While the gameplay is stellar, presenting a great mixture of the solid basics of the sport and absurd quirks that add a lot of excitement, splendor, and strategy to this world of rackets and courts, the content that surrounds it is, at best, problematic
Mario sports games are safe. And that is a statement that is valid to pretty much all parts that come into direct contact with titles of the long-running financially successful franchise. To Nintendo, they are a sure way to deliver costumers a product that has relatively humble production costs, is fun to play, pleases a wide audience, and that leans on a true-and-tested formula. To the company’s fans, meanwhile, they are a guarantee of good times, for they bring the Mushroom Kingdom gang together to, via colorful graphics and charming visual assets, compete in sports that are made accessible thanks to simple controls that disguise the complexities of the activity in question while maintaining much of their depth intact to those who want to hone their skills to astounding levels.
Due to that, one would be hard-pressed to point out, within that series, a game that would qualify as downright bad. Sports and competitions are just too alluring for the human brain, the characters of the Mario universe are just too lovable for most gamers, and the mechanics of Mario sports titles are just too solid for a true atrocity to be born out of their formula.
Still, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, released for the Nintendo Wii U, put such an astonishing effort into lacking content on all fronts that it might as well have fully qualified for the title of the black sheep of the saga. As such, Mario Tennis Aces, its successor, comes in with a pretty blatant goal: that of restoring dignity to the plumber’s entries into that elite sport. And the path to that target is of an equally clear nature: covering a gameplay that is undeniably fun with two vital assets, meat and new features, to make it not seem like a shameless cash-in that was quickly put together. With that being said, Mario Tennis Aces cannot – by any means – be called a resounding success, because it does not get strong grades in those two categories; nevertheless, it is enjoyable and recommendable either to those who often engage in local multiplayer or to gamers who are willing to tackle the challenge of facing off against strong online rivals.
Out of the pair of areas on which the quality of Mario Tennis Aces mostly relies – that is, the meat and the new gameplay features – the latter is certainly the one that is rated the highest. As it was the case in previous Mario Tennis installments, different actions yield distinct shots: pressing A launches a topspin ball, which drops quickly; pressing B produces a curvy slice; pressing Y sends forth a speedy flat shot; and the X button, combined with the up or down directions of the analog stick, has characters execute – respectively – a lob or a drop.
Furthermore, most of these shots can be charged if the button of their execution is held. It is all incredibly easy to pick up, and within a few minutes of instruction any player – regardless of age and previous experience – is able to start their journey towards learning the value of all swings. Mario Tennis Aces complements that base with some really nice additions of its own, and they play a major role in defining the title’s gameplay as the franchise’s most dynamic, strategic, visually flashy, and thrilling instance.
Mario Tennis Aces has an energy gauge that is filled up either simply by trading shots and engaging in rallies or by using Trick Shots, a risky skill-demanding maneuver that has characters daringly launch themselves towards balls that are seemingly impossible to reach. That stored juice can be employed to unleash a trio of devilish tricks. Firstly, there are Zone Shots; activated by standing on a rotating star that appears on the ground and pressing R, these briefly stop the action and, as characters launch themselves high into the air, they are able to – from a first-person perspective – aim for the point on their rival’s side of the court where they want to uncork a vicious strike. Secondly, there are Special Shots; essentially stronger versions of the Zone Shots, these can only be used when the gauge is completely full. Finally, there is Zone Speed, which slows down time and allows players to produce miraculous eye-popping saves.
The good news is that, differently from what happened with the animations found in the special moves of the GameCube’s Mario Power Tennis, the tricks of Mario Tennis Aces are smoothly integrated into the flow of the matches, and that instead of disrupting it they actually add stunning fireworks to it. These special moves have, moreover, another pair of key ramifications: they give extra depth to the fabric of the game, for mastering them (an achievement that takes time) is absolutely necessary if one wants to truly excel; and they have great strategic value, because while the ball flies around the court players have to consider when the time is right to use them, as their execution consumes energy that could be needed further into the match.
