Capsule Review: Mario Tennis Aces

The Switch installment of a long-running series of tennis games starring Super Mario characters. While the core tennis gameplay is quite solid, as one would expect from a Nintendo title that’s been iterating for several console generations, what little there is on top is a mixed bag and probably not enough to satisfy those who play alone.

As in previous Mario Tennis games, tennis is more arcade-style than simulationist, but features a number of different types of shots - topspin, slice, flat shots, lobs, and drop shots, along with smashes when the situation allows for it. Gameplay is about positioning yourself well to return shots effectively while timing and aiming your returns to put pressure on your opponent. As with the last few Mario Tennis titles, there are some optional extra mechanics on top of this. An energy bar fills as you rally, and the energy can be used offensively or defensively - some energy can be used to turn a return into a powerful “zone shot” that lets you aim precisely in first person or to trigger “zone speed” to slow down time to make it easier to return difficult shots, and a full bar can be spent to trigger a “special shot” that is like a free zone shot regardless of whether you were in position to return the ball at all.

These add a strategic layer to the tennis that’s less overpowered than power shots in previous games and thus adds some flavor without totally taking over the game. But two other additions are more problematic. First is the “trick shot” which also uses some energy but allows you to quickly jump a large distance across the court. The core of tennis is positioning and this significantly undermines it - it’s frustrating to carefully maneuver your opponent to a place where they shouldn’t be able to return your next shot and then watch them do so anyway by trick-shotting across the court. Second, zone shots and special shots can damage or destroy your racket if you don’t return them with perfect timing. A busted racket means you don’t return the ball, and if your limited number of rackets is depleted you immediately lose the entire match - a bizarre failure mode that doesn’t feel like it has anything to do with actual tennis.

While Mario Tennis Aces was advertised as the first installment to have a story mode since the Game Boy Advance’s Mario Tennis: Power Tour, Aces’s Adventure Mode is a far cry from the tennis RPG found in that earlier game (or its Game Boy Color predecessor). It features Mario going through a series of challenges with a thin story about defeating an evil tennis racket. Mario technically does gain experience and level up, but the player has no control over stat allocation so rather than enabling character customization it’s just a grind-based difficulty selector. Additionally, the vast majority of the challenges are not tennis matches but essentially minigames that use tennis mechanics, and even the actual matches feature asymmetrical stage hazards that hurt Mario and help the computer-controlled opponent. While this does add variety, it’s also frequently frustrating and doesn’t help you hone the skills that will be useful in normal tennis matches. My sense is the game would have been better served by instead taking the best handful of challenges and polishing them up into actual side modes and minigames, which Mario Tennis Aces otherwise lacks.

Aside from Adventure Mode, there’s Free Play for up to four local or online players with CPU-controlled opponents or partners available. You can do this as a first-to-seven-points tiebreaker round or a single set of two or six games. Swing Mode allows up to four local players to use joy-cons like Wiimotes in a Wii Sports-like mode with the same length settings. There’s also the ability to play a local tournament - but only as singles matches against CPU-controlled opponents with three difficulty settings (Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, and Star Cup) that don’t go near the game’s top difficulties - I’m not a top-level player but I beat all three of these easily on my first try. Finally, there’s an online tournament mode that lets you play ranked or unranked singles matches against other players to accumulate points for a monthly leaderboard - and in at least the first few months after launch, participating in monthly tournaments grants early access to new playable characters.

That’s it. No minigames, no character creator, no career mode, no actual RPG, no doubles tournaments, no free play longer than a single set, not even the Amiibo functionality from the Wii U’s Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. Aces may well have the most refined tennis gameplay of the entire Mario Tennis series, but it does so much less with it than it could and than its predecessors already have. If you’re interested in the online tournament or you have a group of friends who would play together regularly, you can have a good time with this. For the rest of us, the fun is likely to be over quickly.

I Stopped Playing When: I quickly tired of the game’s limited single-player offering. I got through most of Adventure Mode, finally dropping it at Kamek’s rally challenge. I played a few matches in online tournaments. I cleared all three CPU tournaments. I played a few Free Play matches against the CPU. Senpai-chan and I still have a lot of fun with local multiplayer, but we turn off the extra shot mechanics.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

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