Let's be honest - Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash on Wii U wasn’t exactly what we all wanted, and that’s putting it gently. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when Mario Tennis Aces was announced not too long ago it looked like it could hold some real promise. Now we’ve had a chance to have a ruddy good go at it, do those positive vibes still hold?

Straight away we were thrown into the bit we were most excited about; the single-player story mode. After a short tutorial for the basic moves and a slightly longer tutorial to explain the new mechanics the game offers, we were treated to three levels. The variety was good - rather than just being various different tennis matches we also had to lob fireballs back at Piranha Plants, which was actually rather challenging, as well as take on the infamous Petey Piranha. Despite the limitation of being a tennis game, we were pleased to see it being employed in different and interesting ways.

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The story that ties the whole game together is ludicrously contrived, but thankfully seems to be aware of how little sense it makes for Donkey Kong to refuse Mario passage unless he proves his strength on the court. It’s a tennis game at the end of the day, and we feel if the developer had tried to take it seriously it wouldn’t work at all, but as it stands - with the Infinity Gauntlet posing as a tennis racquet and the limitless patience of Petey as he’s content to fling balls back at you rather than just bum-rush you into oblivion - it works.

Every way the game handles and plays feels tight, responsive, and extremely well-refined. The basic tennis controls and play is almost identical to Ultra Smash (it even has the same announcer soundbites), but the real evolution for the series comes from the new Zone Shot and Zone Speed.

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Zone Shot allows you to slow down time, enter a first-person perspective of your character, and actually choose where to hit the ball with pinpoint accuracy - to the point where you can choose to knock it out of the court if you feel like it. This is controlled by use of gyro aiming, but it can also easily be turned off in the settings. You can only do this when a sufficiently high shot is coming towards you, usually a lob, that is marked so with a star showing its landing path.

Zone Speed on the other hand allows you to slow down time while retaining full movement speed for you but not your opponent. This allows you to reach the ball when you might otherwise not be able to do so, and it’s an absolute lifesaver when your foe tries to take you out with a Zone Shot.

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That’s because your racquet now has a health bar, and if you fail to return a Zone Shot with precise timing, you’ll get the ball back over the net but your ball-hitter will take damage. Mistime such a return three times in a game with both of your racquets (you always have a backup if your first is destroyed) and you’ll be forced to forfeit the entire match. If you hit the ball back when it is as close as possible to you, you’ll block the shot and you’ll be spared the pain. Zone Speed naturally makes the timing for this a lot easier, so don’t squander it.

Another 'new' addition is Special Shot. This has been in other Mario Tennis games previously, but it’s got a shiny new trick up its sleeve. Much like a Zone Shot, you have to return a Special Shot with impeccable timing, but with this little sausage if you fail to time your return properly: your racquet will be immediately destroyed. Scary stuff.

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All of these are tied to the energy gauge, which fills up by performing Charge Shots, and can be used when you press a button to return a shot long before the ball is near you, or the new Trick Shot. On the face of it, the Trick Shot looks like an easy safety net that’ll allow you to quickly slide over to the ball when it would otherwise be out of reach. However, the reality of the situation is that it’s really quite easy to totally misjudge the distance your trick shot can reach, and over or undershoot the mark. If you can pull it off, it’s seriously worth it, giving you a big boost to your energy, but misuse will usually result in you looking like a flashy and overconfident fool to strangers online.

It may sound overwhelming or perhaps a little over the top at first, but these new mechanics are fairly simple to get your head around, but quite tricky to master. They add a new dimension to the gameplay that the series has been gagging for, and allow for much more tactical play than just drop shots on sand courts.

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We were also able to play against other, real humans that happened to also be in the room, and this is where the game shined brightest for us. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the single-player, but playing against CPUs is never as satisfying as playing with someone we can verbally abuse in person. The opportunity to turn around and stare down the person that just smashed your racquet is pure magic, and will certainly help to destroy friendships before Mario Party 11 is announced. The game also runs beautifully, able to run at 60fps without dropping a single frame from our analysis, as well as running at a fairly meaty resolution. Our tests came up with a working resolution of around 1728 x 972, but in certain instances such as Special Shots we saw an increase to a full 1080p.

While Ultra Smash felt like a limp attempt to fill a gap in the Wii U’s release schedule, Mario Tennis Aces is looking like it has some real passion behind it. The variety in content, the new mechanics, the wonderfully ludicrous lineup of characters (read: Chain Chomp) makes us feel like this is what Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash should’ve been, and so much more besides. From what we’ve played so far this is looking like a very solid return to form for the series.

What did you make of our hands-on preview of Mario Tennis Aces? Will you be taking to the court this summer? Share your thoughts below...