Games Review: Mario Tennis Aces (Switch, 2018) nails the sports-fighter hybrid

Introducing fighting elements to a tennis game was a clever move from Camelot, and its one which carries much of Mario Tennis Aces into uncharted territory, giving the gameplay just enough depth to justify stamping this as the finest Mario Tennis title to date. While there is most certainly a feeling of missed opportunities peppered through the game, there’s enough here to celebrate the franchise’s return with Nintendo smartly playing off the additional mechanics in creative (expected for a Mario game) and genuinely humourous ways.

Let’s discuss the story mode first, because that is clearly what’s going to distinguish this game in the short term. Yes, Switch is still placing a large focus on multiplayer here, but the single player adventure is so much fun and entertaining that, had it been longer, it would have justified the purchase alone. Brevity (a committed player could finish it in three hours) is the downfall here, with Nintendo perhaps not realising just how much gold they were striking when they whipped up an over-the-top storyline and riffed off the Mario universe to make competitive video game tennis much more interesting than it sounds on paper. Even those who usually tire quickly of sporting games like this will find the story mode involving, playing through with Mario as he tracks down a befallen Luigi, who has hilariously been possessed by a magical tennis racket named Lucien (stop laughing, this is Nintendo, you knew what you were getting yourself into).

Shockingly this is the eight game in the Mario Tennis series but the first since 2005’s Power Tour (a Game Boy Advance classic) to actually feature a fully fleshed out and entertaining story mode. However, the RPG elements aren’t quite as detailed, which would have been a sizable black mark against the game had compensation not come from both the hilarious writing and those aforementioned fighting mechanics, the majority of which revolve around a meter which you can fill during any tennis session simply by hitting the ball back to your opponent – faster if you charge beforehand with perfect timing, or blocking a zone shot – with the goal being a special move that risks breaking the opponent’s racket, hence ending the game early.

You’ll use this neat trick throughout adventure mode as you take Mario through the various landscapes and bizarre tennis courts of the Kingdom of Bask in order beat the Lucien-possessed Luigi, Wario and Waluigi to five “Power Stones”. The challenges along the way are slightly varied, genuinely challenging at times, and skewed exactly towards teaching you the game’s nuanced, strategy-focused mechanics while giving you hours of fun. The learning curve is surprisingly steep at times, which should be a pleasant surprise for long-time Mario Tennis fans; there is little variety in what you can do during a match, but the many ways in which the shots can be used in concert to win a match or beat a challenge makes for a fast-paced strategy component that as addictive as the constant search for moons in Mario Odyssey. Again, it’s just a shame that this isn’t as expansive as it could be, whereas more thought could have been put into the RPG side of this game if there was room to do so. It just doesn’t last long enough for that, and that’s not something all the cute boss fights, ball-sucking piranha plants and snowball-throwing shy guys can atone for.

Story mode’s brevity isn’t the only thing overlooked here. Multiplayer challenges just aren’t varied enough to take this beyond the occasional fun back-and-forth between friends. Up to three players can compete locally, but the option of online play is always there, with a reasonable matching system that has so far led me to some incredibly tense, sweat-inducing matches (and some boring, lopsided ones). Thankfully, Online Tournament games are smooth with no issue, which should ensure a nice replay value, especially with 16 characters to choose from and three more forthcoming.

Characters aren’t differentiated enough, but it is fun playing a match with wild cards like Boo, Chain Chomp (who adorably balances the ball on his head before he serves), Yoshi and Waluigi. Some are slower and faster than others, each have their own excellent animations for special shots, and there’s much entertainment to be had watching them cheer or look dejected after each match, but the variety ends there. A bit more customisation could have gone a long way, but at least all are rendered beautifully with their established personalities nicely expressed in-game.

If you’re really looking for a challenge than Swing Mode is your go-to. It’s an easy-to-master, motion-controlled session that can be played with local players holding one single Joy-Con controller each and using it much like you would if you were holding a real racket. The controls are sensitive but intuitive, with timing the biggest challenge as movement is handled either automatically or via the analog stick.

Regardless of the negatives, Mario Tennis Aces enters as one of Switch’s most valuable multiplayer games and a respectable solo adventure. If Nintendo had the foresight to see just how well story mode would have gone down then perhaps they would have placed more focus and built this into an RPG and truly made the game a special venture for Mario and his sporting offshoots. It certainly perks interesting for eventual and inevitable Mario spin-offs, but ultimately this lives and dies on how long the multiplayer will appeal to you.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Fighting elements provide new depth; hilarious plot and brilliant writing in story mode; actually challenging for a Mario title; Fun online multiplayer experience
Lowlights: Story mode is criminally short; not enough variance between characters; very few customisation options in multiplayer experience.
Developer: Camelot Software Planning
Publisher: Nintendo
Available: Now
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch with retail code provided by the publisher.