At its core, Mario Tennis Aces is a game that goes in hard on the one thing it wants to specialize in — providing a world-class competitive multiplayer experience — but feels oddly sparse around the edges when it comes to practically everything else. If what you’re looking for from Aces is the quirky character-based RPG adventure of the old Game Boy Mario Tennis or Golf games (or more recently Golf Story), or if you’re looking for the range of settings to be able to play full six-game matches of official-rules tennis, you’re out of luck with this game. On the other hand, if what you want is heart-pounding competitive matches in a game with deep strategic depth and an incredibly high skill ceiling, Mario Tennis Aces is perhaps the greatest Mario sports game ever released.
In fact, only calling it a “sports game” may be selling it short. When I got the chance to talk to people about the game, one phrase kept being repeated — “it’s like a fighting game.” A lot of this has to do with the importance of the game’s energy meter system, which allows players to unleash various powers with the energy they build up while playing. This can include cartwheeling across the court to catch a missed shot, slowing down time, or even making pinpoint-aimed smash shots powerful enough to break the opponent’s racket. (In fact, this might be the first tennis game which allows you to win by KO). A “simple mode” with no energy meter is available for those who just want to play regular tennis, but so far the majority of players seem to have gravitated to the energy-intensive “standard mode” instead.
So what does this competitive online play look like? Essentially, it’s a series of endless single-elimination tournaments in which you play short matches and then are matched up with people who are on the same winning streak as you. If you make it through to the third round, you’ll be matched up with a random available player who’s also currently at the third round (and, importantly, has a stable connection when matched with you). The main concern I was left with after trying out the free demo weekend prior to launch was that the worst of the games I played were the ones in which the internet connection wasn’t holding up (lag and stuttering in games about correct timing never goes well), but the live game took that into account and now refuses to match you against anyone who looks in danger of disconnecting if they match up with you.
The gameplay itself is both complex and heavy on mind games. I’ve been playing for a few weeks now and have learned at least one new thing about my playstyle every day, whether it’s a fancy new technique or just a realization that opponents keep successfully returning a certain combo because I’ve become too predictable. This might not be for everyone; as a naturally competitive person I’m drawn to this kind of game, but the type of player who has less time to practice or just wants to relax may find the cutthroat nature of the online mode frustrating. Luckily, a recent July patch has added a skill rating system to the online matchmaking, which should make it less likely for a casual player to get annihilated by someone who’s already put fifty hours into the game.
The fact that Nintendo has started patching the game also gives hope that they will make some much-needed character balance changes (update: as of the day this article was posted, some minor character tweaks have already been announced). A few weeks into the launch, the metagame is currently completely dominated by the characters Bowser Jr. and Waluigi. If you’ve played a Mario Tennis game before, you’ll be familiar with the idea that every playable character falls into a “type” category that determines what they specialize in. For example, Bowser is a Power character who can hit hard, whereas Yoshi is a Speedy character who can run fast. The offending category here is called Defensive, which is to say that these characters have a very long reach (finally a use for Waluigi’s noodly limbs). It’s a fun idea, but combined with the current range added by trick shots, it means that even if Bowser Jr. and Waluigi get baited as far away from the ball as possible, they can still recover by nonchalantly zooming around the entire length of the court without consequence.
Despite the game containing more than 15 playable characters (and growing), those two characters single-handedly comprise at least half of the players with high rankings and win percentages. If you have a high rating, you will soon grow to dread the sight of yet another Bowser Jr. (seemingly mass-produced from a factory somewhere) using the same easy-to-learn but effective strategies to cruise through tournaments. To fix this, I wouldn’t mind if Bowser Jr. was launched into the sun, but I’d also be satisfied with some more simple tweaks like dealing with how overwhelmingly important trick shots are to the current metagame as well as some improvements to the characters who currently get almost no play at all (like Toad). To show you what I mean by both the importance of trick shots and current issues with Bowser Jr., I’ve added a video of a Bowser Jr. being both forced out of bounds and caught in a stun animation, but recovering instantly by trick-shotting across the full length of a court.
Mario Tennis Aces does have a single-player mode, though it’s not what you would expect. It doesn’t go the route of the single-player modes of previous Mario Tennis games where you play a custom character who hangs around a clubhouse and does quests and chooses whether to level up their power, accuracy, or spin. Neither does it follow the example of most sports game single-player modes where you play through the course of a season against an increasingly difficult AI. Instead, it gives you a surprisingly difficult set of mini-games, like hitting 20 Koopas who are sitting on barrels throwing hammers at you, or using trick shots to jump over chairs propelled at you by a ghost. There are a few real matches thrown into the mix, but they usually involve a gimmick, like having to play while avoiding a rush-hour crowd of civilians who are rudely running across the court. While it’s not what I expected, I would recommend playing it if you want to play the online multiplayer mode. It really does teach you skills such as shot accuracy and zone shot block timing and you will be better prepared for the online multiplayer after completing it, if only because getting used to the timing of blocking is invaluable for not losing by KO all of the time.
The other modes available to you are the free-play games against friends or against the CPU. You can choose whether to play singles or doubles, which type of court you want to play on, whether you want a long match or just a tiebreaker game, and — in the case of the AI — you can choose its difficulty setting. To get better, you can practice against the AI at the highest difficulty setting (Ace) if you like, though be aware that it acts differently to a player, namely because it uses zone shots at about eight times the rate that a player does (partly because it always has energy to spare since it never slows down time to get to the ball), perfectly blocks all zone serves without having to slow down time, and isn’t even inconvenienced by most drop shots and lobs because it’s never off balance. That’s not to say it’s harder than a good player, but it’s flawless in areas that players can’t be while being flawed in areas that players have solved (e.g., for some reason the CPU break their rackets trying to return special shots a lot).
There’s not a lot else to the game. There is a separate “swing mode” for players who want to use Wii-style motion controls to play, but I don’t have much experience with it as I largely play using the Pro Controller. Puzzlingly, Mario Tennis Aces is missing what for any tennis game should be considered very basic functionality — the ability to play a proper match of actual-length tennis. In real tennis, a game in a big tournament involves five sets of first-to-six-games matches for men and three such sets for women. Aces will at most allow you to play sets of first-to-two-games, meaning that players often don’t get enough time to figure out their opponent’s gimmick before losing 0-2 and being ushered off the court, let alone enough time to get into a strong back-and-forth of strategic counters and counter-counters. This fix seems common-sense and easy to implement, not to mention important for the game’s future as a potential eSport, so I hope the options for free play are fleshed out more in a future patch.
Overall, I can recommend this game as a full-price purchase to anyone who enjoys competitive online games, but anyone interested in primarily the single-player mode and games against the CPU may find that, while what’s available is good, there’s not really enough of it. The online play, of course, is dependent on the idea that there are still people to play against (a few weeks out from release I’m starting to get long waiting times if trying to play at odd times of day), so if you’re reading this review a year out from the release of the game, keep that in mind and check whether the community’s still alive. In the modern day and age when even Nintendo is offering regular version updates for games (like Arms, which got major patch support even though it struggled sales-wise), I can only hope for Mario Tennis Aces to continue to be maintained to a high standard, because if it is I can’t imagine getting bored of it any time soon.