Mario Tennis Aces is the eighth entry in the illustrious series of Nintendo tennis games that started with the dubious Mario’s Tennis on Virtual Boy in 1995, made it big in 2000 with Camelot Software Planning developed Mario Tennis on N64 and then has seen a successor on every Nintendo console since; from GameCube, GBC and GBA to 3DS, Wii and the WiiU.
Unfortunately, the series’ last entry on the WiiU, titled Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, was considered a critical and a commercial disappointment as it compared unfavorably to its predecessors and was considered a bare-bones, lackluster addition to Mario’s sporting adventures.
With the release of Mario Tennis Aces, the developer Camelot Software Planning aims to capitalize on the success of Switch and redeem itself as well as course correct the entire Mario Tennis franchise by delivering another critically and commercially successful title that rights the wrongs of Ultra Smash.
Returning to the arcade fun of traditional Mario Tennis games, Mario Tennis Aces brings back several characters from the Super Mario series and traditional rallying gameplay with additions to mechanics and a new story adventure mode. But is all of that enough to bring the series back to its former glory?
So whereas Ultra Smash was derided for its lack of content and barebones offerings, one of the successes of Mario Tennis Aces is in how it manages to correct that mistake and include slightly more characters, interesting modes, and varied tennis courts.
Mario Tennis Aces starts with introducing players to the Adventure mode. As the primary single player experience, the adventure mode allows players to challenge various characters across different courts and offers a brand new flavor of tennis gameplay, with a variety of missions, boss battles and more.
The main story is a fairly generic narrative about finding Power Stones for stopping a mystical tennis racket. As expected, this story is quite tongue-in-cheek and is merely treated as an excuse to sample and unlock the variety of courts, opponents and challenges that Mario Tennis Aces has to offer.
Progressing through the campaign allows players to collect new rackets and gain EXP to raise Mario’s level to improve his shot speed, run speed and overall agility in the story. However its over-reliance on ramping difficultly through stage hazards and focus moves ups the frustration and hampers the enjoyment of progressing through the 5-8 hour Adventure mode to completion.
One benefit of playing the Adventure mode is that through this campaign the game introduces players to its game mechanics. These not only include the traditional basics of serving and returning through top spin, slice, flat, lob and drop shots but also the new brand new mechanics in Aces that revolve around energy management and zone moves.
The new energy system is actually crucial to the gameplay as it governs all of the special moves in the game and can be used to serve up everything from trick shots to split-second blocks. Players can build up energy through continuing the rally, landing charge shots and pulling off successful trick shots. This fills up the energy gauge, which ends up working like EX/Super meters in fighting games.
Once part of energy gauge is filled, the players can use part of the gauge to perform Trick Shots that allow character to leap after the ball, activate Zone Speed that temporarily slows down time as well as perform Zone Shots that allow player to aim in first-person and perform powerful shots that can break rackets and even KO opponents.
This added element of how and when to build and spend energy, coupled with the traditional back and forth of a tennis game, is not only fun to utilize, but also creates a very fighting game-esque mix of mind-games and execution that utilizes depth of gameplay mechanics to dynamically build tension and add a healthy dose of strategy in the frantic and competitive pace of each match.
Along with the single player Adventure mode, Mario Tennis Aces also includes Free Play, Tournament and Swing modes, all of which can be played using the 14 returning characters including the iconic Mario bros, Princess Peach and Daisy, Donkey Kong, Wario, Bowser, Waluigi, Toad as well as Spike and Chain Chomp, who are 2 brand new characters added to the Mario Tennis franchise.
Free Play is basically the exhibition mode that allows 1-4 players to play with CPU opponents or against each other online or locally, in singles or doubles matches, under limited rules, in 7 different styles of courts featuring variety of ground types ranging from normal hard, clay and grass courts to desert, snow, forest, tile, air ship and haunted house.
The Tournament mode allows players to take on other players online in standard or simple class tournaments, or face CPU opponents for the Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, or Star Cup. Winning the 1st tournament unlocks the next and then the 3rd cup. Each of these Cup tournaments feature different rule sets and are progressively more difficult than the last, however what hurts this mode is the curiously absent ability for players to create a local / offline tournament.
