Mario Tennis Aces

July 10, 2018
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Tennis is a game about consistency: as much about mental stamina and strategic prowess over pure power. It’s not about the one-off fancy trick shots despite how much the Wimbledon crowds love to cheer them. Mario Tennis Aces says Boo (quite literally) to all that and piles on all the tricks and twists it can muster in the latest installment of the series from developer Camelot. So does this new spin on their established formula work? Jump Dash Roll laces up its tennis shoes and heads to Centre Court to find out.

                                                                         Mario Tennis Aces v Jump Dash Roll
                                                                                                    (0–0)

Old rivals Mario and Donkey Kong go head-to-head.

One glance will tell you this is undoubtedly a Mario game: the screen oozes colour, punchy reds and bright luscious greens abound on court from the characters to the environments. Racket hits are accompanied with a deeply satisfying thwack and the tension ratcheted up on important points with the crowd thumping along as you take your serve, all twinned with rumbles from the Joy-Cons for added immersion. The animation is spot on and finer details buzz with character: Chain Chomp, a new addition in the roster, cutely bounces the ball on his head to serve, Bowser Jr (another newbie) flies around in his ‘copter, oversized punching gloves delicately flicking up at the thumb to launch the ball into the air.

Chain Chomp plays tennis surprisingly well for someone with no arms, just don’t tell their dentist.

The selection of characters range from the usual stalwarts like Yoshi, Peach and Toad to the relative newcomers to the Mario sports games such as Spike, Rozalina and fan-favourite Waluigi. Different characters align with certain classes with the option to choose from Tricky, Speedy, Technical or Power, depending on your prefered play style, Tricky characters like Rosalina and Boo can throw a wicked curveball while Power types like Bowser and Donkey Kong cling to the baseline delivering devastating smashes cross-court.

                                 Mario Tennis Aces scores an early winner with a smash to the back of the court.
                                                                                             (15–0)

Mario Tennis has always been about more than just tennis but the standard shots are still present and correct, with a neat rock, paper, scissors system — Topspin countered by a Slice, a Lob with a Drop Shot and vice-versa — that dictates the effectiveness of each shot. New to Aces however is the Energy Gauge: gain enough Energy from Charge Shots (executed by holding down a standard shot button) and you can pull off a number of special moves. Holding R on a return will engage Zone Speed, slowing down the action so that players can dash cross court and return balls they normally couldn’t reach. Alternatively you can save Energy until it’s a third full and press R on a Star Spot to pull off a Zone Shot. Here the camera switches to first-person allowing the player to aim their swing, either with the gyroscope or thumb pad, into a far corner or go for the more tactical body shot.

Fast decisions are needed for a Zone Shot before your Energy depletes.

There are also Trick Shots which add visual flair and can reach balls out of bounds along with the added bonus of filling the Energy Gauge further if timed correctly. Fill it all the way and you can pull off a Special Shot, a move unique to each character that’s practically unstoppable. Special Shots and Zone Shots can be blocked with help from Zone Speed and a very precise button press. Failure to time it perfectly however and your racket will be damaged, take too many hits and it’s a KO for you.

Zone Speed is crucial to help return Special Shots.

These new ways to play bring a level of strategy to Aces that asks you to make fast decisions on the fly. As a Special Shot hurtles towards you do you risk blocking and losing valuable Energy and possible racket damage, or do you sacrifice the point so you can pull off your own Special Shot later on? If this sounds like a lot to get your head around, it is, and the first few hours of play will be spent in confusion and mild annoyance until you get the timing down; an imprecise press on a Star Spot, for example, can equal an irritating miss.

For the most part the Tricks Shots and Zone Shot err on the right side of risk versus reward, even if the Special Shot can feel close to a cheat since you don’t have to be anywhere near the ball to execute the move. With a screen filled with shiny sparkling action it can look look far removed from a tennis game and much more like a mid-battle Smash Bros match as you watch your foe’s over-the-top Special Shot speed past.

