With its Wii U predecessor's not so stellar reception, it's rather surprising that Nintendo still opted to push another Mario Tennis title on its newest console. Mario Tennis Aces, as the name implies, is a Tennis game set in the Marioverse, where players can use and fight against their favorite Mario characters in a not-so-friendly game of Tennis. Don't let the moniker fool you, as Mario Tennis Aces is more than just rallying the ball back and forth until someone misses.
At its core, Aces share more similarities with a fighting game than the sport it's drawing inspiration from. Playing a match, whether online or locally with a friend can result in some interesting and very heated sets of attacking and defending. With a good lineup of characters, the game exercises tight meter management, a series of special attacks, fast-paced maneuvering, and a gratuitous amount of 'Yomi,' all under the guise of this famous sport. It's a bit akin to professional wrestling in a sense, where Tennis is shown as the ultimate deciding factor and solution to all quarrels and problems. I'm not sure how they managed to make it work, granted that our favorite plumber has been through tons of adventures under a different medium, but it just feels stupidly right in its own way.
Playing Matches in Mario Tennis Aces gives me the same amount of jitters and adrenaline normally found in a fast paced fighting game. The hustle and bustle of a Tennis court set in the Marioverse, while lighthearted in theory, can get excruciatingly tense as you try and predict shot arcs, rally an almost impossible shot, and keep a watchful eye on your opponent's position at all times. It's amazing how much they squeezed out of its relatively simple premise, with characters that vary in strength and playstyle offering more depth to its already deep set of mechanics. I simply can't count the amount of times I've stopped to recollect and rethink both my strategies and muscle memory reactions prior to a loss, analyzing the weaknesses of both my opponent's character as well as his or her playstyle.
There's more to to this game of Tennis than what's seen on the spectator's bench. For one, the game retains various ways to rally the ball, with each button corresponding to a different way of affecting the ball's trajectory indicated by the color of the ball's trail upon contact. Using the right shots to return your opponent's volley also lessens the strain on your racket, as well as prevent you from being pushed back after blocking a charged shot.
As stated earlier, the game has a very distinct way of getting players to manage their energy meter, which is filled by rallying with fully charged shots or successfully landing a frame perfect trick shot. The game seems to have a knack for rewarding precision, which was a tad surprising given its almost innocent and child-friendly setting. The meter stored is then spent on a variety of special moves that can influence the outcome of each match. Such skills involve the Zone Shot, which lets you aim at a specific area and smash the ball towards it; Zone Speed, which lets players slow down time including the ball's trajectory to have ample time to rally it back; and the Special Shot, which serves as your character's signature move and is powerful enough to potentially break your opponent's racket. Break all of your opponent's reserves and you've successfully KO'd them. Hah! And you wonder why people consider this a fighting game.
Those new to the franchise, or the ones who don't want to head straight to online multiplayer, can indulge themselves in the game's Single Player mode. Similar to other Mario titles, levels are segregated into board game-like tiles that unlocks the next path upon completion. It's really silly having everyone in the Mario Universe be so moved by a game of Tennis, especially when it concerns matters that are of grave importance to them. Mario Tennis Aces' levels hold a certain depth to them, almost like a puzzle that must be addressed by either rallying the ball or lining up shots to hit a boss' weak points. These challenges became harder and harder as I pressed on, until such a time where I found myself on the verge of emptying my curse vocabulary out of sheer frustration. The boss mechanics made good use of the game's system as well, leaving much for the player to figure out as they progress further and face bigger and harder foes. This includes leaping over projectiles with the trick shot and using the environment to your advantage. Other than the initial experience, the single player mode doesn't leave much after it's been beaten, which means that the game's lifespan will no doubt be centered on multiplayer soon after completing the campaign.
Despite the game's core gameplay being addictively fun, it's not without its shortcomings, specifically on the matchmaking side of its online multiplayer. Due to the lack of ranks, the game does poorly in matching you with people of the same skill, which may be a problem for those who are just starting the game with little to no knowledge of its system. I guess it can be somewhat similar to entering the arcade with your home-dojo skills waiting to be crushed by the bigger fish who will just either deter you from playing or inspire you to study harder and fight better. It's not that terrible in practice, but some incentive to keep fighting would have been better.
The tournament mode also doesn't leave much to be discussed, only offering a bracketed tournament that's mostly just filler if not for the free characters it offers during the season. Be sure to at least try it once to get whatever goodies it's tied to at the moment.
Lastly, we have the swing mode, which makes use of the Joy Con's gyro controls, giving players a more casual Wii sports feel. At first I was skeptical as to why it warranted its own mode, but five minutes in and I was already looking to go back to the traditional pad controls. Unfortunately, the game's motion sensing felt clunky and barely responded to most of my swings. It's as though the game has a specific way of triggering swings properly, at times mistaking your minor adjustments as actual slices. To a degree, Mario Tennis Aces' Swing mode is less responsive compared to something as old as Wii Sports Tennis, which is a shame given that it's a much older title.
