I have been a part of a lot of Mario’s side activities over the years, whether his standard adventures both 2D and 3D, his racing affairs, and even a small selection of his parties whether they be good or not. However, of Mario’s side vocations there is one part I have never actually gotten around to playing which is Mario’s sports events with the exception of the Olympic Games series but I don’t really think that counts. Of Mario’s sports games Mario Tennis is widely considered to be one of the best and the one that started Mario down the path of sports game legend, again I have never actually played a Mario sports game and getting the chance to play Mario Tennis Ultra Smash got me excited, unfortunately this was for no reason.
The first thing that came to mind when I first started playing Ultra Smash and saw the main menu was “is that it?” These words very much sum up Mario Tennis Ultra Smash, it is immediately notable just how lacking this game is just from the few modes seen and even the lack of modes that would have actually added something. It is clear from the word go that Nintendo just asked Camelot to make this game and it just feels and looks rushed when the possibilities are considered. There are a few modes here but sadly none of these actually standout and are never anything more than occasional distractions.
In total Mario Tennis features only four game modes hence the is that it feeling, these include Mega Battle, Classic Tennis, Knockout Challenge and Mega Ball Rally. The game also features an online mode but this just felt dull as I couldn’t play with anyone I knew and the mode only really offered the lowest form of game which was just disappointing.
The biggest new addition to Mario Tennis Ultra Smash is the Mega Tennis, in this mode you begin by playing a traditional Tennis match, but as you go on the Toad’s on the sidelines will randomly throw in mega mushrooms to spice up the action. The Mega Mushrooms boost your characters size when you collect them offering a severe change in size often allowing you to tower over your opponent, this then gives you the ability to deal up stronger hits to try and beat out the opponent. For the first couple of rounds this concept was actually interesting to me as I fought back my opponent with my own growth in height, but after a few rounds this just grew tiresome really quickly.
On the whole Mega Battle feels very much like a gimmick, the basic concept of playing tennis and then dealing with the addition of Mega Mushrooms just doesn’t offer any form of appeal especially the more it’s played. I came to realize just how unbalanced this mode actually feels, when tennis is supposed to be a sport of skill they really turned the tables and forced the game more towards luck. You are lucky to be able to stop your opponent when they get a mega mushroom and the game only hands these out randomly meaning the game can give your opponent an unfair advantage, but this also works the reverse way when I had it and my opponent didn’t I felt like I was cheating and just wasn’t having fun. The absence of skill because of this is really disheartening and really made me want to avoid any modes that would force me to have to deal with Mega Mushrooms, unfortunately this leaves you with only half a game which already feels lacking.
Much like Mega Battle the Knockout Challenge mode utilizes Mega Mushrooms which in a mode where you need to keep trying to defeat your opponents just feels unbalanced on all accounts. I remember on a few occasions my opponent getting a Mega Mushroom and this completely turned the match in their favor as they would often be able to get the ball past me before I even knew it or could try to even the odds. I will admit that some challenge does exist in Knockout Challenge and this is the closest we have to a tournament it is just the forced inclusion of the Mega Mushrooms which ruins any fun I could have had.
Mega Mushrooms are an interesting gimmick and for another idea to have it isn’t bad I felt like they could have been better handled or played into the gameplay but they just don’t feel right as part of the core experience. They are made worse though with how they appear in the game, whenever myself or my opponent happened to pick one up a little animation would play showing the character grow, and there is no way to skip or avoid this and for me this often acted as a distraction and made me miss a good selection of hits simply because it played and made me lose track of what was happening.
It was honestly a relief when I accessed classic tennis, this mode was a lot more straightforward as I could simply play tennis without worrying about the game feeling unbalanced. I could face my opponent with a bit more skill utilizing my own abilities or so I thought, in its simplest form classic tennis is okay as some part of the strategy still exists and I could try to play the game how it was originally intended, but beyond this I felt the game was dumbed down. Any kind of fun I could have had was washed away in an over simplified match, regularly markers would appear on the court telling me where I needed to go to hit the ball and this would even include what button to press to get the best result. It is even more annoying whenever jump shots happened to turn up which made my characters do an unrealistic jump and hit which made it hard for my opponent to return my hit or vice versa. It was clear the game was really pushing for simplicity but in this instance this just doesn’t work and I am sure that classic tennis was never this simplistic. I can’t even say I had fun when I had a friend playing in the multiplayer because these little things just make the general experience tiresome.
Sadly, my favorite mode I came across with Mario Tennis Ultra Smash was the Mega Ball Rally and at no point did this ever feel like a proper mode. Mega Ball Rally feels more like a minigame which never quite found its full potential but this isn’t a bad thing, this is sadly the game’s biggest highlight. This mode sees you competing to keep rallying back and forth an over sized ball, if one person misses the whole thing is over meaning that you sometimes have to rely on your opponent as much as yourself and that is not often easy. I actually liked the fact that this mode allowed me to embrace strategy and have to find ways to quickly send the ball back while also allowing my opponent to return a ball that progressively got faster. As I said this mode never quite feels like it hits its potential and really feels more like a mini game but this is actually where I had the most fun particularly in a game that feels so lacking. The only thing is I wished there was more mini games like this one perhaps this would have been more fun.
It’s a problem that Mario Tennis Ultra Smash feels sorely lacking, and this extends beyond the standard game modes. Firstly the roster is pretty appalling, while the game does feature standard characters like Mario, Peach and even Waluigi there was a tiny roster compared to what was possible and this is made worse by their supposed skills. Each character has their own special skill such as speed, power or all around, the problem is that I never found any character to actually play any different, my speed based Yoshi played the same as a power focused Rosalina, it just felt like a missed opportunity and I didn’t like the fact that I could play as whoever I wished and would play in the exact same manner.
Another thing that really annoyed me was how the game lacked any creativity, with such a rich canvas as the Mushroom Kingdom I expected we might see a variety of stadiums paying homage to the world. This however never happens, there are course variations in the game which offer different types of experiences to how you play, but these do nothing when we are stuck in the same dull stadium when there was the opportunity for a whole lot more.
At nearly every turn Mario Tennis Ultra Smash screams rushed, for a franchise that created something new in Nintendo’s catalog so many years back it’s disappointing to see the game in this state. This game had a decent amount of potential but in the end this is a game that tries something different but forgets what once made Mario Tennis enjoyable to fans. If you really want to play Mario Tennis I think you would have better luck going to the eShop and getting the classic Nintendo 64 game, which is what I am going to do.