Nobody has dared to step up and release a tennis game yet on the Wii, given the unchecked popularity of Wii Sports' inaugural tennis game. But finally Sega and Virtua Tennis 3 developer Sumo Digital will break the tennis seal on the Wii in March with Sega Superstars Tennis, a brightly colored and whimsical tennis game with a slew of familiar Sega characters thrown in. The game isn't just for the Wii--unsurprisingly, it's also coming out on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, and Nintendo DS--and we got to try close-to-final versions of the game on the 360 and Wii at Sega's San Francisco headquarters.
You've seen this formula before: Take a popular, simple sport such as tennis, mix it with a game company rich in recognizable, beloved properties and characters, and you've got an accessible action game that will appeal to a relatively wide audience. It's worked for Nintendo for years, and Superstars Tennis follows the same basic outline. At the outset, you've got eight classic Sega characters to choose from--Sonic, AiAi, Ulala, Beat, Nights, and Dr. Eggman among them--and each character has a specific prowess (speed, control, spin, or power) and unique special move you can bust out during a match. You'll be able to unlock eight more characters as you play, including a couple of "really old Sega friends," though of course Sega wouldn't tell us who they are. (Michael Jackson, unfortunately, is not one of them.)
The gameplay here is about as straightforward as you'd expect. You have a regular power swing and a slice, and you can mix the two up for other kinds of shots. Your special-attack gauge is represented by a star underneath your character that will slowly fill up as you successfully keep up a volley with your opponent. Most of the special attacks we saw involve confusing your opponent or cluttering up his or her side of the court. Sonic morphs into Super Sonic, at which point his shots will take random angular turns after he makes them. AiAi flings a bunch of banana peels onto the other side of the court with every shot. Eggman similarly throws a few electrified, spiky balls over the net. These special abilities last for only a few shots, and you lose them after someone scores a point, so they aren't exactly match-winners in their own right. However, they can still give you an advantage at times.
Superstars Tennis has the standard single-match and tournament modes you'd expect out of a sports game, but we were most intrigued by the superstars mode, which gives you a number of themed missions to complete that will subsequently unlock new content (such as the aforementioned characters, new courts, and new music tracks). In the House of the Dead challenges we tried, we had to hit balls across the court at an endless wave of zombies that were shambling toward us. In a follow-up mission, we had to score a specific number of aptly named "zombie combos" by taking down two or more zombies with one shot. Another Jet Set Radio-themed mission had us skating around the court with Beat to pick up spray-paint cans being tossed in front of us, and in the second version of this challenge, we had to use these color-coded spray-paint cans to fill in a design on the opposite side of the court in a sort of paint-by-numbers fashion.
The game is certainly oozing with Sega-themed presentation elements. You'll recognize most of the music from the games represented here, and each game has at least one court styled after it. For instance, the Space Channel 5 court is decorated with lots of kitschy neon lights and shiny surfaces, and is surrounded by dancing Morolian spectators. And you know it's always going to be a party on the Latin-themed Samba de Amigo court. Unfortunately, the various courts don't have any bearing on the gameplay, but at least you get numerous changes of scenery as you play through the game.
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Superstars Tennis will support full online play, and we had no problems playing a smooth match on the 360 against a member of the Sumo Digital team in London. The Wii game will unfortunately lack online play, but on the other hand you've at least got three distinct control schemes. One lets you point and click with the Wii Remote to control your player; one has you turning the remote on its side and using it as a traditional gamepad; and what will likely be the most popular one will have you control your character with the Nunchuk analog stick and perform your swings with the remote, Wii Sports-style.