                                              A cheeky trick shot sees Mario Tennis Aces advance its lead.
                                                                                           (30–0)

For the first time since Mario Tennis: Power Tour on the GBA the series has a single-player Adventure Mode. After a brief cutscene (something about power stones and an enchanted racket that’s possessed Luigi — it’s not worth getting into), Mario is off to prove his skills in a series of novelty stages which test techniques like volleying and blocking, one-on-ones and boss battles. The technique stages vary in quality from a fun twist with Hammer Bros outside Bowser's Castle to the downright frustrating with a pirate ship stage featuring a central ship’s mast that renders racking up points in consecutive volleys almost impossible due to random bounces.

Who thought it was a good idea to play tennis on a pirate ship?

It’s one thing to be bested by an NPC but quite another to feel cheated out of a shot because of a mistimed rebound far out of the player’s control. Other stages add in exploding clockwork Koopas which can stun the player or Piranha Plants that swallow the ball and spit them out at whim. What should be fun additions from the Mario universe soon become annoying distractions that slow down the action and get in the way of the actual, well, tennis.

Madame Mirage requires precise blocks and Special Shots to defeat.

The boss battles are the most interesting of the bunch making use of the Special and Trick Shots, pitting the player against the likes of Gooper Blooper and Petey Piranha. It’s a shame the bosses all stick to the same formula, a series of volleys, followed by Tricks Shots to avoid obstacles and then a Zone Shot at an exposed vulnerable area, repeat three times and you’re done. Things never really get too tricky (frustrating novelty levels aside) and veteran Mario Tennis players will breeze through in 6–7 hours. With no extra difficulty level or the option to replay as a different character there’s sadly little incentive to revisit.  

                               An unforced error from Mario Tennis Aces puts Jump Dash Roll on the scoreboard.
                                                                                             (30–15)

Bowser Jr’s defense stats and power make him an obvious choice for Tournaments.

Outside Adventure Mode there are two Tournament options: Online and COM. COM has three cups to win against the computer in matches of increasing difficulty, but bizarrely there is no reward for completing them once the hardest mode is unlocked, nor the need to replay with a different character. The Online Tournament is more promising, boasting the option to play Standard or Simple Mode (without all the fancy moves) in a series of online matches competing for one shiny trophy. New characters are due to be released with each monthly online tournament offering early access for those who compete. A shame, then, that currently the online mode is widely unbalanced with an overpowered Bowser Jr already causing a fuss amongst players. There’s potential here for longevity if the developers can fix the character balance.

                                                           Another fumble and Jump Dash Roll equalises.
                                                                                             (30–30)

A Free Play mode offers more variety and freedom: the option to go head-to-head with up to three friends on one console is welcome, as is the option to play using a single Joy-Con or any combination of controllers. Here the trick shots really shine, pulling off a last minute Block after a friend hits you with a Zone Shot is infinitely more satisfying when you can gloat to their face. The fast and frenetic action that in Adventure Mode interrupts the play becomes a fun, edge-of-your-seat experience of desperate saves and Special Shots. Local Play offers a two-player option with another console if each player wants their own screen and Online Play allows you to team up with someone locally or online for one-off singles and doubles matches.

Two-player is best played with the Switch docked since the split-screen can be hard to read.

Finally, there’s Swing Mode, a throw back to Wii Sports which uses the Joy-Con’s gyroscope controls for timing the swing with movement automated. It works fine and will probably get your Nan up to play, but mostly feels like a late addition that curious players will try once before returning to the more precise action of the Standard Mode.

                      Mario Tennis Aces’ drop shot just falls short and Jump Dash Roll proceeds to Match Point.
                                                                                              (30–40)

Mario Tennis Aces is a tennis game where fun and flair are at the forefront, the Zone Speed and Special Shots may frustrate those who are used to a more streamlined Mario Tennis experience, while a disappointingly shallow Adventure and unbalanced online tournament mode do little to reward the solo player. However, dip into the Free Play mode with a friend, either locally or online, and you’ll find the game at its frantic, fun-filled best.

                                                                           Game, Set, Match to Jump Dash Roll.

7
Not quite an ace, but a respectable new addition to the series, multiplayer mayhem saves a disappointing single-player mode.

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Elizabeth Lovatt

I'm a writer and gamer attempting to point and click my way through life. I've been playing games ever since I stole my brother's Gameboy Pocket and copy of Kirby's Dreamland and refused to give it back. I'll play any game that has an intriguing narrative and I'm still traumatised by the ending of Ocarina of Time.