A tennis game with a narrative doesn’t seem all that unusual, but when that tale involves a forgotten kingdom and a tennis racket called Lucien that controls people via its possessed grip tape, you know this is probably isn’t quite the brand of tennis you see on the ATP tour. This is, mind you, still a game about putting racket to fluffy ball, but it’s one where the traditional game’s simplicity is stretched to breaking point. There’s even a whiff of Infinity War about it all when you discover that you’ll need to search for five sacred power stones to put a stop to Lucien’s dastardly plan.
As you’d expect from a Mario-branded game, the controls are reassuringly tactile, with the face buttons covering your regular swings, slices and lobs. There’s a reason why tennis and its resultant tactics have remained as popular as they have for so long, because these handful of shots and trying to outwit and outperform your opponent are all that’s ever been needed.
However, with Nintendo’s top seed in tow, Mario Tennis Aces adds a few more niggles to the game. You have an energy gauge which fills up by taking part in longer rallies, hitting Star Shots from the highlighted points on the court, or successfully charging your shots up by getting into position and holding down the swing button early. It’s also given a big boost by successfully performing Trick Shots with a flick of the right stick, which see your player leap around the court in spectacular style. They’re all performed with the aim of filling up the gauge and allowing you to unleash a Special Shot; a catch-all winner that you can fire off from anywhere in the court, whether you’re near the ball or not.
The more regularly used game changer here though is the Zone Shot, and when you encounter a glowing spot on the court you can tap R to leap into the air and manually aim your shot with either an analog stick or motion controls, launching a horrendously powerful smash at your opponent. Even if they get their racket to the ensuing shot, it will be damaged if the timing is wrong and can even break, handing you the point. In the story mode you can gather multiple rackets which function a bit like lives, giving you more chance against some of the later bosses, or in fact, any chance at all.
You see, Mario Tennis Aces is hard. Painfully hard even. The hint is dropped harder than Pajitnov’s progeny early on in the Adventure mode when you’re told that you may have to return to earlier levels in order to grind for experience to level your character up. That advancement becomes punishingly incremental later on in the game. Boss levels, or ones that ask you to perform a task like smashing panels rather than face an opponent, have extremely tight time limits and there’s a good chance your Switch may be in danger thanks to its easily throwable form.
There are ways to even the odds a bit. You can attempt to counter Zone Shots with Zone Speed, which sees Mario and pals go all Max Payne, slowing time to a crawl while they move at regular speed, which should allow you to get to pretty much anything on court. Those powerful shots can be blocked by returning the ball at the very last moment, but the timing to do so can be frustratingly tight and Zone Speed sucks away your energy meter faster than you can build it.
You’ll need to use every single shot and tactic in your arsenal if you have any hope of making it through the single player campaign, whether you’re taking part in an actual match or being asked to knock Shy Guys from a train. And let’s not forget that the courts themselves can also add an extra wrinkle of their own, from mirrors that fire the ball back in different directions to one on a ship with a mast midway through the net.
That ship one is perhaps the worst of the bunch, as you try to accommodate for your opponent being able to unerringly bounce the ball off the mast which sends it in the utterly opposite direction. Spending ninety minutes trying to beat a Blooper on a level called Savage Sea is poetic in a depressive sixth form kind of way.
Despite all that, I kept coming back. It’s hard, but I saw enough of an improvement each time out that I persevered. While Mario Tennis Aces’ single player is far too tough for younger players, there’s a satisfying degree of challenge for a more experience player and you’ll want to make it through in order to unlock all the courts for the other modes.
There’s at least plenty here to fill your time beyond the Adventure mode, including a trio of single player tournaments – featuring a pair of subtitled Toad commentators that seem designed to distract you – as well as a bevy of multiplayer options, where you can grab a bunch of mates for singles and doubles, whether at home or on the go. If you’re a little light on the friends front you can hop online and see if your Bowser really would beat a Toad from Spain in a game of tennis, and your wins and losses are stylised as though you were taking part in a knock out tournament. The weakest part of the package is the Swing mode which allows you to use the Joy-Con motion control, but anyone hoping for the effortless simplicity of Wii Sports will be deeply disappointed.
In fact, the biggest problem that Mario Tennis Aces is likely to face is that it doesn’t really suit pick up and play, unless you stick to Simple mode. The systems and controls take too much acclimatisation, so unless you’re all either coming at it fresh, or all well-practised, it’s simply not that fun. This was proven by my unhappy wife who I didn’t even try to let win, despite the unfair advantage of having played many hours of it myself, and despite that being the sensible thing to do in most relationships.
Mario Tennis Aces looks and performs as well as anything you’d expect from the House of ‘Tache, but its family friendly appearance disguises a brutally difficult single player experience that will surely alienate younger players. With a high skill threshold, it also loses out on the simple delights of pick up and play local multiplayer, but for those willing to put in the time and effort there’s still enjoyment to be found in its surprisingly challenging, albeit embellished, take on the sport.