Batting a ball back and forth is one of the oldest concepts in video games, dating back to the days of William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two oscilloscope experiments in the ‘50s. In the decades since, countless games have refined the idea of what virtual tennis can be, from as-faithful-as-possible recreations of the real sport to ultra-accessible, over-the-top arcade-inspired battles of reflex and positioning.
Like previous Mario Tennis games, Mario Tennis Aces sits far on the side of the over-the-top accessibility side of the equation. Simple controls and an ultra-forgiving hit positioning system make it easy enough for even complete gaming neophytes to get into a quick game. But Aces also adds a bit more depth to the series, introducing a new power meter system that adds a new layer of psychological brinksmanship to the proceedings.
At its most heated moments, Aces starts to resemble a fighting game more than a tennis game, and it’s all the better for it—especially when you’re playing against another human.
The best defense…
The basics here will be familiar to anyone who has played a Mario Tennis game before. As the ball comes over the net, you run to where it’s going to land, hit a button to prepare your shot and use the analog stick to aim that shot to one side of the court or the other. The opponent does the same in a battle of relative positioning that ends when someone fails to return the ball.
You can add a bit of spin to the ball and hit lobs and drop shots to change your shot’s depth as well, all in an effort to draw the opponent out of position. Bright colored streaks make it relatively easy to quickly parse the incoming ball’s arc and react to it without having to consciously think about it half the time.
If you position yourself early enough, you can charge up a return shot, increasing its speed and giving the opponent less reaction time for a return (and adding energy to a power meter that can be key to gaining an advantage). But Mario Tennis is almost too eager to help players reach a well-hit ball, even if they’re not perfectly positioned. If your character is anywhere near the ball when they hit the shot button, the game will automatically reposition them to make some contact with the racket, even if that means going off-balance for an awkward, hard-to-recover dive.
Even when you’re in horrible position for a return shot, you rarely if ever have to worry about the ball going out of bounds or into the net, regardless of how well you hit it—the game just handles that stuff for you. Instead, those barely connected shots end up as slow, easy-to-return meatballs for your opponent to smash back, giving them the momentum and a better chance to really wallop a return winner back at you.
But even when you’re completely out of position, Aces introduces a few new ways to recover from seemingly unrecoverable situations. The first is a new “trick shot” system that lets you cover almost the entire court in a time-slowing instant with a flick of the right analog stick. It’s not quite a “get out of bad positioning” free card—the timing can be a little tricky to get down, and there are still situations where even a trick shot’s quick movement won’t save you. But in practiced hands, the trick shot can let a player seem to cover the entire court with relative ease, even in the most desperate situations.
The other new major recovery move is the ability to slow down time. Hold down the R button, and an incoming ball will slow to a crawl while your character is still able to move at normal speed, giving you the opportunity to cross the entire court before the ball reaches its destination. It’s an extremely powerful ability but one that uses up that precious power meter you’ve been filling up with your charged shots.
…Is a good offense
Those new defensive moves are somewhat necessary to account for the powerful special shots players can unleash with their power meter. The first, a Zone Shot, can be used only when you hit a shot while standing on the temporary star icons that appear on the court when the opponent makes a slow, high return. The second, called a Special Shot, lets you automatically return any ball while standing anywhere on the court, but only if you have a completely full energy meter.
In both cases, the game pauses briefly to give a first-person targeting reticle, letting you position your powerful smash anywhere you want. Taking a long time to aim eats up more of your energy, so it’s a good thing you can quickly and precisely position your shot by tiling the Joy-Cons.
Painting one of these ultra-powerful special shots into the corners is a good way to steal individual points, especially if the opponent doesn’t have enough slow-mo meter or strong enough positioning to recover. But aiming your shot directly at the opponent can also be a more direct form of offense. That’s because attempting to return a special shot with anything but absolutely perfect timing causes your racket to take incremental damage (in the case of a Zone Shot) or be destroyed outright (for a Special Shot).
