Lawn Tennis as a sport has origins stretching back some 150 years, with rules that have largely remained the same for the last 100 of those. It’s a game welcoming to anyone who can pick up a racket, and accessible to all, regardless of age, prior knowledge, or perceived skill. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash appears to have the intention of being the friendly faced videogame embodiment of that very sport within. By stripping away the complex control schemes and many of the over the top game modes seen in previous Mario Tennis titles Ultra Smash has achieved just that, and welcomes anyone able to pick up a pad onto its courts.
As with the grand majority of Nintendo’s exclusives, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is polished to perfection, and shines as bright as any Grand Slam winner’s cup. Delivering sharp HD visuals, superb audio, and a solid, unfaltering frame-rate both on and offline, there’s no denying that this is a beautifully presented, technically sound game. My major concern though, which unfortunately relates to every other aspect of the game, is just that there isn’t enough game here to back it up.
The lack of depth is glaringly obvious from the outset, and will disappoint long time fans of the series. There’s a noticeable step backwards in terms of raw content, with Mario’s latest preferring to focus less on gimmicks and quirky game modes – there’s no mini-games, campaign or the overblown power-ups of before – choosing instead to provide a relatively concise core gameplay experience, more about simplicity and accessibility, with one or two unorthodox touches of Mushroom Kingdom magic thrown into the mix.
It’s obvious from all of the pre-release footage that, of the five modes, Mega Battle is the one you’re going to want to play. Available as either a Singles or Doubles exhibition style mode, the normal rules of tennis apply, and it’s all fairly innocuous fun… until a cheeky Toad throws a Mega Mushroom into the mix.
The series’ newest toy takes centre court across all game modes aside from Classic and affords the player a game changing boost in size for a brief period of time. Being ‘mega’ certainly has it’s advantages too, you’ll have far more powerful shots and a greater reach for one – but this is not without its failings, and you’ll need to use a degree of strategy rather than always assuming bigger is better if you really want to succeed.
These new mega characters loom over the court with abandon, which is ridiculous fun in Singles mode, but I’ve literally lost count of the times during a doubles game whereby a hulking great Bowser has delighted in the fact he’s just hit an Ultra Smash into the back of my skull at 200km/h – or vice-versa – which then loses us the crucial Match Point. The pillock.
Despite the opportunity for more of these insane Mushroom Kingdom inspired power ups to feature, the only other non-regulation gameplay perk comes thanks to the return of Chance Areas, the colour coded circles which appear on court and reward the player with a power or precision buff if the corresponding shot type is used in that zone. Their appearance guides you around the court and, coupled with forgiving timing for your hits, makes exciting twenty or thirty shot rallies, full of well placed lobs & drop shots a possibility, even if you’re not used to playing tennis games.
The titular Ultra Smash is also delivered thanks to these Chance Areas, and will prove all but impossible for less experienced players to return. To help keep the game balanced these will appear less frequently, and require slightly quicker thinking to pull off. I probably got a little over-excited the first time I hit one to be honest, with the Ultra Smash replay camera panning around a flutter-jumping Yoshi as he drives the ball to the corner of the court. Moments like this really serve to highlight the attention to detail poured into each of the extensively detailed models and recognisable character animations.
Ultra Smash reduces the controls down to a bare minimum for newcomers, allowing them to lean on the crutch of having ‘X’ simply return with an appropriate shot. However, there’s still the more complex system to play with, letting you pick your own flat, sliced, lob or drop shots depending on the situation at hand.
The newest addition to Mario’s racket-skills-repertoire is the Jumpshot, which sees him leap – often to an unfeasible height – and return the ball from mid-air, rather than waiting for a bounce first. It looks great, but, like diving for a far-reached return, can mean you’re not quite ready to return the ball next time it powers back over the net.
Outside of Mega Ball Rally – a mode aimed at getting the longest rally possible with an ever-shrinking ball – and Classic play, which lets you remove Mega Mushrooms or Chance Shots, Knockout Challenge is where Ultra Smash’s main body of gaming will lie. It’s the nearest thing to a conventional career or campaign in the game, with each of the 16 characters having their own individual progress file, as they take on a ladder of 30 matches, meeting the other characters across the varying court types with increasing difficulty. It feels like another one-and-done experience, only partially improved by the now obligatory amiibo inclusion.
Touch a supported figure to the gamepad’s NFC sensor and they’ll appear as your doubles partner for that run, learning and acquiring new stats with every fifth match as you go. At first this seems a strange, potentially unfair, way to implement the collectibles, but with the difficulty ramping up and the chaos caused by oversized characters, it actually works remarkably well. Outside of the Knockout Challenge you can then take your amiibo online, and use it, upgraded stats and all, for a more traditional 2-versus-2 doubles match.
The more traditional surfaces such as grass or clay are available, but I quickly tired of those, instead opting for the super bouncy mushroom, or the ice court, a personal favourite which looks absolutely stunning, and leaves players slipping and sliding as they struggle to reach wide shots. Whichever you choose, it’ll inexplicably be in the same stadium setting, with the same capacity crowd of Shy Guys looking on.
The paucity of content is felt elsewhere, as well. Aside from the unexpected inclusion of the green Sprixie Princess from 2013’s Super Mario 3D World – who makes her first appearance as a playable character – the biggest surprise will be who’s not in the game. There’s Donkey, but no Diddy Kong, Yoshi, but no Birdo, and not a sign of a playable Koopa Troopa. Even the baby Mario Bros. haven’t made it out to play this time around.
The online play handles rankings similarly to Mario Kart 8, with a starting points level which adjusts up and down depending on your results. However, the only option open to you is to play via matchmaking, and you cannot invite friends or host a lobby. There’s also no offline rankings and there’s no trophies or cups for winning per se, but your progress is rewarded with the quirky courses and a couple of characters unlocking as you meet certain play time criteria. Each match also earns you coins, which can be used to fast track specific rewards, should you so wish.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash has an air of familiarity, especially so if you’ve played Mario Tennis Open – but even without prior knowledge of the series, the game’s bright HD visuals and overall presentation quality will make it instantly appealing to Nintendo households this Christmas.
Mega Battle is great fun, especially in local multiplayer, and has seen me both laughing and cursing aloud, but with no mini-games or notable campaign to speak of, and without the overblown power-ups I’m used to in Mario games, it’s a game that I’ll have all but forgotten by the time Wimbledon rolls around next year.