Nintendo / Camelot Software Planning
It’s a series I’ve loved ever since the Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color days, but in recent years it’s been up and down more times than an eager ballboy.
In 2009 the brilliant GameCube game Mario Power Tennis was re-released on Wii, its once-tight controls replaced with frustratingly inaccurate Wii Remote swings.
Then, a few years later, the series was redeemed with Mario Tennis Open, a brilliant 3DS offering with great online multiplayer and a host of unlockable characters and costumes.
This return to form was then unceremoniously dumped with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash on the Wii U, a game I described in my video review at the time as “a monumental cauldron of shite” due to its complete lack of anything other than a bare-bones online mode and exhibition games (not even a tournament mode).
Mario Tennis Aces is here to right that wrong, and it succeeds… mostly.
Each Mario Tennis game tweaks its game mechanics to various degrees, and Aces does it more than most, starting with its power shot system.
Now, I’m about to get technical here, so if it gets too much for you just smile and nod politely until we get onto talking about the game modes.
Recent entries have used a colour-based system, in which different coloured stars would appear on the court and pressing the corresponding button would result in powerful shots that stunned your opponent.
While this was fun enough, it did make some rallies feel more like QTE-fests in which your focus was more on pressing the right button than freely using the variety of shots available to you.
Aces ditches the colours altogether and replaces them with a simple power star instead. When your opponent hits the ball, more often than not a star will appear on your side of the court, marking where to stand for an optimal return. Stand on this star and your shot will be more powerful than usual.
There’s also a new energy bar system which more or less affects the game’s other unique features. Any time you return the ball your energy will build slightly, though you can build it quicker by either standing on the aforementioned stars, or getting in position early and charging your stroke in advance.
When your energy bar is roughly ⅓ full it’ll turn yellow and all the good stuff kicks in. Press the R button when standing on a star and you’ll leap into the air and perform a power shot, which is aimed in a first-person viewpoint (either with the gyro controls or the left stick).
This shot is extremely fast, and if your opponent is lucky enough to reach it there’s a good chance it could damage their racket. Do enough damage and the racket will break: break their entire stock and you’ll win by ‘KO’ (so that’s why everyone on Twitter suddenly decided it was like a fighting game when the demo was out).
The general path to success, then, is to try to build your energy as quickly as possible and unleash these power shots to force your opponent to either miss the ball or break their racket trying. But, as if to further continue the tenuous fighting game link, there are ways to counter this.
If an opponent hits a power shot at you, there’s no need to phone your solicitor and check your will is up to date. If you’ve got enough energy in your meter, you can hold R to slow down time. This lets you see which direction the ball is going and run quickly over there to reach it.
As for preventing racket damage, there’s a ‘block’ move which kicks in if you press a button right as the ball hits you and lets you return the ball unscathed. The timing needs to be pretty perfect, but this is going to be the difference between experts and beginners online: if you can slow-mo over to a power shot and hit a perfect block, opponents will really struggle to beat you.
That’s how it plays, then: an interesting mix of standard tennis and a sort of power shot / counter system that can lead to some intensely long rallies if two good players are taking part. In terms of satisfying tennis gameplay, then, Aces nails it.
This all takes place on a variety of courts (many of which are unlocked in the brief story mode, which I’ll get to in a bit). These range from your typical stadium affairs with standard grass and hard surfaces, to more elaborate ones with optional hazards.
One takes place on a ship, for example, with a big mast in the middle of the net that you can deflect shots off to confuse your opponent. Another is set at a railway station in a snowy mountain, meaning every now and then a horde of commuters will shuffle across the middle of the court, potentially blocking your shot (or even hitting it back: there are a few rogue Shy Guys in there with tennis rackets).
The whole thing looks great for the most part, too. Characters are chunky and expressive, and the courts are filled with loads of lovely wee details. There are occasional iffy moments, though: the grass on one court looks bizarrely blurry up close for some reason, as you can see here.
“Right Chris,” I hear you say. “So it looks good and plays good. What can I actually do in it?” Well, your conveniently timed question is a valid one: after all, given how tragically the Wii U’s Mario Tennis offering dropped the ball when it came to game modes, it’s clear there’s a lot of ground to make up here.