Additionally, when gamers attempt to block the powerful Zone Shots and Special Shots, if the timing of their defense is not flawless, their racket will receive damage (in the case of the former) and break right away (in the case of the latter). Given that players walk into matches with a predetermined number of available rackets and that losing all of them leads to a defeat by knockout, it is also vital to be mindful of the risk that is taken in attempts at blocking these shots as well as of the chances that appear to try to put rivals in a position where they must try to defend the speedy ball.
Mario Tennis Aces, therefore, creates a dynamic environment where competition is simultaneously frantic and mentally demanding. It is a shame, then, that much like Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash – albeit to a much smaller degree – it fumbles so much when it comes to the content it provides. And that issue permeates pretty much all areas that can be found inside its menus. The roster, for example, presented – as of the game’s release – a good number of sixteen characters divided into six classes that play quite differently from one another, therefore suiting a myriad of playing styles.
Sadly, though, all of its hidden characters happen to be locked behind walls that are not related to the clearing of any in-game goals, but to the passing of time. That is, there is nothing one can achieve while playing Mario Tennis Aces that will unlock any new familiar faces to take onto the courts (which would have been quite motivating), as Nintendo has chosen to – instead – slowly release new characters monthly as prizes for the participation in online matches. Besides, as a pet peeve, the initial roster is rather unbalanced, as while the Powerful class has five members, the remaining five categories (All-Around, Defensive, Speedy, Technical, and Tricky) only have two or three representatives.
Yet, where the game’s content suffers the most is in its array of modes, almost all of which have shortcomings that are either absolutely head-scratching or pretty considerable. For starters, in Tournament mode, Mario Tennis Aces only has three cups (Mushroom, Flower, and Star). Taking place on different surfaces, these do not amount to much. Not only are they criminally short, each having three matches whose sets are limited to just two games, but they are also disappointingly easy, not offering any sort of challenge to anyone who has ever played an installment of the series before.
Camelot could have easily added an option to let gamers set the length of the matches and also created new tougher trophies to acquire, especially because the game does offer, in its Free Play mode, the option to configure the skill level of CPU-controlled rivals to truly tough degrees, but the Tournament mode was – for some reason – left completely bare-bones. Aside from the absence of more cups, which had their AI just about ready to go, and adjustable match lengths, the mode is also lacking the option to allow players to tackle doubles tournaments beside a friend or a CPU, which would have significantly boosted the value of the package and offered a neat cooperative gameplay alternative.
An absurd lack of options also rears its ugly head in the Free Play and Swing modes. In both, it is possible to set up friendly singles or doubles matches either against friends (locally and online) or CPU rivals, with the difference being that in the second mode motion controls – which are far from perfect, but that can be fun in small doses – are used. Playing Mario Tennis as a multiplayer game is, as expected, a blast, which makes it a terrible shame that it is, bafflingly, impossible to configure central aspects of the matches.
On what is certainly an unforeseen turn for a tennis title, players cannot determine for how many sets and games their matches will last, having to settle either for a set of two games or for a tiebreaker where the first to six points wins. As another layer of absurdity, the court where the encounter will happen cannot be selected either. All that gamers have power over is choosing if they want the game to randomly pick the court from all three regular stadium surfaces; from the whole set of courts (including those that have hazards); or from a customized set.
Sure, gamers could go into the customized set and disable all options save for the one they want to see picked, but the fact players have to go to such extreme lengths to experience a multiplayer tennis match just the way they want is absurd and speaks volumes about the carelessness with which Camelot handled the development of the content of Mario Tennis Aces. The absence of a simple menu where one gets to point out the court where they wish to play is, quite simply, unforgivable.
