Released: June 22, 2018
Copy supplied by publisher
The Nintendo Switch is only in its second year on the market, but already we’ve been treated to a handful of excellent Mario titles. In 2017 alone, we got the updated Wii U port Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, the surprisingly excellent strategy crossover Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Super Mario Odyssey, a bold new 3D platforming adventure that is arguably one of the portly plumber’s best. By contrast, 2018 is shaping up to be more of a placeholder year for Mario games, with Super Mario Party out sometime in the fall and Mario Tennis Aces releasing this week. Mario’s sports excursions are generally solid, if not terribly original affairs and with Aces representing the seventh proper installment in the Mario Tennis series, it’s easy to assume that it’s simply another reliable, though inessential game. While Aces doesn’t reach the same bar as Mario’s 2017 Switch offerings, it manages to push its respective franchise forward in unexpected and welcome ways, to the point where Mario Tennis is now just as much a fighting game as it is a sport.
Yes, you read that right.
Much like previous Mario Tennis games, Aces is split up into a variety of modes. For the first time since Mario Tennis: Power Tour on the Game Boy Advance, there’s an actual fleshed-out story mode. Following Mario and Toad as they try and stop Wario and Waluigi after the dastardly duo are possessed by a cursed tennis racket, Adventure Mode’s story is total nonsense but the actual presentation is surprisingly robust. Featuring a world map and a variety of different encounters, Adventure Mode is structured like a casual RPG, with Mario earning experience points and leveling up his stats with each completed objective. You’re not just doing straight up tennis matches either, as there is a wide array of different skill-based challenges such as taking out 30 piranha plants before time runs out, puzzles, and even boss encounters. There are some annoyances, such as random difficulty spikes and tedious text exposition but overall, Adventure Mode is a good way to familiarize yourself with not just the gameplay basics, but the new advanced systems that Aces has introduced.
As mentioned previously, Mario Tennis Aces has new gameplay elements that feel like something you’d be more likely to see in a fighting game than a mascot sports franchise. You still have your basic shots such as lobs and slices, but now each character has an energy gauge allowing them to perform Zone Shots, Special Shots, and Zone Speed. Successfully returning shots and performing Trick Shots with the right analog stick will help fill the gauge, while aforementioned special moves will deplete it. Essentially, once your energy gauge reaches a certain point, you’ll start seeing star icons on the court. By reaching one and hitting the R trigger, you’ll perform a Zone Shot, which allows you to aim a precise shot back to your opponent’s side of the net. There’s a trade-off though, as the longer a player takes to aim, the more energy will be depleted.
That may sound imbalanced, but the player on the receiving end can block a Zone Shot using Zone Speed, which slows down time to actually make it possible to get to the ball. However, timing has to be precise, as a counter that is too early or too late will result in the player’s racket getting damaged, even shattering it. The whole system creates a sense of risk and reward, as using up too much energy early on can put you at a huge disadvantage later on in a match, as well as put you behind on being able to pull off a Special Shot, which requires a full energy gauge. The new Zone system takes some time to get comfortable with but once it clicks, it’s hard to imagine going back to play older Mario Tennis games without it (though you can still opt for “Simple” rules in every mode besides Adventure to have a more traditional tennis experience). That being said, I do wonder how highly competitive Mario Tennis players will take to the Zone system once the game’s online community takes off, as I could see a situation akin to Smash Bros. where the pro crowd ditches the fancy new abilities in favor of standard fare tennis.
Despite the presence of a story mode and offline tournament play against CPU opponents, Mario Tennis Aces is similar to most Mario sports titles in that it only has so much to offer as a solo affair. The game shines brightest in multiplayer and though the online modes were unavailable at the time of review, Aces’ blend of accessible, but hard to master gameplay make it another great couch multiplayer experience for the Switch, which has quickly become the console of choice for such things. Like the console’s best local multiplayer offerings, Aces offers enough customization options to tailor the play experience to groups of varying skill levels and the game can be played using any combination of Switch controller options.
Speaking of controls, Aces is best-suited to a traditional gamepad like the Pro Controller but since this is a tennis game from Nintendo, motion controls are also a viable option. Accessed from the main menu, Swing Mode lets you play the game using a single Joy-Con like a tennis racket and plays out like a more fully-featured version of Wii Tennis. I tested out Swing Mode in local multiplayer with my girlfriend, who has more real-life tennis experience than myself. Unsurprisingly, she easily defeated me, which suggests that the motion controls do a reasonably accurate job of replicating the actual sport. That being said, we both felt that the game’s advanced moves were much more difficult to pull off in Swing Mode, so traditional controls still get the win here when it comes to functionality.
When it comes to the character roster, Mario Tennis Aces offers up a strong batch of Mushroom Kingdom athletes. All 16 characters are available from the get-go and are divided into six different categories. Mario and Luigi make for good all-around choices, while characters like Bowser, Donkey Kong, and Chain Chomp (yes, the freakin’ Chain Chomp is a character!) sacrifice speed for raw power. While it’s nice to have access to every character from the start, Aces suffers a bit from not having much in the way of unlockable content at launch. Fortunately, Nintendo has already teased their post-launch plans for the game, with five characters – Koopa Troopa, Blooper, Birdo, Diddy Kong, and Koopa Paratroopa all coming free of charge in the coming months. In fact, you’ll be able to unlock them ahead of time by participating in online tournaments (which also will award alternative character costumes) but since the online mode wasn’t available at the time of this review, it remains unclear how all of this will work.
With disappointing showings on both the 3DS and Wii U in recent years, it was hard to imagine the Mario Tennis series recapturing its former glory on the Switch. However, thanks to some valuable additions that significantly expand the gameplay depth, Mario Tennis Aces is easily the best Mario sports game to come along in years. The team at Camelot Software should be commended for recognizing where they went wrong in previous games and finally crafting a Mario Tennis experience fans have been waiting years for. While it’s hard to recommend Mario Tennis Aces to those looking for a compelling solo-play experience, the game offers some of the best multiplayer on the Nintendo Switch and looks destined to have a robust online experience as well. If you’ve been looking for a new party game to supplant Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Mario Tennis Aces should fit the bill nicely.