Mario Tennis Aces is a return to form for the Mario branded sports games that have been a staple of Nintendo’s consoles since the 90’s. What makes it interesting is that tennis this time around feels like a setting or a theme rather than a true genre; that is, there isn’t as much a focus on the sport itself beyond the rudimentary shot selections, courts and rackets. Instead, Mario Tennis Aces blends a colourful Mario universe with a hard-hitting arcade style of tennis, where special moves and flashy finishers are even more vital than just hitting the ball over the net. It’s a fusion of many things, making it almost incomparable to other tennis games, while still quintessentially keeping the trademark Nintendo style.
The biggest news when the game was initially revealed is the fact that Mario Tennis Aces features a story mode. This makes it more appetising for single players while still bringing the multiplayer fun the Mario sports games are known for. Luigi is kidnapped and it’s up to you to collect the power stones from each region to ultimately save him – using your mad tennis skills, of course.
What follows is an entirely linear trek across a world map, moving from mission to mission. These range from maintaining a rally with an opponent for a certain number of hits, knocking down piranha plants with different shot types and other variations that change the way you have to play. One match against Boo has floating mirrors moving across the net that happen to act as portals, spitting the ball out at you. A tennis match on a ship has a mast dead centre that can be used for tactical rebounds. A busy train station has hundreds of eager commuters sprinting across the court to make their service on time, creating obstacles that have to be factored in.
There is good variety in the styles of matches and unique modifiers that take place, but the “matches with a twist” prove to be far more entertaining and diverse than the different riffs on “hit the target” or “rally the ball”. Mario Tennis Aces also features boss battles that act as gatekeepers in each stage, which use the game’s many different mechanics to provide a good challenge while also offering something that could only be done in this realm. Using power shots to damage large and daunting opponents on a time limit proves to be truly tricky and fun.
This is where my praise of the story mode finishes however, as there is a lack of quality to certain elements that feel like an afterthought instead of a proper implementation. For example, you level up your character as you play, but you get plenty of experience points whether you complete a task successfully or fail it completely. Even then, I didn’t get a sense that I was particularly stronger, even though the game was telling me I was. You can earn different racket types as you progress, but they simply give you more “lives” rather than actual tangible abilities, which feels like a missed opportunity. Reading the dialogue feels tiresome and a lack of a “restart mission” option if you make an early mistake means quitting out and loading back in entirely.
I guess we should be grateful that we have a story mode at all (given most sports games still don’t) but the lack of polish makes it less memorable upon completion with no true incentive to go back and play through it again. All in all, the story mode in a way feels like a large and fully fleshed out tutorial, teaching you all the shot types and preparing you for what will likely be a competitive online tournament scene. And there are definitely specific things worth learning and mastering – again, this is no ordinary tennis game.
“…creating a fun risk versus reward style of play that keeps even the most simple match-ups entertaining.”
Mario Tennis Aces includes some changes from previous iterations. There’s the standard topspin, slice, flat, lob and drop shots that will be familiar to anybody. What’s different here is that you have to charge up a meter as you play to unlock special offensive and defensive abilities. Preempting where a ball will land and charging up your shot is the best way to do this, making it a tactical choice for every single return. Once charged, the options really open up and the game’s true strength shines through.
When stars appear on the court, you can run to them quickly to use a Zone Shot, where you freeze time and aim promptly from the first person perspective to slam a ball into the court. Fill up your charge meter entirely and you can use a character specific finishing move that looks flashy and adds an exclamation point to any long rally. On the flip side, the defensive game here is equally important. You can use your charge to slow down time to a crawl, allowing you to get in position to return a touch shot. If you manage to hit the ball back at the right time, there’s no penalty – but if you get the timing slightly off, your racket takes damage. Take too many of these punishing blows and you’ll be KO’d, losing the game entirely.
The fact that you can actually knock an opponent out adds another layer of depth, making for some interesting choices that must be made. In one match, I had lost the first set and was struggling to get ahead in the second. Thinking that defeat was a real possibility, I decided to focus my energy on attacking my opponent with each shot instead of trying to hit winners past them. I was the winner – but if I’d tried to play more “traditionally”, I would have been sent back in defeat. This almost gives Mario Tennis Aces a fighting game like quality, creating a fun risk versus reward style of play that keeps even the most simple match-ups entertaining.
As mentioned, there is local multiplayer, but the vertical split screen (required for the first person special moves) takes some getting used to if you’ve played any multiplayer tennis games in the past where it’s just the one camera on the court. Swing mode is also included which is the attempt at capturing the Wii Sports magic, using the Joy-Con controllers and their motion control to play. I prefer the regular button setup, just a personal preference, but it’s a smart way to get friends and family involved that would otherwise shy away from such a game.
The tournament mode in Mario Tennis Aces is lacking and pretty quick to play through without much challenge, and I can’t comment on the online play component yet as the servers haven’t been switched on pre-release. I’ll endeavour to update this review once they’re up and running so I can test them, but if the online test at the start of June is anything to go by, competition online could indeed be where the long-term fun is.
The Bottom Line
Mario Tennis Aces captures the style of our much loved hero and the universe he lives in and cleverly incorporates it into the sport itself. The variety in missions in the story mode makes for a fun diversion and a great way to learn the ropes before heading into more competitive match-ups online. I’m impressed with how they’ve taken the sport that I enjoy so much in its regular form and added twists to the formula that make complete sense, creating a sense that every match is a real battle rather than “just a game”. After some lacklustre entries in more recent years, this brings the Mario Tennis franchise right back to the fun place it belongs, which bodes well for future Mario sports titles on the Switch.