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.