Back in the 90s, I had a torrid love affair with Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64. Finding a brilliant balance between realism and arcade action, I played this a boatload with family and friends. However, I jumped off the bandwagon not long after the criminally-overlooked Game Boy game, which featured a brilliant blend of sports with RPG mechanics. From the Gamecube version and beyond, Nintendo expanded the wacky factor by giving players special shots that undermine the balance of gameplay in favour of the player who has the power shot handy.
At first, I thought the new special shot system in Mario Tennis Aces would be the most egregious yet, as players gain access to a highly-targeted shot that’s controlled from a fist-person perspective. Having played the demo, this new shot, along with the other improvements made to the game, make it the most intriguing entry in the franchise yet.
Coming to grips with the basics is straightforward enough. If you’ve played any of the Mario Tennis games before, you should feel right at home, as the core mechanics around basic shots are essentially the same. This root-level gameplay has never been an issue and continues to be as solid as its ever been based on my time with the demo.
What Nintendo has built overtop of that gameplay is a resource-based special move system. Every character has a special move meter that charges up over the course of play. As that meter fills up, you gain access to special moves. For example, for the cost of some meter, you can perform a Zone Shot, which shifts the camera into a first-person perspective, allowing you to target the location of your shot before smashing it with vigor. You can try to hit it into the opposite end of the court where your opponent will have a tough time fielding it, or hit it at them in hopes that they fail to block it.
Unlike past games that featured similarly super-powered shots, you have options on the defensive end. If the ball is hurtling towards the opposite end of the court, you can spend your meter on a slow-down effect that gives you more time to catch up. If that ball is flying towards your face, you can also slow down time in order to correctly time your block. However, if you’re a bit too early or late, your racket will take damage. Break two rackets and you automatically lose the game.
One quick way to gain meter is through the use of a Special Shot. By double-tapping X on the controller, your character will lunge across the court in a flashy manner, returning your opponent’s shot while gaining a sizable chunk of meter. What makes it ill-advised to abuse is that it’s a high-risk shot that’s very easy to miss and the shot you hit back isn’t very strong or tricky to counter. The meter would certainly help, but you’re also putting yourself at a greater risk of losing the point.
The coup de grace of any player’s arsenal is the Special Shot. Unleashing a devastatingly fast and powerful shot, failing to block this will instantly break your racket. Getting your opponent to mess this up twice will quickly win you the game, but it comes at an even higher price. You need to first gain a full meter in order to access it, then hope your opponent fails to block it. If they successfully stop it, then you’re short on a ton of resources for nothing.
Together, this system is surprisingly engaging on both sides of the court. Attackers and defenders both have powerful tools at their disposal if they manage their meter correctly. Determining when to use it is crucial, as you can find yourself in a nearly-imposible match point situations where your opponent has their Special Shot ready to go and you have nothing in the tank. These additions add a ton of depth to the game without being overly hokey in their execution. If anything, it almost feels like more like a fighting game in terms of its resource management element, making this even more up my alley.
Playing the demo sold me on its mechanics. However, playing the demo has also given me some concern over other aspects of the experience. With how the first-person elements of the game work, I presume that local one-screen multiplayer will require you to play in split-screen. Besides cutting the viewing area in half, you can also see where your opponent is going to shoot. Don’t take this as fact, as it’s not in the demo and I’m strictly speculating here, but the cool aiming system could have created a new challenge for local multiplayer.
My more glaring concern is the way that online works. I like the asymmetrical tournament system that is in place, but the netcode appears to be problematic. No matter what connection my opponent and I started with, every match would drop to 1-bar. When it really bottoms out, the game is unplayable. While I did have a decent number of matches that ran fine, a problematic number of matches had input lag.
Nintendo has won me over with regards to its game design approach to Mario Tennis Aces. Having to manage meter and a variety of special moves adds a level of depth to the game that is really satisfying while maintaining balance for players on both sides of the court. The verdict is still out on the shaky netcode, as there is a chance that Nintendo could improve upon it for launch. If the netcode can improve for launch and if the proposed revamp to single player delivers, I think I’m going to have to get back onto the court for this one.