Review: Wii Sports Club: Tennis (Wii U eShop)

What the deuce?

Way back at E3 2011, in that Wii U reveal that rather bizarrely confused half of those watching, Nintendo showed remixes of Wii Sports events that showed the GamePad being utilised in creative ways. It's perhaps surprising that over two years after that visual demo, we're just now seeing the iconic Wii pack-in make its way to Nintendo's latest system, and Wii Sports Club: Tennis is the title which potentially utilises the new hardware the least. There are enhancements served up, however, which aim to take the fun but throwaway waggle of the original and apply a little more complexity and longevity.

The most important change with this new iteration is the adoption of Wii MotionPlus controls, with the more accurate controller being mandatory to play. The greater sensitivity and range of strokes is applied reasonably well, with lob shots, top-spin and back-spin applied along with greater control over direction. The new move-set is undoubtedly challenging to master, though that's to be expected, and moments where we felt the input and response weren't a match were — in hindsight — mostly down to our own sloppy swings. A forceful swing (remember that wrist-strap, for the sake of your TV screen) will actually register with a more powerful hit, for example, so waggling your way to victory is off the cards.

Overall, we feel that Nintendo's done a solid job with the controls, with the only downside being that over-sensitivity can occasionally prompt a swing while, for example, trying to setup a lob. They're not absolutely perfect, and though rare there are moments where the controls genuinely misbehave, while the spin on the ball — applied with a twist of the wrist — can feel negligible.

To Nintendo's credit it has added some fun challenges to help you grasp the new controls, named 'Skill Shapers'. Ring Master is self-explanatory, as you accumulate points by accurately targeting your shots and, if you're feeling clever, the occasional lob. Mole Commotion is the weakest of the three offerings, as you smash the ball at multiple pop-up moles worth different point values; while you can technically aim for more awkward 3-point critters, the best tactic is to simply hit the ball hard and hope a kind bounce will accumulate multiple hits. Duck Dash is a clever inclusion, as it encourages you to move your shots around the court, so provides useful training for real matches.

In terms of actual matches there's Single and Local multiplayer, of course, adopting largely the same setup as the original. Your player level can be increased when taking on the computer AI — as it does in online games — and whether you play solo or with a friend every match is Doubles; this is probably to account for the slow moving Mii characters. The gameplay as a whole is still pedestrian and you simply focus on playing shots as you're automatically manoeuvred around the court, with forehand or backhand choice being the extent of the control over your Mii's movement. That slow tempo is understandable, especially as these are designed to be the most accessible games available, and with the newly precise controls the occasional fast serve is about as intense as it gets. Playing with friends is still oddly compelling and fun, despite this low-tempo simplicity.

The other major additions to this entry are the online features, though these are occasionally smashed into the net. Online multiplayer, which consists of first-to-seven-points single matches, supports playing with Everyone in your region, those in your Club — which we'll get to shortly — or Friends. Bizarrely, setting up a match with those on your Friend List is annoyingly fiddly and imprecise. Even when in phone conversation with our test subjects we struggled to hook up, possibly due to the clunky interface. There's a "waiting area" where you can see those awaiting matches, and then you can enter the area yourself so visible to others. When both in the pre-match warm-up the game wouldn't connect us, and it felt by chance that after failing to connect we'd then see the other in the first lobby screen.

It then becomes a rush to select that player, as you only sit in the pre-match warm-up connection screen for around a minute before being told no games are available. As the system somehow couldn't see us both warming up and put us into a game together, getting kicked out to the opening lobby to select the other is the only way we could get it to work; they weren't always visible though, so it almost defies logic. Of course, after our game we couldn't simply select to have a rematch, but had to start the whole process again (Reviewer's update: while no rematch is possible in general online play, it appears to be in a Friends match, which we missed; this has no ultimate bearing on the overall score or assessment of the game). It also seems that the choice of single or local co-op restricts the match-ups even in this mode, so our friends had to play this lonesome reviewer one at a time, after navigating the tiresome process. Perhaps they're early growing pains with the online setup, but playing a Friend was unacceptably clunky.

Playing random online matches is infinitely easier. In fact, we'd barely hit Start and begin to gear up when we'd be dropped into a match; it's at once a wonderful and frustrating experience to finally play Wii Tennis online. We'd say around a third of our matches were butter-smooth, enjoyable contests, another third were a tad laggy but workable, and the final third had a connection so poor that it was a waste of time. The Miiverse messages that periodically pop up on the GamePad screen — not that you're really looking at it often — suggest others have had similar problems, and considering the simplicity of this game it's an undoubted disappointment. It really is a lot of fun when a lag-free match comes along, so the inability to simply opt for a rematch is curious; after each match you can only quit or go back to online game selection.

While online play is hit and miss, Nintendo's done a rather good job with its Miiverse integration and 'Club' feature. The latter is an integral part of initial setup, as you choose your region that you'd like to represent; there's a permanent leaderboard showing the top-performing regional communities. You can also use Miiverse in multiple ways — there are standard posts, Pep Talk messages that appear on clubmates' screen in single player to encourage them, and in-game calls. There are presets, but if you post to Miiverse (where they're moderated) you can create your own in-game calls, which can be teases, nice comments or family-friendly taunts. You set three at a time that are displayed using the D-pad in game, even if "balls" is a phrase, oddly, that's automatically blocked on Miiverse — for the record, we wanted to post "Wow, dem HD tennis balls". That was a partly ironic comment, as the visuals are very basic — it's an upscale with some nice little additions, but no more than that. Of course, that's fine considering the material at hand, but don't expect onlookers to be impressed by the graphics.

The Club element can easily be ignored, in truth, but seeing calls and Miiverse messages pop up between points is a nice touch and we couldn't help but glance at the leaderboards to see how "UK - East Midlands" was performing; sadly, mid-table mediocrity is our fate. It's typically safe — but not surprising — that actually exchanging messages is off the cards, and it lacks the punch and quick-game features of communities in the online component of Mario Kart 7, for example.

As an extra that fleshes out the overall package, however, the Club feature is welcome. Its implementation, like many of the elements in this title, class as "good but could be better", while playing with Friends online is — from our experience — a poorly-implemented flop. Yet at its core this is the Tennis we all remember but with more accurate and pleasingly demanding controls. Unlike the vague waggling on Wii, won points feel earned this time around, but with the flaws in execution we feel Nintendo should have come in at a lower price; it's not a release that hits endless winners, with the odd double fault tarnishing the overall experience.

Conclusion

Wii Sports Club: Tennis has some high points, with controls that need more mastery than simplistic waggle, a fun Club aspect and occasionally enjoyable online multiplayer. It hits the net cord a few too many times, however, with a bizarrely fiddly online Friend match setup and terribly inconsistent online that fundamentally fails to minimise lag if an opponent's connection is sub-optimal. When playing locally with friends or for the most part when playing alone it's as enjoyable as ever, but it fails to win a grand slam across its various features; it's an opportunity narrowly missed.