A Short-Lived Rally: Mario Tennis Aces Review
It's hard not to get caught up in the hype of new Mario games, especially when the Switch is involved, and especially when sports are involved. Announced during Nintendo's "Direct Mini" in January, the latest installment of Mario Tennis was no exception to that hype, boasting "new wrinkles in tennis gameplay" that would challenge players in new ways to deliver exciting moments of tennis tension. On this front, Mario Tennis Aces delivers hand over fist. However, after only a handful of hours into the already short Adventure Mode, it was clear that Aces wasted its fresh mechanics on a monotonous and frustrating storyline.
Mario Tennis Aces shines brightest when considering the variety of approaches players have during actual tennis matches. New mechanics like zone shots, teleporting, and triggering slow motion provide a new set of tools for players to do battle with on the court, seamlessly weaving together to create nuanced and heart-pounding rallies. The creativity and complexity of Aces' tennis gameplay mechanics forces players to strategize and manage resources (like energy and number of extra rackets) on the fly, resulting in white-knuckle matches that range from fast-paced to flat out chaotic. Aces has frequently been likened to a fighting game, and I can't think of a more apt comparison: in addition to understanding the four basic shots and when to use them, knowing when to trigger zone speed (slow-mo), how to counter charge shots, and how to time blocks are all necessary skills to have during "traditional" tennis matches. Put simply, the strategy in this game is real.
Yet, the opportunities to use strategy are just bit too few and far in between. Peppered heavily throughout the Adventure Mode are a smattering of boss fights and mini-games that take the pure tennis strategy out of the equation almost entirely. While some include clever integration of trick shot and teleport mechanics, most of these boss encounters can be boiled to a simple formula: smack a tennis ball at the obviously-marked weak points of your opponent until they have no HP left. This overtly lazy approach to "bosses" punctuates an already underwhelming, and in some cases, just mechanically unfair, story mode, missing an opportunity to keep Mario Tennis fans engaged. Add this to a total absence of character customization (I would have loved to put a sweatband on Toad) and little-to-no replay value, Aces' Adventure Mode left me hoping that playing online against other Switch users would make up for a lackluster campaign.
And it did! Except when the game lagged...which was frequent. With a stable connection, playing Mario Tennis Aces online is a wonderful experience. Whether in a quickplay match, or in a longer-form tournament, playing against other real humans is the most challenging and rewarding experience Aces has to offer. But with lag spikes that occur far too often, any strategic movement or timing becomes entirely impossible. For a game that requires players to rely on pinpoint timing and accuracy, the slightest fraction of lag is a game-breaking problem. About to release a charge shot? Good luck doing that when the serve has already flown by. 15-love.
Buried just beneath a laggy online experience, frustrating mini-games that outstay their welcome, and an underwhelming story, there is a very good game. Long after completing the Adventure Mode and playing a handful of tournaments (both online and offline), I still fire up Super Mario Aces regularly for some tense tennis action. At the end of the day, it's a fun-loving experience that doesn't exactly hit home as a purely tennis game.
That being said, just remaster Strikers and all will be forgiven.