One of my favourite gaming memories centres upon my lime green Game Boy Colour, a copy of Mario Tennis that I purchased for it, and a summer spent hanging out with a good friend at my parents’ trailer. We’d do a lot of gaming there, be it Goldeneye, Perfect Dark or something else, but few games hooked us like that one did. Its mix of great sporting mechanics and an excellent RPG-lite campaign led to hours upon hours of game time and a lot of related nostalgia. Hell, I still remember one day where all my friend did was hog my Game Boy.
There have been some solid Mario-themed sports games released since then, but Mario Tennis for the Game Boy Colour still remains my absolute favourite, ahead of Super Mario Strikers for the GameCube and Mario Golf for the very same Game Boy. Even today — with improved technology and things like glasses free 3D at their disposal — Nintendo’s most recent Mario Tennis games have failed to live up to their elders. I said that when I reviewed Mario Tennis Open for the 3DS, and I’m saying it again now that I’ve spent some time with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for the Wii U. It’s disappointing, but true.
Like Mario Tennis Open before it, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is mechanically fine; it just doesn’t have any addictive qualities, nor does it have nearly enough content to justify its fifty dollar price tag. The core gameplay mechanics are fine and relatively enjoyable, but those who don’t have friends or family members to challenge on a daily basis will likely find their interest drifting towards other titles. This wouldn’t have been the case if Camelot Software Planning had created some sort of an immersive, campaign-esque mode for us to become invested in, but they failed to do so and their game suffers as a result.
This lacking effort presents several modes, but none are all that interesting. The first — dubbed Mega Battle — is an option that lets you play against friends or computer-controlled opponents in exhibition matches with all of Ultra Smash‘s new mechanics. Complementing that, then, are two other scenarios that let you strip the new mechanics away and play basic tennis without having to worry about smashes or jump shots. Still, all of these modes are basically just exhibition matches with fancy titles, and people don’t buy sports games for one offs. Being able to select between singles and doubles doesn’t make up for this slight, either.
The next two modes are also pretty generic, but they show more thought than their peers, which is a good thing. Still, they fail to act as hooks. One — which is considered a training exercise — has you see how long you can keep a giant tennis ball going between yourself and a computerized player, and it’s relatively fun the first couple of times. Conversely, the other is an amiibo supporting scenario that has you face off against a never-ending carousel of opponents. As you progress they get more talented, and the goal is to see how long you can last. And, if you place a supported amiibo into the fray, he or she will act as a doubles partner that holds fort behind you in the resulting 2-versus-1 competitions.
Thankfully, multiplayer is supported and online play is available for those with an Internet connection, but it’s not going to be enough to keep people invested. I could be wrong, and hopefully for Camelot’s sake I am, but when there’s no wow factor to be found in a sports game’s offerings it’s hard to see that game succeeding long-term.
By playing through these modes, you will unlock coins and bonus content, the latter of which comes from completing (or paying to unlock) any one of its twenty-five challenges. Examples include winning ten or fifty knockout matches in a row, or going on a streak with a certain avatar – something that gives you access to the starred version of the character in question.
Other challenges will unlock different things, like extra courts that have differentiating features, such as the Mushroom Court where balls bounce a lot higher than normal, and the Carpet Court which has faster ball speeds. There are a couple of other more gimmicky courts to be found, as well as a few unlockable characters, but nothing major or revolutionary.
The good news is that the gameplay found in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is both accessible and relatively enjoyable, though it’s not exceptional by any means. It’s your typical Mario Tennis experience with a couple of added features, and it continues the genre’s trend of separating its caricatured athletes into different categories such as speed, technical, power and all-around. As such, you can easily select an archetype that fits your personal play style.
Undoubtedly the most noteworthy of the game’s new additions are mushrooms, which are occasionally thrown onto the court by spectating toads. When touched, these ‘shrooms turn you into a gigantic version of your selected character, allowing you to hit harder and dramatically extending your reach. When you become super-sized you also get a bit of a reprieve from incoming shots. What I mean by this is that, if your opponent has just hit the ball as you’ve collected the power-up, the game will give you an extra couple of seconds to get your bearings before it lands. It’s like a slight rewind, if you will, and can change the tide of a close match.
Also new is the Ultra Smash shot, which lets you slam the ball insanely hard and often leads to a score. You can pull this move off by double-tapping the Y button when you see a unique pink indicator showing where the ball is about to land, which isn’t a demanding task at all. When you’re successful, a cool animation will play, but you don’t even need to bother with this mechanic unless you’re facing a tough opponent. Simply double-tapping the button whenever a pink spot shows up on the court will result in you smashing the ball downward and — quite often — scoring a point. It may not be as pretty, but it’s very effective and almost game breaking.
As you play you’ll also notice other, colour-coded spots appear on your half of the tennis court. These are used as indicators as to what type of special “chance” shot you should return with, and they’re accomplished using combinations of buttons like A and B. They’re helpful, for sure, but the game is so easy on any difficulty other than expert that worrying about special shots isn’t a necessity.
Although it pains me to be so critical of a Mario sports game, especially one that I’ve been waiting for since it was announced, I find it hard to wholly recommend Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It’s simply far too lacking and feels as if it was rushed, despite looking good and featuring relatively decent gameplay.
This review is based on the Wii U exclusive, which we were provided with.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a mechanically decent game that is slew-footed by a lack of interesting gameplay modes. There's online play, but outside of that there's nothing of real substance to be found. As such, the game feels both lacking and rushed, and doesn't have the type of hook that one would hope for.