With both Virtua Tennis and Top Spin MIA for some years now, 2018 always looked like a dream for fans of the sport, as no fewer than three racket-based titles were scheduled to launch before the summer. Curiously enough, each platform would get two different games, with Tennis World Tour releasing on every console, AO International Tennis only for PS4 and Xbox One, and then Nintendo, naturally, bringing its exclusive generational iteration to the table, with Mario and co. from the Mushroom Kingdom taking the spotlight from Federer, Nadal, and all the rest. This is arcade-style tennis and it's far from realistic, however, the first thing we worked out is that just because it's colourful and accessible, it doesn't mean that it's easy.
With Camelot Software's name on the game, what Nintendo has been trying to sell long-time fans is the fact that it includes an Adventure mode that harkens back to the RPG the studio launched on GBA. Well, actually the mode has almost nothing to do with the GBA classic, but the result is convincing in its own right and stands as a testament to the amount and variety of content offered here.
In reality, the Adventure is a simple story hiding a 30-stage tutorial. In other words, it's where you'll go to learn the basics, shifting through the intermediate training, before becoming an expert and mastering some advanced moves (that don't make you invincible, but we'll get to that later). As you progress through these stages you'll probably have no interest in the story itself (we found ourselves skipping the boxes of text after about 15 minutes, and in the process missing a couple of clues), but the encounters themselves pose a good challenge, forcing you to master every type of move, understand character classes and when to use special abilities, and pull off tricks with both accuracy and intelligence.
If you're after a casual experience then you might find things too challenging at first, although over time the depth of challenge turns into a positive. Adventure mode has its own bespoke difficulty setting and you have to complete it as intended, whereas Free Play matches allow you to select CPU difficulty via the pre-match screen (Expert is already a challenge but Pro is very tricky even after 10+ hours of playtime... and then there's the Ace difficulty above all).
As you leave the opening ruins-forest section behind, you start facing the real deal. You might end up feeling a little overwhelmed when you're asked to endure a 300-hit rally with a rival who's performing Zone Shots every now and then, or when you're in the middle of a rally on the pirate ship court and there's a mast at the centre of the net that'll sometimes send the ball back at you unexpectedly.
And even harder are the bosses hiding the gems you're looking for, but those aren't tennis matches, rather they're fully-fledged boss battles asking you to hit, dodge and block as the time counts down. Yes, there's levelling for better stats and you unlock better rackets, but this Adventure is no RPG, nor your typical, boring Career mode in which you play the same types of matches again and again. It's in the middle ground; lighter than an RPG but truly entertaining.
The traditional controls are there, plus some nice alternatives with X and analogue stick. As basic shots and aiming are easy enough, the key to success here is choosing the best shot type each time and mastering the special moves. You may win with the motion-controlled Zone Shot and Special Shot, but without proper defending, you won't stand a chance beyond Novice and Intermediate. This means syncing up the flashy Trick Shot with the right stick, only using slow-mo Zone Speed when needed and, above all, learning how to block.
Each player has a number of rackets that take hits or break completely when countering special incoming shots, and if your last racket breaks due to poor timing, you'll lose the whole match by K.O., even if it's the first game. Believe us when we say that we've seen a lot of KOs, but it's up to you to turn them to your advantage and learn from your mistakes. That being said, when playing on Pro and Ace difficulty it looks a little fishy how AI rivals refill their energy gauge as if some sort of unfair or too-perfect scripting was playing behind the scenes (as is often the case with sports games).
But what's more important is that the whole system works and makes for intense, exciting games where you have to keep thinking tactically, almost like you would in a sim, and certainly more deeply than you would in an arcade coin-op experience. Every point is a fight and everything can change in an instant, just like in real life. There's also a nice balance in terms of classes for the 20+ characters, and we didn't think that there was a clearly dominant option. That said, Rosalina and Chain Chomp did seem a little OP during our time with the game, and we'll have to see how balancing is handled post-launch.
The mix between fantasy and realism achieved by Camelot is amazing. The presentation is so colourful and lively, and we were impressed by the effort put into the stages themselves, as well as the character models and their respective animations. The studio has taken advantage of the variety in terms of the environments and they come with sand gods, haunted mansions, piranha plant-filled rainforests, mountains covered with lava and snow, and more. There are more tennis court variants here than you could imagine, but at the same time it's a more serious, sober style in comparison to previous games. It really fits with the changes made to the gameplay, and it's great that it reaches max resolution - 60fps - on both the TV and in handheld mode.
If you engage with the Adventure it won't be for the silly script, it'll be to see how far you can go to get all the rackets and to unlock all the courts for Free Play. And that's all, sadly, because watching the credits roll offers no reward, and any additional characters will arrive as free downloads (this seems to be more of a marketing tool, as these characters look to be in the game already and presumably they'll be unlocked when Nintendo says so).
Tournament mode is a bit disappointing as well as; unless we're missing something it offers just three cups (Mushroom-grass, Flower-sand, Star-court) with a fixed difficulty level, no feeling of progression, nor anything unlocked come the end. So the single-player fun is to be found in Free Play by gradually increasing the difficulty. However, ever since the Game Boy era these tennis games have been an experience to share and Mario Tennis Aces is great in this regard. It's perfectly designed so that two to four people can enjoy the action together, and there's a decent FOV when the screen splits into two and everyone can clearly see what they're doing (compared to the old single view). The online multiplayer demo also made a good impression and we liked the Online Tournament structure, although we can't find it here yet (right now there's just Free Play online, including co-op teams and friend groups).
Another nice addition is the Swing mode. Even though you get full control of all the special moves if you play with traditional buttons, the motion-controlled alternative takes the essence of Wii Sports and adds characters and classes, different surfaces, and above all a much more advanced control system for better response and greater realism (detecting five shot types). It's much more demanding than it was on the Wii (so you can't do the ol' shake-shake and get good results), although after a bit of practice you'll learn the timing and make some rewarding shots.
It didn't attract too much attention when it was announced, probably because the two previous entries in the series were actually pretty weak, however, this new game has actually turned out to be quite wonderful. Mario Tennis Aces not only satisfies the occasional players looking for some arcade fun and casual players looking for a new Wii Sports-like experience, it will also appeal to hardcore players looking for a more significant challenge. This is as difficult, demanding, and rewarding as it gets for a tennis game, and it comes full of content and complete with an Adventure mode that pushes you to learn and master its subtleties. When it comes to tennis games in 2018, it's game, set, and match for Nintendo and Camelot.
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