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We love Virtua Tennis, but can a pro tennis star summon a group of dancing aliens to distract his opponent? Unlikely. That’s why we love Sega Superstars Tennis. It takes all of VT’s best bits - the simple controls, the ball physics, the minigames - and sprinkles them with Sega magic, turning it into an explosive kaleidoscope of silly fun. Being supersonic hedgehogs and tiny ball-dwelling monkeys will always be more fun than blokes in headbands.
The game’s hub is Planet Superstars - a multi-coloured portal leading to dozens of exhibition tournaments, singles matches, doubles matches and preposterous Sega-styled minigames. Each area is themed after a famous Sega franchise - the Curien Mansion from the House of the Dead series, Sonic’s Green Hill Zone, Coconut Beach from OutRun - and has challenges specific to its theme. So in Green Hill Zone you compete against the clock to collect rings while in the House of the Dead stage you smack zombies with tennis rackets - most of the challenges are marvelously addictive. In Planet Superstars mode (Story mode, basically) you’re rated for your performance, and you will get addicted to trying to score AAA on every challenge.
The difficulty curve is well-pitched, and highly engaging. For example, Sonic’s first mission sees you simply collecting rings and dodging projectiles. But later you have to collect the rings in a certain order. Then the rings are moving. Then there are more projectiles. Then you have to collect them in a certain order while they’re moving. It’s delightfully frantic, and also makes you better at regular tennis matches as it lets you get used to your chosen character’s speed and movement style. Each varies greatly. They have basic classes - all-rounder, speed, power, control - but each one has subtle differences. NiGHTS, for example, can fly - but it makes lining shots up harder as he’s floating above the ground all the time.
What about the actual tennis? Well, as you would expect, you can play doubles or singles matches, in tournaments or as one-offs. It’s a pretty standard sim - use the two buttons for different swings, and the analogue stick to guide the ball. If your opponent lobs it, an icon appears briefly on the court; hitting the ball at that time will let you whack it back with a power shot - something Virtua Tennis fans will be familiar with.
What VT players won’t be so familiar with are the special shots. Score enough points and the star beneath your character starts to glow. When it’s at its flashiest, you can activate Superstars mode. Each player has a different move during this time. Sonic turns into his golden-coated Super Sonic alter-ego and his shots become so strong they send his opponents hurtling backwards. Ulala from Space Channel 5, meanwhile, has shots that move through the air in the shape of a 5, confusing her opponents. And not only that, but she summons a gang of Morolian aliens that, if touched, make the other player dance uncontrollably. We are a bit concerned that some seem hideously overpowered, mind.
A big thing it has that Virtua Tennis doesn’t is online play. Once you’ve learned to cream the computer, the real challenge comes facing off against much more clever human opponents. It gets incredibly crazy during a four-player match when everyone has their star power charged at the same time - you can just imagine all the different effects exploding on the court.
So why doesn’t it score higher than Virtua Tennis? If you’re not that interested in the Sega stuff (say, you’re a confirmed miserabilist), SST plays a far more basic game, with simplified physics and reduced depth. If it didn’t have the thrill of unlocking new characters, stages and music your attention might wander. Still, it’s a vibrant, colourful triumph that smothers tennis in Sega’s undeniable magic. We only wish the controls were a little more in-depth, with more shot types and more complex ball physics. The mini-games alone are almost worth the asking price.
Mar 18, 2008