Nintendo put in charge of Wimbledon? Sounds like an entertaining idea. Cliff Richard imprisoned in a lava-filled dungeon. Andy Murray out in the second round after being devoured by a Piranha Plant. A possessed tennis racket that turns anyone who touches it to pure evil (it’s officially endorsed by Maria Sharapova). The possibilities are undoubtedly enticing.
Mario Tennis Aces is the latest attempt to add a zest of Mushroom Kingdom madness to the traditional Centre Court strawberries and cream. It’s developed by Camelot Software Planning, who previously served up Mario Tennis Ultra Smash on the Wii U, a game more undernourished in the options department than a Dry Bones on a Gwyneth Paltrow Goop retreat.
Fortunately, Aces doesn’t suffer from a similar entertainment emaciation. Alongside local and online multiplayer sit a single player Adventure campaign, tournaments and the motion-controlled Swing mode, which puts every household item within swatting distance of your TV at serious risk.
This is a game that has no intention of scrimping on alternative tennis content. One that apparently recognises its predecessor’s oversights, resolves its omissions and introduces new mechanics to re-establish Mario’s Serena-like stranglehold over the video game tennis tour. An area where current competition consists of a very small number of extremely mediocre players.
It’s a real shame then, that all the well-planned content the game throws at you is accompanied by a major catch. Because when it comes to making the most of its variety, Aces repeatedly drops the ball.
Aces is a street fighter masquerading as Roger Federer complete with Dragon Punch drop shots and Psycho Crusher smashes.
Aces is a tennis game seemingly made by people who hate tennis, or at least have a casual disdain for its subtleties. It plays a souped-up, smash mouth iteration of the sport that reduces almost everything down to executing a couple of super-powered, perfectly executed shots. Although the components may be different, the methodology is similar to that of the Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic serve-and-volley era of the 1990s.
While many Nintendo games receive justifiable praise for their childlike fun, Aces regularly seems just childish. It is tennis redesigned and ‘improved’ by a group of primary schoolers hyped up on almost lethal doses of Haribo. A Street Fighter masquerading as Roger Federer complete with Dragon Punch drop shots and Psycho Crusher smashes.
All the conventional top-spins, slices and serves are included, but their intricacies and potency have been muted to make them subservient to the new stuff Camelot has layered on top. Each player has been empowered with an energy gauge that fills as you rally. In Aces’ one piece of tactical innovation, its then up to you to utilise this power bank to your advantage, either by slowing time to make impossible, point-saving shots, or bludgeoning supersonic, crosshair-placed returns past your opponent. These thunderbolts can be blocked with perfect timing, but there’s a high risk they’ll smash through your defences, reducing your racket to a shattered mass of graphite shards and strings.
I know all this sounds awesome. For the first half-hour or so I was totally caught up in the bombastic back-and-forth of pounding shots chased by glittering vapour trails, charismatic characters and quirky courts that have you dashing around mountain tops and ship decks. But while this kind of special move-based gameplay is perfect for best-of-three-round fighting games, repeating the same race to pull off super-powered shots for every single point in a tennis match soon becomes a frustrating monotony.
The Adventure mode does a creative job of coaching you in the game’s mechanics. It’s a Mario-style expedition across varying environments with tennis trials in place of platforming levels. The plot is ridiculous, the dialogue knowing and it acts as an appropriate showcase for the game’s rich cartoon visuals from the ruffled grass wafting in a forest glade to the splintered spookiness of a haunted house.
RPG-lite elements allow you to enhance Mario’s tennis abilities and acquire new rackets, but, like the rest of Aces, interesting ideas are undone by suboptimal execution. The Adventure mode’s boss fights include inventively conceived battles against a magic, ball-transporting mirror and a pair of giant rock hands. But too often the game supplements skillful challenge with cheap tactics to forcibly elongate its rather succinct quest.
Offline tournaments come in a smattering of different difficulties, each one consisting of three matches. They don’t provide the most prolonged of workouts, but they are good for honing your skills and strategies with and against each of Aces’ 16 playable characters. Every one of these, from Peach to Chain Chomp, has their own trick and special shots, but the variations don’t diversify the gameplay enough to warrant a substantial investment.
Local multiplayer is a welcome inclusion, but the split-screen setup is not the ideal choice for maximum enjoyment. It compromises players’ perspective, squashing each one into just a portion of the screen which, in a game so frenzied, makes it hard to maintain your concentration and bearings.
The online is better, but still plagued by Aces’ central problem: this is a tennis game that’s had the sport half-beaten out of it and replaced with superficial fighting game systems. I really hoped I’d find some serious affection for Mario Tennis Aces, but for me, it ended closer to tennis ‘love’ than true love. Aces is unapologetically the Super Smash Brothers of tennis games, which is sure to delight some and send others into fits of John McEnroe-esque apoplexy.
Mario Tennis Aces is out now on Nintendo Switch. Find out more at mariotennis.nintendo.com/aces.