With the latest installment in the Mario Tennis series coming soon to Nintendo Switch at the time of writing, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit one of my favourite versions.
It’s not often that a handheld version of a game can honestly claim to be superior to its counterpart on TV-based consoles — and this was something that occurred even less frequently back in the days where the 8-bit Game Boy Color and the 64-bit Nintendo 64 coexisted happily alongside one another. But 2000’s Mario Tennis pulled it off with a spectacularly ambitious, interesting and ballsy handheld version that, for solo play at least, ran rings around its big brother.
It achieved this primarily by not even attempting to be a “port” of the rather multiplayer-centric N64 version — not that this would have been possible given the disparity in technological capabilities between the two platforms — but instead providing a unique, solo-focused experience. One that is still worth playing today — and which Mario Tennis Aces’ single-player Adventure Mode has undoubtedly taken some inspiration from.
In Mario Tennis’ main gameplay mode, known as Mario Tour, you take on the role of either Alex or Nina, two kids with a knack for swinging a racquet around and actually hitting the things they intend to hit with it. We join our choice of protagonist as they arrive at the Royal Academy, a prestigious and rather fancy-looking school that apparently specialises in nothing but tennis. Because, as everyone is well aware, if you know tennis, you’re set for life — no need for any of that pesky English, maths or science!
Facetiousness aside, your aim in Mario Tennis is to train yourself up to be the very best (at tennis), like no-one ever was, and perhaps devote a bit of time and attention to your doubles partner too, but only if you feel like it. Once you have sufficient faith in your own skills, you can attempt to work your way up through the ranks of the Royal Academy’s various classes before challenging the Island Open Tournament, and ultimately the best tennis player in the known universe… Mario.
Oddly enough, in this main mode of Mario Tennis, there’s a peculiar dearth of Mario characters. Indeed, right up until the final confrontation with Mario (and Peach, if you’re playing doubles) all of the other characters you’ll encounter are original creations. This was something of a peculiar choice, but it helps make that final battle with Mario feel like an extremely significant moment for your character — plus it’s not as if the other Mario characters aren’t present in the game at all, they’re just not in this main mode. But more on that a little later.
Once you’re past the introductory sequence of Mario Tour, you’re given pretty much complete freedom to handle your character’s development as you see fit. You can jump straight into ranking matches with the junior class if you think you can handle it, but it’s more sensible to indulge in some training first. And perhaps explore the campus a bit to chat with your new classmates, too; this isn’t a dry, boring menu-driven simulation, by any means — it’s a full-on tennis RPG!
The training sequences take a number of different forms. A number of coaches provide you instruction in core tennis techniques followed by a series of rather unforgiving drills designed to get you familiar with things like serving, volleying and simply making the ball go where you intend it to. Students hanging around near the coaches provide you with the opportunity to play practice matches with special rules to focus on a particular aspect of your game. And two training centres allow you to practice returning shots against a tennis machine, or bouncing shots off a wall with awkward moving springy panels on it.
Success in any of the training activities rewards you with experience points which, after the activity, you can choose to distribute between yourself and your doubles partner, or simply keep them all for yourself if you wish. Levelling up allows you to increase one of four areas of growth, each of which comes with several stats attached — though increasing one sometimes means another elsewhere will decrease. Bringing your power up may mean your speed reduces, for example, though after a while you can counterbalance these effects somewhat.
Once you get into playing actual opponents rather than just practicing, you’ll find yourself playing full best-of-three-sets matches rather than the somewhat truncated matches typically seen in arcade-style tennis games such as Sega’s excellent Virtua Tennis series. This means there’s plenty of scope for exciting back-and-forths between you and your opponent as the match progresses, rather than it all being over in a matter of minutes. It means you have to concentrate — and it makes things exciting.
