The Mario Tennis series has been around for a while, and has been on nearly every major Nintendo console since its beginning in 1995. In point of fact, we reviewed the last Mario Tennis game for the 3DS over here. Tennis in the Mushroom Kingdom isn’t simply tennis, naturally, so I grabbed my tennis racket and headed for the courts to see what the new Mario Tennis is serving up. Aside from tennis balls, of course.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash features Mario and his friends (Ed: Bowser is a friend?) on the courts once again lobbing a tennis ball back and forth until one player passes the 40-point mark (or in the case of a tie, then reaching seven points). Like the last game, most shots will cause a coloured symbol to appear on the ground on the opposing side (called Chance Shots); stand in the coloured area, press the right buttons, and you’ll launch a powered up version of that shot. New to the series are the Jump Shot and the Ultra Smash moves, over-powered shots that are near unbeatable, though not impossible to return. Also new is the Mega Mushroom powerup that upgrades the player to a monstrously oversized version for a short while. In this form, shots are more powerful and because of their size, more of the court is reachable quickly. On the flipside, because you’re bigger and badder, you’re a larger target; in true Mario fashion, you lose the powerup if the ball hits you. Sometimes, the only way to even the odds is to play dodge ball instead of tennis.
Unlike prior games, Ultra Smash takes place entirely in a single stadium instead of in various locales. However, the courts are all themed, from grass to clay to carpet to more exotic types, and each court surface affects the way the ball plays. Learning how to adapt to each of the courts is part of the game’s challenge. I felt that some of the stranger court types were more experimental than others, and while amusing, didn’t lend themselves well to enjoyable play as much as the more traditional surfaces.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash comes with several game modes, the main one being Mega Battle. This mode is a standard tennis versus mode where you can choose to play singles or doubles, select your character, select your court, select your win criteria, and off you go. It’s the simple way to get straight into the action, chance shots, mega mushrooms, and all. Then there is the classic tennis mode, where you can select simplified rules such as no chance shots or mega mushrooms. Instead of a tournament with trophies and bling, there’s now a Knockout mode, where you go up against every single one of the other characters in increasing levels of difficulty in a series of first-to-seven-points matches. The first few are ridiculously easy, but the challenge ramps up quite dramatically later on, and it takes a decent measure of luck to actually defeat the last few. The only nod towards a minigame–something that has always been quite prevalent in prior titles–is Mega Ball Rally mode, which sees you and an opponent passing a ball back and forth to try and rack up a huge rally score. Keeping up a good rally against computer opponents proved trying, but this mode was surprisingly fun in multiplayer mode. The final mode is Online play, where you can pit your skills against any other Mario Tennis player in the world for either points or for fun. At present there are very few players online, but when I did find a match, it worked well, with no drops or lag. Note that the game doesn’t support motion controls, so you’re in it with buttons instead of flinging Wii Remotes willy nilly.
As is becoming the norm with many Nintendo titles, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash supports selected Amiibo, but they can only be used, strangely enough, in Knockout mode to create an AI player for you to play WITH against the Knockout opponents. Like Smash Bros., the more you play with the Amiibo, the more it levels up, and if you suck at Knockout, having a levelled up Amiibo next to you can make the difference between losing and gaining that final precious point to defeat your opponent. It makes a kind of sense that you can only use Amiibo as a doubles partner, because the game already provides a scary variety of difficulty levels for you to play against.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, but it turned out a lot more addictive than I’d thought. Like many Nintendo games, it’s the perfect thing to break out when you have company over, or when you want to show your kids who the true Tennis Lord and Champion in the house actually is (Hint: it turns out it wasn’t me). Not to say that you can’t have a good time against the AI, but playing against others is definitely where the game excels, and I’m therefore quite happy for the ability to play online matches. The same problems that plagued Mario Tennis Open still persist in the this game (motion and 3D aside), and the lack of minigames or a proper tournament mode makes it feel like it’s lacking. If you enjoy your sports games, though, you’ll probably enjoy this. Even if you hate the chance shots and mega mushrooms, you can still resort to a standard tennis match for a test of true skill.