A full weekend of fast and furious tennis filled with scintillating slices and deceptive drop-shots, from a diverse roster of players with different styles and attributes… No, I’m not talking about the ongoing French Open, rather the demo of Mario Tennis: Aces, which finished its early access weekend on Sunday night.
After a few disappointing entries in the series, the latest game for Nintendo Switch seems to be a return to form for the franchise. It is still early, and the demo only included a brief tutorial and an online-only tournament mode. The full game will also include a single-player Adventure Mode, local and offline tournaments, and 15 playable characters from the start. From what I played this weekend, fans of the series have a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the game will live up to expectations. However, there are definitely a few issues for Nintendo to address before the release off the game later this month.
Mario Tennis has always been about the delicate balance between arcade style-sports and fighting game mechanics. Mario Tennis: Aces leans into the fighting-game tools more than usual. While there is the standard shot selection of top-spin, slice, flat-shot, lobs and drop-shots, players will now have to manage an “energy gauge” to determine when to activate special abilities such as a “Zone-Shot”, in which a star will appear on the court under the trajectory of your opponents return, and if you have enough energy in the bank you can press “R” to trigger a first-person view where you can use motion-controls to smash the ball into a precise spot on the court. The longer you aim, the more energy is used. The quicker you take your shot, the more likely it is you will hit the net or simply smash the ball out (an embarrassing feat that I made a habit out of).
If you allow your energy gauge to fill up completely, you can do a “Special Shot” by pressing “L”. This will trigger a short animation unique to each character, and basically functions as a more powerful Zone Shot. The break in play while the animation takes place can be a little jarring, and sometimes made it difficult to remember where on the court my character was positioned. I do wonder if post-release and after 50 hours of matches, seeing the same animation again and again will get slightly irritating, but thankfully they are short enough to begin with.
These ultra-powerful shots are not impossible to return, due to the introduction of “Zone Speed”, which essentially a bullet-time for tennis balls. Holding “R” will initiate Zone Speed (provided you have some energy in your meter) and time will slow, allowing you to reach shots and block specials you would not normally reach. I had a major problem with Zone Speed; not only does it slow down the game and affect the rhythm of a rally, but some of my opponents were using it to retrieve impossible shots, literally from alongside the Toad umpires at the end of the courts and next to the crowd. I felt that I had earned those points with great shot selection, anticipation of returns, and building my meter until a powerful Zone Shot should’ve put the ball away… but because of Zone Speed, all of this was negated, allowing the opponent to get a simple return back from what should’ve been a clear winner. Even though this is the nature of arcade sports games, and Mario Tennis in general, it felt a twinge unfair.
Returning a Zone Shot or Special Shot is not without risks though; mess up the timing and you will damage your racquet. Sustain too much damage, and it will shatter (bringing back frustrating memories of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s destructible weapons), and if you run of racquets during a match you automatically forfeit. This happened to me a couple of times in the latter stages of a tournament, and it felt like a cheap way to end what had been fun, competitive matches.
When I say that Mario Tennis: Aces is leaning into fighting style mechanics, it is none more evident than in the new importance of basic shot selection. For high-level play, picking the correct shot is essential, as returning a charged-shot (a shot that’s held a few seconds before impact) will knock your character back a few yards and make you susceptible to a drop-shot, unless the correct counter is chosen (for example, to counter a charged shot of top-spin, you need to use a slice return).
Character selection also plays a large part in establishing what the pattern of a match will be; heavies like Bowser and Chain Chomp sacrifice mobility for hitting-power, whereas fleet-footed characters like Yoshi and Toad will have weaker shots but boosted speed. The overwhelming favorite to play as in Tournament mode was Rosalina, who has a slice so sharp that it bordered on comical. Matchmaking was significantly more difficult if playing as her, as people would reject the game before a ball was even tossed. It will be up to Nintendo to address these balancing issues before the full release.
Speaking of issues for Nintendo to address, buggy connections and some serious lag had a widespread effect during the weekend. Many players took to social media expressing their dismay, and for some it was simply unplayable. I would say about 75% of my games were unaffected, but when there was a problem, it left me with a 3-4 second delay between pressing a button and my character responding: pointless when you playing a game all about timing. This will be of grave concern to Nintendo not only ahead of the release of Mario Tennis: Aces but the roll out of their paid online service later this year.
All in all, the demo of Mario Tennis: Aces was very enjoyable. Victory in a tense competitive match will leave you feeling elated, and after a tough loss, you’ll want to jump back in straight away. This is a testament to the depth of game-play, which is there if you want it, but if you don’t, there will be a stripped back version with pure tennis. Nintendo have added their usual polish with a great soundtrack, charming animations, and a roster of classic characters to try out.
The risk/reward aspect of play has been enhanced greatly with the additions of the energy gauge and breakable racquets… Should I try that dangerous block for a large boost of energy, or not risk the damage? Should I use a Zone Shot now, or hold out till I can use a Special? How much should I keep in reserve for Zone Time, just in case? These are the questions I’m looking forward to answering again and again upon the release of the full game on June 22, and provided Nintendo can sort out the connectivity issues, the portability of the Switch will add to what will hopefully be a smashing success.