Can Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash harken back to its glory days of the 64-bit era?
Back in the days of the Nintendo 64, I played a lot of Mario Tennis , so I was incredibly excited to hear that Mario Tennis was coming back on the Wii U with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash .
Announced at E3 2015 to very little fanfare with an incredibly short trailer that wasn’t even talked about, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash isn’t a headlining Nintendo property in the least bit. It offers very little innovation, instead choosing to refine the core mechanics that made Mario Tennis fun in the first place. It’s simple, but it’s also a ton of fun.
I give honest praise to Nintendo for not saturating Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash with waggle mechanics. It seems like the perfect place to put them, considering how well Wii Tennis sold, but instead the game is controlled with analog sticks and face buttons. Pressing different buttons or different combinations of buttons allowed you to do different shots, from lobs to smashes, and combining these shots to place the ball where your opponents aren’t is the name of the game. As I said before, it’s simple but fun, just like the original Mario Tennis .
Of course, the thing that sets Mario Tennis apart from any other tennis game isn’t just the Mario cast. It’s the power-ups! The power-up that was on display at E3 was the Mega Mushroom, which does exactly what you think it does – makes Mario grow to an enormous size. While huge, Mario moves slower, but he has an incredible amount of reach and power. All of his hits rocket toward the other side extremely fast, are very hard to return, and he can cover a good third of the court without even moving. In addition, returning a ball from a super-sized character pushes the normal sized character back.
Unfortunately, the act of picking up a power-up is honestly one of the most jarring things that could happen in the game. Time stops and the camera swings in close to show a cutscene of your character growing huge. Unfortunately, this makes you lose track of the ball! If the ball was coming your way, you would miss it almost guaranteed, unless you flail wildly and simply hope for the best. Hopefully Nintendo fixes this before the game comes out. Simply keeping the camera pulled out and stopping time would give you a huge advantage as you can see where the ball is when time is stopped. Even better, allow people to stock power-ups and activate them when they like, so they don’t get messed up.
The sheer variety of shots is part of what makes Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash so much fun. Balls can curve in wacky directions, rocket into the air, light on fire, and more. The color of the ball’s trail allows you to know what sort of shot is being made, even before it hits your side of the court, and this does a lot to make the game more accessible. The game is also very lenient with returns. All you need to do is be somewhere in the general vicinity of the ball and your character will automatically jump and dive to try and hit the ball back. This makes a lot of matches really thrilling, as characters smash balls into the stratosphere, and yet still manage to jump up and return them against all odds. Mechanically there isn’t much going on here, but in terms of building player hype, it does a good job.
Unfortunately, my demo for Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash was short, perhaps the shortest demo of anything I played at the Nintendo booth. The game has a lot of promise, and booth reps made a lot of promises. Supposedly we will see more power-ups, more characters, and even more courts. But for now, all we really got to see was the bare bones gameplay system. Luckily, that was more than enough to hook me. If you are looking for a new Mario Party style sports game, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash will bring you back to the good old days, when Mario was still doing pretty much everything, but at least he didn’t force you to waggle.