After much traveling and ahead of some intense scrapping as part of the coming Smash Bros. game, Mario has a clear plan for the summer season as he's set to be the star of Mario Tennis Aces, the new sports game heading to Nintendo Switch. It's once again the work of Camelot, the veteran partner studio which usually takes care of Nintendo's tennis and golf games, and it comes with a nod to long-running fans in the shape of the Adventure Mode. Besides, it's one of the very few original first-party releases for they hybrid console in the first half of 2018, so it bears the responsibility of keeping up the pace of hardware sales while blockbusters such as Smash Bros., Pokémon Let's Go, and Metroid Prime 4 are readied for arrival.
But tennis on Nintendo consoles shouldn't be underestimated, let alone on handheld, as its track record is both long and bright. As was the case during our first hands-on session with the game, it quickly became clear that a significant amount of work has been put into this entry, more so if you compare it with the latest instalments in the series. There's no fear in changing things around, then, as Camelot has tweaked game modes, controls, and the game's overall presentation.
Let's start with the latter, as it's the flashiest change. Camelot has taken a turn in terms of its visual approach, betting on a more realistic style that may appeal to those who usually criticise Nintendo's family-friendly approach. Now, even though it's obviously a colourful game (as you'd expect from Nintendo) it seems a bit more credible to the eye both indoors (via the main stadium, recycled from Ultra Smash) but more so outdoors where trials and other games are held.
Character models (finally!) don't feel reused for the bazillionth time either, and they're actually crafted with much more care, to the point where animators seriously consider where to place the ball when serving with a handless creature such as Chain Chomp (it bounces out its head), or a short-limbed character such as Spike (the ball comes out of his mouth). It's a nice touch that lets you build up an affinity with some of the 15+ (probably 20+) characters; choice seems more important this time around and they'll be leveling up and improving stats with every match.
For two decades fans have been waiting for Camelot to return an RPG-ish story mode to a Mario sports game, and many celebrated when they saw what's to come with Aces, more so after the indie success of Golf Story. However, we have to make clear that the game isn't really like that. It's an adventure mode with a story being told and played by missions, but it doesn't really have a real role-playing component. In this case, Mario has to rescue Luigi and the Legendary Racket from the fearsome Lucius and his apparently-possessed servants, Wario and Waluigi.
A simple enough world map gives you access to a series of stages represented by stop points, which is a classic style that fans will know well enough. We traveled to some ruins, a temple that looks like the starting point for our adventure, watched several cutscenes setting the mood and completed a tutorial for the controls. The latter consisted of two screens that showed the changes this entry brings to the table controller-wise, as well as the special move that will surely become game-changers, much more than those giant mushrooms on the Wii U.
After seeing this initial section of the game we would once again like to compliment the interesting combination of colourful fantasy and realistic aesthetics (in terms of the sand and stone environments in particular). Later on, when we got to look at a third section of the game, we played what looked a lot more like Pikmin in that it offered a challenge surrounded by nature with trees, Yoshi sitting on a stump, and Piranha Plants pestering us close to the net.
This was a learning process before we got to put all of our skills into practice in local multiplayer encounters. A lengthy tournament matching us against several colleagues from the press ensued, and a nice experience to confirm that, even though this is far from being a simulator, the range of attacking and defending options available makes for tight, competitive, and potentially long duels. The character selection will have great impact on how things play out, it seems, as there are factors such as energy gauges recharging, with characters having variable power or reach, specific stats that will have a clear effect in matches. This is also the case when considering each character's special shot, a move which may well turn the tide of a game, set, or even a match.
Although the basic game mechanics are as you remember them, Camelot has decided to change or tweak several things for this Nintendo Switch debut. In terms of basic shots (topspin, slice, standard), these are mapped to the face buttons, whereas lobs and drop shots are now pulled off by tilting the left stick up or down and pressing Y. That's right, you no longer combine two buttons and this change may make for a more natural-feeling control scheme. You can also charge your shot by pressing the button as soon as you take your position.
Other than those tweaks there's also a good amount of new moves, all related to the brand-new energy gauge. One of them, the Trick Shot, lets you try to predict your rival's next move and you have to time it perfectly to both give the ball back and refill your gauge - a very interesting risk/reward mechanic.
Then you can empty your gauge via three different moves. There's the Zone Shot, allowing you to aim a crosshair via motion controls; the more defensive Zone Speed boost that slows your run to help you make a difficult ball; and then the more spectacular Special Shot, which takes a full energy bar and is as powerful as it is flashy (plus every character has its own animation, unlike Ultra Smash).
We also have to say good defence is more crucial than ever, as we spent a whole match harassing a very determined Boo that would never give up, using both excellent positioning and Zone Speed to send back everything we sent his way, even our special attacks. And remember, if you don't time your returns, you may end up with a Racket Break, which works like a health system and may even end up in disqualification and the match ending early.
We were kind of concerned that all of these time-twisting mechanics could break the game's pace, but our first impressions are really positive. The time-bending moves are brief and require quick-thinking, so it feels exciting to quickly decide where to aim or which risks to take. We still need to play much more, but we left our session thinking that the renewed gameplay feels tougher and more aggressive than before, as well as feeling that Mario Tennis Aces caters a bit more to competitive players than it does to the casual crowd.