Mario Tennis: Infinity War
It's a rather weird thought that Mario Tennis would share any resemblance to that of Marvel's latest Avenger's movie, but when Mario is set on the path to recovering 5 colored 'Power Stones', I had to shake my head and let out a very loud sigh. In fact, I made that same sound at many of the design choices that Camelot chose to go with for this latest installment of Mario Tennis. That being said, there can be a lot of enjoyment to come from the title, you just really have to know what you want from the overall experience first.
Mario Tennis Aces has been very polarizing in its reviews. There are publications that absolutely loved the title, and I can certainly see their reasons, just as there is also those that have damned the title for its very apparent flaws that I can see their point of view as well. My take on this latest iteration of Mario Tennis is somewhere in the middle as Nintendo has released a very fun, but drastically flawed sports game.
Aces sees the return of almost the entire cast from the WiiU release of Ultra Smash, albeit with the addition of Chain Chomp and more to be released throughout the year like Koopa Troopa, Blooper, and Dry Bones. Aces has you currently picking from Mario, Peach, Luigi, Bowser, Boo, Toad, Toadette, Rosalina, Bowser Jr, Yoshi, Wario, Waluigi, Daisy, Donkey Kong, and as I've just mentioned, Chain Chomp. Regardless of certain characters featured in the game already holding tennis rackets, many of them are locked behind a timed release window that can be sped up by taking part in online tournaments. In fact, to unlock this month's Koopa Troopa, you merely have to take part in a single online tournament match. Simple.
If you take to the courts online, you'll see that several players are picking either Bowser Jr, Boo, Chain Chomp, or Waluigi, and it's not simply because they all have great fashion sense, especially Waluigi. These characters are drastically overpowered when compared to the rest of the roster and have not currently seen a patch to address it. These characters are just far too effective on the court when compared to the rest and combine that with a skilled player who knows how to take advantage of the trick shots, it just adds to the trouble of trying to compete as someone else on the roster.
When Mario Tennis Aces was first announced, I wasn't terribly interested in it. The last time I really put any stock into a Mario Tennis game was 18 years ago on the Nintendo 64. However, when it was said to have a single player story-based adventure mode, I was sold. In fact, it was my primary reason for buying the game, well, that I'll buy anything that lets you play as Dry Bones. It wasn't long into Adventure mode that I came to the conclusion that it just wasn't that good. Don't get me wrong, there are some great aspects to it, but overall it was a vast disappointment.
Adventure mode sees a mystical tennis racket taking over the minds of Luigi, Wario, and Waluigi. Mario must gather the mystical Power Stones, which are shamelessly colored after the Infinity Stones, to stop said evil racket from taking over the island. Mario games usually have a high level of production value and polish, so it is a bit unexpected for those traits to be very inconsistent here. The story mode is mostly told through characters conversing on screen through text as if Mario Tennis was some sort of visual novel. While you can skip these intro story sequences, you cannot skip the dialogue that comes after each loss. What is even worse is that you cannot restart a match if it is going poorly, you have to either lose the match or quit and sit through these "We will do it next time Mario!" messages from Toad, each and every time. The presentation, or rather, the lack of presentation doesn't end there.
As you take down various characters and bosses that the game throws at you, you will earn a small assortment of Rackets. As each one can only tolerate a certain amount of abuse before it shatters, they act as your lives during a match. These Rackets also have specific stats to them, but I rarely noticed any gameplay differences between them. When you unlock new Rackets or the Power Stones themselves, you simply are treated to a "You tracked down this item!" text message that appears on the screen. That's it. There is no scene of Mario holding the Racket into the air or celebrating the win of earning another Stone, nothing. In fact, had we not been shown images of the Stones at the start of the story, you wouldn't even have known what they looked like. The same can be said for any scenes that attempt to mention the story as, after a win at the top of a mountain, Wario and Waluigi are spotted circling our heroes in a blimp before they fly off to your next destination. At least, this is what is told to you through Toad. Sure, you see the blimp and hear the two of them laughing, but we are only ever told the context behind it instead of being shown anything about it. These moments lack any impact and feel as if they were made for hardware that had memory restraints or other limitations that often would prevent such additions. This game at times can feel like it has the budget of an indie game on Kickstarter, not one published by one of the biggest companies in the industry.
