Mario Tennis Aces joins a grand tradition of Mario spinoff games. It's a Mario sports game that is actually good. The bread and butter of the Mario franchise will always be the core platforming games but for years some of Nintendo's best spinoff gamers were those of arcade sports nature.
Yet around the tail-end of the Nintendo Wii's life cycle and into the Wii U, Mario's sports games hit a huge slump. They were shallow, repetitive experiences that lacked any kind of complexity. Mario Tennis Aces however, is a return to form. It's not a perfect game and there are a few confusing and Nintendo-esque decisions that hold this one back, but Mario Tennis Aces is the perfect marriage of simple mechanics and deep gameplay that the House of Mario does oh so well.
The basic gameplay of Mario Tennis Aces is very straight-forward. The game can be played completely and quite proficiently with just three buttons and the joystick. This means that Mario Tennis Aces can be controlled with one Joy-Con or two of them joined together for a more traditional controller layout. A Swing Mode, which uses motion controls, is also available. It turns a single Joy-Con into a tennis racket. It's amusing and more responsive than Wii Sports but Tennis Aces is much more engaging when the game is played with a traditional controller and button set-up.
During regular play, the four buttons on the Joy-Con's face are used to serve or return the tennis ball. Any of them can be used to return the ball but each button determines the type of rally (a lob, a slice or just a flat hit). What makes Mario Tennis Aces unique from its predecessors special moves players can perform with the left and right triggers which turn Mario Tennis Aces into a borderline fighting game.
During a match of Mario Tennis Aces an energy meter will build up for each character. When the meter reaches its max, pressing both triggers at the same time activates a special (a character-specific move). It allows Mario, Waluigi or whoever to launch in the air and viciously spike the ball onto their opponents side of the court. The special shot is difficult for opponents to block making it advantageous with the tradeoff that it drains the entire meter, leaving you quite vulnerable.
This is because the meter doesn't just dictate the special move. Pressing down the right trigger in regular gameplay uses some of the energy meter to slow down time. This can be very important in returning an opponent's special shot. In addition, a simple flick of the joystick will trigger a trick shot. A trick shot allows players to move far across the court, to the left, right and even behind while also using up some of the special meter.
16 characters are available at launch (less than earlier Mario Tennis games) with more coming as free updates, the basic controls of Mario Tennis Aces never change but each character comes with special abilities that make them unique. Donkey Kong is more powerful, Toad is speedier, and Rosalina more technical. The unique abilities turn each Tennis Aces match into a fighting game bout. It's all about using moves at the right time. Not only in an effort to trip up your opponent but to have something to defend yourself. It can be frustrating at first, but once you get the hang of the gameplay loop, Tennis Aces becomes incredibly satisfying.
The main attraction of Mario Tennis Aces is its multiplayer features. Local (up to four players) and online options are offered. There's more fun to be had playing locally but the online experience is still worthwhile (until players must pay to do this). The connection problems that plagued the Mario Tennis Aces online demo seem to have disappeared. Gameplay is generally smooth and steady in online play but the overall experience is held back by some of Nintendo's handling of online tournaments. These tournaments are treated as a limited time mode (similar to Salmon Run in Splatoon 2) that will occur once a month and run for a couple weeks instead of letting players play when they wish.
The weirder limitation is that while playing online with strangers the standard tennis scoring isn't available. Instead, every match is a tiebreaker round taking place on a random court. When playing online with friends, matches are much more expansive and customizable. Only random matches are given this strange limitation.
The disappointment that's more inexcusable is the single player adventure mode. Adventure Mode has all the standard Nintendo charm and follows Mario hunting an evil tennis racket that can posses people, but gameplay-wise it's essentially a glorified tutorial mode. Adventure Mode, which takes around 6 hours to complete, is all about learning the ins and outs of the mechanics. It's not a satisfying experience in its own right.
Yet, Mario Tennis Aces isn't for single player gamers. The game is for those who want to play multiplayer, local or online. Luckily, that's what Mario Tennis Aces does best.
Mario Tennis Aces is available now for $59.99 on Nintendo Switch.