Mario Tennis Aces Review: Ball, Meet Net
As a journalist, it's my job to fairly review the games I'm assigned; to rate them on their merits and the amount of fun I have playing them while trying to limit external bias, or at least mention it up front. A video game review should inform somebody whether or not they'll enjoy the game in question, regardless of whether or not they share my views on what makes a game fun. This is what makes writing this Mario Tennis Aces review so hard.
As a game, I can find very little to fault it for, and yet the game left me wanting because it could have been and should have been so much better. So where does that leave us – you, the folks who want to know whether Mario Tennis Aces is worth your hard-earned money, and me, the guy that has to tell you? Well let's start the Mario Tennis Aces review like this:
Mario Tennis Aces is the best Mario Tennis game in over a decade. If you're jonesing for more Mario Tennis action, buy the game now and don't look back.
A Clean Stroke
Where Mario Tennis Aces really shines is in its core gameplay. Nintendo has stripped away a lot of the extra trimmings of previous iterations of the Mario Tennis series (items, in particular) to focus on retooling the way the game actually works.
To be successful in Mario Tennis Aces, you'll really have to be strategic. Sure, you have the five main shot types to play with – a topspin shot that speeds up after the first bounce, a powerful flat shot, a curving slice, and drop shots and lobs to catch out-of-position opponents. That's no surprise.
Mario Tennis Aces switches things up by adding what is essentially a super meter to the game. You can burn this meter to go into slow motion to return a shot, burn a third of it to unleash a super-powerful shot you can direct anywhere on the court, or burn a full meter to use a special shot that's even more powerful. Nintendo has also added in trick shots that allow characters to return shots even if they're way out of position.
When all of this comes together, what results is an incredibly engaging, heart-pounding experience where every single swing of the racket comes with risk and reward. Do you risk charging up a shot to build meter while knowing you might get caught out of position, or will you play it safe? Will you go for a trick shot with an empty meter, knowing that if you're late on the timing, you'll serve up a meatball for your opponent? The core push-and-pull on display in Mario Tennis Aces is exquisite, and goes a long way in covering up the game's, well, faults. Tennis pun intended.
I'm going to get this out of the way first since it's the thing that disappointed me the most about the game – the highly-touted adventure mode in Mario Tennis Aces won't take you more than 3 hours or so to complete, depending on how experienced you are. That wouldn't be an issue on its own, but in the lead-up to the game's release, Nintendo pitched this adventure mode as a sort of return to the sports RPG modes present in the Mario Tennis and Mario Golf games for the Game Boy Advance. This... isn't that.
To be fair, the adventure mode isn't just a tutorial – there is at least a bit of meat on these bones – and it does get challenging, especially if you're looking to get that coveted 100%. But the RPG mechanics here are tacked-on at best, and none of your equipped rackets feel different from any others. There aren't any real engaging tennis puzzles, or any encounters that shine with the kind of creativity Nintendo is known for. Maybe I've been spoiled by Golf Story, but I really was expecting more here.
While it might not be entirely fair to expect a full single-player campaign from an arcade sports game, what's much less forgivable is the fact that Mario Tennis Aces launched without a whole bunch of play options that seem necessary for an arcade sports title.
First of all, and perhaps most damningly, there are only two match lengths to choose from – a tiebreaker first-to-6-points format, and a best-of-3 game format that is laughably titled “extended play”. No options for a 3 set match, even though the adventure mode features them. You can't even pick the extended play option if you're playing online (unless you're with friends). It's Wimbledon season. There's no excuse for not having options for 3, 5, and 7 game sets, and 1, 3, and 5-set matches.
The problems get even worse when you're trying to play against your buddies. There are no options for creating a private online tournament for friends, or even any options for hosting a pass-and-play local tournament. There are countless minor oversights like this, and they really do add up.
Oh, and we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that as of the publication of this Mario Tennis Aces review, Bowser Jr. has rendered competitive play completely broken since he can charge shots at will and return pretty much anything that's thrown at him. This will likely continue to be the case unless Nintendo decides to issue balance patches for the game as they add new characters.
Speaking of adding new characters, that's something that Nintendo seems to have gotten right.
So far, Nintendo has announced 3 free characters to be added in August, September, and October, though you can unlock them a month early if you enter an online tournament before their release. If their recent games (or the size of the character select screen) is any indication, they're planning on adding even more through the fall and winter.
Nintendo didn't skimp on stages here either. Though at first blush it seems like there's only one competitive, hazard-free stage available for play out of a total of seven (not counting palette swaps), Mario Tennis Aces took a page out of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate's book and added the ability for players to disable stage hazards, which is much appreciated. In addition, the main tennis court you'll play on looks incredible, and has variants for both clay, grass, and hard court surfaces. There really are a lot of options to customize your play, which makes it insanely frustrating that Nintendo didn't make them available across all the different play modes.
Mario Tennis Aces is a frustrating type of game, and not just when you're trying to rally the ball with Kamek 400 times to beat that darn rally challenge. 95% of the time you're playing the game, you'll be having a pulse-pounding blast. The core concept behind the gameplay is incredibly satisfying. There's nothing like the feeling of baiting an opponent to play the net and then launching a lob shot right above them to win the point.
But every so often the game will get in its own way and one of those nagging issues will come up. You'll have friends over and want to set up a tournament so everyone can play together. You'll want to play an extended competitive match. You'll get matched up with a Bowser Jr. player online.
The good news is that most of these gripes seem like they could be easily fixed with a patch. But the fact remains that out of the box, this game fails to achieve its full potential – which is sad, because the game truly is, currently, the best arcade sports experience on the Switch. It's a shame that Nintendo felt they had to rush it out to capitalize on Wimbledon and key features are nowhere to be found. With just a little bit more development time, Mario Tennis Aces could have been an all-time classic in the series. It's a solid game but it falls short of becoming a classic.