Arcade sports games have the unique burden of appeasing existing fans of the target sporting event while attracting and educating potential newcomers. This is no easy task as it requires a delicate balance of traditional sports foundation and fun, larger than life mechanics.
Nintendo has long sought to perfect some of its own sports games with mixed results. While it’s unlikely that any company will topple Mario Kart‘s kart racing dominance anytime soon, the plumber didn’t quite nail the beautiful game in Super Mario Strikers, although the attempt was admirable. Still, every generation of Nintendo console in recent memory has taken a swing at tennis, with each iteration getting a bit closer to the ideal combination of the sport and Mushroom Kingdom antics. Mario Tennis Aces refines the formula even further, and its success is owed mostly to the reintroduction of a story mode that respects tennis fundamentals while requiring players to master the game’s new inclusions.
After Mario Tennis Ultra Smash‘s notoriously spartan showing on the Wii U, the Adventure mode’s very existence in Mario Tennis Aces is welcome. In fact, Camelot and Nintendo really seem to want you to play it—this is the mode players are thrust into as soon as they launch the game. After an overview of the basics and a cutscene setting up the story mode’s MacGuffin, players will traverse a familiar Mario world map and encounter a combination of traditional tennis matches and skill-based challenges. The story is by no means the most compelling sports narrative ever produced (collect some baubles to save Luigi from an evil tennis racket), but it does its job as the connective tissue for what is essentially an extended tutorial.
Many of the challenges will require players to master specific mechanics to stand a chance, and a sense of progression that relies not solely on stats, but on skill is immensely satisfying. Better still, your coach, Toad, provides legitimately helpful feedback whenever your skills fall short. Perhaps the mode’s biggest sin, however, is the inability to reset challenges without first quitting and sitting through trite dialogue again. Still, the Adventure mode in Mario Tennis Aces is more than content padding. Camelot has successfully found a way to leverage the new story mode’s drills to make you a better and more engaged player.
This additional practice is helpful because there are a lot of new concepts to learn. The Mario Kart-inspired power-ups of past Mario Tennis titles have been sacrificed for the new skill-based Zone and Special Shot mechanics. Players can use Zone Shots to pinpoint precisely where they want the ball to land on their opponent’s side of the court. This is countered with either an extremely well-timed block or by using Zone Speed, which allows players to slow down time and catch up to incoming shots. Both Zone Shots and Zone Speed are governed by a power gauge, ensuring players can’t rely on these new moves alone. If that wasn’t enough, a new KO mechanic means that you can break your opponent’s rackets. Break all of their rackets, and they will have to forfeit the match. During the Adventure mode’s thrilling boss battles, your own racket cache serves as your lives—it doesn’t get more Mario than that.
These new additions are a bit overwhelming when you first launch Mario Tennis Aces, especially if you are not already familiar with the rules and mechanics of tennis itself. Fortunately, Adventure mode distributes this information at an agreeable pace, ensuring you are never too far out of your depth. Outside the Adventure mode, players can put their skills to the test in tournaments, free play, and swing mode. In these modes, players can choose one of 16 characters (with the promise of more to come in free updates). The characters are classified by their speed and power, adding another level of depth to an already deceptively complex tennis game. And, yes, you can play as Waluigi.
Don’t like this new, fighting game take on tennis? Well, you will be happy to know Mario Tennis Aces lets you play a much purer form of the sport with a simple toggle. The same holds true for court hazards, which keep things fresh in Adventure mode but are frustrating and too unpredictable in competitive play. There are plenty of other play customizations available as well, as Camelot seems to have borrowed from the Smash Brothers playbook.
Mario Tennis Aces is the definitive series entry. Camelot has firmly established what it means to Mario-ize an already solid tennis foundation. All of these refinements ensure that player-driven actions, rather than randomized events, make each shot or volley an exciting risk calculation. The result is a game that plays a bit more like Street Fighter than Mario and company’s typical sports outings, but the new additions are arguably a better fit for the sport itself.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was provided by Nintendo. At the time of writing, the online multiplayer has not been reviewed, as servers have not been populated prior to launch. This review will be updated post-launch with impressions of online play.
Mario Tennis Aces is the definitive series entry. Camelot has firmly established what it means to Mario-ize an already solid tennis foundation.