SEATTLE--At Nintendo's Gamer's Summit today, we got our first try at Mario Power Tennis, the new follow-up to the now-classic Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64. Developer Camelot did a good job with its last Nintendo sports offerings, Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour on the GameCube and Mario Golf: Advance Tour on the GBA, and we're pleased to see that Power Tennis seems to be following in those games' honorable footsteps with a variety of entertaining game modes underpinned by fun and highly accessible tennis play.
Most of our time in Mario Power Tennis was spent in the basic exhibition mode, getting a feel for the various characters and courts that are available. By our count there were 14 playable characters, though there's no telling if more will be unlockable in the final game. Among those featured on the select screen were just about all the classic Mario characters you'd expect to find. Aside from the mustachioed plumber himself, we saw Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Wario, Waluigi, Yoshi, a koopa troopa, Bowser, Bowser Jr., Donkey and Diddy Kong, and even a shyguy and a boo. All the players were categorized based on their skill proficiency--Mario and Luigi, for instance, were rated as "all around" players, while other characters focused on speed, technique, or even "tricky" (such as the boo character, who would make some wily motions during play to confuse other players).
There were also a number of selectable courts in the version we tried out. In addition to standard clay and grass courts, we saw a number of Mario-themed courts, including classic series locations such as Luigi's Mansion, a WarioWare-style factory, and Donkey Kong's jungle. The basic starting courts didn't offer anything to hinder our attempts at getting a feel for the gameplay, but the themed courts had a little more going on than we initially bargained for. The Luigi's Mansion court, for instance, will menace you with all kinds of ghosts, while a Mario Sunshine-themed court will fill the playing area with that darn sludge, drastically slowing your movement if you have to run through it. Pads on the court would activate water hoses that would spray some of the sludge off, but of course it was difficult for us to reach the pads when we were also trying to keep up a volley with the opposing player. The courts in the game seem to run the gamut of the Mario locations you'd expect, and they offer some unique extra gameplay elements during the matches, if you should want to deal with them.
The basic tennis gameplay is quite similar to Mario Tennis' model and should be easily picked up by just about anybody. You can perform regular swings and lobs with the A and B buttons, respectively, and hitting the ball is really just a matter of getting over to it and timing your button press properly. You can of course direct the path of the ball somewhat by pushing on the analog stick as you swing, and you can also charge up for a more powerful swing by holding the button prior to release (though this limits your mobility quite a bit). The game will of course be playable by up to four players, and in a doubles match you can have the computer play any configuration of players you want. We tried a two-player game with one human- and one computer-controlled player on each side, and the AI did a good job of keeping up without being too skilled. Overall, we found the gameplay exceptionally easy to get a feel for, but also challenging enough that this ought to be a tennis game that's enjoyable for players of just about any age.
Though the basic gameplay is the same, Mario Power Tennis does feature one big addition: power moves. Each character has one offensive and one defensive power move, and you can use one of these moves after successfully volleying back and forth a few times--your power move readiness is indicated by a brightly glowing racket. When you activate a power move, the game cuts to a quick and amusing cinematic depicting whatever crazy power your character is invoking. Mario's offensive power, for instance, involves whipping out a giant hammer and whacking the crap out of the ball, sending it flying at massive speed. The cool thing about these power moves is that while they're definitely useful, they aren't unbeatable--you can still return Mario's massive power shot if you time your swing properly, but it'll knock you backward and stun your character for a few seconds. In other words, the power moves can definitely score you an extra point here and there, but they don't appear to unbalance the game.
Some of the other power moves we saw were a little more unorthodox than Mario's straightforward power shot. Luigi's defensive move, for example, had him whipping out his Luigi's Mansion vacuum cleaner and sucking the ball toward him from wherever it was in the air, guaranteeing that he wouldn't miss the shot. Boo's offensive move had him sending a swarm of miniature boos along with the ball to harass the opposing player when he or she tried to return the shot. Bowser stopped the ball in midair and breathed fire all over it, sending it back lightning quick and flaming at the opposition. These power moves are executed very quickly and in a pleasingly flashy manner, and they seem to add a lot to the already solid tennis foundation in the game.
Outside of the regular match play, Mario Power Tennis features a number of amusing minigames that are entertaining in themselves and also help to improve your skills in the main game. Our favorite was called "artist on the court" and had you standing in front of a line drawing on a giant wall, with two adjacent pipes spitting out colored paint balls that you had to knock up against the picture. A colored mirror image on the ground showed both which colors you needed to use and where you had to stand to aim them properly. In the first level, we had a simple picture of Mario's face to color in; in the second, a picture of Luigi in a tennis pose; in the third, a complicated picture of Diddy Kong. It seemed as though the pictures were getting quite a bit more difficult as we went along, and the game was tracking high scores every time we finished a new challenge.
The painting minigame helped us learn how to use the A and B buttons in conjunction to make especially high shots. Another minigame on offer had you hitting balls against a number of ghost portraits to keep them from coming out and attacking you; another one that we played had you volleying with an octopus who unfairly had a racket in each hand while trying to avoid hitting certain parts of the court; still another had you attempting to fend off some hungry chain chomps with well-placed swings. Though these minigames were obviously meant to help new players improve their tennis skills, we had a lot of fun with them, and we imagine gamers will spend a good amount of time just messing around with these side games before going back to the main tennis mode.
Mario Power Tennis seems to be in fine shape at this stage, with all the whimsically detailed characters, environments, and graphical effects you'd expect to see in a GameCube Mario title. The game is slated for release in early November, so look for more soon.