I’m not a big sports game guy, but I’ve always had a lot of time for Nintendo’s takes on tennis and golf.
The Game Boy Color version of Mario Tennis in particular stole many hours of my life back in the day — as well as again a little more recently, I must confess — so I was rather excited to check out the Nintendo Switch incarnation of the series.
Among other things, the new game promised a return to something I had particularly liked about the aforementioned Game Boy Color version: a substantial single-player mode. So it’s that we’ll be focusing on today as I talk about my first impressions of the game.
Boot up Mario Tennis for the first time and you’re thrown straight into its “Adventure” mode — no main menu, no choice between single and multiplayer modes, no online connectivity, you’re just right into the action.
The story kicks off with the final of a prestigious tennis tournament, in which Mario and Peach look set to take the top spot — a callback to the Game Boy Color version of Mario Tennis, in which Mario (accompanied by Peach if you were playing doubles) was the final boss of the whole game. Unfortunately, something terrible happens: Wario and Waluigi, acting as actual villains for once rather than just providing comic relief, show up with a mysterious tennis racket that explodes in dark magical power, capturing Luigi in its blast and infusing the troublesome brothers with its chaotic energy.
Legend has it that this tennis racket can reach its full potential with five “power stones”, so naturally Wario, Waluigi and the corrupted Luigi set off to try and unleash its power — and Mario, being Mario, immediately charges off to try and get there first.
It’s an absolutely ridiculous setup, but entirely appropriate for a Nintendo game, and the Adventure mode plays things gratifyingly straight for the duration. It’s often the case that seemingly nonsensical narrative concepts can hold up perfectly well if the material through which they’re explored absolutely commits to the nonsense, and Mario Tennis Aces certainly provides in this regard, presenting Mario with an epic quest to complete, with plenty of challenges along the way.
Mario Tennis Aces’ Adventure mode is somewhat akin to the single-player modes in Splatoon and Splatoon 2 in that it’s effectively a well-disguised training mode that just happens to be a solid game in its own right. In other words, it provides a satisfying experience on its own, but by completing its challenges you’ll be equipping yourself with the skills you’ll need to succeed in multiplayer matches, be they local or online.
Things begin very simple. You have a straightforward, short tennis match against Dry Bones, who is a very easy opponent to beat. Following that, Mario and his entourage head for a nearby mysterious temple, apparently the place where the evil racket had been sealed up until now. There, you’ll have to prove yourself to the gates by hitting them with each of the available shots, mapped to the various face buttons of the Switch’s controllers. As you progress, you’ll start having to play matches with courts that feature hazards, play various types of minigame and even fight bosses.
The boss fights are particular highlights, because they effectively transplant the “tennis” mechanics into a distinctly “non-tennis” situation. But at the same time they act as an effective bookend to a “chapter” of your overall training throughout Adventure mode in that success in these confrontations generally demands that you make effective use of the techniques you’ve learned. The first boss, for example, challenges you to use the first-person “Zone Shot” mechanic — more on that in a moment — to accurately strike a weak point, while the second demands that you combine this skill with using the “Trick Shot” ability to dodge attacks as well as demonstrating your ability to block and return Zone Shots, too.
The base mechanics of Mario Tennis Aces are similar to Camelot’s previous installments in the series, which in turn took some cues from Sega’s Virtua Tennis series. Perhaps the most notable aspect of how it plays compared to other, older and/or more simulation-esque tennis games is that you don’t have to precisely time your button presses to swing your racket. In fact, it’s usually undesirable to do so, since hitting the button early allows you to “charge” a shot, and your character will strike the ball with increased power so long as they are in an appropriate position to do so.
Like earlier incarnations of Mario Tennis, shots that are obviously heading for a particular point on the court will have their eventual destination marked with a star shape. In the older games, hitting a shot from this mark would tend to result in a high-power smash; here, however, they show where you will be able to pull off one of the aforementioned Zone Shots. This is a mechanic whereby you expend some of the energy meter you accumulate throughout a match in order to freeze time temporarily, switch to first-person mode and aim an immensely powerful, very difficult to return shot at a specific point on the court.
