By Mike O’Brien | ★★★★✰
I have always admired Nintendo’s philosophy towards multiplayer. Save for a few minor missteps – I’m looking at you, Brawl – Nintendo is king when it comes to perfecting the delicate duality of games that your nan can pick up, whilst somehow allowing plenty of legroom for advanced play. I’m pleased to announce that the same is true of Mario Tennis Aces.
I daresay it’s much truer than I could have anticipated. Hailing from the long combative dynasty that is the Super Smash Bros scene, I know a thing or two about the shocking ceiling of competition that Nintendo games are able to achieve. Mario Tennis Aces belongs in its own league of deceptive intensity. Slapstick as it may be, Smash’s violence is at the very least confrontational by nature, meaning a degree of intensity and competition is to be expected. ‘But how fierce could Mario Tennis be?’ I mused, firing up the game’s online mode, greeted by Nintendo’s famously cheerful and inoffensive mascots. Then a tournament bracket appeared, and my underestimations became immediately apparent. Things between me and this Yoshi player who dared to challenge my path to grand finals were about to get very personal.
I learned very quickly that the tennis court is a battlefield. In most other competitive games, there are breathing periods. In Rocket League, the ball and its famed floatiness gives players time to assume a position whilst trying to read the opponent’s movement. In Street Fighter, you might be playing a zoning character who commands the slower skillset of patience and space control. In Mario Tennis Aces, there is no such respite. That ball goes back and forth with terrifying grace until one of you cracks, no exceptions – and your characters don’t get tired, either. This is exclusively a battle of wits. When you see that ball coming, and you charge up the most powerful topspin you can muster from the back of the court, only to be assaulted with the realisation that the cute Yoshi you’re playing against has utterly bamboozled you with a drop shot, you will understand real shame. In most other circumstances, seeing Yoshi in any kind of distress would be an unsettling experience. But when I scored that final point and saw Yoshi fall flat on his bottom with a heartbreaking frown, I savoured nothing more than his little crushed eyes. My only regret is that he didn’t cry delicious tears.
This intensity is heated by the game’s accessible yet compelling intricacy. The player has five shot types at their disposal, each with their own situational utility to control space in some way or another. Slices are slow and easily returned, but they buy you some time to gain ground. Flats hit hard and fast: against a poorly positioned opponent, this can force a weak return to give you an even stronger hit, or win a point altogether. Topsins on the other hand travel a little slower but offer a much wider angle, making them a fantastic tool for displacement, whilst lobs and drop shots force your opponent up and down the court. Consider that each of these shots (barring lobs and drops) can be double-tapped to increase their strength at the expense of a narrower angle, and the amount of mixups in this game can make it very difficult to keep centre-court.
It doesn’t end there either. Mario Tennis Aces spits in the eye of Virtua Tennis and its puny ‘realism’, exchanging physical limitations for special powers. (If that’s not your cup of tea, don’t panic: you can play offline and online without these mechanics ‘simple mode’ which puts your raw tennis skills to the test). Every character in this game has an energy meter which can be used in three different ways. Offensively, if you have enough energy, you can position yourself where the ball is due to bounce and return with a ‘zone shot’ which allows you to freeze time and snipe your return at top speed. If your opponent mistimes their return on this one, their racket takes damage. Build up your energy meter completely and you’ll get access to a ‘special shot’, which is a zone shot that can not only be triggered from anywhere on the court, but threatens to destroy your opponent’s racket in one go if they botch the return. Tournament matches only give you two rackets, so it only takes two mistimed returns against special shots to throw it away.
If you’re anything like me, these tools can seem a little overbearing at first – but there are defensive applications of meter to save your hide. ‘Zone speed’ burns meter to slow down time, giving you room to react if your opponent has you on the ropes. Similarly, the ‘trick shot’ mechanic keeps the game limber and exciting, allowing players to flip and fly (Waluigi can moonwalk) across the court to catch a stray ball. Time these right and you’ll find yourself making otherwise impossible returns, all whilst building up meter. But there’s a price – time one of these late and you’ll lose meter. Mess up the timing with no meter at all and you’ll return with a pathetic and extremely slow lob that will put you in a seriously bad spot for the rest of that point. They also require a fair bit of commitment, meaning that if you incorrectly reckon you’ve got your opponent sussed out, you’ll do a smug dive across the stage only to land flatly – albeit spectacularly – on your hind quarters. Emotionally and logistically, it’s only downhill from there.
The characters each have their own little unique quirks too. This can manifest itself in basic stats – Mario can move more quickly than Donkey Kong for instance – but some of them have unique abilities altogether. Rosalina can move at a faster speed whilst charging her shots than other characters, whilst Boo has all sorts of tricky curves at his disposal. The courts even change the properties of some shots; sand courts make for weaker bounces, strengthening drop shots as an option, for instance. Kudos to Nintendo – for a game so easy to get into, it is superbly dynamic.
There’s not much Mario Tennis Aces doesn’t get right. It’s visually spectacular, with a good comparison being Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Mechanically speaking, I don’t think there’s much argument against Aces being considered the best in the Mario Tennis series. Online play is a highlight, and not just because the netplay is consistently decent. The tournament structure of online play gives a fantastic sense of progression and competition that watching a big number increase on a basic ‘ranked’ mode could never provide.
That said, there are some areas where Nintendo could have done better. The singleplayer, whilst clearly not the meat of the game, is a little dry. It serves as an adequate introduction to the game’s mechanics, but anyone looking for a full-fledged single-player experience may be left unsatisfied. The unlockable stages are certainly worth it if you’re after more of a party experience, but the point remains that if you’re buying this game, ensure you’re buying it to play against others.
Some other elements of Mario Tennis Aces are rather confusing. In online play, you receive a rating which increases or decreases based on performance. One might fairly assume such ratings would determine matchmaking, but as far as I can tell, it’s completely random. I’ve had multiple occasions where I’ve matched with top 100 worldwide players, only to face a first-time player afterwards. The rank isn’t even the primary factor in leaderboard placings – instead players are ranked by their total points gained, which if anything is a measure of playtime rather than skill or consistency. The tournament system is fun and I have no grievances with it, but matchmaking needs improvement and ranks need purpose.
To offer more broad criticism, the game feels a little threadbare in general. Whilst that’s being addressed somewhat with a handful of upcoming characters, I imagine it will take more than that to keep most players hooked. Perhaps some unlockable skins and taunts might entice those looking for more tangible rewards, but as of right now, if you’re playing online, there’s only pride to win – and I can see that being alienating for players who aren’t quite as good.
The final criticism I’d make of Mario Tennis Aces is that its ‘swing mode’, where players use motion controls to serve and swing, is awfully wonky. This I’m sure comes as traumatic news to people looking for an evolution on the biggest eSport of all time, Wii Sports. You might not find that here – but what you will find is the finest tennis gameplay on the market. Mario Tennis Aces, for its handful of shortcomings, feels phenomenal to play and fits right at home on the Nintendo Switch. Lightning fast load times, the ability to play multiplayer with single JoyCons, and accessible yet dynamic gameplay make this game an instant favourite. All the competitive stuff might sound scary, but trust me – bust this out with some of your casual friends, and heavy words will be lightly thrown indeed.