Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is one of a couple of key Holiday releases on the Wii U, fitting snugly into being familiar, accessible and inviting for families, in particular. As it has Mario in the title and is a 'wacky' sports game there's certainly the prospect that it could win over a few households for some multiplayer fun over the Holidays.
When we first took to the court our first sense was of familiarity, particularly in relation to Mario Tennis Open, a solid entry on 3DS that scaled back the item-heavy chaos of Mario Power Tennis. Based on our time with it so far Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a natural evolution from Open, yet with lovely HD visuals, an impeccable framerate and some noticeable improvements in physics and stroke play. The only issue? The volume of content is one of the weakest we've seen in a retail game.
Let's start with the actual gameplay. Camelot has come up with what feels like an entirely new engine - think of the transition from Mario Kart 7 to Mario Kart 8 - and in the process zoomed the camera in a little, to great effect. This has always been a series that's kept its portable and home console efforts rather distinct, to be fair, but this Wii U arrival does carry across a particularly welcome feature in 'Chance Areas'. These colour-coded circles - when combined with the correct shot type - bring powerful strikes; these are characterised by extravagant trails, while the aptly named Ultra Smash is a less common and temporary chance shot that, when executed, is extremely difficult for the opponent to return.
As was the case on the 3DS, this system is a good way to maintain Mario-style silliness but actually add a bit of skill and strategy to proceedings. As before less experienced players can use X as a basic button that lets the game decide the shot type, but there's great power and precision in mastering normal and charge shots for top spin, flat and slice shots with the A, B and Y buttons. There's no equivalent to the touch screen buttons found on 3DS, but we doubt they were used much anyway - the key point is that this is still accessible and yet full of strategy for solo players.
An important point, though - there are no motion controls. In theory as there's an X 'simple shot' button, motions could have been thrown in; yet they're nowhere to be found. It's conventional controls only on the GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, a sideways Remote or the Classic Controller / Pro.
Those keen to recreate this style can play 'Standard' in the Classic Tennis setting, while 'Simple' even takes away Chance Areas for some pure tennis. The reason they're segregated off is so Mega Battle can take centre stage; this is the area Nintendo's been showing off in videos and at expos, in which Mega Mushrooms are periodically thrown to both sides of the court in order to activate giant characters. You have to run over the mushroom and a brief animation for the characters growth is shown each and every time this happens.
There's certainly a power and reach advantage to being 'Mega', and there's no denying that it's fun especially when playing with a friend. Occasionally the mushroom distribution is segmented too, so there can be strategy in trying to hang on as a small character before mega-sizing to target the opponent once their effect has worn off. It's fun for kids of all sizes, even those in their 30s based on our testing.
All of the aforementioned modes are one-off matches in singles or doubles - so up to four players can jump in locally - and then there's Mega Ball Rally, which is a simple task of keeping to ball alive for as long as possible. While the ball starts off as a bit of a beachball and shrinks to add speed and challenge, this is still relatively simplistic.
Then we have the closest thing to a campaign with Knockout Challenge, which is single player only. In this mode you pick a character - each has their own mini-save that records progress - and tackle a series of increasingly difficult tie-break matches across 30 rounds. After 15 rounds you get the 'Star' version of the character you're using, and after 30 rounds you see the credits. Opponents ramp up, there are a couple of mild surprises, and in the later rounds you go on a tour of some of the quirkier courts available in the game.
It's a case of rinse and repeat, and a pretty lazy and throwaway single player mode. It's particularly underwhelming and is only partly saved by amiibo implementation. This joins Mario Party 10 and Super Smash Bros. in that it uses a figure in a read/write capacity, so you'll need a compatible amiibo - Mario, Luigi, Peach, Bowser, Yoshi, Rosalina, Wario, Toad or Donkey Kong - with no data. We set good old 30th Anniversary Classic Mario on the case (it just scans out as standard Mario) as our doubles partner; this may seem unfair against solo opposition, but as the difficulty ramps up it's useful to have a buddy.
The amiibo does 'train', in a sense. For starters their AI is pretty competent, which is nice, and after every five matches they receive a new buff to their abilities - examples can be more powerful strokes, greater speed etc. There are 10 slots - so 50 games are needed to max an amiibo out - and though the buffs are randomised you can then edit them with an unlockable feature. It's a neat idea, and you can also take the amiibo into online matches as your doubles partner, so credit is due for some smart implementation.
The use of amiibo is a plus, then, but Knockout Challenge is a weak single player mode. There are no Cups to be found here, and no more wacky bonus games than what we've already described; even compared to Mario Tennis Open the offerings are slim. Amazingly, we can't even find a way to play to play as Mii characters, so they're either locked behind a lot of progress or aren't there at all. That strips away a neat feature of its predecessor in which you earned coins to buy gear for your Mii, boosting their abilities and specialities in the process; this was perfect for finding a custom play style to take online. None of that is here - you have the core cast and their Star unlocks; that's it.
There are, as per usual, some fun court types to unlock, with the Ice Court in particular showing off the strength of the visuals. These do shake up gameplay nicely, with favourites of ours being the super-fast Carpet Court and the insane bounce to be found in Mushroom Court.
All of these unlocks are driven by an achievement system and coins, meanwhile. You can earn characters and courts by viewing and meeting the requirements or, because the game throws coins at you with merry abandon, just buy up the goodies you want the most - these include additional difficulty levels for the AI, for those solo players seeking a big challenge. It's a bizarre economy in that there aren't enough products to justify all of the coins, almost as if early versions of this had Mii characters, buff-laden gear etc before eventually stripping them out of the final game.
As already alluded to earlier, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash does have strong presentation going for it. They may be chunky and colourful visuals, as is often the case in first-party Wii U games, but the visuals are beautifully vivid. This rocks along at 60fps and we've been unable to make it drop a frame, which is as lovely on the eyes as ever. There are some pretty effects, too, which are superficial but pleasing to see nevertheless.
Overall, we've been enjoying Ultra Smash to a degree, and it's an absolute hoot in local multiplayer, but we're struck by the scarcely believable lack of content. It's even lacking sufficient mini-games, and we never thought we'd complain about a lack of mini-games in a Nintendo release. Whether some of these features will come in the future with updates or dreaded paid-DLC is something else entirely, but we're struck by the shallow pool of content here. We even read the manual cover to cover a few times to check we weren't missing something. We're not.
So we've played a lot of this game offline, which leaves online as the key feature that will help make or break the title. It seems to have a ranking system similar to recent Mario Kart games, singles and doubles (remember you can use your amiibo, too) and also unranked 'relaxed' options for those just looking for fun matches. It looks competent if a little bare-bones, but playing human players could be key to this one's longevity. The strength of the control system and Chance Areas is that they can be used for deception; your opponent may think you'll use a powered up drop shot, for example, but instead you fire a lob over their onrushing character. The strategy involved and the lengthy rallies of online play were a highlight on 3DS, and we hope for the same effect here.
Naturally this'll be put to the test ahead of our review, but at this stage we're left a little disappointed with the offline offering. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is attractive, fun and mechanically solid - and a potentially great local multiplayer game - but it's also painfully lacking in content. It's a potential ace that's hit the net cord.