Mario's spin-off titles have been integral to Nintendo systems for multiple generations, typically designed to bring families and friends together for light-hearted fun. The tennis spin-off has often found a fascinating middle-ground between depth and accessibility, though the home console entries have often been focused on simple court-based fun. A blend of chaos, reflexes and strategy, the Mario Tennis series has continually evolved from its main Nintendo 64 debut; Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, sadly, is a mis-hit.
A key question posed about this title, unsurprisingly, is how well it plays. This is a series that, for some at least, revolves around local multiplayer fun - in particular - and on that criteria Ultra Smash is a solid entry. Character movement and stroke making feels fantastic, responding with as much precision as any player could hope. Three face buttons serve up shot variations of topspin, slice and flat, with charge shots, lobs and drop shots also included. Throw in the colour-coded Chance Shots so prominent in Mario Tennis Open on 3DS - for more powerful shot variations - and Camelot has excellent mechanics in its hands.
Emphasized in this new entry are jump shots, with the titled Ultra Smash being the most extreme of these. Overall this brings a quick intensity to rallies rather than the long drawn out battles from the 64-bit era. That's not to say there aren't some brilliant and tense rallies, and the inclusion of powerful smashes and chance shots brings extra strategy to the mayhem. A chance area may be for a lob, but against human opposition you may psyche out your opponent by playing something completely different. Against AI, meanwhile, cranking up the difficulty - especially to the unlockable Pro and Ace settings - delivers truly intense ad-hoc action.
It's Mario Tennis, ultimately, little more but certainly no less. For series veterans there'll be instant familiarity, while for those coming to the series fresh there's a mix of accessibility and optional depth to be enjoyed. The cast is relatively modest but has newcomers to enjoy - with Rosalina being particularly useful when utilised well - and the court types also have highlights; the high bounce of Mushroom Court, slippery Ice Court and the tricky Bounce-out Court are among our favourites.
What makes the solid mechanics work particularly well is the technical performance that Camelot's achieved. The visuals are chunky but colourful, simple but pleasing on the eye - what really matters, though, is that performance rocks along at 60 frames-per-second whether playing singles or doubles. It's a smoothness of movement rarely seen outside of Nintendo's first-party efforts on Wii U, and though the lack of variety in stadiums and settings is a problem - a theme of lacking content that we'll return to - what is here works wonderfully.
It's important to emphasize then, prior to the negativity and criticisms to follow, that Ultra Smash does deliver slick, solid and accomplished HD Mario Tennis at a terrific framerate. It allows you to play 'Simple' tennis like the original N64 title, 'Standard' which adds jump shots and Chance Shots or 'Mega' matches that represent the only new innovation to be found. For those that want a basic Mario Tennis experience in the current-gen, this gives that option.
Of course, our duty in reviewing the title is to look at the bigger picture, and so that picture gets muddier and uglier. In simple terms this is the weakest offering - in terms of actual content - that we can recall from a Nintendo first-party release; the phoned-in nature of the feature-set is simply unacceptable.
For solo players there's little offline fun to be had. Single matches can be played in Standard, Classic or Mega Battle, with the latter being heavily promoted. In these matches Mega Mushrooms are gradually tossed to either side of the net, and when grabbed transform the player into a huge presence on the court. In mega form defensive abilities and reach are fairly absolute, while all shots are powered up. On the one hand it's silly fun, and there's strategy in perhaps ignoring a mushroom on your side to wait for an opponent's effect to expire, for example, before trying to make hay with the size advantage. When in huge form it's pretty effective to simply charge the net and blast opponents away.
It's a gimmick rather than a game-selling concept, and is an indication of the poverty of ideas here that it's had such focus in Nintendo's marketing efforts. Outside of one-off matches offline solo play only has one minigame, a betrayal of the variety found in previous entries - Mega Ball Rally is a simple back and forth in which the tennis ball shrinks as the number of shots increases. It's fine as a five minute distraction, but that's it. The absence even of box-based special items is another damning indication of how little effort went beyond the core mechanics.
There are no cups, no Mii characters, no customisable gear - you earn masses of coins in-game that can be used to buy unlockable extras that are presented as achievements. You can buy Star versions of characters if you don't feel like earning them, and it's here you buy or unlock courses, difficulty settings and a crude 'amiibo training' option - more to come on that. You earn coins so easily that, thankfully, you don't have to subject yourself to repeated plays of Knockout Challenge.
We think this is supposed to be the 'main' single player mode - you play a sequence of tie-break matches, 15 wins with a character gets their star version (essentially just a quicker, better version for those unaware) and 30 matches gets a credits sequence. The only bonus of this round is that it allows you to 'train' an amiibo; you'll need a figure without any save data as this uses the read-write capability just like Super Smash Bros. - figures such as the 30th Anniversary Mario or Yarn Yoshi do the trick, too. When you scan in an amiibo they join you as a doubles partner (even though there's only one opponent) and then every five matches one of ten skill slots is randomly filled. It's worth slogging through 50 knockout matches to get a fully beefed up amiibo if you fancy some online doubles, though the figures can't be used in any other offline modes.
