Hot on the heels of a remastered Pikmin comes another big in-house Nintendo title pitching for wider recognition on the world’s mainstream console of choice. Mario Tennis was an office favourite on back in the day, and we’d have to say it’s a perfect fit for a conversion to Wii. Nintendo’s developers are the geniuses behind the ultra-playable and iconic Wii Sports Tennis, so to effectively repackage it with the equally iconic Mario characters sounds like a guaranteed means of earning even more megabucks.
In its original N64 incarnation, this was one of the simplest tennis games since Pong. With just two buttons used to access the full range of shots and no timing required to hit the ball, anyone could get a decent rally going. Advanced players could call on topspin, sliced shots, flat shots, drop shots and lobs, plus an intuitive double-tap method of charging up harder hits. It was easy to learn and, once you got used to it, extremely precise.
The GameCube version sensibly retained the same basic controls, adding more graphical flair, a variety of trap-laden courts and some new minigames. Despite the addition of a pair of never-miss special moves for each character, which could be charged up multiple times during a rally, it played the same way as the virtuous original. With such a fine track record, surely it can’t fail on Wii? Unfortunately it’s not all good news. While it’s undoubtedly bigger and more polished than Sega Superstar Tennis, the near-perfect controls of the earlier versions haven’t carried over tremendously well to the Wii remote.
The motion recognition is solid, but there’s a fundamental problem with the way the Mario Tennis mechanic is applied to a no-button control scheme. On GC and N64 you’d move your character near where you thought the ball was going to land, then press a button to choose a shot. Your avatar would be frozen in place and the earlier you pressed the button, the more power you’d get on the shot. The same applies to the Wii version, except you don’t have any buttons to press. As soon as you stop moving the character, he starts charging his shot. If you make a positioning adjustment, the charge is lost. To hit the ball you have to time it just like in Wii Sports and the angle is determined not by the direction you’re pressing the joystick (because you can’t touch it) but by how early or late you swing the remote.
So the lean, accurate Mario Tennis gameplay of old becomes no more tactical than the knockabout fun of Wii Sports tennis. Instead of being able to aim the ball exactly where you want, to force your opponent out of position and create angles for zinging returns, all you can really do is hit it and hope. With that in mind, you have to play the game a different way. It’s Mario Tennis, but not as we knew it.
There are four control options, each with varying amounts of automation. The most advanced option allows you to move the character (via the D-pad is the default, although you can also plug in a Nunchuk) and select your own shots, while the simplest does practically everything except hit the ball for you. We found the game to be more playable when you don’t have to bother moving the character. Movement with the D-pad is entirely unsatisfactory and swinging the remote while it’s got a Nunchuk hanging out of the bottom makes it harder to switch from forehand to backhand. The fully manual option also requires use of the tiny plus and minus dots, despite not having any functions at all on the two Nunchuk buttons.
With a suitable halfway option selected it becomes a lot more like Wii Sports and a lot less like a nerfed version of a game we mastered several years ago. Unplug that Nunchuk, keep your thumb away from the D-pad and you can enjoy a massively simplified but still quite entertaining game of tennis. If anything, the powerups and gimmicky courts seem to make a bit more sense when they’re not interfering with the balance of a purely skill-based game.
Special shots can be invoked when you’ve hit enough charged shots to fill a little meter at the top of the screen. There’s an offensive and defensive special shot for each character, activated by holding A or B while taking a shot. Though if you prefer, you can leave it entirely to the AI’s discretion. As long as you can keep hitting charged shots every time, you’ll rack up power shot after power shot – as will your opponent.
Defensive power shots are guaranteed to return the ball, no matter where it is. The action freezes, a cutscene plays and the character will stretch out a mechanical grabber, teleport across the screen or fill the court with water and take a leisurely swim over to the ball. Those shots just return the ball at normal speed, so the opponent is unlikely to get beaten by them. The offensive shots, however, are a different matter. Another cutscene plays, something extremely untennissy happens and the ball turns into a 500mph rocket that flattens anyone who gets in its way.
The best counter for that is obviously the defensive power shot, so if you’ve got a game between two competent and evenly matched players, a useful winning tactic is going to be to fire off an offensive shot at a moment when your rival’s power meter is dry. Not that there’s any point saving them up when they can be recharged so quickly. The animations are far too long and they can really get annoying during a doubles match, but on the whole – and especially given the way the Wii version plays – they’re probably a good thing to have in there.
Solo players can take on a series of tournaments that become cripplingly difficult towards the end, as the opponent AI doesn’t seem to have been toned down to compensate for the lack of ball control. Your reward for trouncing the toughest tournaments is a more powerful ‘star’ version of a character and it’ll take ages to unlock the whole set – you have to start each tourney ladder right at the bottom every time you select a new character.
The minigames are a mixed bag, with some rendered unnaturally hard by the waggly control system. They’ve all got multiple variations to work through but we didn’t get the urge to return and try for high scores in most of them. The variations on the standard tennis game are better, particularly if you’ve got a few friends to play with. There’s one where you accumulate points by hitting balls through rings, and the randomness of the aiming that proved so irritating when playing the computer actually makes for a good multiplayer laugh.
It’s in multiplayer modes that the game really comes to life. The evil AI opponents make the later tournaments less than fun to play, but if you’re facing somebody who’s got equally little chance of forcing you wide and pinging a cross-court winner, it can be reasonably competitive. If they’d stuck Miis in it as well, this would be a reasonable alternative to Wii Sports Tennis.
Mar 9, 2009
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