Mario Tennis Aces review
As a series, Mario Tennis is dear to my heart. In the early days of home consoles, the vast majority of multiplayer games were versus only, and few let you and a buddy take on the computer AI together. For my best friend and me, Mario Tennis was a welcomed change of pace. The two of us sweating it out against the computer either on the tennis court or on a kart in Double-Dash are some of my favorite gaming memories even to this day. So, like all good things over time, I obviously went into Mario Tennis Aces expecting the worst—that the magic was used up after so many similar entries and that an end must be in sight. Thankfully, I was so very wrong.
Mario Tennis Aces begins with a tutorial before even letting you get to the main menu, and it continues to throw them at you for the vast majority of Adventure Mode, which is the new playable storyline. For veterans of the series, it may seem a little hand-hold-y, but trust me when I say that every second of learning both the game of tennis and the new mechanics of Aces is well-spent. On top of the typical back-and-forth volley that takes place in tennis, Aces has introduced new, almost fighting game-esque, special moves that allow the game to be exaggerated over its real-life counterpart. There’s now an Energy Gauge that floats at the top of the screen in Standard mode and it allows players to use basically super powers to score points. You build energy through rallying the ball back and forth and using Charge Shots, which give your shots a little extra power by pressing a shot button very early before the ball reaches you. Once you have some energy, the real fun begins.
The first of these new moves you learn is called a Zone Shot, which is done by standing inside of a star icon that appears on your side of the court when you have enough energy to spend. You can press the right bumper and it will launch you into the air, where you’ll be presented with a reticle and a short amount of time to aim and press any shot button to launch a high-speed attack at your opponent. You can aim at an area they can’t possibly reach or right at their faces, with both options being likely to score. However, despite the speed and ridiculous impact of this move, these CAN be blocked—at a very high risk. If you miss the timing for the block, you can damage your racket, which if completely broken can cause a KO and an instant loss for you. Yeah, you read that right, INSTANT LOSS. This is easily the worst of the new features.
Another super move is Zone Speed, which is basically “bullet time” or slow-mo that allows you to press and hold the right bumper to catch up to an opponent’s shot that’s too far away. Mostly, you’ll never use it for that reason, but instead you’ll use it for blocking Zone Shots from your opponent. In the heat of a match, it’s almost impossible to block a Zone Shot without using Zone Speed, because it’s so fast, and honestly even slowed down it’s still extremely hard to block at exactly the right time. If you miss the timing by even a little, your racket takes damage and you inch ever closer to that frightening KO. Just like Zone Shots, Zone Speed uses up energy, so it’s imperative to maintain the ebb and flow of the game with steady volleys and frugal energy use to counter anything your opponent might throw your way.
Trick Shots are my favorite new addition and they have some of the coolest and silliest animations you’ll see in the whole game. By either flicking the right analog in a direction or pressing the X button plus a direction, you can send your character into a slow-mo action dive, dance, or slide that can save an otherwise unreachable ball from landing a score on you. These are super fun to watch and they feel really rewarding to pull off, but they are incredibly risky. Each character has their own unique Trick Shot that has its own specific movement pattern and landing a successful Trick Shot will hype up the crowd and grant you more energy. However, over- and undershooting Trick Shots is very easy to do, and if you miss then it will eat up your energy instead.
Finally, the most ridiculous over-the-top new feature is the Special Shot. This is a move that can only be done when your Energy Gauge is full and you press the left bumper. Your character will do their own unique super animation and return literally any shot coming your way no matter where you are. You’ll see the animation and then be presented with the aiming reticle again just like the Zone Shot, which it essentially is, but with way more power. Misjudging the block time for one of these is an automatic racket break and a KO win for the opponent. If both you and your opponent have your energy meters full, it’s usually best to wait until they either lose energy or activate their Special Shot first as you can return the favor if you press yours in time just after. You won’t encounter this one often, as it’s typically best to save energy for all the other types of moves, but if you do see it, the best advice I can give you is to just let it go through instead of risking the KO.
