Originally released on Game Boy Advance in 2005, Mario Power Tennis is unusual in that it takes the tennis simulation genre and embeds it into a role-playing game experience. It’s a combination that works surprisingly well, with the biggest success being a player progression system which allows you to level up your character and choose which of their attributes to focus on when doing so.
The main story mode follows either Max or Tina (depending on who you choose to play as at the start), both young tennis players — and each other’s double partners — looking to work their way up the ranks of a prestigious academy. Interestingly, Mario and Co. don't take centre-stage despite the title of the game, although it's safe to assume — without us spoiling it for you — that they do feature in it in some capacity. The plot itself is far from complex, and rather it serves more as a device in which to join up the various matches and other tennis-related activities you partake in throughout the game.
Despite its relative simplicity, the story commands a considerable amount of your attention due to its text-heavy nature. This is especially apparent when you first start a new game, in which everything is explained in excessive detail, and the dialogue — usually focused around the positive outcomes of teamwork — goes on for far longer than it should. Those looking to avoid this can enjoy a standard exhibition match outside of the story mode, but the latter needs to be played through in order to unlock characters.
Nevertheless, the message of teamwork is actually of great importance early on, as you start off as part of a doubles team before you can later move into singles. As a result, part of your success in completing the game is dependent on an AI-controlled partner. Thankfully, you can rely on them for the most part, but their overall performance is also determined by the choices you make.
This is where things get interesting, as the game’s levelling system is designed so that your doubles team receives a lump sum of XP after a match or training activity. It’s then up to you to decide how this is handed out to each character; do you split it right down the line and ensure you receive a partner who’s technically on par with you or do you hog the majority of XP for yourself? Moreover, you can choose which of your partner’s attributes to increase as they level up, meaning that, for example, you could focus on shot power while they have enhanced control. This element of choice — while not hugely intricate from a gameplay perspective — does at least enable you to customise your playthrough.
The core tennis gameplay is largely what you'd expect, albeit with some deliberately unrealistic features thrown in as per most Mario-themed games. In addition to your usual array of topspins, slices, lobs and smashes, you can call upon offensive and defensive power shots to give yourself an edge. These include the ability to have a nefarious effect on opponents and reach shots that would normally be physically impossible. The plus side, especially with regards to the latter, is that it can result in much more exciting rallies, though it does undermine the the skill factor to some extent. Overall, the mechanics are very tight and intuitive; the power of your shots — true to the traditional Mario Tennis formula — is determined by tapping the button in the run up to returning a shot, and it’s very easy to guide the ball to where you want using the directional pad.
In between matches, you're given the chance to use the academy's training facilities to help boost your character's stats. These mini-games range from small, button-bashing affairs right through to proper tennis training modes, complete with varying difficulty levels. They are primarily useful for quickly earning XP, as opposed to better mastering the game, so some activities such as target practice help to better understand your available shots and how to control them.
Visually, Mario Power Tennis stays true to the franchise on which it's based, sporting plenty of colour and vibrancy, although the overall quality hasn't quite held up in the transfer to Wii U. The role-playing portion is portrayed using delightful 2D sprites and artwork, however, characters take on a pseudo-3D look when you're playing a match — this was most likely done to highlight the original power of the Game Boy Advance — which looks horribly pixelated and outdated today, especially when blown up on a large TV.
Another element that’s lost on the Wii U is the multiplayer mode. While it would be nice to experience this, it’s not a huge loss as Mario Tennis for the N64, a more suitable multiplayer alternative, can be found on the Wii Virtual Console — which can also be accessed on Wii U.
With a comprehensive story mode, tight and entertaining tennis gameplay mechanics and a surprising amount of depth, Mario Power Tennis is a return winner on Wii U. Its visuals look considerably outmoded in some areas, and other aspects such as the exceptionally heavy dialogue initially make it a bit difficult to get into the swing of things. Nevertheless, there’s a deep experience to be found underneath all the waffle, mainly thanks to the sense of progression the story mode delivers from start to finish. Mario Power Tennis remains a very playable game, is without question worth its relatively small asking price and — most of all — goes very well with a punnet of strawberries and cream.