Love, Love. That’s how every tennis match begins – and to be honest this was a game I was excited to play and was hoping I was going to Love, Love. Published by Nintendo, Mario Tennis Aces is the next in the line of golf and tennis sports games that Camelot has developed. Their track record had been quite good – with older games like the original Mario Tennis (N64) and Mario Power Tennis (Gamecube) being almost universally well-received. However, the previous tennis game Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (WiiU) was so light on content and had controls that could only be described as ‘iffy’ that it had many concerned that the developer had lost their Midas touch. So how does the Switch version compare? Has the Mario Tennis franchise returned a second-serve Ace or a disappointing double fault?
Right, from the outset you are thrown into a cinematic opening revealing a welcome return of a story (Adventure) mode. A few quick button presses later and you can head to the main menu where you’ll be pleased to find that the Tournament mode is back. Also included is Free Play as well as a made-just-for-the-Switch Swing mode. Yes, even before you start the game proper, mode-wise you’ll be happy to know that Aces is not the diet tennis version that Ultra Smash was.
…mode-wise you’ll be happy to know that Aces is not the diet tennis version that Ultra Smash was.
As mentioned above, starting off you are immediately thrown into the Adventure mode. Mario, accompanied by the ever-eager Toad, is tasked with saving the Kingdom of Bask. They will have to go up against the kingdom’s bosses (all of whom off-handedly will challenge you to a game of… yup, you guessed it) and eventually overthrow a legendary personified Racket and bring peace to the land once more.
Of course this is a Mario Tennis game and plot is not really that important, however, the addition of a recent blockbuster comic-book movie link in the plot felt shoehorned and a little like a last-minute addition and therefore a little incomplete. Also, the story also starts off with a very moderate Mario-version of the darker themes we see too often in games these days and so at first that turned me off. Call me crazy, but I rather look forward to a trip into the happy, bright (nonsense-filled) Mushroom Kingdom for my fake cartoony tennis and tennis-adjacent adventures. Luckily, my uneasy feeling dissipated quite quickly and the later levels in the Adventure were right up my alley, and the story mode itself is really quite fun.
…the recent blockbuster comic-book movie link felt heavy-handed and a little like a last-minute addition…
Usually, the story mode in a Mario tennis game is supposed to be a welcome single-player distraction. It does not have to be an in-depth character study or even provide several hours of platforming adventure and seen in this light, Mario Tennis Aces is pretty great. The story mode only took me around five hours or so to complete and consisted of moving around a world map on a predetermined path from one tennis-related challenge to the next. Every area on the world map provides a new court, a tennis match against a mini-boss and then a final level where your newly acquired skills are needed to defeat the boss and move on, as well as one or two detours with a few mini skill-based challenges.
I found these skill-based challenges to be particularly challenging and fun. Having played the Mario Tennis Aces online tournament a few weeks ago, I thought I had most of the controls down pat. However, what the timed mini-challenges do very well is they force you to learn some of the more complicated skill moves; particularly those that you may not have used often before and were mostly unnecessary when playing online and against easier AI opponents. These are usually related to slightly more complex movements and rely heavily on timing (like ‘blocking’).
At first, I tried to ignore the more difficult skill and simply use my already-acquired abilities and limited shot selection to move on – but over and over I ran out of time. Conceding defeat, I tried the use the skill shot the game was hoping to train me to use and within a try or two, guess what? I completed the challenge and could move on to the next part of the map. I found this method of teaching very clever and soon my repertoire of shots increased to a full-fledged cartoony-tennis arsenal – from charging up to slowing down time to unleashing star, zone, trick and racket-breaking special shots by the end of the adventure I was ready to take on anyone – including a mind-controlled mysterious racket-wielding Luigi or my fellow tennis-crazed online friends.
…what the timed mini-challenges do very well is they force you to learn some of the more complicated skill moves… I found them to be particularly challenging and fun.
A mechanic I was not expecting and was therefore pleasantly surprised about was the skill-development of Mario. In its most basic RPG-like way, playing tennis matches and skill-based mini games increases Mario’s experience level. As your level increases, your Shot Speed, Run Speed and Agility status levels increase. Along the way, you will also be able to attempt special Racket challenges. A triumph in these results in the reward of a new racket – with each racket having its own Attack, Defense and Durability stats. The combination of the experience level and new rackets always made me feel reasonably well-matched with increasingly tougher opponents and I found the pacing of the Adventure mode really good. I never felt that I had to spend too much time grinding earlier levels to increase my EXP so as to manage to take on a new opponent, and yet no opponent in the later stages felt too easy.
Tournament is the other single-player-only mode in the game. At present, the mode consists of three competitions: the Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup and Star Cup (all in slightly increasing difficulty). Having completed the story mode before trying out any tournaments I found I breezed through the first two Cups with no hassle, despite not being able to bring my leveled-up Mario into the matches. The final cup was more difficult and I had a tough final match, however, the racket-breaking mechanic really does give you a whole new strategy for defeating opponents. In that final match, I was being heavily outscored by the AI – however, I was able to charge up my Special on multiple occasions. This shot seemed to break the AI opponent’s racket 80-90% of the time. Hence, if you just stay in the game long enough, by keeping the rally going, you will eventually be able to KO the opponent. I did this in my final match even though I was behind score-wise and so obtained all three cups relatively quickly. All characters are available at the very start (16 player roster) and there has already been an official announcement that more characters will be added as early as July. I hope this DLC trend will continue into other avenues of the game – particularly with regards to the addition of more Cups, as the current offering is a little slim.
