There have been plenty of underrated games over the years, but every now and then you get an entire series that hasn’t enjoyed the level of success and attention it deserves. That’s the case with Namco’s Smash Court Tennis franchise, which has consistently served up (ahem) some top-quality arcade-style tennis action, but – perhaps because its earlier titles never saw American releases – is never really rhymed off when people list Namco’s other much-loved franchises.
Smash Tennis is the fifth game in the series, following a handful of arcade, Famicom and TurboGrafx-16 titles under the names World Court and Family Tennis (this one’s called Super Family Tennis in Japan). Since only Japan and Europe got Smash Tennis back when it first launched in 1993, its addition to Switch Online’s SNES library marks its first official release in North America.
At first glance, it shares a lot in common with Tonkin House's Nintendo-published Super Tennis. It uses a similar viewpoint, features the same style of cutesy, chunky characters and focuses more on arcade-style action and uncomplicated controls rather than attempting to recreate the sport in a realistic, in-depth way.
Despite its simplistic appearance though, Smash Tennis plays a great game of tennis; some might say it's an even better one than Tonkin House's legendary effort, in fact. You’re only armed with three types of stroke – a strong one, a weak one and a lob – but somehow this feels like enough to cope with any type of situation on the court. This is mainly down to the aiming mechanic, a fundamental part of any tennis game and one that many continue to mess up to this day.
Simply put, your strokes generally go where you want them to with relative ease. Hold left as you swing and you’ll hit it to the left. Hold forward, and you’ll hit deep shots to the back of the court. Hold back and you’ll try to drop a short one over the net. Each of the 20 playable characters has their own stats too, so some may be better with their backhand than others, whereas some may be slow but can deliver a hell of a shot down the line.
None of this may sound particularly revolutionary, but at the time it was actually surprisingly uncommon to find a tennis game with this level of control. Anyone who’d played the likes of Andre Agassi Tennis, David Crane’s Amazing Tennis or Jimmy Connors Pro Tennis Tour – all of which had arrived on the SNES the year before – would have known the pain of not having a tennis game that simply put the ball where you wanted it without requiring a lengthy adjustment period. All you need to do in Smash Tennis is learn how to time your serve, and everything else just works.
What can you do with all this accuracy at your fingertips, then? Well, the main mode is Tournament, which initially just seems like a simple quarter-final bracket in a tournament called the Namco Open. Play three games, win them all, get your trophy. Rather than that being the end of the story, though, winning the first trophy then qualifies you to take part in a further four tournaments – the American, Asian, Aussie and Euro Opens – and get the ‘Grand Slam’ (which in this case means winning them all).
This isn’t the world’s longest mode; if you get the hang of the controls quickly enough you can have the whole mode beaten and enjoy the momentous spelling mistake on the ending screen within about two-and-a-half hours. It also doesn’t have a difficulty setting, which means once you master it, there isn’t really anywhere else to go from there. That said, it can be played in doubles mode, too, either with a CPU partner or a pal in co-op, so at least there’s some replay factor in that.
Tournament mode aside, all that remains is the ability to play one-off Exhibition matches, but these are actually brilliantly entertaining because of the addition of five extra novelty courts that are far more enjoyable to play on than the basic grass, hard and clay courts you’ll find in the main mode. Here you can play in a ski resort, at a forest lodge, in front of a Japanese shrine, on a beach or at the top of a massive mountain, and each location is a treat with plenty of visual detail.
Even better are the set-pieces exclusive to each court, which help keep you on your toes. The lodge court starts out foggy, for example, which doesn’t affect your ability to play the game but looks nice nonetheless. As you continue to play the fog lifts, the sun shines and the bottom of the court slowly begins to show the shadows of the trees behind you. It’s lovely to see. Less lovely (though certainly funnier) is the flock of birds that occasionally decides to fly past just as you’re about to serve.
These quirky little extra permeate the other courts too, from the cat that runs out when you hit the ball into the shrine, to the beach bum who can be struck with a coconut if your shot hits the tree next to him. Best of all, though, is the climber in the mountain court, who’s constantly trying to reach the summit as you play and can occasionally fall a bit when a shot falls off the edge of the court and whizzes past him. When he finally makes it to the top, he plants a flag and proceeds to cheer you on.
It isn’t a flawless game: it does have one issue in particular when it comes to character selection. Although there are 20 players to choose from, each with very different stats, all you get is a list of names. You don’t get to see those stats, and you don’t even get to see what the character looks like, so unless you know the difference between Tony, Carol and Helen you’re in for a lot of trial and error until you find someone whose abilities (or appearance, if you’re the shallow type like us) best suit your style.
This is the only notable problem, however, in a game that is otherwise fantastic. There are few better multiplayer titles on the SNES – playing the tournament mode in co-op is a particular blast – and hopefully the Switch Online release, marking its official North American debut, will finally earn it the love and the following it deserves.
Super Tennis may be the first game most people think about when it comes to 16-bit recreations of the sport, but Smash Tennis is its equal in almost every respect, and perhaps even trumps it in terms of charm, control, number of players and so on. Its absence in America until now has kept it firmly under many players' radars, but make no mistake: this is one of the best 16-bit sports games, full stop.