When Mario Golf was released back in 1999, it was already known that Camelot was working on another Mario sports title for the N64. After a decent title released for the sadly ill-fated Virtual Boy a few years before, Camelot gave Mario another go at tennis.
Mario Tennis on the N64 functions a bit differently from Mario Golf in that you do not have to sit through a cumbersome (and honestly quite difficult) single-player mode to unlock almost every single character, one by one, for play in other modes. In fact, only two characters are locked at the start of the game, and they can be obtained rather easily.
What you're most likely to jump into to get the feel of the game is a standard match. These come in two flavours: Singles and Doubles. It's not too hard to guess what those mean: Singles is a one-on-one match, while Doubles is two-on-two. As this is a Nintendo 64 game, four-player matches are a possibility.
Very similarly to Golf, Tennis uses a button combination system to let you choose exactly what kind of hit you want to make. Charge up with A and then hit B when the ball's close, for example, to do a lob shot – this tends to make the ball go up high, coming down very slow towards the back of the opponent's side of the court. Do it the other way around by hitting B then A and you'll do a drop shot, which gives the ball a very small arc and makes it hit the ground almost immediately once it's past the net. There are plenty of different combinations (yes, with just two buttons!) and knowing when to use what type of shot can easily help turn the tide in your favour.
The courts you play on are fairly grounded in reality – all but two (both only available in special game modes) have no bizarro Mario-esque special gimmicks. Some of them feature a large picture of the owners (such as Mario and Luigi) spread over the ground, but these serve no purpose other than to tell all of the game's courts apart. Each court also has its own unique characteristics that determine ball speed and bounce strength. This serves as a sort of "difficulty select," as you can choose what you want the game to be like just by picking a court characteristic combination you like.
Curiously absent are the "human" characters introduced in Golf, as the cast here is made up entirely of familiar faces from other Mario games. Except, at the time of the game's original release, two of them: Daisy, who hadn't appeared in any games other than Super Mario Land and one or two obscure titles prior to Tennis; and Waluigi, who actually made his debut here. Of course, both of them appear in just about every multiplayer Mario game released since, but it's interesting to see what the two originally looked and acted like in 3D.
As in Golf, the characters are divided into certain skill types. Mario and Luigi are all-around types, as usual, but the rest of the cast is divided into Speed, Power, Technique and Tricky players. Each of these caters to a different play style: Power players should try to beat their opponent with super-strong and fast smashes, while Technique players should try to use their incredible accuracy to send the ball flying towards a nearly unreachable or unexpected spot for the opponent(s).
Of course, it wouldn't be a Mario game without a few less realistic game modes. Ring Shot is another familiar concept: rings will appear over the court, and whoever hits the ball through them will get points. With each hit, the rings increase in size and become worth less, so you'll want to try and get the ball through them as soon as they appear.
The Piranha Challenge is a simple test of skill. Three Piranha Plants will fire balls at you (One at a time) and you simply have to hit them all back. The other side of the court also has an opposing player, though, and he or she will actively try to hit back all balls you manage to hit, after which you cannot hit them a second time. If you manage to hit all 50 balls past your opponent you can pride yourself on beating one of the hardest challenges in Mario sports game history!
The Bowser Stage features a special court set in Bowser's castle which continuously tilts back forth over a pit of lava. To make matters worse, there's item boxes above the net – smash the ball through them and you'll get items to annoy your opponents with.
What is highly disappointing about this Virtual Console re-release is the lack of Game Boy Colour link support. In Mario Golf, this only meant you lost out on a bunch of extra characters from the GBC game, which were fully customized to your desire and as such tended to be massively overpowered, but you lose out on a bunch more here - Aside from not being able to import four more customized characters from the GBC game, there are six more courts, some of which also feature unique characteristics (such as one with the fastest speed and the strongest bounce), which you will be unable to play on. It would have been nice if Nintendo had found a way to have these unlocked at the start for the VC!
For a 2000 release one would expect Mario Tennis to look great for a N64 game, and that is indeed the case. Every character has a large variety of facial expressions and animations, and there is never any case of slowdown, as the game always keeps going at full speed. Like Mario Golf, the music is quite upbeat and sounds good, although it's not too catchy. The character-specific courts feature remixes of music from their appropriate games.
All in all it's a frantic, fun game. Obtaining all of the unlockables this time around will take far less time than it would in Golf, but that's fine; there's an obvious multiplayer focus on the game, and it's an absolute blast to play with friends.
With Mario Tennis, the portly plumber proves once again that he can make any sport more entertaining. The game later received a sequel on the GameCube and Wii, which, despite mostly being very similar, introduced some questionable gameplay elements that many did not particularly enjoy. If you were one of those people and would rather have a pure, unspoiled Mario Tennis experience, look no further: this is his best outing so far.