You know, seeing the names Nintendo and Square-Enix on the same title screen still gives me a little thrill of the surreal. So vehement was Nintendo's assertion that it would never ever consider working with Square ever again (EVER) back in the mid-Nineties that I still do a mental double-check every time a new collaboration turns up. What's more, I'm almost certain that this is the first and only time since Super Mario RPG that the developer has been trusted with an actual Nintendo licence (even if it is only Mario Sports), which makes it all the more difficult for my outdated mindset to accept. A DS basketball game seems like a strange thing for Square-Enix to want to develop, too. How the hell is it going to shoehorn obscure Final Fantasy references into that?
On the Final Fantasy references front at least, it has done fairly well, managing to cram five rather over-powered characters into the unlockables (thereby solving the age-old question of whether Moogles can play ball). The Nintendo feel is also present and correct - everything's very bright and cheery, all the characters you'd expect are there, and the items, super-shots and playing-court hazards add the customary Mario Sports level of chaos. It's intuitive, too; the d-pad moves your chosen team member around the court and dribbling is done with the stylus, which is very neat indeed, although the constant tapping does give you a rather sore hand after a while.
Also in keeping with Mario sports tradition, Hoops 3-on-3 is about as similar to actual basketball as a Scottish under-12s Sunday league is to Real Madrid. It's the same game, in that it involves sometimes putting basketballs into nets, but that's where the likeness ends. When you're in possession, the aim is to collect as many coins as possible by dribbling over the boxes drawn on the floor, which have an annoying habit of moving around at will, and keeping the ball away from the opposition with nifty dodging and clever dribbling. If the ball gets stolen or the timer runs out, you lose your coins, so the idea is to 'cash in' by scoring a basket. The trick here is trying to keep hold of the ball for as long as possible as opposed to scoring as often as possible - indeed, some of the more irritating environmental hazards make it extremely difficult to score at all.
The basketball basics - shooting, dribbling, dunking, passing, dodging and stealing - are very well-implemented here. Nothing involves more than a stroke on the touch-screen, and deft play is often extremely satisfying. It's a shame, then, that actually playing the game well is such a small part of Mario Hoops' emphasis. Skill has considerably less bearing on winning a match than the random items and environment 'features', like slot machine baskets that randomly rob or double your points and slippy-slidey ice courts where attempting a steal sends your character flying across the court on their stomach.
But hey - to a great extent, that's just a feature of Mario sports games. If you prefer your sports skill-based, and find the element of randomness that items and special moves and coins and piranha plants add to proceedings infuriating, then you won't be buying this anyway. It is rather irritating, though, that none of these features can be turned off as they could in, say, Mario Smash Football. More concerning is Mario Hoops' basic AI, which is certainly not a feature of other games in the Mario sports repertoire. Your team-mates have little feel for positioning, and they will almost never actually provide support for each other; equally, the computer opponents rarely play cleverly or as any semblance of a team, preferring to simply stand beside their marks looking gormless until the ball falls into their hands. Indeed, until you get to the hard mode the AI players can barely even prevent steals. Mario Hoops 3-on-3 only fully realises its potential, then, when you're playing against a human opponent of equal skill, where the game's relatively complex system of moves and counter-moves really comes into its own and the items can be safely ignored. Sadly, this is only possible through multi-cart play, and there's no online functionality.
Mario Hoops 3-on-3 is actually a very good simple basketball game, but the simplistic AI and chaos factor often prevent that from shining through. It's certainly well presented, and at its heart it's really very enjoyable, but with weak AI and no game modes other than Tournament and Exhibition, the single-player mode quickly wears thin. If it only had online or single-cart multiplayer modes, or some decent single-player content other than the basic minimum, or the option to turn off the items, it would be so much better. As it is, it's not got enough variety or sophistication to remain fun for very long.