Zone Shots are a core mechanic of Mario Tennis Aces, but they’re not as unbeatable as they might initially appear. So long as you’re in the right position, it is possible to “block” a Zone Shot and return it, but this is the one point in the game where the timing of your button press is of critical importance. Too early and you’ll probably return the shot but damage your racket in the process; too late and you might miss it completely, take a body shot or damage your racket. Perfect timing, however, can turn things around very quickly. Fortunately, you can make life a little easier for yourself if you have some spare energy: holding down the left trigger drains your energy to provide you with slow-motion “Zone Speed”, allowing you more time to react.
Racket damage presents an alternative way to win using the new mechanics. If you can damage an opponent’s racket sufficiently (and/or deplete their stock of spare rackets, depending on how the match has been set up), you can win the match by “knockout” rather than the usual games, sets and matches. This is an interesting twist on the usual formula, and I can predict that particularly when playing online, determining what kind of victory your opponent is aiming for will be extremely important in determining your own strategy.
The energy required to pull off Zone Shots (and their more powerful counterparts, the Special Shot, which requires a full meter) is built up in several ways. The most straightforward but slowest is to use the charged shot ability to hit more powerful returns than usual. This can be accomplished either by double-tapping a button for a quick charge or the aforementioned “pressing the button before the ball arrives” approach, which can result in a “Full Charge” if done early enough.
The second and more challenging method is to make use of Trick Shots. These are accomplished by flicking the right stick in a direction — or, alternatively, to cater to single-stick controllers such as single Joy-Cons, by double-tapping the lob/drop shot button and pushing a direction. Doing so causes your character to make a dramatic flying leap in that direction and return the ball if they land with appropriate timing. Landing with good timing to hit the ball back in this way results in a big energy boost, but doing it too early or too late can result in a missed return at worst, and an actual loss of energy in some cases even where you do manage to hit it back.
The Trick Shots will likely take some practice, and to be honest it would be nice to have the ability to turn off the “double tap” control method when using a twin-stick controller, since on more than one occasion I attempted to perform a lob or drop shot and instead accidentally performed a flying leap across the course because I tapped the button one too many times. Still, if fighting game fans can learn the ridiculous button combinations they have to deal with, I’m sure I can learn to hit “X” just once instead of twice, so it’s a minor matter of adjusting.
These mechanics are a little daunting when first introduced, particularly if you have only a passive understanding of what basic tennis shots are for. But the game does a great job of naturally teaching you how and when to make use of these different techniques. Of particular note is a “puzzle” partway through the game in which you have to hit markers on a mirror once with a normal shot, then again with a Zone Shot.
While it may initially seem quite difficult to make your shots go exactly where you want them to, thinking back to the very first stages will help you remember that each button causes you to return the ball with a different trajectory. Special mention should be given to the case inlay of the physical version here, which, with one simple diagram, does more to explain what “topspin”, “slice” and “flat” do than any full-on manual for a tennis game I’ve ever read in the past.
At the time of writing, I’m two-fifths of the way through Adventure Mode and it’s been a pleasing challenge so far. At no point has it felt insurmountably difficult, so long as you pay attention to and make use of the techniques it teaches you, but it hasn’t felt like a cakewalk or extended tutorial either. It’s been a delightfully enjoyable experience in which I feel like I’ve actually been learning a lot, and after Adventure Mode is done and dusted I have tournaments against the CPU, local multiplayer and online competition to look forward to — so check back soon for further thoughts on these aspects.
For now, if you’ve been considering picking up Mario Tennis Aces, rest assured that it’s a great addition to the series — not to mention a great, accessible way to improve your game generally. I’m looking forward to getting into some serious competition in the future — but for now, I have three more Power Stones to find, so I’d better get moving before WAAAAAAAAAAAA~~~
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