Virtua Tennis is a great handheld sports game. It has all of the necessary tennis fundamentals, such as lobs, drop shots, backhands, and angles, but it also throws in a bit of extra arcade flavor in the spots where a standard game of tennis would quickly prove boring. There are 16 characters to play as and unlock, 14 courts, and three gameplay modes. One of these modes, world tour, is an RPG-style option where you can create your own character, play minigames, purchase upgrades, and participate in more than 20 tournaments.
If you've played a tennis video game within the last decade, you're already familiar with this game's basic mechanics. To serve, you tap a button to initiate the toss and then press it again when the ball is at its apex in order to swing with maximum power. When the opponent makes a return, you can tap the A or B buttons to launch a smash or flat shot, or you can tap both at the same time for a lob. If you tap too soon, your player won't swing instantly, but rather will wind up and anticipate the incoming volley. The longer you press, the stronger the return, and the longer you aim the directional pad, the more you'll aim the shot. When you're playing doubles, you can tap the L or R buttons to set the strategy of your teammate. Generally speaking, the controls are quite friendly. The physics are pretty good as well. Lobs give you plenty of time to get under them for the smash, but drop shots rarely return with anything more than a quick arc. Each of the different court surfaces also influences the overall pace, with clay and concrete practically charging the ball with acceleration.
The computer puts up a challenging offense, at least for a while. Intense volleys and nasty drop shots occur with frequent regularity, but you'll also find that most computer-controlled players have a weakness that's easy to exploit or that they fall into predictable patterns. These patterns and weaknesses aren't foolproof, however, so you'll still have to work for the win even with an advantage. If you play in the world tour mode, the game is even more of a challenge, because you don't initially have the speed or control to perform the majority of dirty tactics.
Although you can participate in an arcade-style tournament, as well as exhibition matches, it is the world tour mode that ultimately gives Virtua Tennis its depth. Here, you can create two custom characters--a male and a female--and improve their tennis abilities through minigames and tournaments. They begin with almost no ability whatsoever, but by playing minigames you can earn points that apply toward a variety of skill upgrades, such as speed, technique, stamina, topspin, and strength. There are a dozen different areas to improve, and each has many levels to achieve before topping out. As you build your player, you can compete in tournaments and purchase better equipment to further your chances of winning.
The minigames in the world tour mode are wickedly fun. There's a competition where you aim serves in order to build the perfect hamburger, complete with a soft drink on the side. In another, you have to lob shots at a group of moving tanks in order to stop them from pelting you with red tennis balls. There's even a minigame where you have to smash returns toward colored eggs in order to hatch the animals inside. It takes place in a barn. There are 10 such minigames, and they become steadily more challenging as your characters improve.
Another wonderful feature is that you can use the GBA's link capability to play singles and doubles with up to four human players. The game never skips a beat even with four players connected, which is good news considering that you'll eventually be able to tear computer opponents to ribbons.
If you're hung up on good graphics or first-rate audio, Virtua Tennis does not disappoint in either area. The courts look incredibly realistic, and each of the players moves with a high amount of grace thanks to an abundance of sprite animation. Screenshots don't do the game justice, because when you play the game on your GBA under ample light, the characters seem almost photographic. The only real drawback is that there's not much else going on, but that's more a complaint about tennis itself than this video game. Audio is similarly stellar, with all of the appropriate "thwacks" and bounces you'd expect, as well as a ton of digitized speech for score announcements, court changes, and results.
Overall, Virtua Tennis more than lives up to its namesake and does an ample job of compacting Sega's Tennis 2K2 into a portable format. THQ has released a game that any tennis fan is sure to enjoy.