If there is one thing that has remained constant with the Nintendo consoles over the last few years, it’s that Mario will have a number of great games released and there will also be Nintendo sports games. Over the years, the Nintendo sports games have been largely hit or miss with some being a lot of fun (the golf games come to mind for me) and others, not so much. When Nintendo announced at E3 that their tennis series, dubbed Mario Tennis, would be coming to the Wii U under the name “Ultra Smash”, I was cautiously optimistic. I enjoyed the heck out of the Nintendo 64 version, and if they could tap into that games success, what could go wrong? As I said, you really don’t know what sort of game you’re getting when you review a Nintendo sports game, so with my review copy in hand and my Wii U fired up, I decided to see how the latest Nintendo sports offering held up with the transition to their next gen console.
Almost immediately I was confused by what the game was offering. The opening menu had a couple modes, but they all seemed incredibly similar. You have the Mega Battle, which looks to be the mainstay of the game where you’ll face off against opponents in single or doubles games with the mega mushroom added in. The mega mushroom is thrown in from the sidelines and makes you or your opponent supernaturally large and more powerful. The other modes are all variations of this one mode with classic tennis removing the mushroom, mega ball rally having you and an opponent volley the ball back and forth to earn coins and knockout challenge having you play against opponents until you lose. In previous installments of games, there was a lot more to do besides just playing tennis. Sure, this is a tennis game and if you look at it from that point of view, it covers it bases well and includes a number of deviations from the normal tennis game to warrant a look, but if you’re looking for the silly modes and the extras that were always fun to play when you got tired of regular tennis, sadly, you’ll need to revisit older installments of the series.
The actual gameplay of Mario Tennis is spot on and is deserving of praise. Playing tennis is a blast and with the number of ways to take a shot, there is a lot of fun to be had here. Visual cues on the field allow you to line up your shots and give newcomers a way to understand the intricacies of each required skill shot. As you begin, you’ll be overwhelmed by the opponents constant use of slam shots that seem to fly by your character without much you can do. Within a few matches though, you’ll be the one doing trick moves and flying around the court as you finally fall into a routine with what is required of the gameplay. You can fine tune your opponent with three levels of difficulty and each character available is specialized in Speed, Power, or All Around stats. As you play, you’ll develop favorites and you’ll see which character suits your playstyle. I found that I gravitated more to Yoshi while playing because he was a little quicker than the power hitters of the bunch like Bowser and Donkey Kong. Mario, as always, is the perfect character for the general all around skills based play.
Depending on what mode you pick will determine what the gameplay actually looks like, but as mentioned earlier, the differences are few and each is basically a carbon copy of the others with very small details changed. The one major mode that is different is online play. Online play allows you to go solo against others around the world or invite friends to play doubles matches. It’s a serviceable feature, but if you have friends who also play the game, you won’t be able to tell if they are online because there is no real friends list. As I was playing the game early, none of my friends had the game so most of my playtime was spent in solo matches against others where I promptly got my butt handed to me (apparently I’m not very good at this game.) The online play was fine with no connectivity issues. If you’re looking for Mario Tennis online, you’ll fine it here.
The visuals in Ultra Smash are probably it’s biggest selling point. Never has a Mario sports game looked this good. The character models are top notch, the visuals on the swings and explosions around the ball all look great. You can tell that Nintendo has found is groove with the Wii U and each game they put out is definitely a looker.
One thing the game does support, and supports well, is the use of Amiibos. You can only use amiibo figures of those that are already in the game, but as you play with them you can level them up and train them. You can then use the amiibos to play in doubles matches or against them 1 on 1. It’s still the same game with the same characters, but for those of us with one too many amiibo figures, it’s a nice addition, albeit a small one.
Besides tennis only modes, there is an unlockable/rewards section. In this section, you can work to unlock 25 things in game which range from unique character changes to new courts. You’ll be spending your coins here most of the time and the added area is welcome, but seems extremely shallow. I would have loved to see more content open up or more items become available besides the standard 25 unlocks. There comes a time in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash when you really feel like you don’t have anything to do outside of just the basic modes. Having more unlockables would have been a simple addition to keep players going.
At the end of the day, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a really great looking tennis game that doesn’t do much more than it’s name suggests – tennis. If you or your kid is a fan of tennis (or really Nintendo sports games in general) you’ll find an adequate amount of cartoony tennis goodness in this release. If, on the other hand, you like extras in your game for when you get tired of the base offerings, you’re going to be left wanting as Nintendo skipped most of what made the Mario Tennis series truly unique.
Reviewed on the Wii U with an advanced review copy from Nintendo