Review: Mario Tennis – Ultra Smash (**** stars) Part 1

Mario Tennis Ultra SmashI’ve always thought of Mario Tennis (and, I suppose, Virtua Tennis) as an evolution of Pong – well, of the tennis games that I’ve played in my life, anyway. Real tennis holds zero interest for me, but a good round of virtual tennis against human opponents takes the simplicity of the sport while marrying those basics with a sheen of accessibility. Out of all the arcade sports games one could play, Mario Tennis works the best with those who don’t play video games already, as their simple control schemes (and previously known rules) let anyone into the party, should they choose.

So, when I saw Ultra Smash announced, I can’t say I wasn’t excited for it. The last time a Mario Tennis game appeared on a home console was 2004, where Mario Power Tennis stole hours and hours of my life in multiplayer. That game demonstrated a massive improvement over the N64 entry, with a more varied character cast, more courses, and more nuances to the simple tennis game (like “power shots”, not surprisingly). I suppose you could say the series descended into a less “realistic” sport simulator, what with crazy courts with bizarre events and bounce/speed like the WarioWare one, but have you seen a plumber in overalls playing tennis somewhere that I haven’t? Everything fit into the theme of “good fun”, and that’s really all I ask. Color me surprised when reviewers absolutely slammed Ultra Smash in the reviews this past November. Most complaints I saw stemmed from a few different sources, and I think we’ll discuss them in turn before proceeding to the (excellent) core mechanics in Part 2.

First, reviewers didn’t much like the “lack of content” in the game. This stems from precedent, assuredly, with most Mario sports games containing a myriad of different game modes. Some put a new spin on the game, like requiring every shot to go through rings or only letting specific shots score points. Others gave you a Mario Kart-style mode with items, or gimmick courts with weird features, or mini-games that upended traditional tennis mechanics. These are all well and good, extending the longevity of the game, but none of them really added anything core to the experience. Mario sports games, I find, are best enjoyed in a multiplayer context; Nintendo also seems to know this, since they’ve replaced the dozens of trivial experiences for online play!

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Well, there is Mega Mushroom mode, but it’s not that great.

With that said, the online isn’t perfect by any means. Consider that the Wii U doesn’t even come with a wired Internet connection, and you quickly realize a lot of matches end up laggy by default. That has been my experience with every Wii U game online, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. That’s fine, though; the very presence of online makes up for a lot of the game’s shortcomings, especially if you like playing competitive tennis against other people. You can’t match up with friends, however, which seems like an incredibly weird design decision – Nintendo likes making backwards decisions with online play (mostly to protect children, I’m guessing), but that will definitely frustrate one person or another.

Also, the online play explains why it’s so easy to actually unlock everything in about an hour or two. Instead of locking characters behind long, tedious tennis tournaments (where the last opponent is totally reading your inputs, thus making this really frustrating), you earn Coins and unlock everything with that currency. I always hate playing through the single-player stuff just to unlock all my options in multiplayer, so this is really a godsend. Nintendo seems to know that multiplayer’s really their focus here; that might frustrate some people who choose to buy Ultra Smash, but it also removes the barriers to entry. Me? I play local, if for no other reason than the Wii U is the local multiplayer machine of this generation, so why not use it?

I’m sure there’s a good portion of the audience for this game that disagree – that is, there should be a ton of single-player content in every Mario sports title. Honestly, I’ve never really cared for the mini games themselves except as a means to unlocking all the characters and courts, so this presented zero issues for me. My guess is that a lot of people aren’t paying attention to the incredibly well-designed nuances of the tennis game Camelot’s been refining here for a decade and some change. They’d rather complain that there’s no bizarre diversions, like that would suddenly make the game a whole lot better. It wouldn’t, and it really hasn’t, over the years. These are features set around a core of refined arcade sports mechanics, and their removals hasn’t really affected the core game at all. The addition of online really shows you what Nintendo wanted out of the game, even if they didn’t quite succeed.

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I honestly don’t have much interest in the online, all said.

So, if all these caveats and exterior features, which are essential to the experience of some arcade sports player, turn you off from Ultra Smash, then I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it. Whether or not these features are absent due to a rushed production schedule (I have heard whispers of that, but I can’t be sure), the core tennis game itself shows some notable improvements from previous entries, and that’s all that matter to me. This must be the most accessible tennis game with a high skill ceiling that I’ve played yet, and I’d call that a success either way. I would encourage you to get past the external “stuff” Nintendo usually shoves into such games, and note how much the core tennis at its heart has improved (I’d say substantially, though that depends on your own perspective).

It’s an important lesson to learn – I hate reviewing games as products precisely for this reason. No list of “features” will make a crap game good, and no lacking of said “features” will make a good game bad. We should weigh the heart of the game before all else, and Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash beats with the heart of a champion.

Every man’s way is right in his own eyes,
But the Lord weighs the hearts.

Proverbs 21:2

PART 2

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.