I mentioned before that there were some aspects of the Adventure Mode that were actually pretty great and that is in the form of its bosses and its mini-games. While you will encounter mid-bosses that test your skills in a regular tennis match, I am referring more to the larger bosses that almost serve as a mini-game within the confines of certain tennis skills. These encounters are rather engaging and I wish there had been more of them. There is also a host of several other activities like knocking down platforms for points or using your backswing to knock down a bunch of snowball throwing Shy Guys. These additions to the Adventure Mode made the game immensely enjoyable, so it is rather odd that they are not available outside this mode. I would have loved to play alongside a friend as we try to get the higher score between us, but that for the time being appears to be exclusive to my wish list.
The story mode can also only be played with Mario and while you earn experience to level him up, It never really felt as if these level upgrades really did anything. Trying to tell the difference between a level 5 Mario and a level 20 version seems almost impossible considering it doesn't fundamentally change how you yourself take to the challenge. While you may learn to get the timing down better or how to properly use your special strikes, I never once felt that the increase of Mario's levels had anything to do with it. If the differences are there, then they are marginal at best. The entirety of this Adventure Mode can actually feel like one large tutorial instead of something that feels created to exist on its own. It reminded me of For Honor, where its story mode went through the basics of combat in order to prep you for the online competition.
One aspect of the Adventure Mode that has been talked about at length is the fact that it is the only portion of the game to feature multiple sets and matches as the remaining versus modes lack any sort of traditional tennis scoring. In the offline versus and online matches, both regular and tournament, you can only play one-set matches or tiebreakers, regardless of traditional scoring being built into the game elsewhere. Why this is restricted or not even an option is puzzling and prevents the glory days of being down two sets and performing an applause-worthy comeback. Another example of something being withheld is that during any mode in the game, you cannot select what court you want to play on. While you can go into the settings and select what courts you don't want, there is no standard level select feature anywhere to be had.
Several of the courts present in the game feature hazards that can create interesting wrinkles to not just your playstyle, but how you have to approach your opponent. There is a boat where the center mast will deflect your shots if you hit it, Piranha Plants that will spit out the ball in random directions, or even a parade of characters crossing the court that carry tennis rackets themselves to swat your toss right back at you. These hazards are actually quite enjoyable and can be turned off or on should you not share in that opinion. There are a total of 8 courses, however; 7 if you could Marina Stadium's night and day as one single course. You'll take to the court in such locations as a mystical temple, on the deck of a large ship, deep in the jungle, or high up in the snowy mountains.
As for the act of tennis itself, Mario Tennis Aces brings with it some interesting but flawed mechanics. As you lay into your opponent with Charged Shots, Tricks Shots, Curved shots or the back and forth of a rally, you will build energy in a Power Gauge. As you fill up the Gauge from red to yellow to green, you will gain access to special techniques such as powering the ball back with a Zone Shot or slowing down time with Zone Speed. When a glowing star appears on your side of the court, pressing R will take you into a first-person camera where you can direct a powerful shot in that direction. Now, your opponent can hit it, but if they time it wrong, it will damage their racket. If they time it right, then you may have potentially wasted your Gauge energy against an opponent who was ready for you. Zone speed is useful for perfecting the timer for hitting a powerful strike, or using it to cover the court faster than normal, however; there is a move for that that is more effective and I'll get into that shortly.
Your Gauge is the key to victory here in Aces as you don't want to be the player on the court who has the lower amount of energy. You'll want to apply shots and maneuvers that earn you energy to take advantage of the player on the other side of the net. Firing off a well placed Zone Shot is one thing, but doing so against a player with a full meter will spell doom as not only can they slow down time to return your strike, but they can also choose to pull off special moves that are insanely fast. Each character has a Super Shot that requires a full meter. These strikes can hit the ball regardless of where the ball and your opponent were during your return, making it a 100% chance to hit the ball back to you. These Super Shots act just like the Zone shot but feature unique animations to each character. Regardless of my statements on polish, these animations are superb, especially Waluigi's.
