Bereft of feature content though it was, the Wii U’s Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash delivered addictively enjoyable core gameplay, for as long as its online servers remained populated. Its measly offline attractions and lack of court and character variety proved its critical undoing, but developer Camelot Software – makers of the Mario Tennis (and Golf) games since the N64 days – nevertheless managed to make the essentials sing. And it’s from this solid foundation that the studio has built the game Ultra Smash should have been: Mario Tennis Aces.
Where Ultra Smash’s extras were a pure Monkey Island’s worth of living without that particular piece of junk – here’s your context, kids – Aces stuffs its kit bag with activities until the zip’s positively pinging off across the locker room like a smartly volleyed can of energy drink. Not everything is evenly fleshed out, but whatever your preferential way to play, there’s plenty to get stuck into, both solo and with pals.
Aces’ offline tournament play is limited to three difficulty levels – the standard Mushroom (beginner), Flower (intermediate) and Star (harder) – with eight entrants each time, and doesn’t represent too much of a test for experienced Mario Tennis players. But at least there are actually tournaments in here – an immediate improvement on Ultra Smash, which couldn’t even manage the most basic bracket.
Having every playable character available from the moment you first turn on the game, from classic favourites to the surreal sight of a Chain Chomp smacking balls about the place, is a treat. It sure beats having to earn coins to add them to the roster, the Ultra Smash way. Each character has a playstyle they stick to – each of which is self-explanatory – such as defensive, powerful, and speedy just to name a few. Each style has its distinct advantages and disadvantages, so there’s no doubt in our minds that you'll be able to find at least one character who fits the way you want to play.
It's not just the characters who add life to the game; the arenas you play in feel equally alive and packed with personality. Different courts are unlocked for free play by progressing through Aces’ Adventure Mode. Notably lacking in Ultra Smash, these unique courts certainly mix things up, but are totally optional and don’t interfere too heavily with the rest of play. One has mirrors that spit your shots back at you, another has passengers rushing rudely across the court getting in the way of your shots, and one has a mast right slap-bang in the middle of the net, occasionally bouncing shots in ways nobody intended and at least half of the players didn’t want; it can really freshen things up when you’re tired to just slamming across a normal court.
Local multiplayer works just fine with the Joy-Cons removed, albeit with the compromise of each character’s distance-covering trick shot being mapped to a double-tap of the X button rather than a flick of the right analogue stick. An alternative control method is available, however – the Wii Sports-recalling Swing Mode, which lacks the accuracy that can be gained from regular pad play but makes for greater laughs with pals who aren’t so games savvy. And you might just get a little workout, too. Just be sure, as always, to move the valuables away from where you’re wafting your virtual racquet. Nobody wants to celebrate victory over their old man by sweeping up the remains of grandma’s favourite vase. Heirloom, that. Been in the family a hundred years. And so on.
Online play is something we couldn’t test at the time of writing, but we look forward to swinging into it once Aces has officially launched. If there’s anything wildly amiss about it, you can bet we’ll serve up an addendum to this review, but Ultra Smash played just fine when facing off against opponents staring at screens on the other side of the world, so we can’t see Aces falling short on that front.
As well as the risky trick shots that each character can attempt – successfully executed moves add extra energy to your top-corner gauge – Aces introduces one blistering special shot per competitor. Again, these are connected to your energy gauge – when it’s full and flashing, a tap of the left shoulder button will trigger a canned animation leading to a scorching return. There’s no guarantee it’ll score you a point, but Aces’ energy-fuelled fantastical strokes often offer the best way to defeat opponents, especially when you factor in that equipment failure is a massive part of this game.
Each player begins a match with a set number of racquets, which will lose power and ultimately shatter if they don’t return both special and (star-indicated) zone shots, performed with a tap of the right shoulder button, with perfect timing. Too early or too late, and these vital tools of the tennis trade take damage, although activating slow motion at the expense of some of your energy does help get that timing right.
As such, reading not only your opponent’s shots in the moment, but also the state of their energy gauge, is paramount to success, as is timing your own unleashing of a might-be-unstoppable move. With breakable defences and full-pelt body shots very much an aggressive option, Aces sometimes has the feel of a fighting game, as much as it does a stylised sports sim. But if you’re not into any of these striking abilities, simple rules are selectable for local and tournament play, which do away with the gauges and broken gear.
The Adventure Mode, returning to this series for the first time since 2005’s Mario Tennis: Power Tour for the Game Boy Advance, offers no such assets-stripping, actively funnelling the player – as Mario, with motivational support from Toad – towards all manner of bizarre showdowns based around bouncing balls and flailing bats.
The storyline is pure nonsense – something about a mean, magical racquet kidnapping Luigi (after possessing Wario and Waluigi), and a series of power stones that need retrieving in order to rescue him – but it’s a typically bright and breathlessly imaginative affair. What’s less expected (and welcomed) is the occasional significant difficulty spike, and the need to grind in order to level up. Mario’s skills, like power and accuracy, are tied to his current level, so you may find yourself backing away from a boss to spend time on the practise court, before returning feeling fitter and happier.
Toad offers advice after defeats, but this can be as confusing as it is helpful, making you look for chinks in armour that simply aren’t there. And the game’s array of special abilities aren’t explained too clearly in Adventure Mode, either – it’s better to play a few tournament games to get to grips with Ace’s mechanics, feeling initially awkward as they do after Ultra Smash’s streamlined move set. Once the controls do click, though, it’s clear that Camelot has realised a system that is adaptable to a lot of different strategies, equally suited to back-foot defensive manoeuvres on the baseline as it is confident net play. And you’d better believe you need to mix these approaches up the further you get into the game, or you’ll wind up hopping madder than any McEnroe tantrum.
We’re used to seeing Wii U games transfer to Switch, but for Ultra Smash to have moved across without a substantial makeover would have been disastrous. Aces, wonderfully, is anything but that – it’s a superb arcade sports game that’s generous with its suite of player options and only occasionally guilty of being a little cheap in its Adventure Mode. The presentation is spot on, and the core tennis action is absorbing whether you’re trading simple strokes or firing off special shots. Some animations and voice overs are identical to Ultra Smash’s, but everything around them has been overhauled to quite splendid heights. This is something of a Switch Port Plus, then – not quite a whole new experience, but so improved as to be near unrecognisable next to its preceding title.