NS Review – Mario Tennis Aces (Switch)


No Mario sports series has visited us as often as Camelot’s Mario Tennis; Mario and company have rallied on each home console since the Nintendo 64, with a few handheld instalments along the way. Returning three years after the hollow experience that was Ultra Smash for Wii U, Mario Tennis Aces is the first Mario sports game to come to Switch, during the console’s second year. It perhaps makes sense for Mario Tennis to take precedent over the less frequent series like Mario Strikers or Mario Golf, particularly since Ultra Smash provided groundwork for Aces to build on.

Thankfully it’s an immediate improvement over Ultra Smash. Mario Tennis Aces starts strongly, serving up lovely visuals and solid gameplay, although basic presentation and unexplored modes hurt its long game.

The gameplay in Aces hides a pleasant amount of depth; there are standard tennis shots – flat, topspin, slice, lob, drop shots – each being beneficial if used in the proper situation. On top of this is the typical “Mario sports” spin. Each player has an energy gauge, filled in a variety of ways. Charging shots is the simplest way, and successfully pulling off a flashy trick shot will fill the gauge much more. Trick shots are risky, and bad timing can instead deplete the player’s gauge or even lose them the point.

The energy gauge is used for two functions: first is the “zone shot”, a powerful shot that can damage the opponent’s racket if not blocked properly. The second is “zone speed”, a technique that slows down time but depletes the gauge at the same time. Both are invaluable in winning matches, and a zone shot is best countered by zone speed. A full gauge gives the player access to the “special shot”, an extremely powerful hit that can potentially break the opponent’s racket, again if blocked improperly.

Koopa to serve!

Several systems work brilliantly together and at the highest level, mind-games and deception are important. Finding successful strategies is immensely satisfying, and almost everyone will find fun in the frantic action.

The most noticeable addition is a racket-breaking mechanic. Players start with a number of rackets that have 3 hit points. In online tournaments, players only have two rackets per match. Improper timing against a zone shot will strike a hit point, while mistiming against a special shot instantly breaks a racket. Losing all rackets ends the match by KO. While it’s integral to the balance of zone shots, it can feel very harsh to lose a match by having your rackets broken, particularly if it happens early.

It all plays into the tactical approach, as it’s sometimes helpful to allow the opponent to win the point with a special shot, simply to avoid the risk of breaking a racket. Whether this benefits the overall experience is subjective, but once you get the hang of timing for blocking shots, it provides an interesting angle to your strategy.

If you want good old regular tennis without energy shots or amazing acrobatics, Simple Mode gets rid of all that and offers the basic experience. It’s a nice alternative to Standard Mode, and the online mode even offers a Simple Mode tournament.

The game’s many mechanics are taught Adventure Mode, where Mario is tasked to rescue his brother by collecting five Power Stones before a special tennis racket called Lucien can obtain them. He travels through several areas, completing challenges and defeating bosses to recover them.

Adventure Mode contains challenging boss battles, and the Mirage Mansion in particular holds some engaging levels, but it can get repetitive too. Several objectives are reused, such as rally and “sure shot” challenges. It’s also entirely linear, with no option to approach each power stone in a different order.

There are some interesting puzzle levels awaiting you in Adventure Mode

There’s a level system that increases Mario’s stats, and better rackets are earned. However, it feels somewhat arbitrary since you rarely struggle enough to revisit earlier missions to level up (you still gain EXP if you fail anyway). The challenges naturally get harder as you progress, and encouraging players to revisit earlier levels on a linear route doesn’t evoke confidence in the mode’s design. Even with the difficult missions, Adventure Mode is a short stop that can be finished between 2-3 hours.

It’s a shame Mario is the only playable character in Adventure Mode and the player can’t take advantage of the game’s sizeable roster. One strong point of Aces as that it currently boasts 16 players with at least 6 more releasing post-launch as free content. Most of the familiar faces are there, with newcomers Spike and an adorable Chain Chomp too. Characters are divided into different classes with their own strengths, and even characters in the same class have differing stats. Strangely, the game chooses to hide the specific stats of each character – a questionable omission, particularly for competitive players that need to know the specifics. Nevertheless, players will definitely find a character that suits them, and the roster remains relatively balanced.

While Aces has outstanding gameplay and visuals, its content elsewhere leaves a lot to be desired. After Adventure Mode, there isn’t much for a single player to do. Three tournaments against A.I. opponents are available, but even the third doesn’t offer much challenge, and in the final you’re more likely to win by breaking all their rackets; the number of remaining rackets carries over into the next round, and A.I players break theirs at an alarming rate, so they’re down to a couple of rackets by the final round.

It feels unceremonious; there’s no cutscene of the player’s character holding the trophy, no extra rewards for winning a tournament, and there’s only three of them.

A full energy gauge allows you to pull off a stylish Special Shot

The best place to take your game is online, for which there’s a variety of options. Tournament Mode is where competitive play lies, and it works exactly how the demo version did: you enter a bracket consisting of 5 rounds, and each win means advancing and earning more ranking points. Win your 5th and final match for a big point gain. There isn’t much to it, and after losing you simply start another tournament, but it’s a nicer way of presenting a rank mode than grinding individual matches.

Lobbies are the other option, where players can play random opponents or play with friends, using any match settings they wish. It’s the only place to play online with 2 players on the same console, and once a match is done you simply choose whether to play again or quit the lobby. It’s basic stuff, but it’s great for quick play and in our experience we never waited long for a match. It should be noted that the whole online experience was solid with very few drops, and vastly improved over the demo from a few weeks ago. Lag still occurs with certain opponents, but the overall experience is much better.

There’s local multiplayer with a variety of options, including a mix of courts ranging from plain stadium courts to zanier venues with hazards. Curiously, there are only two options for match length: a tiebreaker game, or a 2-game set. While Aces is great for quick matches, it’s very strange that players can’t specify the number of games and sets they want to play. With 2-game matches it sometimes feels like the first game’s server has advantage, as they have initial opportunities to charge their gauge. Local multi-player also forces the use of splitscreen, even though a single screen is playable for a tennis game.

The few extra courts can be tricky, such as this delightful ship with a mast placed dead centre

There’s another mode to check out called Free Swing, where Wiimote-style motion controls are used and players can challenge calls. It’s a nice distraction at first but there isn’t much to keep you engaged for long, even with multiplayer and different choices for tennis balls.

Content can be added post-game, and that’s the approach Mario Tennis Aces seems to be taking. Koopa Troopa has already been added, with more characters incoming. The most crucial aspect in Aces is gameplay, and it’s fantastic. With many mechanics and systems comes a variety of strategies and different ways to play, resulting in exciting matches whether you win or lose. While the longevity is hurt by short game modes for single-player, the gameplay alone may be enough to keep players involved in online tournaments. Despite the shortcomings, a strong playerbase is what Aces deserves, and it’s a fine return to form for Camelot.

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