The one mechanic that I find to be somewhat abused is the Trick Shots. These are super fast reaction moves that are simply performed with a flick of the right analog stick. You can pretty much direct the Trick Shot in any direction and this will help you return shots that you normally would have had trouble reaching even with the Zone Speed technique. While a Super Shot would solve the same problem, the Trick Shot will use up far less energy in your Gauge and has the potential to earn you back Guage energy. When you successfully return the ball via the Trick Shot, you will earn back some of that Gauge energy, but only if you have timed that shot perfectly. The amount of energy that is restored is what has caused the move to become something of an unbalanced mechanic, especially when playing online against people who have mastered it. While an experienced player should always beat another who is not, this technique can almost make the game feel broken when players abuse it.
Should you not want to bother with flashy Trick Shots or Zone Speed mechanics, you can strip all that away and play a simple bout of tennis. While this can be enjoyable, I did find myself missing a few of the advanced additions like the Super Shot. I wish you could select filters to remove Trick Shots or Zone Speed entirely and play with the other moves as I feel it would balance the game a lot while still allowing you to see all the fun Super Shot animations and Zone Shot strikes. If they end up patching Trick Shots to come across as a bit more balanced, then online matches might be far more enjoyable in the future. The last option of controls come in the form of motion controls, ala Wii Tennis. While it certainly looks to mimic the glory days of early motion controls, the lag and unresponsive motions just don't do this mode justice. I'll also point out that the motion controls are only available in their own mode, so attempting to play against someone with a controller in another mode isn't possible, nor should you want to.
Online competitions come in two flavors; standard and simple tennis. Simple, as I've just mentioned is your typical tennis with no special moves or Zone abilities. Standard is the anything-goes mode where you'll find players that have mastered all the advanced techniques available. Tournaments will also allow you to unlock additional characters a month before they release to those who have opted not to partake in the online competition. What is going to be a huge factor for the life of Mario Tennis going forward is when Nintendo releases their Online Paid service later this year and thus cutting this form of competition off from those who don't want to pay for the ability to play online. While the fee isn't large in any significant way, it will be interesting to see how this affects sales and online player counts of the game going forward.
In the few matches I've played online, I only experienced severe lag in maybe 2 rounds. There are some moments where the game will be a tad choppy, but it never made the experience unplayable. I did find some of the controls to not work as well as several times I would go to hit the R button to pull off a Zone Shot only to have the ball just zip by me without my character doing anything. I've had several moments where I would run to the ball to hit it and my character would sit there charging the shot instead of moving. If you don't want to use the right analog stick to perform your Trick Shot, you can double tap the X button to perform the trick shot instead. The problem with that is upon most shots coming at me, I would tend to mash the button down to return the shot. I lost track of how many times I Trick shotted away from the ball instead of hitting it. Had there been an option to remove Trick Shots from the X button, then that would have removed that issue entirely.
Apart from the issues I have with the production values during the Adventure Mode, the characters and the courts themselves all look fantastic regardless of playing this on a big screen tv or on the go. Characters all have wonderful animations and service the game extremely well. Make no mistake about it, Mario Tennis Aces is a good looking game, it just lacks the storytelling aspects of what made Mario Odyssey so damn great. Had the Adventure Mode been dressed up with cutscenes and a better way to tell its story, then I would have a far greater opinion on the game as a whole. It is also worth noting that the game doesn't seem to have support for Amiibos which is very odd considering almost the entire cast is available as one of those little plastic collectibles. It is possible that support for them may be added down the road, but it's puzzling that Nintendo would choose not to support them here.
Mario Tennis Aces is as inconsistent as they come. It features solid visuals and engaging gameplay but makes bizarre choices that lessen the appeal of nearly everything present. The lack of traditional scoring available to players is baffling considering it is already built into the Adventure Mode. The Adventure mode itself features some incredibly well-designed mini-games and boss encounters that it is a shame these features lack any sort of multiplayer co-op or additional modes to enjoy them outside of the story mode. The online aspect of the game is currently unbalanced and the future of paid online might impact much of its appeal going forward. As it stands, as a tennis game, Mario Tennis Aces can and usually is an enjoyable experience. But, as a sum of its parts, Aces hits it just a few inches out of bounds.
Mario Tennis Aces was purchased by the reviewer.
All Screenshots were taken on a Nintendo Switch.