A surprise service sent over the net in Nintendo's Digital Event at this year's E3, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for Wii U marks the first home console appearance of this particular Mario Sport in over 10 years. If early impressions are anything to go by, it's one to watch for - the demo we played on the show floor was very simple, consisting only of Mario and Bowser battling it out on a single court, but it already felt extremely polished, and we had a blast playing several matches against a talented Nintendo rep.
Like its predecessors, Ultra Smash is a fast-paced, arcade-style tennis game that puts its Mushroom Kingdom court location to good use. The matches we played, for example, were part of the Mega Battle mode, in which enormous mushrooms wander onto the field from time to time. Picking up one of these iconic fungi makes your character grow to several times their size, which, as it turns out, is a double edged sword in terms of tennis - the increased reach and wingspan makes it easier to return wide shots, but we also lost a few volleys thanks to Mario's newly oversized noggin acting as an excellent target.
No matter your size, you'll always have access to the same repertoire of racquet techniques, and along with basic Topspin and Slice shots - assigned to the 'A' and 'B' buttons, respectively - Ultra Smash keeps the multi-button shot combos from Mario Tennis Open: 'A' followed by 'B' sets up a Lob, for instance, and 'B' followed by 'A' a Drop Shot. One new addition for Ultra Smash is the Jumpshot; by pressing 'A' or 'B' twice in a row you can return the ball from mid-air, which is as satisfying as it sounds.
All these different shot types play into Chance Shots, which sometimes see differently coloured spotlights appear where the ball is about to land. If you make it to the ball in time and pull off the particular shot indicated by the colour in the circle (red for Topspins, white for Drop Shots, etc.), you'll send back your return with a massive boost. Our demo sets saw quite a few volleys where Chance Shots made the crucial difference, and they were thrilling to play for, adding a rapid-fire 'Simon Says' element to the already engaging arcade tennis action.
We played on a Pro Controller, which felt great - controls were snappy and responsive, with intuitive button mappings and a fun new dive button assigned to 'R'. For players who haven't yet memorized the different Chance Shot combinations' colour coding - a task made more difficult without a bottom-screen cheat sheet as in Open - the 'X' button also acts as an easy way out.
Tapping 'X' for your shots will activate the best shot for the situation every time, including during Chance Shot opportunities. While we're sure there will be an option to disable this in the full game (if only for multiplayer parity), it's a very welcome addition, and should help let everyone take a swing at the action. With Mega Mushrooms and the Mario cast, Ultra Smash's appeal is immediate, and it should be much easier to share the fun with an (optionally) reduced learning curve.
We didn't see very much of Ultra Smash in the demo, but what we did see looked fantastic. Mario and Bowser are beautifully detailed - especially in their enormous forms - the lighting on the superpowered shots is gorgeous, and the little touches that Nintendo is known for are already shining through; we especially loved watching Mario's shoes rip up dirt trails in the grass when he was blown back by a particularly powerful shot.
Like all Mario Tennis games, Ultra Smash is a Camelot creation, though since it's early on in development there's no word on what the single player content might look like, or if any of the RPG elements from the studio's earlier Mario Sports titles might make it into this Wii U release. Whatever form the final game takes, however, it has a seriously solid foundation; even in these early days, we had a great time with Ultra Smash, and can't wait to hit the courts again, Mega Mushrooms and all.