Release Date: June 22nd 2018
Price as of Article: £49.99 GBP $59.99
Game code provided by Nintendo UK for review
The Mario Tennis games have had a tumultuous history. Starting off with a whimper on the Virtual Boy before warming the hearts of gamers everywhere with an enjoyable RPG on the Game Boy Colour and a fantastic multiplayer party game on the Nintendo 64. The series ran smoothly right until the lacklustre 3DS release and borderline unacceptable Wii U game. With the Nintendo Switch’s success and continued desire to please everyone, Mario Tennis Aces had to be the entry to pull the series back from 40-love to win the game. But does it?
Unlike the past few Tennis games, Aces actually has a story mode, something which fans of the series have been crying out for since it was left behind in the Game Boy Advance game. This time Mario and friends are at Marina Stadium enjoying a nice game of tennis when the ne’er-do-wells Wario and Waluigi turn up to cause chaos, presenting a supernatural ancient tennis racket from a long lost civilisation. Luigi, being Luigi, grabs it and is possessed, whisked away and Mario and Toad set off in pursuit. That’s the set up and it rarely gets any more thrilling than that, but it’s an enjoyable plodding story as you make your way from A to B having a few tennis games in between. To be honest, while I would have loved a full fledged RPG epic to go with it, it’s pretty much what I expected it to be. It’s an enjoyable way to learn the mechanics of the game with a bit of lightheartedness.
It’s a fairly simple story but it’s a welcome one for sure. I enjoy that it doesn’t quite take itself too seriously. It’s pretty on the nose about how silly it is that there are tennis courts conveniently placed everywhere, even of ships, and that a few rounds of tennis can solve just about every problem. There’s no other way they could have gone about it really.
The gameplay… well it’s a tennis game. I’m not going to explain the rules of tennis of course, but instead talk about your abilities and such. Aside from the normal shot types like flat, lobs and slices there’s plenty else to think about. With each button dedicated to a type of shot, the longer you hold down the shot, the more it charges up and the more powerful it is. You can manipulate the shot direction with the left analogue stick after you’ve started readying for the shot. This is the basic flow of the game but there are specialties and gimmicks that really add to the competitiveness.
The special shot types have been increased for this game with the leading stars being the Zone Shot and the trick shot. The Zone Shot is where upon returning a weak opponent’s shot, a star will appear on the floor. Pressing the R shoulder button will initiate the shot in which you can use the motion controls to aim your powerful shot as far from your opponent as possible. Or you can be a little devious and smash it into them or their racket.
Why their racket? Well, players’ rackets can be destroyed by a powerful enough shot. Destroy enough of them and you can actually KO your opponent, forfeiting them by taking out all of their rackets. It’s a cool mechanic and potentially overpowered, but there are things you can do to combat it.
First of all, the opposing force to Zone Shot is the Zone Speed. Pressing the same shoulder button while not in a star marker will slow down time, allowing you to catch up with a speeding ball and give you a chance to produce a seemingly frame perfect block which stops you from taking damage as well as saving you the point by returning the nonreturnable.
I feel that the blocks are by far the most finicky of the mechanics in this game. As I said, it’s almost frame perfect allowance otherwise your racket is taking a hit. At full speed it’s nigh on impossible to pull off and at slower speeds it feels uncomfortably close to hitting you before you pull the trigger to block. Your natural instinct is to hit it as it’s in front of you, but no, you need to wait until it’s almost down your throat. It takes a lot of getting used to and I only started to get the true hang of it after a few hours of straight playing. Even then, it’s still a bit hit and miss.
All of these additions and tactical balancing makes this a much better game in my opinion than what came before. It’s a far more competitive game of tennis Mario has played than ever. It’s not quite up there with the competitive brilliance of Splatoon 2 or Arms (at least from what I’ve heard of the latter) but it’s getting there and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that this yet may have similar longevity with a set fanbase.
You’ll learn all of these mechanics and tricks shots by playing through the adventure mode in which all the skills at your disposal are vital for progressing. As you pursue Wario and Waluigi to retrieve the 5 sacred stones for the ancient racket you’ll have your standard 1 v 1 tennis matches but there are plenty of mini games and boss battles too. They’ve really squeezed a lot out of the very simple tennis concept. There’re hit the target games, long rally games which are kind of bland and very much side tasks, but it’s the other non-match stages that really shine for me. Firstly the boss battles are very nicely done. Here you have to while away the bosses stamina before unleashing a power shot take a life away, all the while dodging their attacks and hitting back whatever they use as a ball substitute. They’re the highlight of the adventure mode for me.
The adventure mode will last you about 4 hours so it’s not long and can be completed in one session. That may be disappointing but it doesn’t outstay its welcome and you’re almost left wanting more. What I will say is that I enjoyed it, even in its limited capacity. There’re a levelling up and experience points systems which seems more like window dressing, plus new rackets but again, they don’t feel like they actually add much since everything is balanced with the progression of the story. At the end of the game you feel exactly the same as you did at the beginning. The world map, while a nice addition is just a bit of fluff too. You walk from point A to B and there’s no exploration or interaction which is maybe the biggest shame of all. I really would have liked to have been able to walk around and discover things, talk with people, maybe solve puzzles, but sadly it wasn’t to be in this iteration.
