Tennis — the NES game, not the actual sport — hails from an age when the most rudimentary of virtual simulations could be entertaining and notable simply by existing, perhaps causing a passing family member to comment on how it looks just like the real thing. Although a genuine novelty in the 80s, this dull-as-toast recreation of tennis has gone stale, hardly able to stave off boredom long enough for a good rally.
As no-frills as its name, Tennis immediately drops you into a menu screen framed by the signature black background of Nintendo's early titles. Your two options consist of singles or — for a bit of multiplayer cooperation — doubles, both of which take place on a flat court with an overhead perspective. Speaking of perspective, that can take a bit of getting used to: the little blip of a ball expands and shrinks as it sails back and forth over the net, doing its best to trick your eyes into seeing depth and distance.
Positioning your player is a tricky business, and unlike in the real world isn't at all intuitive. Once you manage to get lined up, you can either bat the ball back with a standard shot or lob it high into the air, but control over trajectory is limited at best. Serving is no easier to grasp, but like most of the gameplay mechanics, acceptable after a fair amount of fiddling.
When the ball is bandied back and forth without a stumble, a subdued sense of fun begins to creep onto the court; at higher speeds, it can almost turn to excitement. If this were the only tennis game available on our home planet — which, at the time of release, it might as well have been — it would have something going for it, but that's not at all the current situation. There are countless alternatives of higher quality for simulation and arcade tastes alike, not to mention plenty of quality action games on the NES that blow it out of the water. In fact, you could purchase the original Animal Crossing and find this very game playable inside, along with about fifteen fellow NES titles to keep it company.
Tennis looks and sounds like it plays: safe, boring, and generally okay. The bare necessities of sound design keep the events grounded, interspersed with occasional musical jingles. Players are animated with commendable accuracy considering the technical restraints, and the courts are kept sparse so as to avoid confusing clutter. The only genuine dose of character in this department is a cameo by Mario posing as referee, long before he took tennis racket in hand himself.
Tennis is playable, but considering that stands as one of its primary advantages, it's a backhanded compliment. Its faults lie in oversimplicity and dodgy controls, the latter of which is a crucial point to any competitive game, serving as a poor example to a future of superior successors. Those with a true love of the sport should look elsewhere, and even those hoping for nostalgia to put a positive spin on things should think twice. Despite a decent foundation, Tennis is no smash hit.