The chief difficulty in translating any physical sport to the half-real experience of video games lies in what is lost. Physical sports require dexterity, the muscle memory to perform necessary actions consistently, and the stamina to keep up with the pace of the game. Their video game adaptations demand the arduous task of fiddling with an analog stick, memorizing the actions associated with a given button, and the stamina to press it. In the case of any tennis adaptation, the question for any developer is how to make a deep and interesting gameplay experience that facilitates player skill growth when stokes, such as the topspin, slice, lob, and drop shot, that can take years to reliably preform are just a button press away. Mario Tennis Aces answer to this, to put simply, is to add more mechanics that could only be implemented in the medium of games to facilitate interesting gameplay choices unique to it alone.
Ignoring it’s additions, Mario Tennis Aces plays like a simplified adaptation of the sport where strokes are a button press away and the ball in motion is clearly visible thanks to the colored speed streaks that tail behind it. Beyond it’s inheritance however lies features unique to it alone. The before mentioned colors that visualize the ball also represents the shot used during the return. If the player fails to match the shot with the appropriate counter it gives their opponent a zone star opportunity at their side of the court. These zone stars tell explicitly where the ball can most easily be returned and when making a return from this location the ball is shot at a higher speed which causes more pushback on the player trying to return it, giving the other player more court control. Hitting the ball from a zone star also fills the player meter more than with regular or charged shots.
It’s this mechanic, the meter, that forms the crux of Mario Tennis Aces gameplay. With it, the player gains access to two moves, one offensive and one defensive. While at the zone star with enough meter the player can perform a zone shot, where they can then aim the ball’s trajectory at a specific point on the court and return it at high speeds. The opposing player may try to return the shot, but unless his timing is impeccable this will likely result in his racket taking damage. A single racket can only take 3 of these shots before breaking and the player is limited in the number of rackets available to them. Once they run out its game, set, match. Fortunately, such a predicament can be alleviated to a degree by making use of zone speed, which slows down the ball making it easier for the player to return a zone shot or reach the ball heading to the other side of their half court. Both maneuvers consume meter, but this can be replenished by maintaining the rally with regular, charged, or the new trick shot. Once a player’s meter fills to the brim, they can preform of a special shot whenever the ball is on their side of the court. These special shots are functionally similar to zone shots but differ in terms of the amount of damage done upon a failed block attempt. Rather than merely damage the racket, a special shot will destroy it out right.
What all these mechanics allow for is the hallmark of any good gameplay experience, interesting choices. Do I maintain the rally safely with regular strokes or go for the risky trick shot to build more meter and give me an advantage? Do I try to block a special or zone shot at the risk of my racquet or let my opponent score so I could then come back with a meter advantage. Such a series of discrete choices is what elevates Mario Tennis Aces from a simplified sports sim to a complex experience further compounded by the quirks of each character on the roster.
The modes available help facilitate the experience even further. There are your standard offerings for such a game: local and online multiplayer, cups varying in cpu difficulty and length. However, the highlight of these modes is the new single-player adventure mode. In a slight riff on the classic marvel infinity war, the titular Mario is tasked with collecting the 5 power stones in order to stop the long-sealed Lucien, a possessed tennis racket, from returning to full power after he takes control of several tennis players, including the classic player 2 Luigi. The story is absurd, but delightfully so. The mere concept of game of tennis being elevated to the position of deciding the fate of the world is infinitely humorous, and the game plays with it in a comedic way. Don’t have a ticket for a ship? Play for entry via tennis. Haunted mansion has you trapped? Grab your racket to solve some puzzles. Etherial horror with the power to control the minds of everyone you know and love threatening just that? Beat him at tennis, that’ll set him straight. And such a comedic yarn is facilitated by engaging challenges. There are of course the expected tennis matches, but also puzzles, rallies, and dexterity challenges that test a player’s knowledge about the games mechanics and their ability to make use of them. In a genre often lacking such offerings, Mario Tennis Aces inclusion of such a mode is a plus.
Mario Tennis Aces isn’t without its blemishes however, some minor and some major. The rpg-esque leveling system the adventure mode implements never really translates into meaningful game feel differences as you progress up the ranks. More damning however is the decision, outside of cpu battles, to have local and online multiplayer be restricted to a best 2 out of 3 games of 1 set format as opposed to the multi-set format of 3, 4, 5, even 6 sets seen in physical tennis. While decision to structure the online multiplayer around the streamlined format to facilitate speedy online matchmaking is understandable, the lack of custom format options for the local multiplayer is baffling. I do stand by the statement that the new additions made in this game give the gameplay experience depth that it would otherwise lack, for tennis aficionados it might appear to be a significant detriment as it prevents the long and hard battles on the court with great comebacks and lengthy mental warfare from appearing a much as it does in real life.
Yet Mario Tennis Aces still succeeds as a sport adaptation despite these flaws. By making tactile additions to the simplified tennis framework, the game delivers an ace gameplay experience that should be enjoyable to anyone who has an inkling to pick it up.
Rating: 4 / 5