Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash
Platform: Wii U
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Release: November 20, 2015
“Dad, you have to show me where the rest of the game is. I can’t find it.”
That was my daughter asking a very reasonable question about Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for Wii U after spending 15 minutes with it after school one day.
And I’d have loved to help her, but her consternation mirrored mine. I’d spent much of the afternoon playing before she got home and was left utterly flummoxed as to the game’s slightness.
My bewilderment began as soon as I landed on the main menu, a tiled space that serves as a hub for five short and simple play modes – all of which I would have expected to be little more than extra content to pad out most other tennis games. But, bizarrely, these basic games are the whole kit and kaboodle in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash.
Mega Battle gets the most space on the menu and is the de facto primary mode, but all it lets you do is choose a few options – doubles or singles, character, court type, and how many games and sets you’d like to play – before starting a single match, by yourself or with a friend or three.
Another mode called Classic Tennis offers pretty much the same experience, just with the option of removing Mega Battle’s more fantastical elements, such as super size mushrooms and special power shots. Mega Ball Rally is an even more basic mode, challenging players simply to keep a single rally going for as long as possible. Miss one shot and the game ends.
The mode I ended up spending the most time with was Knockout Challenge, which comes closest to a tournament. Your goal is to progress through a series of increasingly difficult opponents, winning seven points before they do. This is also where you can summon the help of an Amiibo figurine (if you have one that matches one of the dozen or so classic Nintendo characters that appear in the game) to serve as your partner. The more you play with an Amiibo character, the better it gets.
The final mode is Online, which appears (I wasn’t able to test it in my pre-release evaluation) to be pretty much like the one-off matches offered in Mega Battle or Classic Tennis, save that you play with people online rather than in the same room.
The only things that tie all of these short and simple modes together – and by which you can measure any semblance of progress – are unlockable rewards for a handful of new courts and characters, generally earned either by winning consecutive matches or spending coins awarded after each game.
And that’s literally everything there is to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It has all the depth of a $1 iPhone game, except that it’s about 65 times the price.
The great shame of it is that it looks great and plays better.
The colourful, cartoonlike presentation is Camelot channeling Nintendo’s internal development teams at their best. It’s full of characters so lovable you’ll want to reach into the screen and hug them, plus smooth animations, eye-popping effects, fun replays, and nice little details – like crowd members holding up boards to create mosaic pictures of the match’s winner. It’s a beautiful game.
And the tennis is good. You can hit slices, lobs, drop shots, and smashes on command – with respectable court placement, to boot. And if you hoof it to highlighted areas on the court and press the indicated button (or button combination) you’ll be rewarded with a powerful skill shot – like the titular ultra smash – that’s far harder for your opponents to return with control than a standard shot.
It’s infinitely more accessible than a true simulation of the sport, but practice and strategy will still make you a better player than someone who just plays occasionally. Rewarding skill while remaining welcoming to casual players is a feat few games master, and it should help make Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash a standout in social gaming situations, especially those that involve casual players.
Still, unless you plan only to play with friends, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash – much like last year’s Mario Golf: World Tour – is a considerable disappointment.
Nintendo and Camelot seem bound and determined to turn their Mario-themed sports games into simplistic multiplayer party entertainments by systematically removing any sort of depth or progression. The difference is that unlike most sports party games, which at least offer a variety of sports each with multiple play modes, we’re just getting one sport with a handful of play modes here.
Tennis fans should wait for Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash to hit the bargain bins. Everyone else can safely skip it, and hope Nintendo takes our collective refusal to purchase as a message to fatten up future versions of its Mario sports games.