Mario Tennis Aces is a blast to play.
Mario is a busy guy. This dude has time to save Peach in platformers, level up in RPGs, put together a group for go-karting, and play every sport known to man – or at least the Mushroom Kingdom – while managing to run a profitable plumbing business. How he manages this as anyone’s guess. Point is, the man’s really good at managing his time, and Nintendo’s never been shy about throwing about Mario into new genres.
Mario Tennis is one of the oldest Mario sports franchises, preceded only by Mario Kart and Mario Golf and followed by Mario Baseball, Mario Strikers, and of course, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games. Though it falls in the chronological middle of the Mario sports titles, Mario Tennis has enjoyed the most releases of any of these titles. The most famous entry is probably Mario Tennis: Power Tour on the GameBoy Advance, largely because it features one of the only story modes in the series.
" Mario and Toad must take their tennis skills across the Mushroom Kingdom, collect the Power Stones, and save the world. From an ancient evil tennis racket. It is simultaneously the greatest and stupidest plot in a video game, and I love it."
Mario Tennis Aces marks the return of a single-player, narrative-focused mode in franchise. In Aces, it’s known as Adventure Mode. The game drops you into this by default, which is good as the early stages double as the tutorial. The story itself is both completely ridiculous and utterly self-aware. Mario and co. are playing in a tennis tourney, and our mustachioed main man is doing pretty well. At least, until Wario and Waluigi show up and offer him a special tennis racket. Recognizing their out-of-character behavior, Mario refuses. It turns out that the racket is actually Lucien, the Legendary Racket of Bask, it’s been controlling Wario and Waluigi in hopes of gaining more slaves. With Mario too savvy to control, it decides to possess the hapless Luigi and ruin the tournament. Mario and the rest of the crew escape, but now they have to take the thing down.
See, Lucien is basically the Infinity Gauntlet. Its power has been separated into five Power Stones. If all five are reunited, Lucien will be capable of destroying the entire kingdom. Since Peach and Daisy are important diplomats and too important to risk, it falls to Mario and Toad to take their tennis skills across the Mushroom Kingdom, collect the Power Stones, and save the world. From an ancient evil tennis racket. It is simultaneously the greatest and stupidest plot in a video game, and I love it.
So how do you do this? By playing tennis, natch. Want to cross a river and the boat isn’t running? Beat the captain in tennis. Need to assure Donkey Kong that you can take care of the monsters in the forest? Tennis. Want to prove to Dry Bones that you are worthy to enter the ruins of Bask? Tennis. Oh, and guess how you beat the game’s bosses and acquire the Power Stones? Did somebody say tennis?
"It’s a testament to Camelot that most of this stuff is good. Adventure mode isn’t free of flaws: some of the challenges are overly fussy about where you hit the ball, and others feature puzzle-solving mechanics that are poorly explained or don’t really fit the game’s mechanics."
It’s absolutely absurd, and it’s to Aces’s credit that it understands how silly all of this is and runs with it. Adventure Mode is legitimately funny and far more entertaining than it deserves to be, largely because it doesn’t take itself seriously. Better still, it’s also fun to play. Adventure Mode offers everything from straightforward matches with a twist – say, Piranha Plants that eat your balls at half-court and then spit them out in a random place, or random NPCs that race across the court and might hit your, or your opponent’s, balls back in the other direction – to challenges that require you to complete a certain number of rallies while dropping only so many balls, knocking down boards to score points, or hitting a certain number of shots out of reach of your opponent. Clearing each themed area leads to a boss battle where your shots wear down the bosses stamina and eventually set you up for damage from a special shot.
It’s a testament to Camelot that most of this stuff is good. Adventure mode isn’t free of flaws: some of the challenges are overly fussy about where you hit the ball, and others feature puzzle-solving mechanics that are poorly explained or don’t really fit the game’s mechanics. But its short runtime, humor, challenges and unlockable stages and characters (which can be used later in Free Play) make it worth at least one run through.
