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Getting In The Zone With Mario Tennis Aces

I do love a good tennis game, but for far too long we’ve been starved of a healthy dose of fancy Pong. The real world games dried up half a decade ago and even Mario’s regular forays on court have tailed off in consistency – Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for Wii U was sorely lacking in actual content, for example. Thankfully, Mario Tennis Aces is shaping up to be the real deal, bringing back a story mode, going for more sensible gameplay gimmicks, and generally coming at a time where I’ve got quite a hankering for a new tennis game!

At its core, you have the same classic arcade tennis game that Mario Tennis has been for years. You’ve got your regular topspin, slice, lob shots and more, but it’s nice and forgiving with the movement and the timing. The animations will happily snap to a hit just in the nick of time and your positioning can be pretty awful, but you’re rewarded for getting into position early and being able to charge up your shots. The basic tennis game here is as light and fun as ever – thankfully there’s a Classic Mode for purists – but Camelot have never really been content to just stick to pure tennis.

The twist here is getting into the “zone”, which feels like it’s been ripped straight out of a teen sports anime series. Pulling off charged up shots, you build up the zone energy gauge and can then use this whenever a star appears on court for an incoming ball. Get in position fast enough and pulling a zone shot will let you aim and use motion controls to shoot in a very specific shot. That could be shooting for the far corner, aiming as close to the net as possible, or simply trying to smack the ball right into your opponent to win the point with a little dirty play! Further to that, with a fully charged zone meter, you can pull off the special shot at any time, triggering some over the top character animations (these can be a lot of fun, actually) and sending the ball back at speed.

It feels like these are practically unstoppable, and they are meant to be point winning shots, but you’re not completely helpless if you’re on the receiving end. If you’re in the right spot then you can counter the shot and return it – if you get the timing right, it’s a block, but if you get it just a bit wrong, then your racquet takes damage and can eventually break. Additionally, you can use your own energy gauge to slow time and move with the zone speed ability, letting you easily make it across the court and making the block timing that little bit easier.

The other option is the trick shot, which is activated with a flick of the right stick, sending your character leaping, sliding or spinning across the court a set distance – roughly 2/3rds the width of the court – to let you return the shot with ease. This is probably the most overpowered ability here, nullifying good strategic play from your opponent, but its real purpose is to try and fill the energy gauge more quickly. However, there’s a little risk-reward balance to this. Get the timing right and it jumps up a great deal, but get the timing wrong and you will actually lose energy.

On the whole, all of these abilities are balanced against each other, but they still lead to a very sensationalised video game. Perhaps the charge up time is just a bit too short, but it feels like you’ll see a near endless string of trick shots, zone shots and more, once players have got a handle on how it all fits together. It’s a good thing that the game does still include that classic mode.

Another returning classic is a story mode, which sends Mario off on a quest to rescue Luigi from something that looks suspiciously like if a tennis racket and the Infinity Gauntlet had a baby. Instead of doing You Know What, it’s capable of controlling people, with good old Wario and Waluigi easily swayed to its will, using them as pawns to try and find the five power stones that will restore it to full power.

Really, it’s just a fun excuse to get Mario kitted out in tennis gear and going on a tennis-themed adventure. The first couple of levels run you through the basics of the above (a useful recap, especially if you’re used to slightly different mechanics from previous games), before heading into the Piranha Planet Forest and taking on a mixture of tennis battles and mini-games all of which put a neat spin on the basic tennis game.

It could be a tennis match against Donkey Kong where some parts of the net have been replaced by pipes that can sprout piranha plants, it could be a mini-game where you need to knock incoming balls back at the piranha plants that shoot them, even a boss fight with Petey Piranha, where you’re returning balls, trying to dodge incoming tornados and then trying to hit a charge shot at his weak spot. One thing’s for sure, they’re a great way to try to master the timing needed for special shots and abilities and should give you a step up when you head to regular matches against others.

I definitely feel that the game is at its best when played head to head, and I’m looking forward to the online test tournament which is coming later this week. Certainly four person local play for a spot of doubles is a lot of fun and can result in some really tense points and tactical play, as you share the energy gauge between your side and have to figure out when best to use it. It’s nice and flexible as well, so that the ad hoc multiplayer lobby allowed us to have two players per console.

I’ve got big hopes for Mario Tennis Aces, giving us a dose of fun and light tennis that’s been missing for far too long. Its gameplay gimmicks are powerful, but bounce off each other in a way that adds additional strategy and skill requirements for victory.

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