For whatever its name is worth, Mario Tennis doesn’t feature a lot of the red guy — at least at first. That may come as an initial disappointment to some who were drawn to the M-word. Now if you came for the “tennis” part, well, that’s a whole different story.
Mario Tennis will let you get into a game right off the ba--er, racket, if you wish, allowing a selection of courts and options for both singles and doubles play. A few character-based mini-games are also available at your leisure and offer a good way to practice shots and reaction time.
The meat of the game, though, resides in the Mario Tour mode, placing you in the shoes of a promising new, non-Mario student at the Royal Tennis Academy. After choosing and naming a male or female character, then naming his or her roommate — and then after a rather long introduction for a portable title — players are free to engage in a variety of training games or take on opponents to move up the school’s ranks.
The game takes on an interesting RPG flavour in its treatment of building your character. Completing training challenges or earning victories in matches grant experience points that can be used to level up one’s own character or their roommate, who serves as partner in doubles matches. Each level gained comes with a chosen increase in one of four categories: Spin, Power, Control, and Speed. Each category contains its own stats that automatically rise with the category rank, but some consideration must be taken when choosing areas to strengthen.
Developer Camelot took a uniquely realistic approach towards balance here. Concentrating solely on power will come at the occasional cost of points in speed-related stats and vice versa. You may want to tip the scales, or you may want to spread points more evenly; the choice is left to the player.
Levels and stats do make a difference, as even some of the starting training exercises feel next to impossible without first powering up. Once the ball gets rolling, however, it only seems to pick up momentum, with more and more points coming in until your character becomes a powerhouse. It’s rewarding and addictive.
The numbers have even more meaning due to the fact that the controls for Mario Tennis are pleasingly responsive. Gaining levels isn’t a compensation for a poor control scheme at all and feels very much like real physical improvement. Beginners will be able to pick up and play quickly, but there is plenty that can be learned in the form of different shots that depend on position, timing, and button combos. Picking these up will prove very helpful later on when the opponents start becoming less pushovers and more technically inclined.
The AI of computer-controlled characters feels as well tuned as the controls, with opponents steadily putting up more of a fight as you progress up the single and doubles ladders, providing challenge while rarely feeling like cheaters. Even your doubles partner, if kept decently levelled up, will prove dependable to the point that they will feel worthy of your actual trust. You may even find yourself cheering for your computerized compadre after he or she smashes it in to end a particularly exciting rally.
This virtually-induced enthusiasm is a good thing, since linked play is no longer available in the eShop version of the game. The old method of unlocking Mario characters through a copy of the N64 version of Mario Tennis and a Transfer Pak also appears kaput with no alternative presented, which means those respective characters’ mini-games also aren’t available. Mario and Peach will show up later on in the Mario Tour for your taking, but aside from them you have Luigi, Baby Mario, and Donkey Kong. Not exactly an all-star cast.
But are they necessary? Mario Tennis still feels like a full experience without a lot of star power. The academy and its non-Mario patrons have a character of their own, now even more endearing as time has given the Game Boy Colour title’s bright hues and pixelated look a certain retro hipness. The music adds to the charm with chiptunes that know when to be pleasant or rousing.
Some may call fault with Mario Tennis’s stripped multiplayer functionality and chopped roster, but those who never knew what was possible to be unlocked in the original version might never even realize the possibilities are missing. Mario Tennis still provides an amazingly tight and fun portable experience with a skillful shot system and an engaging RPG-like motif. So what if Mario doesn’t register as much? He’ll just have to make do with golf, baseball, football, every Olympic sport...