Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom pals take to the court in Wii U exclusive Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, which Nintendo rallied over the net as one of their surprise announcements in E3 2015’s Nintendo Digital Event.
It has been 11 years since we were last given the opportunity to display our prowess in the sport on the console. GameCube’s Mario Power Tennis would later be reworked as part of Wii’s New Play Control! collection, but those looking to scratch that multiplayer itch would instead have to turn to Mario Tennis Open on Nintendo 3DS.
The chance to now dominate the court on Wii U is, therefore, a welcome one. Where Power Tennis had once displayed zany quirk in character-specific power-ups, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash presents a more straight-laced approach by simply adding a slew of new moves that allow the Mushroom Kingdom’s tennis pros to rally their way to a grand slam victory.
Once the ball is served, players can rely on standard shots to steadily maintain a rally – whether that be the high-bouncing topspin, a slower slice, a lob or drop shot to aim at the back and front of the court, or a flat as the fastest shot. New to Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is the Jump Shot, which sees your Mushroom Kingdom sporting hero leap with competitive intent and slam the ball downward – the tactical benefit being that it will bounce higher than normal to catch your opponent unawares.
That alone won’t let you clinch a win, with learned techniques allowing you to charge up power before swinging your racquet to return, and a Leap Shot letting you lunge for the ball when it is nearly out-of-reach. It is optional Chance Shots that competitors will need to make sure that they utilise, coloured Chance Areas appearing on the court that will really help sway a game in your favour. These empower your standard shots in opening the opportunity to temporarily knock back your opponent, more deeply curve your shot, or have a lob soar dramatically higher.
These also pave the way for the Ultra Smash, which is designated by a sparkling Chance Area. Occurring after your opponent uses a Leap Shot, this super-powerful shot sees your character jump into the air surrounded by a purple glow as they slam the ball back across the court.
The other introduction in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is the Mega Mushroom. These appear in the Mega Battle mode, with Toads on the sideline randomly throwing them on to the play area for the duration of your match. If your character comes into contact with one, their size is temporarily boosted – increasing shot power, widening the reach of your racquet and making the ball bounce higher. Whenever used, it triggers an animation where whichever character grows… and it’s the same animation for each every time. How frequently this occurs can prove a frustration, breaking the flow of your rally and often resulting in your opponent having little time to react accordingly to a shot placed beforehand.
Simplicity in approach has long been a mantra for the Mario Tennis series, and Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash remains as refreshingly accessible for the whole family to get in on the action. While motion control is surprisingly swerved, players will instead rely on more immediate button input on the Wii U GamePad, Wii U Pro Controller, Wii Remote, or Wii Remote + Classic Controller Pro combo. There’s a surprising sense of freedom in character movement as you dash across the court, while A, B, X and Y Buttons each separately correspond to the aforementioned shots. If you’re looking for something quick and easy to get into, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash effortlessly ticks that box.
But, where Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash significantly fumbles is in content. Away from Mega Battle, the Wii U exclusive only serves Mega Ball Rally, Knockout Challenge and Classic Tennis modes to busy yourself with. Mega Ball Rally sees you strike a giant ball back and forth that becomes smaller over time, Knockout Challenge sees you face increasingly trickier opponents, while Classic Tennis lets you strip out Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash‘s newer elements – such as Chance and Jump Shots – for a more traditional challenge.
Beyond that, it is the Online mode that will occupy your time. This lets you select between Relaxed and Serious play styles, which can be interpreted as unranked and ranked. Relaxed will randomly select a court, whereas Serious chooses between three competition courts – hard, clay or grass – and the outcome will affect your rating that determines your ability level. This starts at a rounded 2000, and works in a way that will be familiar to those that have blazed their way around Mario Kart 8‘s courses. If you face a particularly bothersome player online, Nintendo’s blacklisting methods continue in letting you add them to your blocked-user list making it “highly unlikely” that you will face them again in future.
That said, matchmaking still remains woefully basic – the glaring omission being that you can’t even join anyone on your Friends List, and are instead left to rally it out with random players. We’re too far into the Wii U’s lifecycle for that to be seen as excusable.
amiibo can join you in doubles matches in either Knockout Challenge or Mega Ball Rally modes and randomly unlock stat boosts after five matches. That sees them become increasingly competent over time, with the player training their partner up to chase the competitive dream. However, you can’t play as the same character as your chosen amiibo, which was probably to avoid player confusion more than anything. Once sufficiently trained you can then partner up with your amiibo online, where search criteria will mean that such matches will see you face others that have teamed up with their amiibo too.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is particularly cleanly presented, with a solid framerate that never threatens to detract from the fun that there is to be had. Character voices can all be faithfully heard, but the game’s soundtrack, on the whole, is sub-par given the resounding efforts in Nintendo’s other software output.
It’s hard to tell whether Camelot found the shift to HD development challenging, especially given that recent years has seen them predominantly work on handheld sporting experiences such as Mario Golf: World Tour.
There are certainly clear shortcuts that have been taken, most notably in that matches take place in the same stadium which can only be varied by unlocking new court surfaces – such as carpet, mushroom, sand and ice. These are attributed to challenges outlined in the Rewards menu, which can either be achieved by the player’s own merits or unlocked with coins collected from standard play.
Given that shortcut, the character selection also comes as a disappointment. Compared to Mario Tennis Open, Luma is swapped out to be replaced by Rosalina, whereas Baby Mario, Baby Peach, Diddy Kong, Metal Mario and Mii characters have all been chopped. There are some new additions in Toadette and Sprixie Princess, but taking a step back it all starts to look like a weaker package.
These concerns echo those that critics squared at Mario Tennis Open, and it is certainly a shame to see Camelot tripping up in the same areas. There is at least some effort that has gone into Wii U GamePad integration, which will see you choose between Recommended, Duplicate, Reverse and Dynamic display styles. This can see it portray both character’s perspectives on the TV and GamePad screens, allow for Off-TV Play, zoom to a more exciting close-up viewpoint, or simply show the score. Simpler ideas, but it works well.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash can still deliver on the thrills that you have always had, but lacks enough content to provide a comprehensive experience.