Firstly, there’s a ‘proper’ single-player story mode in here. Now, don’t get too carried away, because it’s short. When Nintendo first revealed the game and showed there would be a story mode, some immediately conjured up ideas in their head of a modern version of the RPG mode from the Game Boy Advance version of Mario Tennis: this is nothing like that.
Instead, it’s a quirky little adventure across a modest game map as Mario and Toad, accompanied by a friendly spirit (or something), hunt down an evil tennis racket that’s possessed Luigi, Wario and Waluigi.
To be blunt, the story’s bumfluff of the highest order, but it’s full of silly jokes and is a good excuse to take on a variety of mini-games and challenges.
It’s far too short, though – I beat it in about three or four hours – and although it’s impossible to say for certain my guess is that it was originally planned to be longer, since there are some features in here that are normally better suited to lengthier RPG type adventures.
You level up Mario’s stats after each event, and as you progress you gain a bunch of extra rackets to add to your repertoire, each with different effects: one has flames around it, one is made of mirrored glass, and the like.
It feels like you’re building up these stats and rackets for some sort of epic quest, but in reality it all ends up being a bit pointless because a few hours later you’re watching the credits and your levelled-up Mario and his snazzy rackets are left behind, unable to be carried across to any other game modes.
This feeling of incompletion pervades the rest of the game too: every mode has you wishing there was just a little more to it to give you a reason to come back to it.
Tournament mode is in here, giving you the usual Mario Kart style Mushroom, Flower and Star Cups to play through. Once you beat the three opponents in each, though, that’s it. Nothing is unlocked, you can just check them off your mental checklist of things you’ve done.
Online tournaments are similar: these are five-tier affairs where you face off against a randomly chosen opponent in final 32, final 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final matches. In each tier you’ll play against someone in the same situation, so when you reach the final you know you’re up against an opponent who’s also beaten four others to get where you are: the difficulty generally tends to rise organically as a result.
But again, once you beat them, you’re just given ranking points. You’re supposed to keep playing the tournaments over and over again to bank more points, but it’s all for no real reason other than making your way up an online leaderboard that, let’s face it, is probably going to be won by some Belgian prick who plays the game 24/7 anyway.
Each month, hitting a certain number of points in the online tournament mode will unlock a new character, but when the month ends everyone gets that character anyway so you’re only really playing to get them early.
As a result, I still reckon the online multiplayer in Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS was better, because of the level of variety available and the sense of progression.
Not only did it have 40 different types of racket, uniform, wristbands and shoes you could unlock for your Mii player, there was also a real sense of progression because you could unlock special comedy costumes for hitting online milestones. If you faced off against a Mii wearing a Tanooki Mario suit, you knew they’d been playing the game for a while.
Here the emphasis seems to be firmly on the means, rather than the end. The actual tennis gameplay is more enjoyable than in previous games, but if you’re the sort who needs a reason to play and a goal to aim towards, you’re going to be left wanting.
What we have here, then, is a game that works at its very best in local multiplayer. The single-player stuff is entertaining but limited, and the online multiplayer is undoubtedly addictive, but unless it’s given regular updates that give players a reason to keep at it your enjoyment will eventually wane when you’re hammered by the umpteenth Wario expert.
How much enjoyment you’ll get out of Mario Tennis Aces, then, depends firmly on how you plan on playing it. If you’re a loner and don’t play online you can have the story mode and tournaments licked within a day if you’re good. If you’re up for some online multiplayer you’re going to get a lot more out of it, but as it stands there may not be enough to ensure you’re still jumping in six months from now.
Get some similarly-skilled friends together for some local multiplayer, though, and this has the potential to be another one of those timeless Nintendo party classics like Mario Kart and Smash Bros.
Aces has ensured my rocky relationship with Mario Tennis is back on the up. It isn’t quite on a par with my favourite games in the series (which have been all the handheld ones, coincidentally), but it’s by no means a stinker. Hopefully Camelot can build on this for the inevitable next game in a few years’ time, and deliver something with a bit more longevity.
Mario Tennis Open is out on Switch today for £49.99 / $59.99. You can also buy it for £42.99 (at the time of writing) from Amazon UK.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from Nintendo. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
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