Tennis video games are hard. They have to be able to deliver on a wide spectrum of sensations while never letting go of the situation. If you’re kicking ass, you want to feel like it. If you’re losing, it needs to feel dire. And at all times, you have feel like you’re barely composed but always in control.
It’s a fine line to make sure it’s all compelling in vastly different ways. This is, however, where Mario Tennis Aces shines. It is the most accessible yet deep arcade tennis game out there or has been out in a rather long time. Even the simplest act of lining up to return a lob feels like a gambit, one that could lead you to capitalize on poor positioning or you to scrambling to recover from a bad decision.
The majority of the game is rather straightforward. You pick a character, each one with different strengths and weaknesses like literal strength or technical hit or an overly large body mass prime for taking tennis balls straight to the face. And then you serve the ball and proceed to rally back and forth with topspin and curves and drop shots until, well, you don’t.
It’s the particular additions to the formula that make it a remarkable experience. If you read a return properly, you can get into position to charge your shot, making it faster and more powerful, possibly even knocking your opponent out of position. It’s a twist that makes anticipation and gambles—both right and wrong—even more consequential and far more engaging.
And even if you do find yourself out of position, there are trick shots. With a flick of the right stick, you’ll twirl and dive across the court as a last ditch effort to save the game. It’s a great way to keep yourself in the game after a poor return, but it’s also an appropriately sized opener for your opponent to paint the line and get the point. The dynamic is perfectly tuned for exciting gameplay.
This also fuels another fantastic wrinkle. Charge and trick shots fill your power meter, a resource you can expend on some seriously potent hits. If you are on a star when you return, you’ll engage in a Zone Shot, a mechanic that slows time and puts you into a first-person aiming mode to where you can put the ball exactly where you want to with extreme power. Or you can activate a Power Shot with a full power meter, the same as a Zone Shot but usable anywhere on the court.
Or you can use your meter to slow time to return one of these bad boys, but if you have the confidence and skill, you can just time it well enough to block them all on your own. But here’s the kicker: rackets can break. And once you’re out of rackets, you lose by knockout. It’s a fascinating design choice that turns matches into a bit of a fighting game.
With each Zone or Power Shot, you’ll feel like you’re testing your skill Daigo Umehara-style each time you block. And as your racket health and count wears down, you’ll start to consider what points you can give up and what points you can’t. There hasn’t been a competitive experience quite like running on empty, match point on the line, and you have to block a Power Shot. Even talking about it now it getting my heart racing.
And after all this praise, you might be asking where the dichotomy is. Quite simply, it’s everything else in the game that falters. The story, for instance, is just about nonexistent despite there being a narrative the campaign supposedly delivers. In fact, if it weren’t for the notes I took while playing, I wouldn’t be able to even recall much about it except that Mario is in it.
It all stacks on the familiar role-playing trappings of other Mario sports games, but none of it seems to really matter. You collect rackets with different stats, but it’s hard to tell how any of the numbers manifest. The same goes for the attribute numbers you see tick up as you gain experience, levels being apparently the functional equivalent of Boy Scout merit badges.
It’s not just that it’s ineffectual and hollowing and altogether meaningless; it’s that it’s there. Firing up anything besides multiplayer matches is an actively depressing and joyless action. There is one half of the game that is of profound and lasting fun. The other half is a dull, numbing thing would have been better left undone.
That is the dichotomy of Mario Tennis Aces.