There’s just one simple thing I expected from Mario Tennis Aces: quite a lot of tennis. It didn’t seem too much to ask.
In hindsight I was perhaps foolish to think that a Mario tennis game would give me a standard game of tennis. I just wanted to bat a ball to and fro while in control of Mario, Peach or Donkey Kong. And yes, Mario Tennis Aces offers a little of that; but it also concerns itself too greatly with complicated power-ups, fanciful button-presses and a move list that’s far too convoluted for its own good.
This generation, there’s been a distinct lack of any kind of tennis game. So I was excited to give Mario Tennis Aces a go; perhaps it would fill the fuzzy yellow ball-shaped void in my life. And for a moment or two it does – until it reminds you that it’s a Mario game, and therefore it’s all about over-the-top “fun”. If you want straight-up tennis, Mario Tennis Aces isn’t the game for you. But if a brightly-coloured adventure starring your favourite plumber that kind of borrows some rules from the game of tennis is what you’re looking for, then certainly you’ll be pleased by Mario Tennis Aces. I wasn’t sure at first – but that’s mainly because it wasn’t quite what I wanted.
Not so tennis
While Mario Tennis Aces does have some secondary game modes that feel more like a standard game of tennis – more on those later – the meat and potatoes of the game comes in the form of Adventure Mode. It’s a little like a Mario RPG. In control of our titular mustachioed maestro, you’ll move around an overworld map, going from level to level. There’s a story, something about needing to collect power stones, but I honestly couldn’t care less. Just let me hit a ball with a racket, damnit.
Each level of Adventure Mode is a tennis-based challenge, battle or tutorial. There’s a wide variety, from more standard tennis matches to tasks that require you to hit a number of targets in a set amount of time, or rally against an opponent to reach a certain score. There are even traditional boss battles – but instead of a weapon, you’ve got a ball and a racket.
As you progress, you’ll gain experience levels, which translate to extra speed and agility for Mario, and extra attack, defence and durability for your tennis racket. You’ll also acquire new rackets along the way, allowing you to take more damage and deal more damage to opponents.
The challenges in Adventure Mode are actually quite fun once you know what you’re doing, but there’s one big obstacle in the way of your enjoyment: the game’s control scheme.
Game, Set, and What The Hell Do I Press?
It’s not so much that the controls are unwieldy or unconventional – there’s just a lot to wrap your head around. Standard face buttons offer up different kinds of shots – slice, flat, topspin, lob, dropshot. But throw in the game’s special shots, zone shots and trick shots, and it all gets a bit much.
Any tennis match starts out fairly straightforward, but once your opponent starts lobbing superfast special shots at you, it becomes a bit of a fumble to know what to do. Pretty much every single button of the Switch is used up; it’s quite the test of your memory, reflexes and dexterity. Rather than testing your skill at tennis, it’s more about building up Mario’s charge in order to unleash those special skills – and doing so is a bit of a pain. I’ve tried to stick to standard shot types as much as I can, but once your rival pulls their skills out, there’s no avoiding them.
Once you do get to grips with the game’s unusual controls though, there’s a lot of fun to be had. It just takes some perseverance to get the hang of everything.
If you’re not so fussed with the Adventure Mode of Mario Tennis Aces, you do have a few other options. There’s Tournament Mode, letting you play in live tournaments against real-world opponents, if you feel like showing off your skills to the world. If you’d rather not embarrass yourself (ahem…) then you can stick to playing against the CPU in a series of predefined tournaments of increasing difficulty.
Next up is Free Play, letting you set up your own games against local friends, online competitors or computer-controlled opponents. It’s here you can tailor the game to suit your tastes. You can disable all of Mario Tennis Aces‘ skills and abilities if you’d prefer a standard game of tennis – but with no game progression to be earned in this mode, it feels a little hollow.
Finally, there’s Swing Mode – a mode that feels a little like a last-minute thought but probably should have been the star of the show. Look Nintendo, Wii Tennis was massive back in 2007. People still want that! Swing Mode lets you relive those days, using one Joy Con as a motion-controlled racket. The accuracy didn’t feel amazing, but it was a lot of fun – especially playing against a friend locally. Again, there’s no real benefit to the mode – it’s just a bit of fun – but it will definitely entertain you for a few rounds at least.
Despite my initial disappointment that Mario Tennis Aces doesn’t offer much in the way of straight-up tennis, it’s hard not to like what’s on offer once you get used to it. Sure, the controls are complicated. And the special move types feel a little unnecessary. But this is Mario. The man was made to be over the top. I was foolish to expect anything less.
It’s a shame that the standard tournament and free play modes don’t offer a little bit more, but Adventure Mode certainly grows on you. It looks great, it’s bright, it’s colourful – it’s Mario. The challenges on offer are difficult but fun, and they’ll keep you going back until you master them. You can’t really expect any more than that.