Review by StephenYap3
Reviewed: 06/27/18 | Updated: 07/24/18
A great return to form, albeit with some setbacks
After the release of Mario Power Tennis on Game Cube, the Mario Tennis series went on an eight-year hiatus that resulted in a change of gameplay that strayed away from the skill-based Tennis gameplay that made the N64 and Game Cube entries amazing. Starting off with Mario Tennis Open on Nintendo 3DS, the introduction of Chance Shots got much in the way in that most of the focus was more on chasing after their spots than the ball itself, not to mention that the randomness of the appearance of Chance Shots and their traits made matches too gimmicky for its own good. The problems continued on through Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash and the Tennis mode of Mario Sports Superstars on the Wii U and 3DS respectively, with more and more content and charm removed that made them comparable to a bargain toy you'd see in your local grocery store (...okay, maybe that is pushing it, but you get the idea, right?). It was a daunting time to be a Mario Tennis fan and the hopes of the series returning to its finest had seemingly became a dream that would seemingly never come true...at least back then, it seemed that way.
The endurance of those 14 years of waiting resulted in Mario Tennis getting back on its feet, with the latest installment Mario Tennis Aces. Making its debut on the Nintendo Switch, Mario and his friends get back on the Tennis court for some old fashioned Tennis fun. Like many games in the series, Mario Tennis Aces puts players in the shoes of either character they choose and duke it out on court in a game of Tennis, with courts ranging between old fashioned stadiums to Mario-themed locales like the jungle, desert, pirate ship, snowy town, etc. This game still has the bells and whistles of what makes a good Mario Tennis game shine and while Open and Ultra Smash were plagued by problems beyond minimal content, Aces did enough to display itself as anything but a disappointment for me.
To get things out of the way, Aces features some of the most luscious-looking visuals ever seen in the series. Though Ultra Smash was the first of the pack to feature High Definition, Aces takes things a step further and manages to sustain that beauty even on portable mode. The characters look charming than ever, the shots are bright enough to pop out, and the animations are smooth enough to make any Mario character themselves. Albeit not the best the series has to offer in the soundtrack department, the music is quite peppy to hear and keeps matches exciting enough to keep the players in the zone. As with Ultra Smash, the sounds of rackets and voices lend to the charm that Mario Tennis gets right on to keep things charming.
In the gameplay department, Aces still incorporates what makes Mario Tennis what it is and though the core Tennis gameplay remains the same, the latest entry puts a spin on it with a unique idea that bears a somewhat similar resemblance to the Power Shots system from Power Tennis: Zone Shots, Zone Speed, Trick Shots, and Special Shots. No longer will you be ill-equipped to deal with the Chance Shots system that comprises of chasing after randomly-appearing spots to use shots in the most gimmicky of ways; instead, the new gimmick of Aces focuses more on pure skill and wits than pure luck. For the most part, it works favorably and was the kind of skill I was looking for in the previous two Mario Tennis entries.
Zone Shots let the character lash out a faster and powerful shot that would put a dent on the opponent's racket, with a Special Shot effectively destroying the opponent's racket altogether, costing the opponent a racket. The player who loses all rackets will automatically lose the match, regardless of how close the losing player is to victory. This adds a new layer of strategy to the Tennis gameplay in that it urges you to decide whether to win the old fashioned way or breaking your opponent's rackets. To counter this, the player can use Zone Speed to slow time around them to help get to the ball faster and if timed correctly, the player can smack the ball back at the opponent without denting his/her own racket from the opponent's powered up shots. In addition, the new Trick Shots can be used to get to a ball beyond the player's reach, making for a good replacement to the Defensive Shots from Power Tennis. Though these new mechanics do make for an intriguing take on the tried Tennis gameplay, each of them require energy from the Energy Gauge for the character, another new addition to the game that is simply charged up through keeping up a rally. Combining all of this together made for a truly fresh change of pace for Mario Tennis, the type of change of pace the series needed after the fairly luck-based formula the Chance Shots were.
Aside from these new changes to the formula, the game's new Adventure Mode is a single player mode in which the player controls Mario and take him through a series of challenges that range from usual tennis matches to mini games, and from puzzles to boss fights, all on a quest to find the five Power Orbs and save his brother Luigi from the cursed racket Lucien. Between matches after victories, the player receives Experience Points to level up Mario and increase his stats, which unlike the Mario Tennis games from the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance are very streamlined to a few prominent stats and neither decrease by one bit between levels. At the start, Mario starts off with only one racket, though by completing certain challenges, he'll gain more rackets to use that also serve as stronger equivalents, resulting in longer racket durability and more damage done to opponents' rackets during matches. Though the entire mode is short, it makes up for it with its challenging difficulty that can require a handful of retries. For the most part, they aren't unforgivably challenging to the levels of Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy, but they're nothing to scoff at, especially in the later portions of the mode.