As important as Adventure Mode is to the complete package, however, it’s not why you’ll dump countless hours into Aces. You’ll do that for the gameplay, which is the best to grace a Mario Tennis title in quite some time. The core stuff is there: topspin (bouncy), flats (fast) slices (curvy), lobs (high and far), and drop (low and close to the net) shots make up your core options, but each character also has a character type that determines what they’re good at. Powerful, speedy, and all-around characters, like Chain Chomp, Yoshi, and Mario respectively, have pretty self-explanatory strengths, but other aren’t immediately clear. Technical characters like Peach and Toadette are good at playing the corners of a court, while defensive characters like Waluigi can cover a wide area, making them difficult to score on. My favorite are the tricky characters, like Boo, whose slices bend a lot, forcing opponents out of position when they normally wouldn’t be.
" Aces also introduces special shots, which rely on a meter, much like super moves in a fighting game. Building meter is easy; you rally, use your trick shots, and hit charges shots by holding down a button before the ball gets to you."
Characters also have tricks shots, which allow them to cover a large amount of space very quickly and make saves on balls they’d normally miss. Everyone’s is different: Mario leaps to make his, while Boo phases through the ground and reappears in front of the ball, and Waluigi moonwalks across the stage. Learning the timing of these shots, and what they do when they connect, is crucial to playing a character well and makes all of the game’s 15 characters feel unique.
But tricks shots are just the beginning. Aces also introduces special shots, which rely on a meter, much like super moves in a fighting game. Building meter is easy; you rally, use your trick shots, and hit charges shots by holding down a button before the ball gets to you, which makes the shot in question more powerful. You should be doing all of this anyway, so building meter isn’t an issue. What you can spend it on, though, adds a lot to the game.
There’s the Zone Shot, which is available when a rotating star appears on a section of the court. Standing on the star and pressing a certain button results in an incredibly powerful shot that can damage your opponent’s racket if not blocked at the right time. If your racket takes enough damage, it’ll break, and if you lose all your rackets, you’ll forfeit the match. Blocking Zone Shots is tough, which is where Zone Speed comes in. Zone Speed slows time while draining meter, allowing you to get into range for the perfect block or return a difficult ball.
"If Aces has a problem, it’s a lack of content. Sure, Adventure Mode is fun, but it’s also short, and it’s not gonna last you forever."
The real star of the show, however, is the Special Shot. Special Shots require you to have full meter, but are incredibly powerful. If you don’t block one correctly, it will destroy your racket, no matter how damaged it is. Managing all of the game’s system – your meter, racket health, the game score, which type of shot is good against another, etc – grants strategy to Aces that otherwise wouldn’t be there. You have to decide when and how to use your abilities, and when to let certain things go. It might be better to let an opponent score off a Special Shot than risk your last racket, for instance, or you might want to save that Zone Shot for a time when your opponent doesn’t have much meter for Zone Speed. Of course, you can turn these things off by playing Simple Mode, but where’s the fun in that?
If Aces has a problem, it’s a lack of content. Sure, Adventure Mode is fun, but it’s also short, and it’s not gonna last you forever. Beyond that there’s Tournament Mode, Free Mode, Swing Mode (which emphasizes the gyroscopic motion controls) and Online play. Aside from that, you’re on your own. If you here for single-player action, Aces won’t take you far unless you really love the game. Like Mario Kart 8 or an old-fashioned fighting game, Mario Tennis Aces is best enjoyed with other people. The online mode will get you there, but the game is made to be played on a couch with a few friends.
That’s not to say you can’t have fun going solo. The gameplay is excellent, and there’s a lot to be said for Adventure Mode, despite some minor frustrations. The baffling inability to determine how many games or sets you’d like to play in other modes beyond a couple of limited options doesn’t help, but it’s a minor qualm with a game that plays this well. Like any sport game, this one is at the top of its game when shared with and enjoyed by others. Aces’s most impressive accomplishment is that it gives you a game worth playing. Like any real game of tennis, you’re just going to have to find people to play it with.
This game was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.
Excellent game mechanics. Lots of characters to play. Trick shots and special shots add depth and variety. Adventure Mode is fun and funny. A blast in multi-player.
Only a few game modes. Very little for single-player fans outside of Adventure Mode. Certain parts of Adventure Mode can be frustrating. Limited game options.
Mario Tennis Aces features excellent gameplay, a solid single-player mode, and a lot of fun characters, but its at its bets in multi-player. There are some annoying issues, but even at its worst, Aces holds serve.