Game Description: Enlist some of your favorite characters from the Mario universe for a game of doubles in Mario Tennis. Boo, Daisy, Bowser—even new character Waluigi, brother of Wario—and more are here for a game that sets accurate tennis physics in an unpredictable fantasy world. Where else could you play tennis on a court surrounded by lava? Play solo or with up to three friends simultaneously. Exhibition Mode provides a friendly, straightforward game, while Tournament Mode will settle the bets. There's also a Ring Shot Mode, a tennis variant that has players trying to send balls through as many golden rings as they can.
The tennis sports genre has to be one of the most overlooked genres in videogames. Much like golf, it lacks larger than life personalities and the fast-paced gameplay that publishers and gamers look for in sports games. The unusual scoring system, often tedious pacing of tennis matches and snooty reputation of the sport itself do not help matters, either. It's for these reasons the sport hasn't been represented in a meaningful way on consoles beyond early Pong variations that culminated with Nintendo's own Super Tennis on the Super Nintendo—hands down the best to ever be released to the console public to date. Nintendo knew that even with its potent properties at the forefront, a game based on tennis would be a hard sell, so it turned to a developer most experienced at making archaic sports accessible to the masses. That developer is Camelot Software Planning, the company responsible for the famed Hot Shots Golf series, and more recently, Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64. With Camelot's uncanny knack for combining the intricacies of a complex sport and translating it to a console combined with Nintendo's own development prowess, it was a cinch that Mario Tennis would be as good as it is. And while it isn't quite up to the level of the last year's Mario Golf, it could very well make even the most stalwart Super Nintendo fan forget about Super Tennis.
As with other Nintendo "party-games" (Super Smash Brothers and Mario Party), the three-dimensional characters are rendered with a low polygon count to prevent slowdown from showing its ugly face even during frenzied four-player action. This doesn't detract from the game at all, and in fact, it is consistent with the overall look and feel of the rest of the game. The graphics are clean with crisp and vibrant colors—thus maintaining a cartoony appearance sure to endear it to fans of the Mario universe.
There was a lot of personality crammed into the game as well. Players celebrate or sulk after winning or losing matches by doing amusing little dances or shouting for glee. When they screw up it is equally funny to hear them display their displeasure. It never gets old as far as I'm concerned and adds some life and (excuse the pun) character to the characters. Camera angles are thrown in generously to augment the playful arcade feel of the game. Replays are "replayed" to dramatic effect by playing the same winning shot again and again, but from different angles or give a dramatic view of the ball sailing just out of the reach of a diving opponent. These little touches add greatly to overall air of fun that permeates the competition while not diminishing the intense action in the least.
As per usual, the controls are simple, but deceptively so. The analog stick controls character movement with the A-button handling normal returns or serves and the B-button assigned to slices. Knowing these simple commands is enough to allow even the most inexperienced player some success in the game, but those who want to master the game will need to branch out a bit more and learn the complexities hidden beneath the surface. After some time, it is clear that the direction and velocity a ball travels is influenced by the direction my character was facing and the type of swing I put behind the ball. To take things further, consider that by tapping the A- then B-button in sequence results in a soft shot that falls just in front of the net on the opposition's side whereas hitting the B- then A- button will result in a high volley towards the back of the court. Better still, holding down the swing buttons results in a charged swing. This usually packs such a wallop that it even makes a Venus Williams overhand look weak by comparison. Unlike Venus's potent shot, the charged swing leaves my character vulnerable while charging. If a crafty computer opponent or buddy decides to shoot a slice to the opposite end of the court, there isn't much I could do but cancel the charge with the Z-button and give him a hand for besting me. Such a selection of shots is just astonishing considering the actions are limited to two buttons.
Nintendo is rather fortunate that its mascots possess such overly competitive natures or it wouldn't have half the games in its gaming library. As first seen in Super Mario Kart, Nintendo mascots often spring to life, bringing his, her or its own peculiarities to a playing field vying for mascot supremacy—but when they do, it only benefits the player. Each character comes with unique and varying skills and attributes that—quite coincidentally—fit the playing preference of every conceivable gamer. Short players like Baby Luigi for example, are susceptible to the lob shot, but are fleet of foot making it hard to get regular shots past them; tall players like Waluigi (Luigi's new nemesis) use their height to guard the net—keeping players on their heels, but are susceptible to the powerful attacks of behemoths like Bowser, Wario or Donkey Kong Jr. The relative ease with which these characters move about the screen, combined with the shot selection, winds up making each character interchangeable. By that I mean that the players are so well-balanced that you can make play through the game with Bowser—making use of his strengths—with success and then begin again with the more demure Daisy enjoying equal success. Not since the aforementioned Super Mario Kart have I had so much fun going through the same levels repeatedly only using different characters each time. That's a testament to the excellent gameplay.
