Tennis Arena is all about the basics: No frills - well, OK, a couple of frills, but nothing too fancy, so don't expect a secret doily- and lace-covered court or an unlockable Boy George or a 3D Pac-Man bonus stage requiring you to collect super invinco-balls. What you have here is single-match or tournament play for up to four players with wacky characters and a few different courts to play on. You can play an obese Chinese man, for example, and compete in a Roman coliseum whose clay surface seems to affect bounce marginally. That's about it for options though. No sim, Tennis Arena serves up roughly the same level of fun as Pong did 25 years ago, albeit now with prettier graphics and the occasional super smash.
Control is rudimentary. The four buttons contribute four different strokes. Pushing the D-pad, or L1/R1 will alter the direction of the ball or add spin effects. The problem with Tennis Arena is in the control of timing of the individual strokes. There isn't any. The same ground stroke will take a split second one time and a full second the next. Sometimes this seems to depend on where the ball falls in your stroke - whether you're hitting it close in to your body or at full extension. Most of the time, this timing variance seems to occur arbitrarily. While it doesn't make the game particularly hard, it does mean that your biggest weakness will lie in stupid mistakes caused by an interface problem; you're rarely bested by the opposition because he ran you all over the court. More often you just fail to swing or swing way too early. It seems like with a little extra work Ubi Soft could have provided for speed control by tapping, pressing, or holding the keys. Tennis Arena is also plagued with strangely responding character movement. One minute you're getting D-pad blisters from just trying to get the bastard to move, the next you're hurtling across the screen like a complete spaz.
The game also features special shots, with visible trails, fighter-plane-like sound effects, and higher ball speed. These must be earned however. After successfully returning the ball over the net six consecutive times, a yellow star appears under the character. You may then attempt to use the special shot, which entails lining up with the ball just right - but a failed special shot doesn't erase the stored potential. If you wait and make another three returns, the star turns from yellow to red and begins flashing, unlocking individual unique shots, like William Chan's Super Ninja Shot (hey, aren't ninjas supposed to be from Japan?), and Zoe Taylor's Super Forehand Cartwheel. These are essentially glorified versions of the former with slightly faster ball speed and animated character hijinks. (I swear Chan is hitting the ball with his gut.)
The best and worst of Tennis Arena lie in the sound department. No music, thankfully, so the appropriate aural austerity is maintained throughout. This makes it easy to hear the great ball and racket effects. After playing with the sound on and off, it's safe to say that the sound of the bounce really helps with the game's timing issues. Individual players have their own lunging grunts and little victory exclamations, but they sound severely canned. Plus, each character has only a couple different ones at his disposal, so you may find yourself reaching for the mute button after hearing the same "Eeyugh - yippee!" several hundred times. And with only eight characters, you'd think they wouldn't need to make characters share sound bites, but many of them do.
The arenas themselves look great. The New York Park feels like Sunday in the... uh, park. Great use of color makes each background really stand out. The graphics are somewhat lacking where it counts, though. Despite each player's cool animated off-time mannerisms, like Greg Johnson examining his racket, in play, characters are blocky and suffer from substantial polygonal flickering. The camera angles are where the biggest problems lie. Three in all, they all suffer from Tiny Guy Syndrome; when you're playing on the far side of the court, it's really hard to see what you're doing. Making matters worse, on some courts, the crowd sits directly behind you or the opponent, and light-colored onlookers fight with the light colors of the far character's clothes, making for a polygonal mush that's just too darn tough to see.
With no stat tweaking and no licenses, Tennis Arena is arcade-style tennis at its most fundamental. Yet, with no obvious strong points, somehow the game manages to be pretty addictive, especially in two-player mode. At first, this was totally baffling. How could this be? It's simple really. At its core, it's an updated version of Pong, and Pong is fun. No matter how many Resident Evil 2s and Final Fantasy VIIs come along, they cannot displace the fundamental fact that, from Space Invaders to Tank to Breakout, the seminal video-gaming archetypes are totally addictive. Though not really worth purchasing, Tennis Arena does make for a good evening of fun.