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by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Mario Hoops 3 & r & The most memorable thing about Mario Hoops 3-on-3 is the music. Mario's tunes often have a jaunty simplicity that translates easily from beeps and blips to whistles and hums. But Mario Hoops 3-on-3 was developed for Nintendo with the help of Square Enix, the videogame company responsible for the Final Fantasy games and their horrific pop music. As a result, Mario Hoops 3-on-3 is a spectacular-looking game with the worst soundtrack ever dumped into Mario's world. Jangly and overmodulated, as though a pop concert was trying to squeeze through the DS's speakers, the music hammers away at happiness. Its monotony masks one of the most monotonous Mario games in a long time.

Not since the original Super Mario Bros., in which the two brothers were only different in color (to help differentiate the players), has there been a game so full of cookie-cutter Mario characters. Oh, Luigi, Bowser, etc., are there. Some of them even have alternate outfits. But under my stylus, they all feel the same.

The only reliable way to make a fast, broad game such as basketball work on a small handheld system is to drastically limit what's needed to make the game playable. The basketball court is already a well-developed and time-tested multiplayer arena. And the 3-on-3 format is as stripped down as basketball can get. Mario Hoops 3-on-3 further concentrates the action by keeping the camera angle steadily forward, aimed constantly toward my goal (which, per Mario influence, isn't always a basket -- think giant hungry plants).

All this is visible on the DS's upper screen. The lower screen -- the one with touch-sensitivity -- is where I control my ball. Tap tap tap and Mario (or whoever) dribbles dribbles dribbles. Slide the stylus up, a shot is made. Scratch the stylus down and a steal is attempted. Slide it quickly to the side for a dip-and-dodge, or diagonally to pass. Very soon, the game becomes about scratching and tapping the touch screen, making identical gestures for every different move. Perhaps I'd mind this less if there was a difference between Mario and the slender Princess Peach and the bulky Donkey Kong. But aside from a few "special moves" (a Nintendo term meaning "the same moves with different special effects"), all the characters play the same. It's generic, not Mario.

& r & THE GOOD: For a game built on such a dinky machine, Mario Hoops 3-on-3 displays an abundance of graphical finesse. The addition of coin collecting (by dribbling in various spots around the court) also keeps the ball in play longer. It's refreshing to see Nintendo utilizing the DS's touch-screen. Perhaps they finally realized their machine has one.

& r & THE BAD: The touch-screen is used for every function in the game involving the ball, and that's too much for a single poking device, particularly when my other hand is clutching the DS in an attempt to steer the characters with the system's normal controls. While that's going on, the artificial unintelligence has sent my teammates to the least interesting positions on the court, setting me up for yet another basket resembling the ones I scored before.

& r & THE BOTTOM LINE: Mario Hoops 3-on-3 drops the ball, but beautifully.

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