For all the genteel imagery it evokes – crisp summer lawns, fresh strawberries and Cliff Richard singalongs – tennis can be a remarkably angry game. Kudos, then, to Mario Tennis Aces for getting you straight to the pure vitriol that spills forth when a fiercely contested point doesn’t quite go your way, your racket breaking as an almost impossible-to-block shot tears through it, granting an instant win to your opponent. You cannot be serious.
Mario Tennis has never been overly serious, of course, but Aces might be its sternest – and deepest – offering yet. When played at full pelt, this is hardcore, an electric flurry of shots informed by systems that have been lifted straight from fighting games. After the flimsy Ultra Smash that was such a disappointment when it limped onto the Wii U back in 2015, this feels like something of an about-face, as well as an apology. Quite an effective one it is, too.
And so you have a full tournament mode, a succession of matches across different difficulty tiers where you compete for a variety of cups. So too is there an adventure mode, harking back to the single-player RPG that made GBA entry Power Tour so cherished, and a fine diversion it is too. Here you’re taking Mario on a tour of an island, tracking down five Power Stones in what’s a nice excuse to face off against five different bosses, those battles interspersed by several challenges that allow you to level up your abilities.
It’s frequently imaginative stuff, even if prone to some repetition over its brief lifespan – the challenges offer slight tweaks on the same foundations, while boss battles often recycle attack patterns. Still, when it clicks it can be absolutely glorious, as you rattle shots against a cursed mirror in a haunted mansion trying to defeat the spirits within, or take down Petey Piranha in a heated exchange during one of the early boss battles. The levelling system is quietly smart, too, doling out a generous amount of XP even if you fail a challenge. It’s a neat way to smooth the difficulty curve, making you more powerful the more that you play, and a good thing too, as Mario Tennis Aces can provide quite the challenge.
It provides a rigid workout of the new systems that Camelot has introduced to the fundamentals, too, so it’s as good a place as any to learn the ropes – and there really is a fair amount to learn. The basics are all present and correct – you’ve topspin, slices, flat shots as well as lobs and drop shots at your disposal – but it’s beyond that where Mario Tennis Aces comes alive. Or comes apart, if you find yourself at the wrong end of some of its new mechanics.
An indisputably great addition is that of the power meter, a gauge that fills upon successfully charged return shots and one that injects some of the same strategy of the fighting genre into the already fraught game of tennis. That energy can be called upon to pull off zone shots, allowing you to aim with pinpoint accuracy using the Switch’s gyro controls, or banked until the gauge is full whereupon you can pull off a special shot, one that’s so devastating that it can break a racket instantly if the opposing player is unsuccessful in their attempts to return it. To counter that, the opposing player has a couple of tricks they can call upon, using some of that same energy to slow down time and enable them to get to the ball in order to return it, or to perform a trick shot that has their character dashing spectacularly across the court. It’s never a truly lost cause, no matter how desperate the situation might seem.
At its best, it’s a game of risk and reward, a toing and froing between players as they manage their energy bars as well as the basics of a decent rally, though there’s the nagging feeling that not everything is quite in balance. The timing to effectively block an inbound special shot seems a little punitive, the punishment for mistiming – an instant loss, if you’re playing with the default ruleset – more than a little excessive. All of which means playing Mario Tennis Aces can often be an exercise in frustration, whether with others or alone, and this is a family-friendly game that I’d never dare play with my family for fear of turning the air blue. In Mario Tennis Aces, you’re never far away from shouting out in a fit of umpire-baiting rage: ‘bullshit’.
One player’s bullshit is another’s delight, though, and Mario Tennis Aces’ powered-up take on the sport does at the very least make for some very feisty multiplayer, even if it’s not without a few of its own flaws. Local multiplayer works well enough, though I’m still not entirely sold on the necessity of splitscreen when playing on a single Switch when using one screen has served so many other tennis games in the past well enough, while online play at present seems strangely limited without any real flourishes beyond the basic ability to face off against others. It’s one of several strange omissions and oversights – the lack of a restart option during challenges, for example, meaning you have to skip your way through cutscenes before starting them over again, or the way the forced perspective can sometimes hide your player at the most inopportune moments – that all add up to give the impression this isn’t quite top-tier Nintendo.
But after the dismal Ultra Smash and the lacklustre compilation that was Superstars, Mario Tennis Aces is a return to form for Camelot, even if it’s not quite the equal of this series at its very best. It’s a good game, if never quite a great one, and one that’s still capable of some real magic. This is Mario Tennis serving up a much more full-blooded spin on the sport than we’ve seen in quite a while, even if its new depths have been pursued to a fault.