Those looking for a more bare-bones version of the game can also play in simple mode, which removes the lot of its over the top standard gameplay, mostly focusing on the key fundamentals of Tennis as possible.
Mario Tennis Aces has really come a long way since its Wii U installment, offering a hefty amount of system changes that really owns the game I've mostly perceived as a cheap spin-off consisting of Mario and 'insert sport.' It succeeds in giving it that much needed identity as its own game and not just something that's Mario by name. No longer do I see it as just a Tennis game with Mario characters but rather a distinct versus game with a lineup of unique characters, each with their own depth and character-specific strategies, all contained by the chosen sport's fundamental ball rallying. Tennis is a very tricky sport to add these unique mechanics to, and having these individuals bring out their unique skills, whether it'd be Toadette's double jump trick shot to Bowser's heavier finesse, just offers the user with so much to experiment with. It really is a fighting game at its core.
Learning Curve: 7/10
In support of its fighting game comparison, Mario Tennis Aces' skill floor is pretty decent. Any new player would have been well versed in the game's mechanics upon finishing the first few levels of its adventure mode. The tide, however, turns drastically upon fighting online, where most of the game's lifespan and actual competition takes place.
The graphics have been bumped a bit over its Wii U predecessor with a somewhat higher resolution. The game looks very colorful and dazzling at best, with visuals befitting a game set in the Marioverse. Visually, this is perhaps the best the cast has ever looked, thanks to the Switch's better capability over its predecessor. Trick shots are very stylish to pull off, adding up to the game's visual flair, but it's the Special shots that takes the cake in style. Think of it as Super start-up animations in modern fighting games, where your chosen character lines a shot up with utmost spectacle before proceeding
The music was top notch and greatly elevated the competitive nature of the game. I'd say the tunes included are apt for the action taking place on your screen. Aside from that, the sound of the ball coming into contact with your racket was so satisfying, it often haunts me even after I turn off the Switch, yanking me to power up the console for one more match.
The Nintendo Premium has always been a topic I'm of two minds about. Most would feel that $59.99 is a steep price for a spinoff game that even I still consider as a stopgap for when the rest of their games come this year. After finishing its not-so-lengthy single player campaign, it was then when I realized where this game's lifespan was headed, and that's through online multiplayer. The lack of ranks and such also offers little incentive to do so, which means you'll most likely just keep getting into competitive friendly bouts for the fun of it.
With that said, those who are on the fence about whether it's good or not may not get their money's worth. The game doesn't offer anything new once you've finished the single player campaign outside better players you'll potentially meet as you queue for more matches. Those who are looking for something to play with friends locally, be it 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 matches won't be disappointed by the amount of fun that can be had in this game.
Although a bit pricier than most games and valued as much as other more deserving AAA titles, I really enjoyed what Mario Tennis Aces offers, though the not so 'die hard' fans would be better off waiting for it to go on sale.
Overall, my time with Mario Tennis Aces has been a blast. Its new found depth and sense of precision really adds up to its identity among the sea of Tennis games, helping it distance itself from just being a Cartoony rendition of the sport for kids. Tennis games are very few and far between releases, and it's only now that I am feeling Nintendo's willingness to step up and seek a proper future for this spin-off. I'm still disappointed with the online system, as ranks and such are already basic incentives in most multiplayer games as of today. Heck, even Mario Kart has something that signifies a player's experience.
Other than the basic fundamentals of its standard mode, the different courts also added to the game's enjoyment, with some over-the-top changes such as piranha plants eating and redirecting the ball and shy guys blocking your shots. I know it's all bollocks in a real game of Tennis, but keep in mind that realism isn't exactly what I'd want in a game consisting of heroic plumbers who can break bricks with their heads. Being paced faster than its predecessors also factors in to the game's competitive appeal.
I have to admit, I was on the fence about even buying this game at the start, as I really did see it as nothing more than a stopgap for their much awaited winter releases; however, my time spent with Mario Tennis Aces has been very enjoyable thus far. Although $59.99 is a bit steep for something like it, the game brims with personality, and judging it via the shortcomings of Ultra Smash simply doesn't do it justice. Despite the positives, the Nintendo premium may not be worth it, and though I'd instantly recommend it to other Nintendo fans, having little to no single-player replayability and the game being tied to a multiplayer mode that leaves little to work for (outside skill) hurts its value by a huge margin, especially with the lineup of already announced titles coming later this year. Those who aren't too invested may want to wait it out.
Deep and engaging mechanics
Flashy special moves and trick shots
The game looks gorgeous
The game offers little to work for in Multiplayer
Bad single player replayability
Some balance issues
Swing mode feels pointless given the terrible motion detection