Camelot Software Planning has been a stalwart developer for Nintendo over the years. Mario Tennis is perhaps their best-known Mario game (alongside Mario Golf) as they’ve been at the helm of the long-running sports-RPG hybrid(s) since 1999. Their other major title is the much-loved Golden Sun JRPG series -- a franchise we, and many others, are hoping arrives on Switch, and in a more modern format to that of the traditional handheld isometric releases. But for now, the studio’s most recent release for Nintendo Switch, Mario Tennis Aces, will more than suffice, because this is perhaps the best entry in the long-running series and is perfectly suited to the portable-or-at-home console.
Mario Tennis Aces is fantastic because it doesn’t play to a specific One-Wood (sorry, couldn’t resist). Rather, this is a party game, an active game, a competitive game and an adventure game -- all rolled into one. But for me, it’s the Adventure side of the title that has stood out most, and it’s where I’ll tee off my review efforts, because it’s in this mode Camelot gives us a Hole in One.
Okay, cross-franchise jokes aside, the sports-RPG hybrid design I mentioned above is out in full-force with Aces. It’s not specifically in-depth, but playing the game in certain ways and with a mindset to grow Mario’s skills and racket arsenal is rewarding for those of us willing to put in the time on the court. It can also be super-challenging, but there are various ways to progress yourself through impediments or enemies, while certain challenging side ‘practise’ challenges don’t actually have to be partaken in. But if you want to get the most out of the game, I suggest you suck it up and keep trying -- eye of the tiger and all that.
The unique angle that presents itself in Aces is in collecting more powerful and durable rackets, with durability here being key. And this is because your racket can actually break during play, and if you run out of rackets then you -- or your opponent if they broke all theirs -- is KO’d and out of the match. You can also switch the order of your rackets for tactical play but, in all honesty, I finished the Adventure mode without ever having to change them up, but that the option is there is still a bonus, and might be reflective of your playstyle.
The KO, for me, became a beacon of hope about halfway through the adventure. The story setup, quickly, is that Mario, Peach, Luigi, Daisy, Toad and co have come to an island to compete in some relaxing tennis. The island, however, is home to a trapped benevolent evil in the form of a racket that Wario and Waluigi realise is powerful enough to make them champion tennis players. They quickly become corrupted by the evil, err, tennis racket and Mario’s ever-downtrodden brother, Luigi, stupidly also grabs it and is equally wrapped up in its corruptive curse. Naturally, they flee in search of five “Power Stones” like so much Thanos and Mario’s only choice is to leave the tennis resort, and pursue them across the island. It’s silly and makes no sense, but Nintendo and Camelot know this, and play up to it at every opportunity they can.
So, getting back to that KO moment. You push linearly along a set path with a couple of minor branching sections, and are often stopped for tennis challenges against the island’s kooky inhabitants in the form of matches or mini-games. Matches themselves are usually pretty easy and within each section of the game-world (desert, jungle, haunted house, snow, ocean and lava -- classic Nintendo), they often have interesting additions, such as tennis courts on the deck of ships with a giant mast erected right in the middle, that absolutely can affect your shot, or shot receive. And it was in my second ship battle with the inky Blooper that frustration began to set in, because he was bloody near on impossible to beat.
Cue the drawn-out “KO” point I’ve been heading towards, because it was actually the only way I could beat him, as he cheaply used the ship mast over and over, affecting my positioning and reaction time, every time. This meant my strategy shifted from winning sets, to just building up my Energy Meter to perform power shots and special moves in an effort to break his racket and take him out of the contest. It worked on my second try, and all of a sudden an entirely new strategy presented itself. This is also how I beat Boom Boom.
Aside from a couple of unique bottlenecks though, the campaign itself is pretty easy and can be knocked out in a couple of hours. Beyond Adventure there is of course a Tournament Mode with the traditional Mushroom, Flower and Star Cups, and I found this against the computer (COM) a bit of a breeze. There is an online tournament mode as well, and at the moment my win/loss ratio is about 50% from around 10 matches. Latency wasn’t a huge issue, despite poor peer-to-peer connections, which is a credit to how Nintendo has handled the network backend of the game, clearly from lessons learnt through Mario Kart 8 and hopefully it continues to attract a broad audience of players, because there’s nothing better than the challenge of playing against humans over Nintendo AI.
Naturally, this also wouldn’t be a Nintendo product without some form of waggle. So you can also play in Swing Mode, which lets you use your Joy-Con controllers as your virtual racket ala the days of the Wii, only in Mario Tennis Aces the fidelity is far more intricate with a surprising amount of depth. You can also play this mode online and its coolest feature is the option to challenge line-ball calls where you get a similar presentation to the same thing in real-world tennis now. You only get a number of challenges per match, too, so using them is a bit risk-reward, and in a party game living room environment, it’s obviously a fun and raucous addition to multiplayer.
With a solid roster of characters (and more yet to come), a robust online Tournament mode alongside Swing mode, the game is already pretty fun. The addition of a silly Adventure mode and extra trimmings and unlockables makes this a standout in the series and another great addition to the Switch’s growing library of Nintendo exclusives. On-the-go it’s pretty good, but honestly I couldn’t move past playing on my couch with the Pro Controller, and on my Samsung 65” Curved QLED Q8C TV, it looked absolutely stunning. The Switch might not have 4K or HDR, but when Nintendo makes games, they know how to make colours pop.