Look, I’m not a sporty dude. I’m barely interested in going outside to watch sports, let alone actively participating in them. Video games typically don’t help either, I’d honestly rather do eight hours of QA for a Bethesda RPG than ever play a game of FIFA. Nintendo know how to get me, though. Slap a cheery, moustachioed plumber on the front of just about anything and you can bet I’ll give it the time of day, and so Mario Tennis Aces is yet another in a long line of Mario branded games that have done the impossible and almost made me care about a sport.
Golf, soccer, kart racing – you name it, Mario’s done it. It wasn’t until the N64 that our portly, piranha plant-pounding plumber first picked up a racket, though. Since then the series has gone through a new iteration on pretty well every Nintendo platform, but it’s not since Mario Tennis: Power Tour on the GBA that a game has had a story mode, a fact that Nintendo are touting with this release. Indeed, on firing up the game for the first time you’re treated to an opening cinematic and dropped straight into the game’s ‘Adventure Mode’ before anything else.
Seems like these guys really need to REFLECT on their attitudes
Adventure Mode takes Mario on a whirlwind tour of a number of regions as he chases down Wario and Waluigi, who have unleashed an evil tennis racket (yep) named Lucien. In order to stop Lucien it’s vital that Mario collects five power stones before he can (did I mention Lucien is purple? Yeah, it’s totally the plot to Infinity War). Naturally, every obstacle in the world of Mario Tennis Aces is solved with… tennis! As Mario moves across the world map he’ll encounter all manner of challenges and challengers to contend with the only way that he can – by smacking a ball back and forth across a court.
Adventure Mode’s levels range from general purpose 1v1 matches to skill challenges and exciting boss battles, and over the course of the few hours it’ll take to beat it does a great job of imparting all of the skills necessary to succeed at this particular brand of tennis action. The boss battles are a definite highlight, pitting Mario against some fantastic looking enemies that require deft use of the game’s unique mechanics to best. The smaller challenges and regular matches are good as well, but there’s an annoying difficulty spike at about the midpoint of the campaign that drags the pace down considerably. It’s actually pretty tough overall, which is great for those playing the mode to sharpen their skills but might frustrate younger players who want to experience the story or unlock a handful of courts for the other modes. Especially so when you consider there’s no easy ‘replay’ option if you’re doing poorly in a level, only a ‘quit to map’ that forces reading of the failure-state dialogue.
Never mind the physics of a tennis snowball fight, this is Nintendo
Where Tennis Aces falters slightly in the execution of its campaign though, it makes up for with near impeccable tennis gameplay. Immediately accessible yet quietly deep and strategic play has become something of a staple for Nintendo lately with titles like Splatoon and Arms and that same quality shines here. Serving and executing various shots are done with simple button presses and augmented with directional input and timing, and those basics alone are enough to hold a decent rally. The real depth however comes of drawing from a series of interlocking mechanics based on an energy gauge. Long rallies and impressive shots build up energy that can be used to execute Zone Shots and Special Shots, which are powerful hits that will damage an opponent’s racket if not returned with perfect timing. If all of a player’s rackets break in a match it’s an instant win for the opponent, so it’s important to choose when to attempt to return a special shot or when to just wear the point and hope you can make up for it. Utilising another ability called Zone Speed to slow down time can help counter a Zone Shot but uses up the energy gauge as well, so it’s just as much a matter of risk/reward. These systems make for a tense and surprisingly strategic game of tennis, and pitting two skilled players against each other can make for some exciting and drawn-out rallies. Often when faced with an opponent more skilled at the core tennis mechanics than me, I found myself intentionally drawing out the game and utilising Zone Shots to slowly break all of their rackets before they could beat me.
Aww look he thinks he’s people!
Outside of Adventure Mode there are Free Play, Tournament and Swing Mode options. Tournament Mode is exactly as it sounds, a series of elimination tournaments against AI opponents in basic 1v1 matches It’s a fun distraction but it’s short, single-player only and doesn’t offer anything that bears repeated play. Free Play and Swing Mode offer the same customisable exhibition matches against either AI, local players or online, with the key difference being tradition controls vs motion controls using the Joy-Con. Swing Mode takes the appeal of tennis with motion controls ala Wii Sports and adds an extra layer of complexity thanks to the power of the Joy-Con controllers, meaning casual players can get in on the action just by swinging with wild abandon while serious players can invest time in playing a skilled game. It’s unfortunate that it’s not possible (currently) to play online in Swing Mode, because it’s a much looser style of play with greater room for error that would make for some entertaining match-ups at high skill levels. For anyone intimidated by the more complex game mechanics but wanting to play with traditional controls there’s also an option for playing with simplified rules, making both options good candidates for party play.
“Are you seeing this Toad?” “I am indeed Toad!”
Between the single player campaign and the few options for multiplayer competition it seems like Mario Tennis Aces hits all the right notes for features, but there’s a definite feeling that the overall package is still a little light content-wise. The character roster is quite decent and each have their own ‘classes’ and stats, and they’re all unlocked from the start. In fact, the only unlockables in the entire game are half a dozen courts from Adventure Mode. Having nearly everything from the start might seem nice but it also dilutes any sense of achievement or payoff when playing the game solo, especially after besting the toughest challenges and tournaments. Still, all the boxes are ticked and the whole thing looks fantastic both in handheld/tabletop mode and on the TV. Nintendo have already promised more characters to be delivered in future updates so hopefully they do a decent job at post-launch support. Sadly I’m unable to evaluate the online play as it stands currently as it seems like most of those features aren’t available until launch.
Mario Tennis Aces feels absolutely wonderful to play, looks great and will no doubt make a tennis fan out of more than a few Mario fans, and perhaps vice versa. It’s unfortunate that its potential is dampened a tad by a short campaign with little payoff and a lack of content in other modes. It’s possible that things will get better once the online functionality is implemented in full and the community sinks their teeth in, and Swing Mode will no doubt find a niche as a party starter, but the overall package at launch is just a little disappointing.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch | Review code supplied by publisher