Thanks to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, I recently set a new personal record: "Most time spent swearing at a kids' game." Some of that profanity was good-natured, a product of the competitive tension that lurks just below the colorful, star-studded surface of most Mario sports titles. Some of it, however, stemmed from actual frustration. While Ultra Smash successfully recreates the basic mechanics that earned earlier titles Mario Tennis and Mario Power Tennis critical acclaim more than a decade ago, it fails to solve a handful of underlying design issues and omits much of the content offered by its predecessors.
There is, for example, no tutorial mode. There's a rudimentary text tutorial buried so deep in one corner of the main menu that you can't even navigate to it using the Pro Controller, but it's too superficial to prove truly useful. You can easily hit random buttons and figure things out as you go (this is a light, arcadey take on tennis, after all), but eventually, you're going to run up against an AI opponent who crushes you with maneuvers that require a bit more technique. I got destroyed by an embarrassing number of near-unreturnable Ultimate Smashes before I finally figured out how to reliably execute them myself, rather than simply mashing what I assumed was the appropriate button.
Throwing players in the deep end and asking them to learn through experimentation isn't an unforgivable sin, but it did lead to plenty of early frustration that could have easily been avoided. Given the time gap between games, even franchise fans like myself need a way to brush up, and new mechanics like jump shots deserve more than a random load screen tip. Generally speaking, games are more fun when you understand how to play them effectively.
Unfortunately, basic instruction isn't the only thing missing from Ultra Smash; it also lacks any kind of tournament or career modes. Instead, the game offers only Knockout Challenge, which pits players against every single character one by one, with ever-escalating difficulty. This structure creates a compelling sense of progress, but the mode as a whole yields little reward. Once you make it to 15 consecutive knockouts, you're presented with a congratulatory menu screen and the "Star" version of the character you guided to victory--though Star Peach, for example, doesn't look or play any differently from regular Peach. The journey can be challenging, even fun, but after a single trip through the Knockout gauntlet, there's little motivation to grind through again with other characters.
That leaves only three main modes, all of which are essentially quickplay variations: Mega Battle, Standard Classic Tennis, and Simple Classic Tennis. Mega Battle includes everything the game can throw at you: Mega Mushrooms that gigantify your character, "chance shots" that power up your returns when you execute the correct type of shot from specific glowing spots that appear on the court, and jump shots, which add extra speed and bounce height to the ball. Standard tennis removes the mushrooms, and Simple tennis removes all three power-ups. If you're just looking for some quick tennis action, these three modes provide an adequate fix with minimal hassle. If you were hoping for something more substantial, however, Ultra Smash can't help.
In fact, Ultra Smash doesn't even contain the goofy party modes that gave earlier Mario Tennis games both whimsy and variety. Old favorites like Item Battle and Ring Shot--which added some novel twists to the basic gameplay--are simply gone, leaving us with only Mega Ball Rally, which plays identically to the quick-play modes with the exception of its perpetually shrinking ball. It makes for a decent diversion, but because it's so similar to the game's other modes, it ultimately adds little to the overall experience.
Even the character roster--though respectably large and packed with all the usual suspects--doesn't create meaningful gameplay variety. While characters in past games possessed unique "power shots," Ultra Smash's 16 competitors play largely the same. Sure, Bowser is noticeably slower than Yoshi and Walugi has better reach than Toad, and those differences did prove noticeable enough that I had to adjust my strategy. But these adjustments were never severe enough to make the core gameplay feel fundamentally different. As with the game’s modes, the character options are adequate, but in no way exciting, inventive, or memorable.
As with the game’s modes, the character options are adequate, but in no way exciting, inventive, or memorable.
Thankfully, local and online multiplayer stop Ultra Smash from sliding too far into mediocrity. The opponent AI is serviceable--providing a reasonable challenge that'll keep you engaged long enough to hone your skills--but nothing beats yelling in your buddy's face when you counter his sneaky drop shot with an earth-shattering smash. Playing with friends allows the underlying mechanics to deliver those dramatic moments you expect from an intense, high-energy sports game, and thankfully, there's just enough nuance for competition to feel legitimate. You gradually figure out you can counter slices with topspin, deliver jump shots by reaching the ball at the peak of its arc, and crowd the net to force your opponent out of position. As a result, the action is not only fast and fun, it also evokes the "just one more match" competitiveness.
In keeping with the rest of the game, Ultra Smash's online component is pretty bare-bones, offering only Mega Battle, Standard, and Simple game types with no option to choose a court or play multiple matches against the same opponent. However, the net-code held up fine during my time playing online, so at least you can enjoy all the basics without worrying too much about your internet connection. Local multiplayer is a bit more robust, allowing you to choose any of the eight unlockable court types while throwing Mega Ball Rally back into the mix as well. Plus, as I mentioned, you get to yell in people's faces--which is always a plus.
Unfortunately, you may find yourself yelling at the game just as often. For example, you're given almost no warning before Mega Mushrooms wear off and your character shrinks. If you happen to be chasing a ball when that happens, you'll miss your shot simply due to bad luck. Chance shots can also seem confusing and unfair at times. You have no way to conjure a chance shot; they simply appear randomly around the court. Needless to say, it's a little frustrating to have no control over a something that can decide a match--though at least the game seems to use chance shots to level the playing field when matches start to become lopsided. The worst moments, however, are those annoying instances when a ball bounces straight over your head because you simply couldn't tell how high it bounced. It's pretty hard not to feel cheated when that happens.
Considered as a whole, Ultra Smash does just enough to get by. At moments it shines and at others it frustrates, but mostly it just coasts. Without substantial content to drive longevity, you may end up switching back to Mario Kart sooner than later, but if you're playing online--or better yet, with your friends at home--you'll likely overcome the game's frustrations and squeeze a solid few hours of fun out of its fast-paced, power-up-driven action.