Mario Tennis comes with a wealth of other gaming modes for those who will tire of the standard tennis matches. In addition to the single-player tournament and exhibition modes, there are also doubles matches for as many as four players to compete in. Ring modes are available for those gamers content to hit balls through rings for points—not that I didn't enjoy myself while doing it. The Bowser Courts are reminiscent of Mario Kart 64, where blocks are situated over the net so that hitting one yields a power-up to be used at anytime during the match. Naturally this includes the usual power-ups such as bananas and lightning bolts, but dodging these hazards and still landing a well-placed shot is made all the more difficult since the court itself is rocked back and forth on a pulley system. The final mode is the Piranha Challenge. It is a solo tennis-practice with a twist. Here three piranha shoot balls at you from the other side of the net and your goal is to send them back past a computer controlled opponent. The more balls get by it, the more points you score. These modes lack lasting appeal, but do offer a mild diversion from the action—in my case I was content to stick to the standard modes for my amusement.
Every review I do of a Nintendo game is a battle. I have to consciously resist writing phrases like "deceptively simple gameplay at its finest," "fun for the whole family" and other terms taken right off a Peter Main press release. The sad part is that it can't be helped because they are the perfect descriptions of a game like Mario Tennis. Camelot and Nintendo combined to create an engaging game that will reach out from the most rank amateur to the tennis pro, and offer them both something to sink their teeth into. A larger selection of characters and longer tournaments would have added greatly to the experience, but as is, Mario Tennis is a keeper.
Parents have little to worry about with Mario Tennis. Nintendo has made it a point to keep games like this one made suited for all ages and the same goes for Mario Tennis.
Tennis fans have two titles of worth to choose from this year. Virtua Tennis on the Sega Dreamcast is a more realistic experience for the simulation fans, whereas Mario Tennis is more of an arcade experience sure to appeal to any gamer.
Mario Tennis is easy to pick up hard to put down so it is perfect for those looking for multiplayer action that will be assessable to gamers of all levels (i.e. non-gamer girlfriends or boyfriends, whatever the case may be).
I've spent so much time playing Mario Golf over the past year that I don't even take the game out of my Nintendo 64 anymore. The game has become a daily ritual for me. It only comes out when I get a new game to review, then it goes right back in. It's a golf game I know, but there's something magical about it that keeps me coming back. It's fun, light-hearted, challenging and easy to get into. In short, it's the quintessential Nintendo game. When I heard that Nintendo was once again teaming up with Camelot for Mario Tennis, I could hardly contain my excitement.
Mario Tennis takes everything that made Mario Golf the great game that it is and simply molds it to fit a different sport. In fact, the character models in Mario Tennis are exactly the same as the ones that were used in Mario Golf. But forget about all of the similar game modes, gameplay and characters that the two games share, it's the personality and unrelenting charm that ultimately makes them so rewarding. I love how the characters grunt and yell as the knock the ball back and forth. Sure, the pros do it in real life, but in Mario Tennis we hear the high-pitched squeals from Toad; soft, wimpy whines from Princess Peach; and hilarious "Mama mias!" from Luigi. The courts are also rendered according to real life specifications—the grass courts even wear thin as a match progresses—but in this game the lines are watched by Koopa turtles and Bomb Ombs, and they will either hide in their shells or explode when a ball comes flying at them. No one can warp the real world with such child-like playfulness quite like Nintendo, and Mario Tennis is filled to the brim with that unique flavor we've come to expect in their games.
Just like Mario Golf, you don't have to be a fan of the sport to enjoy Mario Tennis. In fact, both games seem to relish in their role as educators for the non-fan while staying faithful to their core audiences at the same time. I had a great time playing Mario Tennis, but I would have liked to have seen even more variety gameplay wise, and more hidden features and characters. The Tournament mode is a lot of fun and very challenging, and so are the various special events—only Nintendo can make the act of hitting a ball through a ring enjoyable. However, I still felt there wasn't quite enough to do. Mario Tennis is missing a bit of the variety that Mario Golf has, and as a result there's less substance to keep you interested over the long haul. It could be just that tennis as a sport intrinsically lacks the same potential for new ideas as golf offers. In tennis you're kind of stuck on the court, while in golf the environment and strategy is always changing with every new hole. When you think of it that way, Mario Tennis does a pretty amazing job of packing in the good times within the confines of the tennis court. But I still think the game relies a little too much on its gameplay to carry load.
Don't get me wrong—I share Dale's enthusiasm for the game. The gameplay, coupled with the simple controls, was handled masterfully by the developers. It was the fun of playing tennis in the Super Mario universe that kept me coming back to Mario Tennis. The game is definitely in the upper echelon of the Nintendo 64 library. Had it aimed just a bit farther outside out of the line and really gone for it all, I would have served up a 9.5 or even a 10 instead of a 9.