What I do have to stress is that this adventure mode is not for kids in the slightest. Stages and challenges can get really, really tough at times. After about the half way point, your foes will pull no punches and I had to try many times on a good few stages. Enemies such as the blooper on the stormy ship and Boom Boom on the lava bridge really put me to the test. The boss battles were often really tough too, although once you find the gimmick to them, they’re generally not so bad. Still, I think plenty of you gamers may be shocked at how difficult this game can be at times.
There are motion controls just like you would hope from something like Wii Sports Tennis (cordoned off to their own separate mode), but in all honesty they turn the game into a dribbling pile of mess, at least in my short time with it. It’s certainly not instantly pick up and play simple like Wii Sports. They’ve got the assists all wrong in my opinion. You’re assisted in your movement even though you can fight against it with the analogue stick, but there are almost no assists in the hitting and aiming department – cue sliced, weak shots hobbling out of bounds constantly. I’m sure with time and practice you could get used to it, but it’s hardly the party game that grandma can pick up and join in with.
The online is robust enough and performs mostly well connection-wise. If I’m saying it’s stable then that’s high praise considering my location in China and Nintendo’s online network not always rubbing so well with it. You can play with your Switch friends very easily by creating lobbies for them to join and set the rules to how you want. It works very well. I played with Lachlan who writes for the website and he kicked my backside every game we played, which showed me just how bad I am at competitive games these days.
The more competitive of types can have random games with people online or take part in tournaments which run monthly. This may very well be the biggest draw for many of you, especially those who are into games such as Arms and Splatoon. The 1 v 1 nature of it is very tense as you try to win as many tournaments as possible and increase your overall points score. I can see these as been very tense competitions between people over social media and very addictive in the long run if they can keep them going and mix them up a little.
For the record you can play these kind of competitions with the special shots or without them if you prefer the purer game, both are fair enough. The simple one is probably more equal while the specials are more tactical so it depends which you’re into more.
Looking at Mario Tennis Aces, it’s clear that this game is exactly what the Wii U game was going to be. At some point they must have decided to cut their losses on the Wii U game and package it off to a sellable level without overspending on development costs for a hopelessly failed console and then focusing on the distant, but hopefully successful Nintendo Switch with their original vision. It’s certainly a huge step up for the series and a return to form for Camelot, a developer with a highly enviable history of creating excellent games.
Overall, as a gameplay package it’s surprisingly strong. Lot’s of depth for competitiveness and an adventure mode that puts up a good fight. It’s not perfect of course, and there are plenty of things that could be better. The story mode, while welcome is a bit on the plastic-y fluffy side but I don’t think we could have expected much more, not the full RPG we had back on that tiny Game Boy Colour screen. It’s a nice distraction for 4 or so hours, but it’s the gameplay that will keep you hooked far after you’ve completed that. It’s fairly limited in what else it has to offer though. It’s tennis at heart and if you want something more than that, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
In the audio department you have a nice strong arcade sports title mix that’s interwoven with remixes of some classic tunes. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the music enough. I can’t say I particularly heard any really distinctive tracks, or any that I would love to listen to outside of the game, but it’s an arcade sports game so you generally don’t expect much else. The sound effects are very satisfying though. The crunch of hitting a ball never gets old and hearing a racket break as though they’ve just taken a critical hit really works well.
Visuals & Performance
Visually the game is very strong, Mario and co. have rarely looked better. The highly detailed stadiums and lush environmental courts add a lot of depth to the game where it once lacked. Finally there’s the much needed variety in settings that were stripped away from us. Character models are just superb, some strong colours and fantastic animation which add a lot of personality to the game.
Textures may not be all that great in certain areas and on the world map screen, and shadows aren’t exactly the smoothest, but you can look past that for the perfectly smooth performance (at least as far as I can tell). It looks to be a full, glorious 60fps.
The little visual details are great, and there’s a nice quirky art style that’s sorely been missed previously. Just looking at one of the snowy mountain stages, for example, to see a toad siting on a British post box as he umpires the on going game, the fact that snowmen in the background can be destroyed by a stray ball. It’s just these nice touches here and there that make the game pleasing to observe.
For value, Mario Tennis Aces is a full priced first-party Nintendo game. At £50 and $60 on the eShop it’s one of those that is often a stinger if you’re a digital-only person. While I do think the eShop price is steep, you can find a physical game at a much more reasonable and acceptable price. The campaign may be short but it’s the online that may keep pulling you in and sucking those hours out of you. Let’s face it, if you get hooked online like people have with Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8, spending an almost embarrassing amount of time playing it, then of course it’s worth the price. If you’re planning a more casual experience, some local multiplayer once in a while, then you’ll have to think a little harder about a purchase so early.
Fully equipped game, unlike the prequel
Nice use of tennis mechanics to do other things
Solid, addictive online
Story mode is nice, but too safe
Blocking is too harsh
Poor motion controls