This latter aspect is something Mario Tennis does extremely well, and when you consider the pedigree of the developer Camelot — who previously worked on titles such as Sega’s early Shining games and would later bring us the wonderful Golden Sun series on Game Boy Advance — this isn’t altogether surprising. What is a little surprising, however, is quite how far this humble little Game Boy sports game takes the “drama” side of things, particularly with regard to its musical score.
Each type of activity has its own unique theme, all of which are enormously catchy, energetic and inspiring. Once you get into playing matches, each of the various tiers you find yourself competing at has its own theme. Reach a Game or Break Point and there’s a dramatic “battle theme”-style piece of music, and an even more intense “you better not fuck this up” theme when you reach Set or Match Point. This wasn’t the first time a sports game had incorporated a constant musical accompaniment to the action — Namco’s rather wonderful Anna Kournikova’s Smash Court Tennis on PlayStation 1 had graced us with a delightfully funky soundtrack a couple of years previously — but Mario Tennis was certainly one of the first to take, for want of a better word, a more “cinematic” approach so far as its music was concerned — something which carried across into its later installments and TV-based console counterpart.
It’s not an easy game. Even the initial training activities are challenging — especially before you’ve levelled your character up a bit — and the game has a notoriously sharp difficulty spike when you eventually graduate from the Academy and head for the Island Open tournament. With the inherently repetitive nature of tennis, however, it’s good that the game puts up a fight — and in a variety of different ways, too. Different opponents play in rather different ways, so you’ll have to adapt your strategies accordingly — and perhaps consider building your character a little differently if you’ve still got some levels to grind out. Plus when you’ve finally mastered it all in singles, you can do it all again in doubles, providing you the opportunity to play through the whole game again with a somewhat different focus.
While Mario Tour is very much the “main game” of Mario Tennis on Game Boy Color — and it even provides the option to export your custom character to the N64 version via the Transfer Pak accessory — I did mention earlier that some Mario characters other than Mario and Peach put in an appearance. They show up in two specific places, in fact: the ability to play exhibition matches against the computer or a friend (though this latter aspect was unfortunately removed from the Virtual Console release on 3DS) and a selection of character-specific minigames.
The minigames in particular are a part of the overall package you shouldn’t neglect, as they’re not throwaway experiences by any means — on the contrary, they’re an excellent way to practice various skills that will come in very handy in the main Mario Tour mode. Luigi’s game requires you to consistently land shots on target, for example, Baby Mario’s requires you to use various button combinations to trigger specific shots, and Donkey Kong provides a variation on the Mario Tour’s wall training game by tasking you with hitting moving targets on a wall while consistently returning the ball.
One slightly unfortunate aspect of Mario Tennis, looking back on it from nearly twenty years later, is the fact that there’s a notable amount of content locked behind an additional purchase. This was the days before online connectivity and DLC, however; that “additional purchase” was actually an N64 Transfer Pak and a copy of Mario Tennis on the N64… plus an N64, of course. Linking the two games together was the only means of unlocking the ability to play as Yoshi, Wario, Waluigi and Bowser in the Game Boy version — and this also means it’s the only way to access their unique minigames, too. This makes a decent chunk of the game outside of Mario Tour completely inaccessible to those without the appropriate hardware — and, of course, to 3DS owners playing the Virtual Console version, too.
Thankfully, although the minigames are fun and a worthwhile addition to the overall package, the main attraction of Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Color is very much the Mario Tour mode. And there’s more than enough content there to keep you busy for quite some time if you truly want to master the game. If the game consisted of nothing but Mario Tour, I’d be happy, to be perfectly honest. While its ties to the Mario franchise may be somewhat tenuous at best, that ultimately doesn’t really matter; all the original characters are filled with plenty of Nintendo charm, anyway. The important thing is making your little tennis player get better and better and better… and finally smashing their way to victory at the Island Open and beyond.
Sports games are often ridiculed as the least interesting and least valuable parts of a platform’s overall library. But Nintendo has always managed to show us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Mario Tennis on Game Boy Color was just the beginning of that; let’s hope the series continues this tradition long into the future.
More about Mario Tennis
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