Depending on the game mode, you might have a replacement racket that allows you to continue playing the next point after your current one falls apart in your hands. If you run out of rackets, though, you instantly lose the entire match, no matter how dominant you had been thus far.
That strict punishment introduces an interesting kind of risk-reward dynamic to the decision-making surrounding special shot returns. Should you just let the shot go by, losing the point but protecting your racket? Or should you go for the block, knowing that a miss could jeopardize the entire match? Beyond that, is it worth using your power meter to slow down an incoming ultra-fast special shot, which provides the best hope of a block? Or should you save that meter power to deliver your own powerful shot later?
These kinds of questions add an extra layer of mind games on top of the base layer of psych-out positioning and reflexes already inherent in the basic Mario Tennis package. On the whole, it makes for a much deeper and more satisfying game. Managing the psych-out battle of where the next shot will go with your own return positioning while balancing the offensive and defensive potential of your power meter is a heady mix that requires intense focus. Beyond simply reacting to where the ball is coming from and thinking about where it’s going, it now pays even more to think a few shots ahead to how you’re going to set up that winning powershot or positioning that crucial defensive return.
Unfortunately, the focus on the power meter also tends to throw off the balance in character selection. In my experience, powerful characters (like Bowser) or defensive characters (like Waluigi) had a much easier time dominating the positioning battle to get the charged shots necessary to gain momentum and power meter coverage. Speedy characters (like Toad) and tricky, shot-bending characters (like Boo) weren’t completely out of it, but they tended to have a distinct disadvantage in otherwise balanced matches.
With two well-balanced characters, though, a Mario Tennis Aces match can be a thrilling, tense battle that rivals the best fighting games. It’s the kind of game where you can get in the zone and feel like a clairvoyant, invincible tennis god, only to lose focus on the next point and wonder how you ever returned a ball in the first place.
Find a friend
Unfortunately, all of those mind-games I talked about above primarily apply when playing against another human being. In single-player mode, I found the computer to be a little too simplistic and predictable to provide any sort of long-lasting challenge. Turning up the difficulty primarily decreases the chances of the computer opponents making unforced errors without making them any less predictable or susceptible to the same old strategies. When you’ve figured out a pattern of shots and positions that works once, you can generally pound on that same repetitive strategy until you win the match.
This feeling of monotony extends to the game’s Adventure Mode, a pseudo-RPG with a paper-thin story about guiding Mario to recover some “power stones” before evil, possessed versions of Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi can get their hands on them. This mode mixes up standard matches against opponents with “wacky” challenges focused on hitting specific targets on the court or keeping a rally going as long as possible.
Then there are the “wacky” courts that might put a big, ball-deflecting mast right in the middle of the net, send dozens of distracting pedestrians to walk through the court at all times, or position floating magic mirrors over the net to redirect your shots. These can be cute for a change of pace, but, for the most part, I found the wacky courts got in the way of the solid tennis action.
Then there are the boss battles, which give a strict time limit to hit court-filling opponents with enough balls to reduce their energy to nill. These bosses are tedious and frustrating in equal measure, often requiring perfectly timed returns against eminently predictable and repetitive shots.
But if you have other people to play against (or a willingness to find such people over the Internet) Mario Tennis Aces is an easy-to-pick-up but hard-to-master game of psychological trickery and reflexes.
- Simple gameplay that’s easy to pick up and hard to master
- Power meter system adds a new layer of psychological strategy
- Bright, easy-to-read graphics
- Responsive, lag-free online gameplay in pre-launch testing
- Single-player computer opponents are too predictable and easy to exploit
- Adventure Mode plays out like a gimmicky, frustrating extended tutorial
- Losing on match point because you were foolish enough to break your racket returning a power shot
Verdict: Buy it if you’re looking for deep, twitchy multiplayer action. Try it if you’ll be sticking to single player.
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