The Nintendo Switch had a strong first year with exclusives such as Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Unfortunately, Nintendo’s 2018 has thus far been filled with ports of old Wii-U games, or third party titles that have been out on other platforms. A glimmer of hope appeared in March’s Nintendo Direct with the announcement of Mario Tennis Aces, showcasing exciting new mechanics and the first single player campaign mode in the series since Mario Tennis: Power Tour for the Gameboy Advance. Could this be a return to form for the Nintendo Switch? In some ways, yes. In other ways, absolutely not.
For better or worse, Aces pulls you right into story (this time called Adventure Mode) when you first boot it up. The story starts off with the ever creepy Wario and Waluigi presenting our mustachioed hero with a mysterious tennis racket , which reveals itself to be Lucien, an all-powerful ancient tennis racket, who possesses Luigi and the two ‘Wa’ brothers before teleporting them all to an unknown location. It’s up to Mario to venture off and find the 5 Infinity— er, “Power Stones” to stop Lucien and save his brother.
The narrative structure of Adventure Mode is completely broken. Occasionally we’re treated to a nice vibrant cut scene, but most of the time key story moments happen with characters on either side of the screen, conversing in front of a generic background through blocks of text and the occasional “Yahoo!” sound effect. I know this should be expected from Nintendo by now, but I would have liked to have seen some consistency in storytelling presentation.
From a gameplay perspective, Adventure Mode follows Mario around on an old-school overworld map where each stop is either a tennis match against an NPC or some kind of “tennis-lite” challenge. These pit stops just aren’t fun though- opponents rarely ever dive for the ball, ensuring near continuous victories. Meanwhile, these “challenges” for most part consist of pushing you to use one specific gameplay mechanic. In either case what players are left with is a hollow series of repetitive matches that never seem to offer much of a challenge.
The actual tennis gameplay, on the other hand, is truly where Aces shines. You will need to master various types of mechanics in order to dominate the courts, ranging from the more traditional rallies to advanced moves like the Trick Shot, the far more accurate Zone Shot, and the over-powered Special Shot. While each of these moves offer immense advantages for the offense, they consume a significant amount of energy and with very careful timing, can be blocked by the defending player. This level of balance creates an alternating cat and mouse dynamic, encouraging players to get creative in order to outwit their opponent. If strategy and cunning aren’t for you, then Mario Tennis Aces also offers a new path to victory by attacking the other player outright. Not only are points earned for scoring body shots, but you can actually damage your opponent’s racket, and eventually break it. If a player loses all of their rackets, then they are knocked out of the game. This new fighting-like mechanic is by far my favorite addition to the game.
Those yearning for the days of Wii Sports might also want to check out the included Swing Mode, where motion controls are used to simulate swinging a real racket. Unfortunately, in my experience the action on screen didn’t accurately reflect what I was doing with my Joy Con and I was never able to figure out how to charge up a shot. That said, I never really was a fan of motion controls anyway, so those patient enough to master them might get more out of using them than I did.
Aces also offers multiplayer matches through online and local modes with a robust roster of characters to choose from. Character subcategories such as All-Around, Powerful, Defensive, and Speedy add an additional layer of complexity to matches, and different courts add unique obstacles, such as Piranha Plants that suck up your ball and spit it back at you. In terms of entertainment value, multiplayer is definitely the way to go. That being said, both multiplayer modes aren’t without their faults. Stages must be unlocked through Adventure Mode, and strangely enough, cannot be directly selected for a match. Instead stages are selected randomly. The only way to ensure you get to play where you want is by deselecting every other stage; a baffling decision that needlessly complicates an otherwise standard feature in modern games.
In typical Nintendo fashion, online matchmaking leaves much to be desired. You can test your mettle in either a ranked tournament mode or free play mode, but the real challenge is maintaining a stable internet connection. In my many attempts at playing online, I always found myself getting booted out at least once before I’d finished a play session. Hopefully by the time Nintendo rolls out their online service in September this will no longer be an issue, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Mario Tennis Aces may not be perfect, but it is still a lot of fun to play. Though its lackluster story mode and subpar matchmaking may instill John McEnroe levels of anger, Aces serves up a well-polished gameplay experience with a vast array of characters. With just a few minor adjustments, Mario Tennis Aces could truly become the game it strives so hard to be.