The group of courts present in Mario Tennis Aces is quite solid from a perspective of scenario variety, for in addition to the traditional surfaces of clay, grass, and acrylic, it ventures into a forest, a charming snow-covered village, a boat, some ruins, a mansion, and a volcano. Clearly, there is nothing too new when it comes to the Mario universe, but the range of the scenery is pleasant nonetheless. The problem lies in how many of the hazards of the quirky non-stadium courts are more often annoying than fun; thankfully, though, it is possible to select the obstacle-free versions of some of these courts, which are far more enjoyable to play on.
As a worthy attempt to provide more content than its criticized predecessor, Mario Tennis Aces contains an Adventure mode, which will come as a welcome sight to numerous fans who have – since Mario’s golf and tennis Game Boy Advance outings – been claiming for the return of a single-player campaign with RPG elements. In it, Mario must traverse five worlds on an island by clearing tennis-related challenges and gaining experience, which will slightly upgrade his stats as he levels up. Under a positive light, the five-hour quest – though powered by a plot that is sillier than usual, and that has Luigi being possessed by an evil ancient racket – has good variety in its missions, which include: regular matches, battles against enemies that have Mario sending balls back to defeat the bad guys, point-based mini-games, and bosses; and all these levels will not only nicely introduce the game’s shots and mechanics to players, but also test their usage to very precise degrees.
Under a darker light, though, the adventure is marred by a handful of problems. There is a general laziness in presentation, as cutscenes are rare and key plot moments, like Mario acquiring the Power Stones he is looking for or Luigi’s threats while he is aboard a zeppelin that circles over the hero’s head, are assigned to dialogues rather than shown. Furthermore, a few challenges seem to rely too much on luck; spikes in difficulty are not uncommon; a couple of bosses are more anger-inducing than fun, especially because they have to be defeated within a time limit; and a retry button is completely missing in action, which forces players to quit the current mission and sit through all the dialogue once more if they want to restart it, a detail that makes the hardest challenges found in the mode especially frustrating.
Out of all modes of Mario Tennis Aces, the one that is devoid of major issues is also the one in which most gamers will spend the largest slice of the time they dedicate to the game, and that is its online component. Although simple, it is strong and addictive. Whether by choosing to play tennis by the game’s standard rules (that is, with the energy gauge and all moves that depend on it) or to tackle the sport in its real-life format (where there is no gauge or physics-defying trickery), players will enter tournaments whose brackets are assembled on the fly. The game achieves that through a straightforward measure.
Whenever entering a tournament, gamers will be placed on Round One and will be randomly matched against another player that is on the same round; winning the match will cause them to advance to Round Two and, once more, be randomly matched with someone who is on the same round. The process continues until Round Five, which represents the tournament’s final and is the match with the two people left standing among a randomly selected field of thirty-two players. The format is as exciting as it is efficient: stakes and tension get higher as one advances through the rounds; matches are found quickly; lag is rare; controls are responsive; challenge is elevated yet fair; and the format of the duels – one set of two games – is perfect for the online setting.
With a good deal of extra care, Mario Tennis Aces could have easily been the best entry in the franchise’s history. Unfortunately, it is considerably held back by the fact many of its offline modes suffer from issues that are so primary one has to wonder how it was possible for a company as big and quality-focused as Nintendo to overlook them. Therefore, while the gameplay itself is stellar, presenting a perfect mixture of solid basics of the sport that are implemented in simple ways and absurd quirks that add a whole lot of excitement, splendor, and strategy to this world of rackets and courts, the content that surrounds it is, at best, problematic.
As such, the recommendation of Mario Tennis Aces comes with massive caveats. If one is willing to jump into the game’s online mode and soak in all of the thrill and brutality of those courts, or if one wants to enjoy a great – though limited – multiplayer sessions beside great friends, the game has quite a bit to offer despite its hard-to-ignore faults. If one, on the other hand, is looking for a meaty single-player experience that brings equal levels of challenge, value, and enjoyment, Mario Tennis Aces will not satisfy.