Stuffed with colour, charm, and that special goofiness almost unique to contemporary Nintendo titles, Mario Tennis Aces is everything we’ve come to expect from a game starring its favourite mustachioed poster child. Don’t let the cutesy graphics and gentle good humour mislead you though; beneath its day-glo colours lies a robust tennis sim that blends traditional, serve-and-volley gameplay with a suite of surprisingly novel new moves guaranteed to spice up your time on court.
As you might expect, you’ll spend a lot of time staring across the net at a host of familiar Mario-flavoured faces. As you also might expect, it’s usually pretty good fun, too, with just enough variety across its range of tournament modes to keep things interesting.
For the first time since Mario Tennis:Power Tour on the Gameboy Advance, there’s even a fully-fledged story mode to kick things off, too.
Yes, you read that right — a story mode. Squeezed in between the tournaments and online competition you can take Mario on a racket-wielding solo adventure, complete with overworld map, mini-games, and even boss fights. We didn’t think such a thing was possible (or even necessary, to be honest) but to Nintendo’s credit, it works.
Do you remember the horror movie, Christine? The Stephen King story of the sentient car that wants to murder everyone? Well, that’s what Mario Tennis Aces‘ story is like, really. Yep, it’s another tale of a sentient, inanimate object intent on world domination, only this time around it’s a murderous tennis racket and it’s called Lucien, not Christine.
Mario Tennis Aces doesn’t need a story mode, of course – there’s certainly enough to keep you busy with the tournaments alone – but in a bid to please long-time fans, Nintendo has provided one anyway. To save the poor souls possessed by the tennis racket’s monstrous appetite for evil, Mario must travel around the world completing challenges and collecting the five Power Stones secreted across the island.
It’s not a long nor particularly compelling campaign, but it’s stuffed with Mario’s trademark cheeky humour, and you’ll encounter the plumber’s usual band of merry friends and foes in your travels. In many ways it acts as a tutorial for the uninitiated, which is just as well, really, as the actual tutorial – front-loaded into your first story mission – feels a little rushed.
While the basic controls are pleasantly intuitive, the special moves are less so, and the pacing may have benefited by slowing down the introduction of these abilities and pulling them in more gradually as you get accustomed to life on court. One thing’s for sure; you won’t get very far if you rely solely on traditional play, not even in the beginner stages.
Variety will always be key to courtside victories – the more randomised your play-style, the harder it is for your opponents to get a read on you.
You Got Served
As well as the traditional flat, slice, and top spins shots, Mario and co have a host of new skills up their collective sleeves, including Special and Trick Shots, Zone Shots, and Zone Speed. Solid returns and rallies help you build up an energy gauge which act as fuel for your special moves on court.
Block a trick shot or trigger a special move and the energy gauge can then be utilised to deliver blistering returns. Zone Shots – triggered by hitting the R bumper once you’re standing on a star on the ground – slow the action to a bullet-time-esque standstill, offering a couple of valuable seconds to get across the court or line up a return.
These special shots bring a healthy dose of excitement to the usual serve-and-volley play. Yet in practice, pulling one off isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. When a special’s been triggered, you’ve only a second or two to decide what you’re doing next, and the reticle isn’t always as responsive as you might hope. Take too long to line up your shot, and you’ll deplete the gauge entirely – not fun if you’re sitting on match point.
But deliver the perfect shot, however, and you can even smash your opponent’s racket, bringing about a premature victory. It’s awesome when you’re dishing them out, of course, but achingly frustrating when you’re on the receiving end. Learning to read their shots (colour-coded for easy identification) is crucial if you want to hold your own both on and off line.
As you move through the story there’s a familiar top-down map world that will unlock as you progress and topple your enemies. and a lovely variety of different challenges to keep the gameplay fresh. The more you play, the more you’ll level up, slowing improving your shot speed, run speed, and agility, as well as Mario’s racket attack, defense, and durability, too.
While this might sound like a RPG-esque stats screen it’s a bit misleading, as you’re not in control of what levels up. And don’t forget; these upgrades only apply to the adventure mode, so any progress here will have no impact on your tourney or online prowess.
Making a Racket
Outside of the story mode, you have access to a fantastic cast of familiar faces in the tournament modes, each boasting their own particular playstyles. Looking for a heavy hitter that sacrifices mobility for strength? Spike’s your pal. If you prefer speed over strength, Yoshi’s phenomenally quick. Wanting to play with an all-rounder? Well, that’s Mario, of course.
This very noticeable character variety provides a good excuse to experiment with the roster, but it also means that you can occasionally be bested on court by the character choice of your opponent rather than their skill.
While those aforementioned special shots help ensure your single-player games continue to feel fresh, the race to fill the energy gauge becomes even more crucial when you venture into competitive play. Whoever builds the gauge fast enough – and therefore unleashes those devastating special moves first – tends to win by default, which can bleed some of the spontaneity and… well, tennis out of the match.
Thankfully though, if these Street Fighter-esque specials don’t sit with your preferred way of playing, you can always select the special-free Simple Rules mode. It’s a great move for purists, but if time is of the essence, be warned that this mode will massively slow down your matches.
A smash hit
Does Aces need a story? Probably not. Is the game worse off for having it? Not at all. But if you’re here for the Mario adventure rather than tennis, you may be disappointed. While there’s a smattering of enjoyable mini-games scattered throughout and a sprinkling of boss battles, tennis really is at the core here.
Like Mario Kart or Smash Bros., there’s a simple pick-up-and-play premise that makes Mario Tennis Aces great for parties and/or those new to gaming. But like Mario Kart and Smash Bros., there’s also a steep learning curve here, too, especially for anyone hoping to take on other human players via multiplayer. For more matches than we care to admit we felt as though we were merely hanging in there, desperately trying not to lose the point rather than confidently attacking and outclassing our opponents.
Neither easy nor unforgiving, it makes you wonder who Aces is really for; stalwart Mario fans may love the premise but find the complex combos tricky to master, whilst tennis purists may love the core game, but also struggle to adjust to those special abilities.
That said, it’s beautiful, it’s polished, and it will likely be a smash hit for anyone who’s been waiting all these years for a complex and challenging Mario tennis game.