The amiibo implementation is welcome, but as a solo mode Knockout Challenge is almost unbelievably limited and shallow. Between one-off matches, Mega Ball Rally and this amiibo training option the offline solo options are pathetic in their lack of spark. It's a bizarre mix of fun, polished gameplay and a shoddy feature-set.
Pressure falls on multiplayer to make this game worthwhile, then, and it does deliver simply by virtue of being an enjoyable experience. The GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, sideways Wii Remote or Wii Classic Controller / Pro are all supported; the sideways Remote isn't an ideal option compared to the others, and the absence of Nunchuk or motion control support is a further indication of the minimal effort made here. Ultimately, though, up to four players can duke it out in any way they please across the play types, and those that want to can use the GamePad screen to see the reverse court angle or duplicate the TV, while in solo mode a 'Dynamic' view can be placed on the TV with a standard angle on the controller.
Some of the best fun we've had in this game has been in local multiplayer - it's a winning formula if all you want to do is play some matches and mess around on different court types. There'll be elbows in the ribs, laughter and mayhem when playing in the right company, and those with memories of multiplayer fun in this one's predecessors will absolutely get a kick out of it.
Of course, this is the first home console Mario Tennis title with online play, which will likely also be the main source of entertainment for those that can't always get a local match going. The online has singles and doubles support, with the latter allowing you to play co-op with a friend locally or with your trained up amiibo. Doubles matches are often high in tempo and pretty dramatic when two teams are evenly matched, and certainly makes the effort to level up your amiibo worthwhile. The only sad thing is that we've found doubles matches harder to come by than singles equivalents, especially when the 'Standard' mode - minus Mega Mushrooms - is chosen in the pre-search filters.
Singles matches are easier to come by, with unranked matches having the Mega item optional and including some of the quirkier courts on the random rotation - you can't choose - and only unstarred characters are allowed. Once you opt for ranked matches it's basic matches and courts only, though starred characters are allowed. However you play you'll earn plenty of coins pretty quickly, and in our experience over the launch weekend - when using extremely fast broadband - the majority of matches are lag free. You do get a connection speed preview before kicking off a match, too, so if an opponent has an awful connection you find out before jumping in.
Online performance is solid, then, and we've enjoyed plenty of matches, albeit often in single player to get the quickest match-ups. It's perhaps a little too easy to unleash furious returns even off 'Nice' and impeccably executed serves, and net play can be overly dominant at times. Nevertheless it can be fun after a poor start, in which an opponent dominates, to switch up tactics and find a way to turn a match around. It's the same fun play as in local multiplayer, just a little less personal and with occasional lag.
Annoyingly, though, this is a blast from the past - and not in a good way - in terms of the online feature set; it rather resembles the limitations of Nintendo's earliest online efforts. There's no option to setup matches with those on your Friend List - no, we're not making this up - and you can't even jump into a rematch with the same opponent. We've had some fantastic matches and wanted nothing more than to go another round, but the only option is to 'Find Next Opponent', which is randomised. On some occasions we've had rematches pop up courtesy of modest numbers playing, but nevertheless it's an extraordinarily barebones infrastructure.
That sums up Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. A good game undermined by a lazily constructed feature-set; whether it's the masses of earned coins that become an irrelevance after you've unlocked the extras, the shocking lack of solo content or the highly limited online setup. Camelot produced a slick, fun tennis game that's fun in the right circumstances, but then forgot to add enough content. We can only assume it's a rush job.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is an odd game to score or recommend. The basic gameplay is strong, has slick performance and handsome if basic visuals; as a multiplayer game it can be enormously enjoyable, too. With options to ignore newfound gimmicks in simple matches included, fans of the franchise that want a HD / 60fps entry to play with friends - or some random opponents online - can find entertainment.
Those are positives, but we cannot emphasize enough how phoned-in and thin the content offering is, nor how throwaway Mega Battle is as a tentpole feature. Frankly this shouldn't be a retail game at $49.99 and regional equivalents, as it is at launch; it should be a budget retail game at best. Presumably out of desperation for a Holiday release this has been sent out with barely any content, and all that saves it is the fact that the gameplay remains as pleasing as ever.
We can't recommend Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash at its launch retail price, and certainly not to anyone looking for enjoyable solo offline options. For those that are willing to pay, however, there's fun to be had in random online matches and most certainly in local multiplayer. Excellent, enjoyable gameplay clashes with a shoddy and lazy set of features. It's up to you whether that's worth your money.