Mario gets about, doesn’t he? In the past year, he’s been on a globetrotting Odyssey, joined forces with some Rabbids to save the world (again), and now he’s donning his sneakers in time to surf the astroturf in Mario Tennis Aces. It’s been three years since we last had a Mario Tennis game, and it’s fair to say that there’s been quite the hype around Mario’s latest adventure, especially since it’s the first game since Mario Tennis Power Tour on the Game Boy Advance to feature a story mode.
And what a story mode that is. Talk about a game that very much moves tennis beyond the ordinary. A magical racket named Lucien, or the Legendary Racket of Bask as its formerly known, has been found by Wario and Waluigi and has possessed Luigi. It turns out this racket is capable of destroying entire kingdoms and is basically the Mario Tennis Aces equivalent of the Infinity Gauntlet. If the bad guys manage to collect five Power Stones, the full power of Lucien will be restored - a la Avengers: Infinity War but without all that finger clicking. Daisy and Peach are apparently too important as diplomats to go on the adventure, so it’s up to Mario and Toad to track down Wario, Waluigi and the possessed Luigi along with Lucien.
Boss battles on a tennis court? Go on then
Of course, it’s never just a case of wandering straight up to where the baddies are hiding, but rather undertaking numerous challenges along the way as you try to reach the areas containing the power stones. Some of these trials will just consist of straightforward matches, but usually with some funky court activities, such as piranha plants that eat your ball or ship masts that must be avoided. They add a lovely element of surprise and additional tactics to the play, and all of the courts can be brought over to the freeplay modes once you’ve defeated your foe. There are even boss battles (yes, you read that right), with your shots acting in lieu of actual attacks. Meanwhile, other Adventure challenges are more tricksy, such as knocking down boards with your balls to score enough points before a timer runs out. Some of them are utterly brilliant, with the difficulty meaning that completion is just tantalisingly out of reach for that ‘just one more go’ mentality.
Game, Set, Match
9 essential Mario Tennis Aces tips to know before you play
But, the Adventure mode isn’t always entirely successful. Some levels require some awkward puzzle solving, or a level of precision that’s sometimes near impossible using the gyroscope controls, or just downright fussy. One mirror level near the start was so obtuse in its instructions and goals that I got close to lobbing a Joy-Con through the window in frustration, which isn’t something that I’d usually say about puzzle solving in a tennis game. However, those frustrations don’t detract from the fact that this Adventure mode is inventive, adding an extra layer of engagement for an otherwise fairly standard arcade tennis game.
Tennis with a touch of aggression
When I say ‘fairly standard’ that does come with a caveat though, as developer Camelot hasn’t just stuck to the usual arcade tennis rules for this one. There are still classic moves like lobs, drops, topspins and slice shots but Mario Tennis Aces has a few tricks up its sleeve to reinvent the Mario Tennis formula somewhat - although don’t expect to see any of this lot at Wimbledon this summer.
This game introduces Power Shots that means you basically get Super Smash Bros x Mario Tennis Aces for experimental, tactical and downright kooky matches every time you start swinging. In the top left-hand corner of your screen, you’ll see an energy gauge that controls what special moves you can pull off. You build your energy by returning shots, pulling off trick shots with a quick flick of the right joystick, or just using charge shots, which are simply just a case of holding down one of the face buttons for a bit longer to let you ‘charge’ your swing. After that, you’ll notice your energy soaring, and then, when a shiny triangle appears, you can use a Zone Shot to unleash a powerful attack that can actually damage your opponent’s racket. Knock enough health off one and they’ll either have to forfeit from your devilish KO, leaving the match in a McEnroe-esque tantrum or swap it out for another if they have one. Knowing that both you and your enemy have these powers to unleash constantly keeps you on your toes, and keeping a watchful eye on the top corners of your screen to check how much energy your foe has. If you want to go old-school though, don’t fear, you can turn on simple mode that strips out all the energy and its related powers.
Outside of the Adventure Mode, Mario Tennis Aces has 15 playable characters to choose from in the various other modes - Tournament, Free Play and a motion-controlled bit of fun called Swing Mode. Every character has its own distinct playstyle, with Mario taking up the gauntlet for easy all-rounder. There are new characters like Spike and Chain Chomp, who value power over speed on the court, while Yoshi and Toad are very nimble indeed. Waluigi and Bowser Jr. though are more about defensive tactics. Learning how to use each one on the court, but also how to work against them is all part of the fun in Mario Tennis Aces.
At the end of the day, Adventure Mode is only going to take you so far, and, like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch, it’s really all about multiplayer. You can opt in for online or local multiplayer, or just pass a Joy-Con to your pal for instant split-screen, which is really where the game shines brightest - and I’m not just talking graphically, although this game is an absolute stunner. This is a game built for battling against your friends, which might seem like a weird turn of phrase for a tennis game, but absolutely works for Mario Tennis Aces.
So tighten those strings for a game of tennis that would terrify Andy Murray, and smash rackets on your way to victory.