Mario has a long history with sports games, but few of his sports outings have been as acclaimed as Mario Tennis. The Nintendo 64 version earned especially positive reviews, and remains one of the highest-rated games on the system. Conversely, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for the Wii U stands out as one of the worst-reviewed Mario Tennis games, and so it's understandable if fans don't know what to expect from Mario Tennis Aces. Does it reach the heights of the Nintendo 64 version, or is it as disappointing as the Wii U entry? The answer is that it falls somewhere in the middle.
Mario Tennis Aces introduces enough new mechanics that it feels like a significant evolution for the Mario Tennis series from a gameplay perspective. The most significant addition is the energy meter, which allows players to hit zone shots and utilize zone speed. Zone shots allow players to directly aim where they hit the ball, whereas zone speed allows them to slow down time - useful for hitting back especially tricky shots.
Zone shots and zone speed could have easily felt like meaningless gimmicks, but they add an extra layer of genuine strategy to the tennis matches. Players have to decide if they should go for easy points by using zone shots whenever possible, or hang on to their energy to counter any zone shots that their opponents may throw their way.
Zone shots result in especially powerful hits, and players take a risk whenever they decide to hit the ball back. Unless they hit the ball with a perfectly timed swing, they will damage their racket. If a racket is damaged three times, it will break, and that can result in a KO. In our own time with the game, we were sometimes able to abuse this feature to score some easy and undeserved wins, so this feels like it still needs some balancing tweaks.
Purists may want to ignore zone shots and the energy feature in general, and if so, they will still have a well-made and generally fun tennis game to enjoy. However, one's long-term enjoyment of Mario Tennis Aces is going to depend almost entirely on if they have a regular group of friends to have over for some couch multiplayer, as we found the other modes to be passable, but nothing special.
Besides battling it out in fast-paced and often intense tennis matches against friends as a variety of Super Mario series characters, players can also participate in standard single player tournaments, go through the Adventure Mode, or try out the online multiplayer. Compared to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, there's definitely more content to sift through, and as previously stated, it's all basically passable while not leaving much of a lasting impression.
The tournament mode is standard with nothing significant to report from there, though the Adventure Mode is something different. Adventure Mode attempts to inject some RPG elements into Mario Tennis Aces, as Mario competes in tennis matches, fights bad guys, and completes tennis-themed mini-games in exchange for experience points that improve his various stats. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell that Mario's stats are improving all that much as players go through Adventure Mode, as it's still a skill-based game, so the RPG elements fall kind of flat.
Not only will players be improving Mario's stats, though, they also will earn new rackets by playing through Adventure Mode. Having multiple rackets means a racket breaking isn't necessarily game-ending like it can be in other modes, and as a neat twist, each racket has a distinct look and its own advantages.
Earning as many rackets as possible is one of the main reasons why Mario Tennis Aces players will want to keep playing Adventure Mode, but they may also be amused by the story. The story in Mario Tennis Aces is ridiculous, with Wario and Waluigi stealing an ancient, cursed tennis racket that then starts causing trouble for Mario and friends. Mario then must go on a tennis-themed quest to set the world right again, interacting with a variety of recognizable and snarky characters along the way. The story in Mario Tennis Aces isn't going to win any awards, but it's entertaining enough, and provides a genuine laugh or two.
After wrapping up Adventure Mode, which doesn't take long at all, players will then have to rely on the multiplayer modes to keep them engaged with the game. The best multiplayer experiences with Mario Tennis Aces come from local multiplayer matches, as we found the online to be unreliable, with some matches suffering from rather severe lag. It's possible that these issues with the online are due to release weekend server stress, so hopefully it performs better in the coming months, especially when Nintendo introduces its paid online service later this year.
Finally, Mario Tennis Aces also has a mode dedicated to motion controls called Swing Mode. However, anyone hoping to recreate their fond memories of Wii Sports tennis should keep their expectations in check. We found the motion controls to be rather unresponsive, and they only serve to overly simplify the gameplay. For the best Mario Tennis Aces experience, it's best to ignore the motion controls and stick to a traditional control scheme.
The core gameplay in Mario Tennis Aces is responsive, fast-paced, and easy to pick up and play, while challenging to master. Some of the game modes are disappointing, and solo players may not have as much fun with the game as those who have a regular group of friends over to play games. For these reasons, Mario Tennis Aces may not be quite as engaging as the Nintendo 64 game, but it's a significant improvement over the poorly-received Ultra Smash on the Wii U. Anyone looking for a fun tennis game on the Switch shouldn't hesitate to pick it up.
Mario Tennis Aces is out now, exclusively for the Nintendo Switch.