Of course, as with all of these types of games, the single-player is needed, but what really tends to help the game’s longevity and continued enjoyment is playing with friends, either locally or online. For this – Aces has two modes up its sleeve. The Swing mode is perfect for younger kids as well as adults who have a few friends over for a party. In this mode up to four people can play on one Switch using Joy-cons and ‘swinging’ them like you would a regular racket. This may sound a little gimmicky, but just like in the Wii Sports days – having several friends flailing arms wildly and somewhat randomly knocking over vases and the odd innocent bystander in a small room is rather fun. Plus, despite its simplicity, the Joy-Cons are more accurate and responsive than any Wii Controller ever was. The addition of a rally challenge and a Big Ball mode where you hit a beach-ball sized tennis ball at each other is just the right kind of ridiculous.
The final mode – and probably the mode where I will be spending most of my time – is Free Play. This dedicated multiplayer mode uses the more traditional-button control scheme either on the Joy-Cons or Pro controller. Locally, up to four friends can play on one Switch, or multiple players using multiple consoles. In Free Play, Standard (Star shots etc) or Simple (Regulation Tennis rules) play can be selected and all courts can be included with the choice of hazards being active or not. The addition of all the extra skill shots, hazards and the like introduces a level of strategy quite unique to this genre and adds another level of depth to an already fun sports game.
Online play is also available. Both singles and doubles matches can be stipulated and Solo or Team battles are available. Solo entails a single player on a single Switch battling online, racking up the most wins, whereas Teams consists of up to two players per Switch doing the same. Unfortunately, again your Adventure Mode Mario (with special rackets etc) is not available Online. The Aces website says that online tournaments will become available with the ability “to unlock special outfits and playable characters”, however, at the time of the review this option was not available.
…online tournaments will become available with the ability “to unlock special outfits and playable characters”.
As mentioned previously, a worldwide Demo tournament was made available last week. Although, I really enjoyed my time playing online and did not experience any major issues, a large enough number of people both in my gaming circles and on social media complained about general and input lag issues. Hence, I was very keen to see how online play would be in the full version. Often this is a challenge when reviewing a game – as at the time of the review not many players are available online at the same time. Luckily, I did manage a few games with a fellow reviewer. We both had good internet connections and barring a few small instances of general lag and one or two input lag occurrences (none of which were game breaking) the online match ups were mostly just fantastically fun and after each match ended it seemed only seconds before one of us would highlight the rematch option. Replayability is great.
Happily, probably the most important feature of the game – the gameplay – is slick and smooth. Movement of the characters feels great, and the unique character Special Shot animations are a joy to see. My particular favourites were Luigi and Donkey Kong. Star points on the court take some time to master, but once you do, the ‘charging up’ mechanic is easier to employ effectively. The various characters are grouped into six categories: All-Around, Powerful, Speedy, Tricky, Technical and Defensive. All categories have their specific strengths and weaknesses – Powerful characters have stronger shots, but move more slowly around the court. Speedy characters the opposite and so on. The plethora of shots, playing styles and courts (different courts have different speed and bounce attributes) mean the game stays interesting for some time, even if it does take a little time to get the hang of everything.
The gameplay is slick and smooth. Movement of the characters feels great, and the unique character Special Shot animations are a joy to see.
Game, Set and Match
During a real day at Wimbledon or Roland Garros these days sometimes a ball is called out. However, because the game has become so fast, it is easy for line judges to make a wrong call. If a a player feels that the incorrect call has been made he can challenge the decision. This feature has been brought over into Mario Tennis Aces and serves as pretty good analogy for the review process. So we’ve called in the Umpire and the news is in: Mario Tennis Aces is… IN!
Many of the issues with the WiiU iteration have been sorted out. Content and gameplay have definitely improved. Not only is there a substantial enough Story Mode, small (at least at launch) Tournament mode and two distinct Multiplayer modes, but there is already a 16 player roster (which will grow in the near future) and multiple courts. Multiplayer is fun and is really where this title shines. In fact, many people were so enamored with the online play and the competitiveness and strategy provided by the different shot mechanics that they often compared it to a fighting game without the fighting.
Multiplayer is fun and really where this title shines.
Is it the perfect Mario Tennis game? Well maybe not quite, yet. The Story mode mechanics are great, but the plot is not my personal cup of tea and once you try it, it does feel like a certain feature was shoehorned into the story making it feel a little disjointed and unfinished. Only being able to use Mario in Adventure mode, and all courts only becoming available once Adventure mode is complete seem like missed opportunities. Swing Mode is a nice addition, but mostly just sprinkles on your ice-cream – nice, but not really substantial. The Online mode promises to be the stand-out feature and it seems to be have improved from its last test, but the small lag issues will only truly be a thing of the past when the Mario Tennis Aces community all get online at the same time and all have a good gaming experience.
Despite these niggling issues, all in all, Mario Tennis Aces is a great return to the best parts of the franchise and is sure to bring a lot of fun to fans of the franchise and new players alike. It’s almost all strawberries and cream, and although it may not quite be the perfect Love, Love yet, it is most definitely already a lot Like, Love.