Mario Tennis Aces (Nintendo Switch) Review

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Mario Tennis is a series of highs and lows. From the simple yet attractive narrative of its GBA iteration to the abysmal lack of content of the Wii U version, Camelot have been loved and slated by fans eager to enjoy a light-hearted take on the classic sport. After recent years of dwindling interest and mediocre releases, have they done enough to put this franchise back at the top?

Service Ace

Starting the game for the first time, you find yourself in the penultimate moments of a championship, Mario and Peach eager to thwart the combined skills of Bowser and Bowser Jr. The match ending as you might expect, a familiarly unfamiliar duo take centre court to announce their evil ways; enter Wario and Waluigi! Corrupted by a legendary racket, they visit the newly crowned champions, in the end tempting an unwitting Luigi to their dark cause. The stadium in uproar and a few choice whispers to go on, Mario sets out to right the wrongs of this wicked racket with Toad, his witty companion.

The story behind Adventure Mode isn’t necessarily thrilling, you need to gather five power stones and seal the evil of the legendary racket. It all feels rather arbitrary with little really tying the plot together. It’s not to say it doesn’t have moments to shine, these often found in dialogue between Mario and Toad, but these alone aren’t really enough to sell it as any kind of single player experience. If you’re wanting something like Mario Tennis: Power Tour’s RPG-esque feel and narrative, you’ll be left disappointed. Where Power Tour had a world to explore and people to interact with, Aces has an island traversable via a linear path. At each stopping point, you find a new event to remind you just how important tennis is to these people. It’s amusing and entertaining, but limited in scope. Camelot clearly opted to put a focus onto multiplayer aspects, this decision bleeding into the very essence of the game.

Return Ace

Coming into Mario Tennis Aces with around 12 hours of experience from the online demo, I felt relatively confident with the basic shots and had a good feel for the game. Where I struggled was in mastering the newer techniques; among these being Zone Shots and the particulars of blocking them. With Zone Shots, the gameplay is paused for a moment as you aim exactly where you want the ball to go, before launching it at an unparalleled high speed. If you try to hit it too early, your racket will take damage, it ultimately breaking if you mess up too many shots and losing you the match. With their speed and accuracy, they are ordinarily also rather difficult to hit, assuming your opponent aims well enough. To balance this, there is Zone Speed. This allows you to slow the game and watch where the ball is going, giving you the time you need to get to the other side of the court should you need to. Both of these require energy, something obtained by rallying and charging shots to your opponent, serving to reward accurate prediction and positioning on the court throughout the match.

These two additions with the five classic shots alone make for a game of reasonable depth. I’ve come across players who burn through Zone Shots in an attempt to keep you low on energy, and I’ve seen the opposite, conserving to allow them Zone Speed when they need it most. I find it really quite fantastic how well the game allows you to play it your way. It never goes any particular distance in pushing you towards a ‘correct’ style, instead presenting you with options and allowing you to experiment—Adventure Mode is the epitome of this idea. Where I see it disappointing as a single player experience, it stands strong in giving you a playground to learn. It’s specifically aimed to teach you the intricacies of each new element, forcing you to return Zone Shots to understand the visual cues, and pushing you into situations to utilise them yourself. Of course, there are a few more additions; Special Shots and Trick Shots. A Special Shot is simple to explain, it’s the big kahuna. Requiring a full energy bar, you can activate it to see a short character-specific animation. resulting in a similar experience to a Zone Shot. The difference here is that mistiming the return will break your racket entirely, in oppose to just doing damage. It’s a high-stakes shot that can be used to play on an opponents’ weaknesses should you notice them struggle to properly return Zone Shots. A Trick Shot is something a little more fanciful, acting as a means of covering a long distance across the court to return a shot that would have otherwise been impossible. If properly timed, you also gain energy from the shot; otherwise you can lose energy and create an opportunity for your opponent to counterattack.

Adventure Mode gives you a launching pad to learn each of these techniques naturally; be it fighting a boss or playing a short minigame, it’s difficult to avoid improving your fundamentals. It isn’t quite what I expected from the game’s core single player content, but something about its charming simplicity and childish humour had me gripped from start to end. I don’t feel there’s enough here to warrant a purchase if you know you’ll never play with friends nor venture online, but if you can look at it as preparation for either of those possibilities, you’ll get a good deal out of the experience.

Pick a Partner

The core of the game is to be found with others, be they your friends or a match made in the great clouds of Nintendo’s servers. There are a few areas to discuss here, both local and online multiplayer available, as well as split-screen for those willing to share a console. For playing with friends, you’ll usually find yourself in Free Play. This mode allows you to create matches to a set of customisable criteria. Many of the settings here are standard, but the play time option is particularly interesting. With Quick Play and Extended Play being the only selections, there is no way to have a full extended game of tennis with a friend. To elaborate on this, Quick Play sees you play the sudden death portion of a match, meaning the first player to seven points wins. Extended Play is a little deceptive. While you may think you’re getting an exciting game of back and forth wrestling for points and sets, you’re limited to a single set game. It isn’t exactly the definition of extended. While this isn’t necessarily something that bothered me, I can understand frustration in having to keep track of sets manually if an actual extended session was desired. Add to this the inability to set up functional tournaments with friends and it’s easy to be underwhelmed. All of this is possible, as long as you’re willing to pick up the slack left by Camelot. What makes this particularly frustrating is how far a few more options for customisation would have gone in improving this. It’s the kind of irritation I can see being fixed in an update somewhere down the line, but with no word of it yet, it isn’t something I’m expecting in the near future.

General online multiplayer is actually a joy from what I played. From the demo, there’s been a considerable step up in the skill level of players, and the general experience feels far more pleasant. When you hop online, you enter into a tournament. Each tournament consists of 32 players, meaning you need five wins to secure the championship. A small thing I find myself appreciating is how these tournaments are built, matching you up to a player at the same part of the tournament as you and filling in the blank spaces with their match history. This means you aren’t waiting for each of the 16 matches to end in the first round, instead allowing you to jump straight into another game. I don’t know whether this is something that’s been done before, but I couldn’t help but think it worth mentioning. If the new shots and play styles aren’t your thing, you can also enter into the Simple Class; tournaments here removing these features and putting an intense focus on positioning and fundamental shot types. It’s interesting to jump between the two and see just how different the game is without its additions. As a small incentive to get you online, you also unlock new characters for participating each month. These characters will be naturally unlocked over time for those who missed or chose not to participate in a monthly tournament, but I feel this a great way to keep players involved and active, giving them a month head start to play with new additions to the roster and possibly find a new favourite.

Game, Set and Match?

All in all, I don’t quite know how to sum up Mario Tennis Aces. It is undeniably the best tennis I have seen from the series, but I can certainly appreciate its multiplayer focus not being entirely appealing to some. If you’re willing to dive into what’s on offer both offline and on, you have here a well-polished and fluid experience you may not be able to put down. I’m incredibly happy to see the series take a step in the right direction again, and I hope Camelot can take a larger leap into a true single player adventure in their next release. Until then, I hope to see you online!

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