against. In the early rounds, rival team's are pretty useless, while towards the end of the game they rarely seem to make any mistakes.

Thankfully though, the game's instant appeal – the 3D graphics are as good as anything else we've seen on DS – is ultimately balanced by rewards for those dedicated to developing some skills. To progress through the harder settings, you'll need to learn a whole repertoire of the trickier-to-pull-off defensive moves.

Mario Slam Basketball's sub-games, extended training modes, and a seemingly endless number of unlockable bonuses, such as new characters, have also been lavished with care and imagination.

You might think too that Mario Slam Basketball would be a prime candidate for Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection support – and it would be particularly helpful given the ill-considered difficulty curve – but for some reason (network latency, we presume), it isn't included. Instead, there's a useful two-player mode, if both players have a copy of the game, or else a coin-racing game and a four-player Mario Kart-style battle mode to enjoy via the game share option.

In many respects, Mario Slam Basketball is a gem of a game. It looks amazing, and offers plenty of fast and furious action, as well as humour and a great attention to detail. But the somewhat fiddly controls and variability of the opposing teams mean it never quite fulfils its potential. Close, but no slam dunk.

Mario Slam Basketball (aka Mario Hoops 3-on-3)

Fun, frantic, and action-packed, Mario Slam Basketball is a good-looking game that lacks solid opposition