I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Mario sports titles. Not because I think they’re bad or I don’t enjoy them; they just very rarely grab me. So Mario Tennis Aces must’ve done something right to reel me in. Between its fancy gameplay and seemingly deep single-player mode, I found myself getting more and more tempted to try it out, and after spending some time on the online demo they released (which I even recorded footage of here), I decided to grab a copy day one.
Now, funnily enough, I had no intention of reviewing this game since I didn’t think I’d have much to say about what is essentially a tennis simulator but the more I played, the more I started to feel… conflicted, if that’s the right word. So, is this game worthy of having the word “ace” in its title? Can I recommend it to those who have no interest in tennis? How come Bowser doesn’t get his own unique tennis outfit? … OK, maybe I can only answer two of those questions.
I’m not going to go into too much detail regarding the core mechanics or the rules of the game since I’d essentially just be describing tennis. But I can say that, mechanically-speaking, the game is sound. From movement to tennis swings, everything feels responsive. If you ever find yourself missing the ball, it’s going to be because you didn’t respond quickly enough. And between the various types of shots you can perform, there’s a great level of strategy that can make matches surprisingly tense. And that’s including all the special moves you can perform.
As you play, you build up an energy meter which you can use to pull off Zone Shots and Zone Speed, which are essentially the more fanciful aspects that make the game more… Mario, I guess you could say. Zone Shots can only be used when a star marker appears on the court, and they allow you to send a powerful shot which you can aim anywhere, allowing you to get an easy point or deal damage to your opponent’s racket (yes, rackets take damage and if yours breaks, it’s an instant loss). You can’t spend too long aiming, though, as not only do you spend a significant portion of your meter to activate it, it quickly drains whilst your aiming.
As for Zone Speed, holding down the R button slows down time, allowing you to zip across the court to reach the ball if it’s far away and makes it easier to block incoming Zone Shots. You can also perform Trick Shots by flicking the right control stick in the direction of the ball, which makes your character pull a fancy jump to reach distant balls and you don’t need energy to use them. These are much trickier to do correctly and, if your timing is off, you either miss horrendously or you hit the ball back at the cost of some energy. However, the right timing will reward you with extra energy so it’s worth learning how to use them.
While these mechanics may sound like game-breakers, overzealous use of them will probably result in you losing. Like I said, Zone Shots can be blocked so they don’t guarantee a win and while they can damage rackets, good timing means they can be blocked and prevent said damage. This also extends to the Special Shots; with a full energy meter, you can press the L button to perform an even more powerful Zone Shot that can instantly break a racket. Even with all these crazy moves at your disposal, what decides matches is not only how you use them but your skill with the base game, especially if you’re playing against high-level AI or other players online.
If all of this sounds daunting, don’t worry. The game has tutorials and even opens up with a basic introduction to the gameplay (after the opening cinematic for the game’s story mode which I’ll cover later). Learning the basics is pretty simple; I really think anybody can pick this game up and enjoy it regardless of your experience with previous titles or lack thereof. The real challenge is figuring out which character to play as. Characters are split into one of six types and while they all function very similarly, there are slight differences in how they play. Powerful characters like Wario have faster shots, Speedy characters like Yoshi move faster; you get the idea. For the most part, every class has different strengths and weaknesses to keep matches balanced, though it does feel like specific characters have a major edge over the rest. There’s a reason Waluigi, Bowser Jr., and Boo once populated the online tournaments.
“But I have no interest in playing online” you might be saying. Well, that’s fine as the game does feature a single-player campaign that isn’t just a series of matches to get a big trophy. It actually boasts a delightfully goofy premise as Luigi, Wario and Waluigi are possessed by an evil tennis racket named Lucien and seek to gather the Infinity Stones – I mean, Power Stones to become all powerful and take over/destroy the world or something. As Mario, you must travel throughout the island and complete various missions to progress that all revolve around tennis (because everybody on this island is apparently obsessed with the sport).
There’s some decent variety to these challenges and while a few tend to repeat themselves, the visual changes feel like enough to keep them fresh. One minute you’re playing a tennis match where Piranha Plants will try to intercept your serves and shoot them back at you, the next you’re smacking back hammers at Hammer Bros to knock them out. They’re even boss fights which despite all functioning very similarly (you keep up a rally until a Zone Shot becomes available and you can deal damage, repeat the process x3), keep you on your toes and are generally fun to play. It can get pretty challenging and certain levels in particular will push you to your limits (for me, it was anything involving mirrors in the haunted house area). Fortunately, Mario’s stats will increase RPG-style whenever you attempt a mission. Win or lose, your stats will go up so if you just keep hammering away and learning from your mistakes, you’ll come out on top eventually.
You can also obtain extra, stronger rackets from completing optional missions. It’s well worth doing this not just for the better stats but they add to your racket total – if one breaks, you’ll swap to the next one, meaning the more you have, the longer you can stay in the match. They regenerate in-between missions too so you don’t need to worry about losing them forever.
Unfortunately, for as fun as this mode is, it ultimately doesn’t have much going for it. I was able to beat it in full within a couple of afternoons and it never felt like it took its weird premise to its fullest extreme. You move from one part of the map to the other, complete a mission, repeat ad nauseum. There are some neat twists by the very end but, at that point, it’s nearly over. That’s not to say this mode’s bad or boring, I was just expecting a lot more.
But, hey, it’s only because Nintendo prioritised the multiplayer stuff, right? Well, yes and no. The more I played Aces, the more I realised that Nintendo were prioritising the online multiplayer, because outside of that and the Adventure mode, Aces content is kind of lacking. Hell, Dry Bones arguably has more meat. The only other single-player stuff are three bog-standard tournaments that aren’t particularly long or challenging; you don’t even unlock anything interesting when you beat them, making them something of a superfluous inclusion.
And the local multiplayer has almost no customisation to speak of. You can only play one set matches consisting of two games or a “first to seven points” match. You can’t even pick a specific court to play on – it’s always selected from a random group. There is a work around but there shouldn’t need to be one in the first place. I look back on previous sports titles, specifically Mario Power Tennis, and see all the cool stuff that was available in those games and it just baffles me that Aces almost has little to offer in comparison.
This isn’t to say that the online tournaments aren’t fun. Far from it. In my experience, connections have always been very solid and I’ve participated in plenty of enjoyably tense matches, though I kind of wish there was a system that made sure players of equal skill were set against each other. I’ve had too many matches where my opponent had clearly had the free time to perfect the game and ended up getting curb-stomped (but that’s not necessarily a major issue nor is it unique to this game). There are also two different kinds of tournaments – one with all the crazy special moves, one that plays like a normal game of tennis – and participating every month unlocks a new character for you to play as. Yep, you don’t need to win a certain number of matches or anything; just play one match and the character’s yours. And even if you don’t take part, you’ll unlock them anyway at the end of the month. It may not be ideal but at least Nintendo aren’t keeping these upcoming characters trapped behind a paywall since, let’s be real here, Aces has clearly been designed to push their upcoming online service.
For as fun as this game is (and it is a LOT of fun), I can only really recommend it to those who plan to put all their spare time into mastering this game and dominating the online scene. Maybe the game will click with you and its online will make you want to pay up for the upcoming service. But if you have zero interest in online play, Aces tight gameplay and fun aesthetics won’t be enough to keep you coming back.