Return to the court and serve up your special in Mario Tennis Aces for the Nintendo Switch. It’s time for the all-star pros to move over for a new contender on centre court, as Mario and characters learn exactly what it takes to become the next Nadal, Federer or Djokovic. With the return of story mode and new techniques, Mario Tennis Aces proves that a new twist on an old format can be entertaining and challenging, despite some palpable flaws.
Following Camelot’s undesired track record with Mario Sports games over the past couple of years with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (Wii U) and Mario Sports Superstars (3DS), the Japanese developer returns to a successful form in Mario Tennis Aces for the Nintendo Switch. Fan feedback has clearly been heard with the arrival of story mode; its first appearance in 13 years on a Mario tennis title since Mario Tennis: Power Tour (GBA) in 2005. The aesthetics on and off the court look and feel fantastic, character animations with their temper tantrums, breakout dance sessions and flop-to-the-floor moments delivers the humour, and the introduction of new techniques means playing against the CPU is a real challenge. For the first time in years, Mario Tennis Aces feels fresh.
Players will kick off their tennis career in Adventure mode and control Mario as he makes his way across several lands in search of the five mysterious power stones. According to the voice of reason within Bask Ruins, an ancient relic that has the power to control minds has caused a real ruckus amongst the Mushroom Kingdom residents. This bizarre relic, masquerading as a tennis racket, has taken control of Wario, Waluigi and Luigi and transformed them into beings from another dimension, forcing them to cause chaos under the relic’s command. Mario, along with the ever-trusty Toad, carefully navigate through the treacherous terrain that’s left behind and vow to bring Luigi back home. Let’s hope Luigi doesn’t get a taste of the racket’s (One Ring’s) power and fall into the fiery pits of the inferno (Mount Doom). After all, it wouldn’t be the first time such things have come to pass.
Serving as both the game’s tutorial and single-player campaign, Adventure mode teaches you how to play tennis, otherwise known as the “prep” before the online multiplayer storm. Assuming the role of Mario, players can earn experience by selecting missions from the storyline. Ranging from rallies and aiming shootouts to tennis matches and boss fights, the campaign allows Mario to earn experience points no matter if he fails or completes the mission. By levelling up Mario, he’ll improve his shot speed, run speed and agility; super handy for those challenging boss fights.
It’s in the single-player campaign that you’ll be introduced to the more daring techniques in Mario Tennis Aces. Each player has a circular energy gauge which can be filled by rallying, charging up regular slices, flats, top spins, curve balls, lobs and drop shots, or by using the Trick Shot; a risky move that allows your character to get from one side of the court to another at lightning speed, shown as a charming animation in slow motion. When your energy gauge turns from red to yellow, you’ll be able to perform Zone Shots by tapping the ‘R’ button on your Pro Controller, paired Joy-Con, or ‘SR’ on the Joy-Con. By lining up on the shining star outline on the court, players can unleash their special shot by using the gyroscope controls to aim and fire. While a Zone Shot can be blocked by using Zone Speed to slow down time, Special Shots unleashed with a full energy gauge will break your rival’s racket if a block is attempted. While these new techniques can take time to master, they will often make or break a match, leaving you with either a hard-earned victory or wallowing in contempt and misery. Mario Tennis Aces isn’t for amateurs.
While Adventure mode follows a fairly linear path, there are some optional detours along the way. Completing certain missions, for example, will also reward players with new and improved rackets, which vary in attack power, defence and durability. It’s safe to say that the harder a challenge is, the better the racket will be. Gaining more rackets – such as the Wooden, Mirror and Ice versions – are a sure-fire way to keep boss fights fair, as the amount of rackets you carry often determines how many shots you can safely attempt to block without sacrificing too much time on the clock. Blocking can be supremely difficult; the window of opportunity is excruciatingly small, usually only a few frames, so Adventure mode often forces you to get good quickly. Thankfully, rackets you’ve acquired are kept in your inventory, even if they break during a mission. A good call in our books.
The story campaign is not without flaw, though. Boss fights are challenging but shots are – more often than not – unfairly distributed via the game’s RNG rate, resulting in some notoriously cheap winning shots that are impossible to predict. Rallies with characters fare a little better, but they’ll often try to attempt special shots during matches. That’s a strict no-go when rallying, my friend. And while missions feel fun and inventive for the first few hours, they turn particularly sour towards the second arc of the campaign with repeated tasks reliant solely on varying degrees of difficulty. For the most part, however, Adventure mode is well-paced and just the right length for rookies or pros.
With three Championship cups and a range of characters to choose from, Tournaments return in Mario Tennis Aces. As per usual, characters are ranked by their play style with Mario and Luigi as all-rounders, Toad and Yoshi as the resident speedsters, tricky for Boo and Rosalina, while Wario, Bowser and Spike all bring power direct to the net, offset by Waluigi and Bowser Jr’s defense. You can also choose a technical player such as Toadette or Peach, who love to send their returns to the edges of the court.
Playing in Tournaments against the CPU can be both a blessing and a curse. While predictable, CPUs are almost always programmed to use Zone Shots when they first hit yellow on their energy gauge, making it absolutely necessary to secure the point before they can unleash a hard-to-block, powerful shot. Ultimately, this makes Tournament matches horribly irritating, where rallies and simple tennis are knocked out in favour of cheap shots, devoid of all tactical approach. What works beautifully for Adventure and Freeplay, becomes a brutal mechanic for the CPU in Tournaments. Thankfully, players aren’t penalised for losing their match in a Tournament and will have the chance to jump right back in after defeat, enslaving themselves into a torturous chain of satisfaction and wretchedness, without the ability to challenge the umpire. If you’re looking for a challenge, Tournaments will meet your gruelling expectations.
In co-operative play, Mario Tennis Aces plays absolutely beautifully. Freeplay comes with match customisations to play as doubles or singles in simple or standard match styles, and you’ll even be able to play any of the courts you’ve unlocked in Adventure mode, including the pristine design of Snowfall Mountain and the hugely entertaining Mirage Mansion. Co-op play works best while the Switch is in docked mode as there’s a larger window for accurate play. For example, some courts such as Bask Ruins can’t be enjoyed in co-op handheld due to their design. Although my eyesight isn’t the best, it would be handy if the ball was a different colour to the terrain. Otherwise, playing with the Switch in handheld in single-player mode works well and is less likely to cause significant eye strain, or an argument with my optician.
Freeplay also offers players the chance to play online in either single or co-op. Unfortunately, we haven’t had sufficient chance to play online, so can’t critically evaluate its performance. For what it’s worth, should it be similar to the online demo, Mario Tennis Aces is on to a winner.
Last but not least is Swing mode; the love child of Wii and Wii U Sports Tennis. By using one Joy-Con as your racket, fans of all ages – no matter their experience – can play tennis the old-fashioned way. With the exception of the nonsensical rally game option and a small window of mechanical error in terms of its response, Swing mode is pure and simple fun. And, honestly, that’s all it needs to be. You won’t be able to use any of the special shots, such as zone shots or trick shots, but you can utilise the far-reach swing to reach longer shots. It’s worth mentioning that this is a separate mode of its own merit, meaning you can only use motion controls within Swing mode.
With its stylish and inventive courts, Mario Tennis Aces proves that Camelot has returned to its successful form. Although it’s not without flaw and frustration, the title’s variety of modes offer entertainment for the whole family. There’s something for everyone in Mario Tennis Aces, and that’s particularly tricky to accomplish. Some might call that an Ace.
A review copy of Mario Tennis Aces was provided to us by Nintendo UK.