The game's Free Mode, formerly the Exhibition Mode from the previous entries, offers a decent amount of options for the player to choose from, ranging between Tiebreaker Rules to Standard matches, with the option to turn off the game's new shot mechanics for purists out there, among other options such as toggling racket breaking options. The character roster is quite decent for it is by including most of the recurring cast while introducing new characters such as Spike and Chain Chomp, with each and every character having different type properties that determines how they play. More characters are bound to make it to the roster via playing in online tournaments or waiting for the next month should you miss out. One of things to note, however, is that there's no traditional court selection screen that the previous entries had. Instead, court selection is only done within the rules settings themselves and the player has to manually toggle which courts he/she want to play and don't want to play for the others. This can somewhat make for a debacle for some players that want to settle in for a quicker way to select which courts they want to play on, though on my part, I never had much of a problem with this since for me it does make for a quick pick-up-and-play session for portability purposes, not to mention that the courts were equally fun for me to enjoy and its hazards such as piranha plants, mirrors, and even a crowd of citizens made for some intriguing but intense matches. Another thing to note is that the Game and Set settings are nowhere to be found, therefore making Tournament Mode and Adventure Mode the only modes to have different games and sets in matches while Free Mode is only left with giving the players the "2-game, 1-set" matches. To add insult to injury, the Doubles setting lacks the option to keep the chosen players intact without being shuffled around between matches, therefore there's no way to constantly keep teams such as "Mario & Luigi vs Wario & Waluigi" firmly still and may result in a shuffle such as "Mario & Waluigi vs Luigi & Wario". Hopefully Camelot addresses to these issues in the later months.
Alongside it, the motion control-based Swing Mode resurfaces from the Wii version of Mario Power Tennis, serving as an individual mode for players who choose to use more than their fingers to play Aces. Due in part to Swing Mode's slower-paced and casual gameplay, the Shot mechanics and Zone Speed are absent in this mode, and adding to the usual tennis match mode are Big Rally and Rally Challenge, which doubles the size of the tennis ball and challenges players on both sides to keep the rally as high as possible, respectively. Unfortunately, similar to Mario Power Tennis on Wii, the motion controls in Aces' Swing Mode are borderline frustrating and sporadically unresponsive, often forcing players to challenge the controls than the opponents themselves. In each of my playthroughs in this mode, all of my victories were always achieved by "Advantage" and simply defeating my opponent was all a coin flip than precise motion movement. Wii Sports' Tennis mode on the Wii back in 2006 was much superior to this in that every swing you did was highly dependent on your timing and all of the mistakes you've done was on your part than the Wiimote controller in your hand, whereas with Aces it's the other way around.
Returning after six years of absence since Mario Tennis Open on 3DS, Tournament Mode is a mode in which the player must go through three cups in the usual tournament-style set up seen in the previous games. As nice it is to see it return, I find it a bit of a disappointment for a few reasons: For one, there's no option for Doubles Tournaments, thus you're only left with Singles. Second, whereas the previous entries had four cups with the other four to be unlocked later on, Aces only gives you three cups and nothing else. And lastly, as great the new mechanics are in this game, they can be used to cheese through the three cups by KOs, thus making the whole offline Tournament Mode an afterthought in contrast to the previous Tournament Modes in the previous entries. Despite all this, I did have a fair bit of fun out of it and do return to it time to time.
The Online Tournament makes its return from Ultra Smash to let players go head-to-head with others around the globe and earn points from victories, making Mario Tennis Aces somewhat accessible in letting you challenge others online...emphasis on "somewhat". The majority of my matches were plagued by poor online connection that often led to abruptly-cancelled matches and flow-stopping frame rates, making for a rather uncomfortable experience. In addition to this, the lack of matchmaking for players of different skill levels hurts the experience for me as those first times of playing this game online put me up against extremely skilled players far beyond my level of skill, limiting my visits to Online Tournament mode. On the bright side, participating in an Online Match entitles you to unlock a character earlier than the next month.
Despite its noticeable shortcomings in content and online play, Mario Tennis Aces was still a blast to play through for me with its new gimmick and a rather engaging Adventure Mode, despite not being perfect. I've waited 14 years for another good entry in the series since Power Tennis on Game Cube and even though Aces doesn't do a lot of things right for the many, I wasn't disappointed in the slightest and am willing to forgive its small missteps. The Game & Set settings missing in Free Mode is baffling, sure. The traditional Court Selection screen is missing, sure. The Doubles options are broken, sure. But in all honesty, neither of these were problematic enough to affect my enjoyment for the game and I couldn't have asked for anything less for it.
...but let's hope Camelot fixes those issues in the future!
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Mario Tennis Aces (US, 06/22/18)
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