Although they’ve never produced any all-time classics in the way the primary platformers of the Super Mario series, the Mario RPGs, and the Mario Karts have, the Mario sports title may be the best example of the franchise’s unique ability to seemingly make any genre more fun simply by having its name associated with it. Even those who have no interest whatsoever in any given sport should still be able to find enjoyment out of it when it’s given a Mushroom Kingdom twist. I mean, when you add in characters like Luigi and Donkey Kong, and then throw in some crazy gimmicks and special moves, something like golf suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. Perhaps the most consistent of Mario’s sporting endeavors are his ventures into tennis. The newest entry, Mario Tennis Aces, perhaps polishes up the core gameplay more than any previous Mario Tennis title, though it does come at the expense of a relative lack of content.
Mario Tennis Aces seems to be all about refining what we’ve come to know about Mario Tennis. In this sense, the game is a roaring success. Mario Tennis gameplay has simply never felt so smooth and fluid. No matter which character you pick, the game feels great to control, with slight differences given to each character based on their weight class (don’t expect Bowser to move as gracefully as Rosalina). Mario Tennis Aces features a variety of control styles, all of which feel comfortable, though my personal preference is a Joy-con in each hand.
Different types of shots are mapped to different buttons on the controller, while combinations of those buttons (one to prepare to strike the ball, one for the strike itself) add to the mix. Should you charge a shot long enough before striking the ball, you build up energy, which can be used to slow down time, perform a quick counter-shot, and – if the energy meter is completely full – a special move. Additionally, stars appear on the court from time to time, which allow players to perform a “zone shot,” which briefly brings things to a first-person view for player’s to throw an exceptionally fast ball.
This brings me to one of the more disappointing elements of Mario Tennis Aces’ gameplay: the zone shots and character specials are more or less the same. The only difference is that the special moves come with a unique animation beforehand, and do more damage to your opponent’s racket. If a player (or the CPU) doesn’t time the ball just right after their opponent hits a zone shot or special, their racket will take damage. With enough damage, your racket will break, thus ending the game early.
It’s easy to imagine this being a divisive mechanic. On one hand, it provides a unique spin to the series, and adds a different element of strategy to the proceedings as you gain energy and plot to build up to the point of destroying an opponent’s racket. But on the other hand, it kind of makes a drastic change to the very game of tennis. But if you’re among those frustrated with the mechanic, you can always turn it off.
Though this leads to another questionable design decision for the game. While you can choose whether or not your rackets can break during a match, you cannot change the length of a match or set in a game of tennis. And, bizarrely, you can’t directly select which court you wish to play on, instead having to “deselect” stages you don’t want on the options menu, which seems unnecessarily arduous. Perhaps in another tennis game it wouldn’t be a big deal, but given the unique themes and gimmicks of Mario Tennis courts, it would make a basic level select option all the more ideal than in normal circumstances.
Thankfully, the core gameplay is so much fun, that if you’re playing multiplayer (whether online or next to a friend), you might not mind the limited options. Single player, however, does leave a bit more to be desired.
The primary single player mode in Mario Tennis Aces is an adventure mode that sees Mario on a journey to collect five power stones to stop the power of an ancient, evil tennis racket, which has taken control of Luigi, Wario and Waluigi. It’s a surprisingly humorous story mode with its wacky plot, and it features some fun RPG elements to it (Mario can gain experience points and levels, and additional tennis rackets can be obtained through optional stages). Not to mention it provides a fair bit of variety in its challenges. The downside to the story mode, however, is its severely fluctuating difficulty curve.
You would think that the stages would gradually get more progressively difficult as you go, especially seeing as this is a Mario game, and that’s an area in which the franchise usually shines. But the challenge of the story mode in Mario Tennis Aces is all over the place. You’ll go from a ridiculously easy stage to a ludicrously difficult one at any given time, with seemingly no warning as to when the difficulty is going to spike to a new high or drop to relaxing low. Two stages in particular – against Blooper and Boom Boom, of all characters – gave me a considerable challenge. The story mode does provide some solid fun in the gameplay, variety and RPG elements, but the inconsistent difficulty may be too jarring for some.
Even with these issues, however, Mario Tennis Aces is an undeniable good time. The sheer polish that exudes from its gameplay marks a new high for the series, while free play and tournament modes give multiplayer a huge amount of replay value. Add in the fact that you can not only play as series regulars like Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser, but entertaining newcomers like Spike and Chain Chomp, and you have one of the most distinctly ‘Mario’ of all Mario sports titles. If Nintendo and Camelot can take this core gameplay for the next entry, while refining the single player campaign and adding more play styles and customizable options, and we could have the Mario Kart 8 equivalent of Mario’s sports titles. As it is, well, the pieces are in place.