Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom chums are a talented bunch. They race karts and motorbikes, compete for medals in the Olympics, get into the swing of golf and more besides. They also, of course, play a bit of tennis - maybe it's for the exercise, the fashionable sportswear or to enjoy a post-match bowl of strawberries and cream. Whatever the case, the crew have all evolved and improved their skills with each passing generation of hardware.
It's a particularly interesting series as it's often taken very different approaches in the portable and home console spaces, too. Some of the older handheld entries are loved for their RPG aspects, for example, while on home consoles the focus has been on basic - albeit over-the-top - action.
With Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash about to continue the series' tradition on Wii U we thought we'd take a little look at the Mario Tennis games we've had before, including a couple that aren't typically treated as part of the 'franchise' by Nintendo itself. And yes, three of these entries are edited from our previous 'Mario History' series of articles; if you're a regular reader and eagle-eyed you may spot which ones they are...
Should this count? Well, technically not, as this basic 8-bit title wasn't actually a conventional Mario Tennis game. Mario does appear as the Umpire to referee matches, though, so we thought we'd give it a mention.
Mario's Tennis was a key part of the Virtual Boy library and packed-in with the hardware in North America - the quirky 3D portable system arrived and was pitched as a futuristic technical marvel, but its red and black hue combined with headache-inducing effects contributed to it being a major flop. It tanked, and never even saw a release in Europe.
As a result Mario's Tennis is often overlooked - the apostrophe and s, along with an entirely different development team, sees it disassociated from the standard series. It was single-player only and a remarkably simplistic affair - it did feature Luigi, Princess Toadstool, Yoshi, Toad, Koopa Trooper and Donkey Kong Jr in addition to Mario, to its credit. Despite the limited mileage of this one it did have some nice touches, such as changing backgrounds.
The main gimmick, of course, was the 3D effect. The camera angle suited a significant sense of depth, and though focusing the effect is tricky with the Virtual Boy it can certainly be argued that Mario's Tennis is one of the stronger examples of what the system could do.
Mario Tennis on the N64 is widely regarded as the 'first' of this series and holds a special place in this writer's heart. Just like Nintendo's other spin-off sports or racing titles at the time this one took a fun and slightly wacky approach, while attributing different mechanics to varied characters. There was the usual all-round Mario and powerful Bowser, for example, but the relatively large cast also delivered some skill players such as Boo, who could put ludicrous swerve onto shots.
Like a lot of N64 games it looks relatively rough by modern standards, but even in the current day it can be great fun to play. The appeal for many is in multiplayer, and with variable court services and some optional Mario-style rules there's plenty of scope to shake up matches. Choosing Mario at least once is a must, too, courtesy of the pointless but humorous option of running around when celebrating a point.
It also brought Waluigi into our lives.
Mario Tennis on Game Boy Color arrived late 2000 in Japan - 2001 in the West - and was an altogether different experience. In terms of gameplay that's hardly surprising, as the N64 game was pushing 3D graphics and the humble GBC had to stick to more conventional pixel-based approaches. What the portable game lacked in visual oomph, however, it made up for in appeal.
It's the portable game that's arguably aged better, as it features a single-player RPG mode that could truly sink its claws in. Players chose an avatar and began a quest to rise through the ranks, levelling up and customising their abilities to suit a chosen approach. Opting for power would reduce speed, while speedsters would have relatively weak shots, and so on. The player would also have to consider whether to use upgrade resources on their doubles team mate, with plenty of balancing to be found it order to progress.
In addition the portable title offered multiplayer using a link cable with a buddy, and this was also a very early example of crossover content between portable and home console. 'Mario Minigames' could be unlocked by those with a copy of the N64 game and a Transfer Pak, adding a little more depth to the experience.
Despite the title, though, Mario and company were very much secondary in the portable title. The depth and addictive nature of that solo RPG campaign means that it's a Game Boy Color title that's remembered fondly by plenty of gamers.
We've already mentioned how the portable and home console iterations in this series varied in their approaches, and that was perfectly demonstrated here. Though it technically followed the Game Boy Color release this is a sequel to the Nintendo 64 original, and is regarded by some as a pinnacle in the series.
It's easy to forget the gulf in technology that we had between the Nintendo 64 - with its pioneering approach to 3D graphics - and the GameCube. The GC was a pretty powerful machine in its day, which not only spruced up visuals but allowed for feature-heavy games. Power Tennis is packed with cool court types, items and effects that had forms or simpler equivalents on N64 but nevertheless stepped it up a notch. It really was the core experience once again, but powered up.
In addition to Mario Kart-esque items and quirky court types there were also plenty of modes, with various tournaments that were straight up tennis or 'gimmick' focused, while there were also eight minigames. Some of these minigames were fun diversions, but like with its home console predecessor many fond memories revolve around local multiplayer.
Nintendo and Camelot were clearly in a groove with the two-pronged approach to the franchise, as this GBA entry reverted back to following the RPG-style approach of the Game Boy Color predecessor. This entry did it rather well, while also trying to show off the GBA's power with some pseudo-3D visuals when on the court.
The focus of this one, then, was the solo story campaign, where once again Mario and co took a back seat as supporting players. As would be expected of a new entry with a generational leap there was some extra depth as you managed training to boost your character, and gradually tried to build up yourself and your playing partner. For those that wanted a plot and plenty of dialogue with their tennis this was a hugely enjoyable release.
Naturally the actual tennis matches were also enjoyable, if simpler and less bombastic that those of its GameCube brethren. Multiplayer was also included but not as prominently as on GameCube, while fans of minigames were also well served.
Strangely the Wii was effectively skipped by the series with no new entry arriving. What it got instead was this re-release of the popular GameCube title - it's basically the same game with new controls and other minor tweaks.
As the title makes clear the main 'gimmick' was motion controls, albeit before the MotionPlus era. As a result swinging your arm to play shots was arguably functional but not as accurate as good old-fashioned buttons. On the plus side though, and fitting nicely with the Wii's core goal, it made the series accessible to anyone that could wave their arm around. Tweaks in settings could also make it even more obliging to new players, so for playing with family and friends this certainly did the job.
Still, it's hard to get past the sense that this was a bit of a cop-out, as eager Wii gamers didn't get a new entry in the series.
This was an all-new game, and also marked a departure for the portable side of the series. The pixel-based story approach was dropped - hardly surprising after a seven year gap - and what we had was a 3D graphics engine that brought Mario Power Tennis more to mind. As the series had skipped DS, perhaps this was a case of the 3DS having the power to allow Nintendo and Camelot to bring the series' threads together.
This entry did have some minor legacy from its portable predecessors, as you could play as a Mii - rather than a fixed human character - and play minigames to earn gold and buy (or earn through tournament wins) better equipment. While the Mushroom Kingdom roster could be unlocked and 'starred' by playing various tournaments, accessing gear to spruce up and customise a favoured play style was pretty addictive, albeit arguably slightly under-cooked. It's also worth noting that newcomers and less experience players were accommodated with some motion controls - which weren't great - and easy to understand panels to use on the touchscreen.
A handful of quirky minigames also made the grade including a fun 'sidescrolling' Super Mario Bros. version, and multiplayer also finally went online. Though it could occasionally be a laggy experience, competing on leaderboards added a little meat to what was a fairly simple online component. Nevertheless, the option to have intense and slightly chaotic matches online was a welcome one.
So that's the series so far, with Ultra Smash about to add its own legacy on Wii U. While we wait for that let us know which of the series is your favourite in the poll and comments below.