One of the reasons the Nintendo GameCube is my absolute favorite home console to date is that was when Mario sports titles absolutely exploded. The N64 brought us Mario Tennis and Golf, but it was on the next system where we got the best versions of both those games, as well as Mario Superstar Baseball and the so-good-it-has-to-make-a-return Super Mario Strikers.
This continued early into the Wii era, where we got quick follow-ups to the latter two games. But that’s when things started to take a turn. Anticipated sequels for Golf and Tennis were no-shows on the DS and Wii. While we would eventually make a celebrated return to the greens of the Mushroom Kingdom in Mario Golf: World Tour, subsequent tennis titles have been less than a Grand Slam. Mario Tennis Open is fine for what it is, but Mario Tennis Ultra Smash was an absolute low point for the franchise and the sport’s appearance in Mario Sports Superstars didn’t exactly raise the bar.
Really, this series has only one direction to go from here and that’s up. And while Mario Tennis Aces is unequivocally a better game than its past few entries, it’s still not everything it could be.
Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)
Released: June 22, 2018
Mario Tennis Aces starts in a way I don’t expect. The Adventure Mode, central to pre-release hype for the game, is the centerpiece of the experience. Right away, I am thrust into this tennis-based RPG where a mythical tennis racket has enslaved Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi, and it’s up to me as Mario to retrieve five Dragon Balls Power Stones to break the spell and defeat Lucien, the aforementioned evil racket.
While it is an RPG, it really doesn’t need to be. I don’t very much see any massive gains from leveling Mario up throughout it, but my tennis game does improve noticeably with each challenge I conquer. These tests come in the form of several different types of games. Some are simple matches against the computer, others are mini-games where I have to rack up a certain number of points before time runs out or I run out of tries. It’s occasionally frustrating, but it absolutely makes me a better player. Even the challenges I hate the most — ones where I must hit the ball so my opponent can’t return it — prove beneficial to my development. It’s just a shame that, due to a single missing feature, this adventure can be absolutely aggravating.
In Adventure Mode, prepare to lose often. I do. Some of these challenges feel absolutely unfair and Adventure Mode lacks a quick restart feature that could make the journey far less arduous. I can quit in the middle of a match, but if I lose, I can’t just restart the challenge right away. Instead, I have to watch as Mario gains some XP, exit out of the challenge, and then select it again. It doesn’t seem like the biggest deal until it’s the tenth time in a row you’ve done it.
Eventually, it ceases to be a bother for me because, by the time I’m gunning for the final Power Stone, my tennis game is absolute fire. I demolish the final set of challenges, including the predictable and underwhelming final boss battle. Overall, the mode to me is nothing more than an extensive tutorial teaching not only how to play the game, but how to play it well. Also, it’s how I unlock the different — and occasionally stunning — tennis courts for use in free play.
Mario Tennis Aces‘ gameplay follows the series formula established back on the Nintendo 64 to great effect. There are the five basic shots — topspin, lob, slice, flat, and drop shot — as well as new shot types that play into the pseudo-fighting-game style of play. In Aces, you can KO your opponent with the new Zone Shot and Special Shot. These are pretty much the exact same thing though Special Shot has more flair and power.
As I play a match, I build up my energy gauge using Star Shots (shots performed from the star spots on the court,) and Charge Shots, which is just holding down the button to charge the swing. When I fill my gauge to at least a third, I can use the Zone Shot. When a star appears on the court, I simply move towards it and press the L button. This allows me to aim my shot exactly where I want it to hit on the court. It’s a great way to earn easy points or to whittle away at the racket strength of my opponent. If they can’t block my Zone Shot exactly, it damages their racket and pushes them closer to a knockout.
Special Shots work the exact same way, though one shot is enough to destroy an entire racket. I need my energy gauge filled to the max to use this. It’s not an instant win as opponents usually have more than one racket, but it can be if used correctly.
The shot can also be quite cheap. In my encounters online, I discover a strategy many people are utilizing that can be best summed up as a game of chicken. Unlike with Zone Shots, I can use a Special Shot no matter where I am on the court. It will also perfectly block a Zone or Special Shot from my opponent with no damage to my racket. Knowing this, my opponents and I tend to dance around the idea of using a Zone Shot. If I use one, and they have enough for a Special Shot, there’s really nothing I can do to stop them from scoring a point at best, or breaking my racket at worst. If I wait, and they use their Special Shot first, I can counter with my own. However, depending on how well I pull it off, it may temporarily incapacitate me allowing my opponent to move in for an easy point.
The energy gauge isn’t just for offensive shots. On defense, I can use it to slow time so I can properly block a Zone or Special Shot, or I can flick the right Joy-Con thumbstick to initiate the Trick Shot. If a ball is ever too far away for me to hit, the Trick Shot will get the job done with style to spare. Every character has their own unique Trick Shot — Mario flips and Daisy dashes over to the ball for instance — and because Waluigi’s has him moonwalking, he’s easily the best character in the game.
Honestly, Mario Tennis Aces is Mario Tennis at its best when it comes to gameplay. Throughout the Adventure Mode, the surprisingly smooth online play, the lackluster tournament mode, free play, and Wii-era leftover Swing Mode, it’s an absolute blast. So why oh why do Nintendo and Camelot not want me to have as much fun with the game as I can?
Mario Tennis Aces makes some bizarre decisions when it comes to player choice. In free play, I cannot directly choose the court I want with ease. I instead have to let the computer pick one at random, or select the courts I don’t want to play. Pretty goddamn ass-backward if you ask me.
I can turn off court obstacles, but some are permanent, such as the mast of the Savage Sea. KOs and Zone/SpecialTrick Shots can be eliminated as well, but I have just two options for match length: Quick Play, which is just a single game with the goal of being the first to seven points, and Extended Play, which really needs a new name because two games in a single set is not what anyone would call “Extended.”
Only the offline tournament mode allows for longer matches, otherwise, I’m stuck playing a truncated version of the real sport. I like tennis and part of what makes it so entertaining are the head-games players will use on one another. Sure, matches can go for quite a while, but that’s part of the fun. It becomes an endurance sport, but here, Camelot seems content just getting players in and out of matches as quickly as possible.
I’d also like to take a moment and point out just how fucking dumb the partner AI can be. Every partner I pair with, at least once a match, will deliberately aim a Zone Shot that isn’t anywhere close to being in bounds. And there is no way for me to adjust their shot to keep it in play. It’s baffling how anyone thought this to be an okay practice of partner AI. I don’t care if I’m playing on easy or expert, this should not be something the AI does. I’d much rather my partner not have the ability to use Zone and Special Shots than have to deal with the potential of losing because they don’t know how to stay inside the lines.
Mario Tennis Aces has a chance at being a great game down the road. Right now, it’s simply good. The gameplay is as addictive as ever and the Adventure Mode is a great way to educate people on the ins and outs of Mario Tennis. It’s just missing features that, while small, make a world of difference when it comes to the longevity of the game. I want to play Aces for the rest of the Switch lifecycle, but right now it’s not giving me much of a reason to keep booting it up.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]