Mario’s Tennis does exactly what it says on the cartridge. It takes Mario and six other characters and places them in a Tennis game. Singles and doubles matches are available as either one-off matches or a Tournament, and standard tennis rules apply.
A launch game in Japan and the pack-in game for the Virtual Boy’s North American release, Mario’s Tennis was (back in the day) probably most people's first Virtual Boy experience, so it's obvious why it needed to show off the system's capabilities more so than most other Virtual Boy releases.
In terms of gameplay, it handles like any other tennis game you might care to mention. Movement is controlled via the left-hand d-pad and the two action buttons offer a variety of different shots. The controls are simple and responsive, meaning that the shots performed are the ones you intended. Of course a lot of tennis games manage this, but what this game does differently is use the Virtual Boy’s 3D effect to give a real feel of the court’s depth. When you are both getting ready for a serve, your opponent really does seem a great distance away.
Having selected your type of match you can then adjust the difficulty and choose between one or three sets. You then select your character (and partner if you’re playing doubles) and proceed with your match.
Aside from Mario, the other characters deciding to give tennis a try are Luigi, Princess Toadstool, Yoshi, Toad, Koopa Trooper and Donkey Kong Jr. The instruction booklet explains how all the characters vary but although you will find certain ones provide more of a challenge than others, playing as them is a different experience. There are some obvious differences - for example, Toad and Koopa Trooper can dive to reach some shots - but for the most part you will find surprisingly little to separate the characters.
Having only seven characters unfortunately makes the tournaments quite short and it's possible to win the singles tournament after only three games (and the doubles after just two).
Unlike later entries in the Mario Tennis series, this game does not feature extra powerful shots or “gimmick courts”: it is simply bog-standard tennis. It does it well but don’t be expecting anything other than a regular tennis game that happens to feature Mario characters. Following each match you are presented with a stats screen so you can see how well (or badly) you have done.
Camera movement is smooth and stays at a fixed distance from your character. The character sprites on the player’s side of the net are well drawn and possess a range of facial expressions reacting to the point that they may or may not have just won. The 3D effect works really well as you move around with the changing distance between you and the net, the ball and your opponent giving you a real sense of the size of the court. Get too close to your opponent however and you will see that they look like a cardboard cut-out – and a heavily pixelated one at that.
A tennis court is just a tennis court, but Nintendo attempt to make things a little more visually interesting by having a selection of backgrounds that appear in the different matches you play, so you can look at pipes in one match and hills in the next. Lakitu (strangely not animated) keeps the score and sometimes something else will appear in the sky such as birds, blimps or fireworks.
There are a few different music tracks that play during the game and they all sound good. As you would expect from a Mario game it’s upbeat and catchy. Some of it is perhaps a bit too “beepy” but as the music changes within each set (not just match-to-match) you don’t get chance even to consider getting sick of it.
There are several sound effects for the different shots you can perform. They are not realistic but appropriate, with the smash sound effect being particularly satisfying. Perhaps the best use of sound though is when you miss your shot and you can hear the ball slowly bounce behind you.
The difficulty of the game is well judged with the easiest setting being perfect for getting used to things as you try out just how far your lobs and volleys travel. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it all, selecting one of the higher settings provides more of a challenge.
Despite only having two modes, the game is surprisingly replayable. The doubles mode adds a bit of unpredictability to things as you’re relying on a CPU character to pick up some of the shots. What would have really have extended the game’s life though is a two-player mode. Of course (outside of the homebrew scene) a Virtual Boy link cable was never produced but it’s still something that is greatly missed: a tennis game that doesn't offer the opportunity to play against a friend feels wrong, somehow.
The small character roster makes the tournaments laughably short but this is a solid, if simple, tennis game. Good music and graphics combined with the excellent 3D effect of the court ensure that Mario’s Tennis is an excellent introduction to the Virtual Boy, plus it's cheap and easy to find these days. If only Nintendo had released that link cable, though...