Mario Tennis: Aces
Release Date: 22 June 2018
Price: $59.99 / £49.99
Reviewed by Phil Myth
The Mario Tennis franchise is one that's hit a few too many double faults in recent times. The original titles combined solid core tennis with gripping RPG mechanics and plenty of interesting mini games, but the franchise has been watered down far too much in subsequent releases. Mario Tennis Aces looks to arrest that decline and whilst its baseline game is strong, too many unforced errors prevent it from returning to former glories.
Unlike the Wii U's Mario Tennis Ultra Smash, Aces does have a dedicated single player mode. Upon starting the game you're thrown immediately into a tale of intrigue as a mysterious power shows up accompanied by Wario and Waluigi, whisking Luigi off to lord knows where. Mario, accompanied by Toad, then sets off to rescue his brother using nothing but his tennis skills. It's a hilariously daft premise, set off nicely by some typically amusing dialogue from Toad.
As you travel across the island, tracking down the necessary items to rescue Luigi, you take part in numerous tennis matches, mini games and boss fights. There's a decent variety of challenges on show too. From tennis matches on storm-ravaged boats to knocking out Shy Guys with snowballs, it's all wonderfully weird and wonderfully Nintendo.
That said, you shouldn't have too much difficulty beating the game, including clearing every stage and unlocking every racket, in under half a dozen hours. It's a fun time, but not an overly challenging one, so you'll be feeling satisfied if not particularly accomplished by the time the credits roll.
The ghost of Mario Tennis' RPG past does make an appearance in the form of experience and levelling up. Completing stages will earn you EXP, and even failure will reward you with a minor boost. Similarly, your stats will be improved when you go up a level too. Weirdly though, this is done automatically - there's no way to tailor your stats towards speed over power for example - so the whole thing just seems like a giant waste of time. If you're half decent, you won't need to spend any time at all grinding in order to progress, the difficulty curving in tandem with your natural growth as a player.
It's a shame because it would have added a lot more depth to the adventure mode, and a lot more replayability. There's no way to play through as a different character, so going back and developing Mario into a slow but powerful baseline hitter, or a weaker but more nimble player, instead of his usual solid all-rounder would've made for some new challenges. As it stands, whilst the varied games are fun, there's nothing compelling you to play them again once you've beaten it.
This lack of depth underneath a pleasant surface is evident in the presentation of Adventure Mode too. As you move from point to point on the map, you're greeted with a conversation between Toad and whichever inhabitant of the island is occupying that space. This conversation takes place superimposed on the world map though, not during a cutscene like you might expect. It's a real shame that the funny writing isn't complemented a couple of visual gags, and characters reacting with shock to something that isn't on screen just looks odd and ruins the fun of it all.
This problem also shows up at key points during your adventure. Defeating a boss and recovering a power stone results in the animation of a chest being opened... but no stone. Similarly when you unlock a new racket all you get is a 'racket unlocked' messaged. No cool animation, not even so much as a fist pump and a 'wahoo' from Mario. It's utterly uncharacteristic of a Nintendo game to lack these little touches.
Fortunately, a decent level of polish is present in the other single player mode: tournaments. Matches are introduced, commentated on, and analysed by a pair of Toads, really bringing the games to life and adding to the sense of occasion. You genuinely feel like you're competing in the Mushroom Kingdom's version of Wimbledon, even if you will breeze through the three cups on offer like Serena Williams taking on a 6 year old.
On the court and the action is just as impressive. Whether hitting flattened, sliced, or top-spin shots, every stroke feels great to pull off. Lob and drop shots add great tactical choices to your arsenal too, and overall the core tennis underneath everything is as impressive and as polished as it's always been.
The gimmick this time is the Zone mechanics. Unlike the mushrooms that utterly ruined matches in Ultra Smash, the combination of Zone Speed, Zone Shots, Trick Shots and Special Shots are brilliantly implemented and add an extra level of tactics to every bout.
By pulling off charged shots you build a meter, which can then be utilised to slow down time and chase down seemingly out-of-reach plays from your opponent (Zone Speed), pause time and aim a powerful stroke beyond your opponents reach (Zone Shots), or you can build your meter up completely to unleash a Special Shot from anywhere on the court at an almighty pace.
On first glance these mechanics look like they'd ruin the finely balanced to and fro of traditional tennis, but learning when to use Zone Speed to return a ferocious Special Shot can help you turn around even the most hopeless of matches. Mistiming a return of these charged shots can damage or even break your racket. Run out of rackets and you lose the match, regardless of whether you're currently winning or not. It's an interesting dilemma to find yourself in; risk the return and potentially lose the match outright, or concede the point and hope you fare better in the next set.
Taking the matches online will be where Mario Tennis Aces either lives or dies. You've got a choice of the standard matches or simple rules games (without all the slow-mo, racket breaking stuff) but that's about as far as your input goes. The online tournaments are only single set, best of three games affairs, and there's no one off ranked matches to speak of at all. In fact, if you just want a single game of tennis, you're restricted to tiebreakers and that's it.
This infuriating lack of match customisation is sadly present offline too. Truncated matches online can be explained away by not wanting to run the risk of connection issues upsetting a finely poised contest. But to not have the option for a 6 game, 5 set marathon offline with friends or against the computer is utterly unforgivable.
The courts offer an interesting variety in ball speed and bounce (as well as optional hazards on certain stages), though it's bizarre that rather than choosing which court to compete on, you have to deselect the ones you don't.
The roster is impressive though, with left field inclusions like Chain Chomp and Spike adding some much-needed variety to the competitors in Mario sports titles. The different classes stand apart from one another well too, meaning you'll have to adapt your game if you're going to be equally successful against the likes of Bowser who can hit incredibly powerful shots, or Boo who can put a wicked curve on his slices.
Mario Tennis Aces starts strongly, with a powerful serving of rock-solid core tennis, cleverly implemented new mechanics, and a fun - if short - Adventure Mode. But the appalling absence of match customisation, an incredibly uncharacteristic lack of polish in some areas, and very little content to bring you back to the table after you've tried everything once, means that Aces sadly fails to capitalise on its baseline ingredients.
Pros & Cons
+ Superb tennis gameplay
+ Fun and interesting Zone mechanics
+ Diverse and balanced roster
- Shallow if fun Adventure Mode
- Atrocious lack of match options
- Missing polish in some places