This year has been a sort of revival for tennis video games. Unfortunately, it has been represented poorly — if you want to see what I’m talking about, you can check out our review of Tennis World Tour. As such, there is still room for a serviceable tennis game. Nintendo and Camelot’s newest iteration of its sports series, Mario Tennis Aces, fills that void with a fun and competitive experience that is more challenging than I anticipated.
Right as you boot up the game, it automatically brings you to the single-player Adventure Mode. It begins with Mario and Peach defeating Bowser and Bowser Jr. in a doubles championship match. After Team Mario wins, Team Wario — made up of Nintendo’s greediest characters, Wario and Waluigi — suspiciously offer the mustached hero the most powerful tennis racket in history, the legendary Lucien. Little do our protagonists know, the racket is an actual being that possesses anyone that touches it. Luigi, being the oblivious brother we’ve come to know and love takes the racket, becomes possessed by Lucien and joins Team Wario. Mario is tasked to save Luigi and stop Lucien from becoming more powerful.
Mario Tennis Aces‘ story is basically Nintendo’s Infinity Gauntlet. Lucien’s strength comes from five power stone, each guarded by a boss. If the racket obtains all five, the person or creature wielding it gains enough power to take over the world. Mario is attempting to garner all the stones before Lucien has a chance to so he can defeat Team Wario in a tennis match and free the legendary racket’s captors from its grasp.
I’ve never been captivated by a Nintendo story; they are usually bare bones, especially Mario games. What makes Nintendo’s single-player experiences so great is a mixture of nostalgia and a great gameplay loop. The Adventure Mode has traces of that magic but stumbles with repetitive and frustrating challenges. The first few missions, which are largely made up of tutorials, are too easy giving you the impression that this campaign may not be much of a challenge.
The tutorial teaches you both the basic and advanced techniques in a fairly quick manner. There are five basic shots — which includes the topspin, slice, flat, lob, and drop shot — each represented by one of the four face buttons; both drop shots and lobs are mapped on the X button. You can charge each of these shots which helps fill your energy gauge; attempting trick shots will also increase your energy but is a bit risky since missing will yield an energy loss. The energy gauge allows you to activate a few different abilities like zone speed, zone shot, and special shots.
Zone and special shots are extremely powerful and fast. If you’re on the other side of one of these shots, there are a couple of ways you can deal with this situation. If you have a full gauge, you can commit to a special shot and hope that the opposition can’t block it. If you don’t have a full gauge, you can slow time with zone speed and attempt to block it. You could try to block without slowing time, and I’ve seen people do it, but zone and special shots are so fast, you’ll want things to slow down so you can actually defend against it. Blocking will send the ball back without your racket breaking or taking damage; if your racket does break and you have none left, you lose the game by KO.
Yes, rackets can take damage and break. The number of rackets you have, as well as its health bar, is found under your energy gauge. This win condition brings a whole new aggressive strategy to tennis. There have been times where I’ve won by aiming my special shot at my opponent hoping they didn’t have the precision to block. Even if they do block, they expend a ton of energy potentially giving you the advantage.
Overall, the gameplay is tight with a few questionable button mapping decisions. In some ways, having trick shots use the same buttons as lobs and drop shots was a worse enemy than the actual competition. Otherwise, I feel like I am always in control of my character and any misstep is my fault. The moment-to-moment action is so much fun and adds a ton of variety to a sport that, on a base level, is pretty simple.
Once you get to the first boss, Petey Piranha, the difficulty ramps exponentially. Initially, this spike infuriated me. The game holds your hand for a short moment and throws you in without any guide of how to approach any of these challenges. Even when I do figure out what I’m supposed to do, the amount of precision needed to execute these challenges is just anger-inducing. If there was an even distribution of actual tennis and these challenges, it would be a bit more satisfying. That isn’t the case as the majority of what you do in Adventure Mode are these challenges.
Something more frustrating than the challenges themselves is the lack of an option to just restart the challenge after you fail. It wouldn’t be too bad if it just went straight to the map screen but instead, I’m greeted with Toad or the opposition telling me I failed. What makes it worse is that you can’t skip the dialogue. I know I was outperformed by your A.I. Mario Tennis Aces but you don’t have to rub it in.
If Adventure Mode was the standout way to play this game, Mario Tennis Aces would be a bit of a disappointment. Luckily, Tournament Mode exists. The “COM Tournament” mode is similar to Mario Kart‘s Grand Prix mode where you compete to win one of three trophies, the Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, and Star Cup. It isn’t very feature-rich but scratches the same itch Mario Kart did. There were many times where I told myself, “I’ll just play one cup and move on to something else,” then continue to complete another four.
Both Adventure Mode and COM Tournament Mode help you learn how to play and find the character that suits your playstyle. The Online Tournament mode is where you apply everything you’ve learned against actual opponents. This is where the game’s depth shows. Everything from the playstyle of the character to your understanding of the game’s mechanics all come into play and it’s beautiful. Nintendo has dabbled into competitive gaming but never have I seen them fully commit to that aspect and make it satisfying. Some could argue that Super Smash Bros. fits that bill but that series feels more like a party game that turned into a competitive game; Mario Tennis Aces feels like it was built for competition.
As all competitive games should be, the roster seems well-balanced. For example, I like using “tricky” characters like Boo and Rosalina. They have a nasty curve to their hits that will baffle anyone who isn’t too familiar with the gameplay. Even I thought it was broken and wanted to exploit it online. I did win a few matches with Boo but the closer I got to the championship match, the harder it was to fool players. It wasn’t just one character type; I’ve been bested by the likes of Mario (All-around), Bowser (Powerful), Bowser Jr. (Defensive), and more. It shows that this is a game of skill rather than just exploiting one character’s cheap move. If there was a go-to character, the global rankings show Bowser Jr. as the favorite but Spike, Peach, and Yoshi also have spots in the top ten, each representing a different playstyle.
Aces is the tennis game we’ve been waiting for.”
Since the pre-launch online tournament, online performance has noticeably been better. However, there have been a few times where lag was an issue. Once lag is introduced, the game is unplayable. For something that is so competitive and relies heavily on how precise you hit certain shots, you don’t want any of your moves to be compromised. For the most part, this wasn’t an issue but it still had a presence that may be unattractive to some.
Swing Mode is another way to play that evokes that period when Wii Sports was in everyone’s home. What made Wii Sports tennis game so fun was its simplicity. Mario Tennis Aces‘ Swing Mode is just too complex to play with motion controls. Having to position the character and swing the controller in a certain way to select a shot disrupts the fantastic flow the base game has. It may be fun to play for a few matches but loses its appeal pretty quickly.
Mario Tennis Aces may have you bashing your head against the wall but Nintendo brings another great game to the Switch. Adventure Mode is a bit underwhelming; despite its infuriating difficulty spike, the story can be completed in just a few hours. Adventure Mode and COM Tournament mode are great precursors to the real highlight, the online tournaments. Going in, I did not think I’d be getting this incredibly enjoyable hyper-competitive experience. Playing people online is addicting giving you that “one more match” mentality that will keep you playing for hours.
Mario Tennis Aces is the tennis game we’ve been waiting for.