Outside of these new features, the classic controls with the basic types of tennis shots return with numerous ways to practice them all. There’s even a Simple Mode that removes all the new features and returns it to a basic bout of tennis, so if it all seems too complicated, you have options both on and offline to customize in the Rules section any time you want. You can even turn off KO’s completely. Doubles is also available for those (like me) who enjoy a good co-op now and again, and you can face off against the computer or online opponents.
There are a lot of familiar faces returning to the series with updated modern tennis outfits, and there are some exciting newcomers to the roster as well. Some of these new additions are characters nobody saw coming, like Mario’s basic baddies the Chain Chomp and Spike. You start off with all but 3 characters already unlocked and each of them is a unique type, just like the old games in the series. Each type specializes in a specific style of play, like Powerful or Speedy, but all of them succeed at the basics of tennis. In fact, I would argue that none of them are particularly “better” than the others and that 99% of the game is actually attention to positioning and the types of shots you’re presented with. There’s a viable strategy and play style for every player’s favorite character and that’s something I’ve always admired about the balance of the series from its beginning.
Also new this time around, players get to embark on a crazy tennis adventure with an all new story mode focused around an evil tennis racket that possesses Wario, Waluigi, and Luigi. This mode is very different from what you can expect from just regular matches: it presents an overhead RPG world map, obstacles, bosses, and many other stage hazards that you’ll only encounter here. Adventure Mode challenges players to use the game mechanics to do things other than just volley or return serves and at times that departure can be incredibly frustrating. The KO mechanic in particular is hard to get around, as bosses and even basic enemies on the court can cause you to lose a stage. There’s also an RPG-styled leveling system that exists only for that mode in order to grow your racket strength and basic tennis stats, but it’s tedious and feels unnecessary. Sadly, this slog is the only way to unlock new courts to play on, but even so, I’ll be surprised if many players make it past the first five before giving up and returning to the regular modes.
There are quite a few ways to play against opponents online and every mode of play is readily available upon startup. The Free Play option is the best for setting the rules you want or finding other players who are interested in the same type of play that you are. Matchmaking was very quick on my end and very rarely did I see lag, but when I did, as you’d expect in a movement focused game, it was practically unplayable. Luckily, most connections were solid and my matches in Singles and Doubles went several rounds without any issues. You can create your own lobby or find one based on what you’re interested in, or you can enter a tournament to earn points. Tournaments are held for both Standard (new moves) and Simple (no new moves), and work in a bracket format. Each win and loss is saved and your points earned for each match are ranked. Starting July 1, 2018, you can compete for rankings to earn early access to additional characters each month it’s available with the first character being Koopa Troopa.
Mario Tennis Aces offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to how you want to play, in terms of both the modes of play and the controller methods in which you play them. I played with the Pro Controller, the Joy-Cons in the Joy-Con Comfort Grip, and the Joy-Cons by themselves in Swing Mode, and this last method was one of the worst experiences I’ve had with the tech. The Joy-Con controllers have impressed me with their motion controls and HD Rumble technology for many recent games, but I have to say that Aces is sadly not one of them. The slightest movements are registered as a full swing, so my character was constantly trying to do a Charge Shot every time the ball was returned—even if it was a million miles away. Actually hitting the ball is based on a micro-movement instead of a full swing like you might think, but even a simple flick of the wrist sent the ball into the stands. There’s a goofy game in Swing Mode with a larger ball that floats like a beach ball, but even that felt imprecise and frustrating. Movement was still controlled by the analog on the controller, but the computer would auto-position the characters to a degree in response to the opponent’s movements in real time. It was hard to tell if I should bother moving or not, and when I did it seemed like the slight instability of me pushing on the analog would cause it to register a swing. Luckily, the other controllers work just fine with the new Switch Gamecube controllers on the way.
Overall, Mario Tennis Aces offers plenty of new excitement, despite a few minor hiccups, while maintaining what longtime fans of the series have enjoyed. It’s easy to get into, easy to learn, and fun to play over and over again with friends locally and online without much hassle at all. And it’s portable. So that’s a huge win too.