One of the very first Wiiware games was also the first in Aksys’ “Family” series: Family Table Tennis. We gave it a fairly generous 5/10 score considering we labeled it “outclassed,” “hard to recommend” and even “un-loseable.” Well, it seems that someone at Aksys was paying attention as nearly all of our criticisms have been addressed in this new-ish release. But how much of an improvement has Aksys served up?
Of course, this is tennis and not table tennis. That means in addition to putting away the table, there are some significant rules changes here. We don’t need to go into detail on the intricacies of tennis, as almost everyone has had an opportunity to experience the game in Wii Sports. The real question is, “Is this worth purchasing when we already have Wii Sports?” And the answer to that is, “Maybe.”
One criticism we had with Family Table Tennis was its incredible ease of difficulty against the computer player. This has been a consistent problem in the Family series causing the games to lack replay value, as there is little or no sense of challenge. However, in Family Tennis the difficulty has been turned up to 11. Even experienced Wii Sports tennis players who have reached the highest difficulty opponents in that game will find Family Tennis to be a challenge against the computer. It’s not an impossible level of difficulty, but the game is almost too hard as there is no gradual increase in difficulty like in Nintendo's game. It’s almost as if Aksys assumed that you would play all the way through Wii Sports Tennis before downloading their game and are now looking for a greater challenge. In this way, Family Tennis has something to offer Wii owners in that the game offers a challenge above and beyond that found in Wii Sports.
Game play controls are familiar to Wii Sports players. They are a little easier in that you can swing in either direction and still hit the ball, but they are a little harder in that everything moves faster and so you have less reaction time. Unlike Family Table Tennis, the ball does not get progressively faster with each volley. Ball speed is more like Wii Sports and is in the hands of the player. But in keeping with the higher level of difficulty, everything happens a lot more quickly here and controlling the speed and direction of your volley must be done in a split-second.
One interesting feature is that if you swing too early or late, you may still hit the ball. However, your character will dive to hit it. You’ll return the ball over the net and enjoy a fleeting moment of excitement at your last-second save, but you’ll be on the ground while your opponent is setting up his or her own return and your character may not stand up in time. This feature adds more excitement but also an extra layer of difficulty. As mentioned, everything moves much faster in this game and so your window in which you can safely hit the ball without diving is narrow and you will miss it often while acclimating to the controls.
Another narrow window is found when you serve the ball. When serving, we found it much easier to hit the net than in Wii Sports. It’s also possible to hit the ball out of bounds, unlike in Family Table Tennis. Suffice it to say, the difficulty is higher here than it has ever been in a Family game.
It should be mentioned that, despite the higher sense of “realism” that Family Tennis may sound like it offers, it most certainly is not realistic in the sense of Wii Sports Tennis. The game features the special “smash” hit first seen in Family Table Tennis and has now been upgraded with a variety of special effects, such as one that can only be described as lobbing the ball at your opponent like an artillery shell that explodes on impact; it is most definitely not realistic.
The game can be played in either single matches or in an extended tournament. The player has the option to set the length of each match or tournament prior to play. In addition, the player can choose to play with up to three human opponents in multiplayer. This is an improvement over Family Table Tennis and putting it on par with Wii Sports. Sadly, the game still does not feature anything like a "career" mode, but the Family series has always been geared as casual and lacking this feature is not unexpected.
Of the three bonus modes found in Family Table Tennis, only one returns; however, it was our favorite mode, the “Thrilling” mode. This accurately titled mode was essentially the same game but with a new scoring system weighted to reward the player who wins after more extended back and forth volleys with more points. Our main complaint with this mode in Family Table Tennis was that it offered only a single player mode. Thankfully, this mode is back in Family Tennis and is as fully featured as the main game, including multiplayer. There are no other bonus features, but the other two found in Family Table Tennis were more tedious than fun and so their absence is not missed.
All of this game play improvement are balanced against an apparent graphical downgrade. Family Table Tennis, when set next to Family Tennis, looked sharper and more colorful. Family Tennis, by comparison, looks fuzzier and lacks some of the polish seen in that earlier title. Furthermore, the scenery is not quite as busy and detailed as before.
Family Tennis is a big step forward for the Family line of games. For the first time, Aksys seems to have focused on creating a challenge for experienced game players. Although the game is still intended only to be played in small doses, players will find far greater reward for their time investment here than in its predecessor. Although this game offers only a few tweaks on the formula set by Wii Sports, it offers just enough variety and extra challenge to make it worth your while once you have played Nintendo's pack-in to death.