Mario Tennis, fresh from the folks behind Mario Golf, is Nintendo's latest Mario-titled sports behemoth. Unlike golf, however, tennis is a fast-paced sport dripping with precision-based nuances and a variety of timing-oriented quirks. Camelot, a company known for its prowess on the greens, delivers a quality tennis presentation that strikes gold on the three points that matter most: value, gameplay, and fun.
When it comes to value, Mario Tennis begins its delivery by serving up 14 selected characters from the Mario library of games: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Baby Mario, Yoshi, Koopa Paratroopa, Donkey Kong, Wario, Waluigi, Daisy, Toad, Birdo, Bowser, and Boo. Donkey Kong Jr. and Shy Guy are also included as hidden characters. The game comes complete with singles and doubles matches, so up to four players can take part in the mayhem. For the mode conscious, there are exhibition, tournament, ring shot, Bowser, and piranha-challenge modes. The exhibition mode lets you vary difficulty and location, enabling you to get used to the characters or play a quick match without worry or need for reward. If you prefer competition, there's a multi-tiered single-player tournament mode, which takes you through a series of increasingly difficult cup tournaments, potentially rewarding you with a number of hidden Easter eggs. For fun seekers out there, you can opt to ditch the rules entirely and take part in the piranha challenge's service-return game, participate in the ring challenge aiming exercises, or just enjoy a hearty match on Bowser's tilt-and-tumble stage.
Once you've chosen a lead character, game type, and number of sets, it's time to play. From the get go, Mario Tennis yields a control scheme that is both inviting and powerful yet appropriate for players of any age. Somehow Camelot has managed to program a gameplay engine that is just as robust as Sega's Virtua Tennis without stealing any of that game's design or control mechanics. Character movement is done via the analog stick, which makes the characters responsive and their movements precise. The A button controls overhand shots, while B is for slice shots. The C buttons are not used. To swing, just tap A or B. If you want to swing harder, double-tap the button. To swing harder still, hold the button down to charge your swing. For a lob, tap A, then B. Add in shot-placement control and split-second return timing, and it'll be difficult to find fault in any aspect of Mario Tennis' control scheme.
Most surprising of all, Mario Tennis wraps its inviting control around an amazingly good game of tennis. From forehands, backhands, and crossovers, to lobs, smashes, and volleys, every shot type is present and accounted for. The physics, too, are remarkably good. Grass and clay courts absorb the ball's energy, while composite and turf-type courts deliver the kind of kinetic energy that turns a weak return into a 100mph smash. In some respects, the physics in Mario Tennis even outdo Sega's Virtua Tennis, in that court composition has more of an effect on ball control, and shot speed variance is greater. The designers behind Mario Tennis didn't just dumb down tennis and put the Mario name on it. They've managed to balance strict tennis rules with forgiving arcade-style gameplay and have created a wonderfully solid release.
OK, so Mario Tennis has a lot of modes and it plays like real Tennis. "So what," you're saying, "is it fun?" Yes. Matches are fast paced and immersive, while a high number of vocal and visual outbursts only serve to further heighten the hilarity. Of special note is the Bowser stage, which places the match on a tilting court complete with Mario Kart-style power-ups. Using turtle shells, lightning bolts, and banana peels to distract and stun your opponents, you can literally waste hours playing this mode. With four players, the mayhem quickly evolves into a rapturous mix of turtle shell fragments, banana peels, yelling, and uproarious laughter. Most impressive of all, the game does all this in a way that is visually pleasing. On a system not known for being a graphics powerhouse, Mario Tennis delivers crisp, fluid animation, detailed backgrounds, and a frighteningly large number of onscreen effects. Visually, things are a bit blurry at times and curved surfaces are overly coarse, but Mario Tennis is definitely an impressive example of what a good company can do even on the most limited of hardware.
There is no doubt going to be a minor debate over which of the two games, Mario Tennis or Virtua Tennis, is better. Thanks to quality gameplay and Nintendo's rich stable of character designs, Mario Tennis goes toe-to-toe with Sega's game in every conceivable way. To discuss which is better is a moot point. Nintendo comes at you with familiar faces and more unique modes, while Sega's game counters with real tennis pros and slightly more accurate gameplay. Don't let its happy looks and age-appropriate gameplay fool you. Mario Tennis hits hard and fast.