Finally, the Swing mode allows players to play the game using the motion-controls of the Switch Joy-Cons and use the Jon-Con controller like a real racket ala Wii Sports. This method of control is only limited to local play and for good reason. Unlike the tennis game from the 12 year old Wii Sports, the gimmick of motion controlled racket in Mario Tennis Aces is very imprecise in action, as its lack of responsiveness and auto-moving characters makes the Swing mode fall apart far too often to provide much lasting fun.
Whether played in docked or portable mode, Mario Tennis Aces looks great in motion. As with most games based in the Mario universe, the game’s presentation is full of vibrant colours. With a healthy dose of bright red, blue, orange and green, every stage and court feels joyful and bright, and contains interesting new details like 3D modeled spectators, confetti and fireworks as well as dynamic LED banners and background screens showing match broadcast.
The game also features smooth animations, whether it is in movement of characters or application of stage hazards like piranha plants, mirrors and explosive mecha-koopas. Each action from character entrances and win/loss poses to shots and special moves, is animated in a way to add energy and quicken the pace of the action on the court, though several of these animations, like idle poses for returning characters, are repeated from past titles like Ultra Smash.
Similarly returning levels, especially the Hard, Clay and Grass courts in Marina Stadium are straight remixes of Stadium courts from Mario Tennis Ultra Smash on WiiU. Same is the case with characters designs, as with exception of Mario, Luigi, Wario and Waluigi, most of returning characters like Rosalina, Bowser, Boo, Toad, Bowser Jr, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Princess Daisy and Peach do not receive any new costumes or major design changes.
However Mario Tennis Aces does feature much better lighting and textures from Ultra Smash. The game features upgraded glow, shadows, particle effects and reflections that are featured heavily in the flashy special effects for charging, focus moves and trick shots. This also highlights the upgraded textures in character models and arenas, unfortunately there are couple of areas where quality takes a dip, especially areas like Grass Court stages which have textures looking extremely blurry up close.
Online Tournaments promise prizes including unlocking additional characters in the coming months and also feature a month-wise ranking board that includes World, National and Friend-only rankings for win-loss ratio, tournament wins and points accumulated in both Standard and Simple class tournament results.
Despite all this, Mario Tennis Aces is still unable to make up for the barebones showing of its predecessor. While its 16 character roster is slightly better than Ultra Smash, it is still anemic when compared to 20 playable characters from Mario Tennis on N64 and 25 character roster of Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS.
The game is similarly lacking in variety of tournaments, courts and ability to customize amount of games and sets, or even select a specific court in the free-play match. This is very disappointing, especially when compared to its previous-gen counterparts. The old N64, GBC, GBA and 3DS games not only featured far better variety of modes and customization options but also had more robust single player component.
Moreover, even though the mechanics introduced in Mario Tennis Aces are fairly intuitive, they require too many varied and contextual button presses during the heat of the moment to remain accessible for casual play. The focus moves and trick shots affect the outcome of most matches to such an extent that the gameplay can become too focused on gimmicks rather than timing and placing shots.
Unfortunately its over-reliance on gimmicks and lackluster singleplayer content means that Mario Tennis Aces will not appeal to most players who are looking for a solely offline single-player experience. On the other hand, the strength of its core game mechanics are worth experiencing for anyone wanting a fun multiplayer experience in competitive or casual game of arcadey virtual tennis.
Mario Tennis Aces has solid core mechanics that are bolstered by addition of energy management and special moves which add a little more depth and strategy into the fun rallying competition of base tennis without diluting the arcadeyness of the franchise.
With a mix of vibrant colours, fluid animations and peppy music, the game ups pace with its upgrades to the flashiness and effects while still keeping with its traditional Mario asthetics.
Aces features a straightforward light-hearted tale that revolves around an infamous ancient mystic tennis racket. The reliance on this story is mostly kept to a minimum, which only there to contextualize different courts and stage hazards in the Adventure mode.
While the core gameplay in Mario Tennis Aces is solid and it is immensely fun to battle on the court with new Zone mechanics, the game still disappoints in the amount of customizable options and content it offers as compared to its predecessors.
Mario Tennis Aces has a solid base and really fun game mechanics but the overall package is plagued by lack of variety and customization which keeps it from being a true all-rounder like the classic Mario Tennis games of the past.