If there's one thing that Arc System Works - with this game published by Shin'en Multimedia - can't be accused of, it's of sticking to one genre. Over the years it has displayed a competent ability to develop quality beat 'em ups, side scrolling fighters and even racing games, such as Final Lap, a game that dates as far back as 1988. The same can't be said, however, for its recent venture into the sports games market, with baseball and soccer titles in particular failing to capture the quintessence of either sport. This time around, it's replaced bats for racquets in an attempt to recreate one of the world's favourite sports, with a cartoony visual twist. So does Family Tennis SP manage to pick up the Grand Slam, or does it fail to hold its own against the big guns?
From a visual standpoint the game is a mixed bag. Whilst the menus are bright, colourful and inviting, the courts and character animations – arguably the most important part – feel very static; yet despite this the 8 characters available to select have an anime art style fits well with the overall artistic design. Dip into the tournament and exhibition mode and that's where things take a turn for the worst, however. For starters, the actual character animations are limited, rigid and lifeless. As players move across the court and take swings at the ball the clear lack of detail makes it hard to see whether a forehand or backhand will take place. Not necessarily a game breaking problem, but one that takes away from the overall experience. Also, apart from a few wandering birds and the umpire's side glances, the courts lack energy; colourful, yet without soul.
All this could have been forgiven if the gameplay itself stood up. After all, the humble Wii is home to some of the best tennis games to date - Mario Power Tennis, Grand Slam Tennis, Wii Sports Tennis and Virtua Tennis, just to name a few – so Family Tennis SP had the luxury of borrowing the best elements of these games. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent after playing for an hour that not only does it fail to borrow any of the qualities that made said games great, it takes three steps backwards and seems happy to remains in its uncompleted state. If a comparison must be made, at first peek, it could be compared to Mario Power Tennis, only because it takes a less realistic approach to tennis and looks more like an anime.
Build up enough power gauge during rallies and players can use 'power shots'. These are shots that will force the opponent to dive for the ball or, in some circumstances, can't be returned at all. Using these shots along with the rest of the standard shots at the player's disposal can lead to scarce moments of fun and the odd rally - for the most part though, players will move the ball across the court in an unnatural manner. At times the tennis ball will react as though it has been filled with lead, the players hover across the court without any sense of weight or realism and, at times, the character will take swings at the ball unbefitting to their position on the court. This makes trying to play serve-and-volley a redundant tactic, almost forcing play from the baseline as the safest and most practical way of competing in order to win. Of course, mixing up different styles of play isn't exactly necessary as the CPU is easy to beat, regardless of the selected difficulty setting or the character's unique ability.
To make matters even worse, the umpire will yell "match point" when it's a game point and at times will even say "Out", when he should be a calling for a let.
The game's one redeeming feature comes in the form of three mini games, which involve getting into long rallies with the opponent and being the first to collect 100 points, aiming for the coloured panels on the opposite side of the court to try and rack up the highest amount of points and a survivor mode, to see how many opponents can be beaten in a row. Nothing original or unlike anything seen in past tennis games, but welcome nevertheless.
If the very definition of tennis is a game that includes racquets, a ball, a net, an umpire and a few players, then yes, Family Tennis SP does the job. However, finesse, fun and flair - just some of the key ingredients that go into making tennis such a joy to play and watch - are all missing from this game. The Wii U may not possess an abundance of sports titles, but this isn't enough reason to commit to a game when the Wii already has such a high quality back catalogue of tennis games. By whatever means possible, pick up a copy of any of the aforementioned tennis titles when looking for an example on how to create a sublime sports game. They may be around 10 years old, but somehow they still manage to deliver more complete and enjoyable tennis offerings. There's simply no excuse for anything less.