Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a trick shot.
While this Wii U does manage to make improvements to the core gameplay and is much more fun than the series’ last outing — Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS — there’s just not a lot to the game. Mario Tennis fans are going to find a fun and pretty update, but one that is mostly superficial. And where Mario Tennis could be to tennis games what Mario Kart is to kart racers, this one’s not just there.
After skipping the Wii (except for the New Play Control GameCube port of 2004’s Mario Power Tennis), Mario Tennis again returns to a home console, making it almost a decade since the fiery plumber has picked up the racquet on the big screen. Sadly, not much has changed, and Mario Tennis has a lot less to do this time around.
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Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is just a game that needs more. More characters. More things to do. It probably could have used more development time, too. It’s shiny and pretty — it’s Mario Tennis in HD. And if all you want from Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a tennis game in HD with some basic online, you’ll be happy.
Just don’t expect much else.
What you’ll like
Love serving 15
Playing tennis still feels good.
After Mario Tennis Open, Ultra Smash takes some solid steps when it comes to the basic mechanics. It’s fun to play (and pretty, in that big, bold, and bright Mario way), and the core feels a lot better. It’s a lot of fun, and I could easily see myself dumping a lot of time in it … if it had some depth or more modes to dump time into. Smashing jump shots into the opposing player’s face remains enjoyable, but I can only do that for so long.
The Knockout Challenge mode, which pretty much seems like the stand-in for the almost mandatory Amiibo tie-in for any Nintendo release these days, is the closest to any of the previous games story or tournament modes, just without any of the best parts. You face off against other characters in increasing difficulty, and while this offers some challenge here, it remains on the easy side.
Mario Tennis is making its home console online multiplayer debut (and it actually works!). It’s nice to see the game support both local and online multiplayer, something that isn’t always a given in games these days.
It also has a nifty multiplayer camera option that actually takes advantage of the GamePad, with one player’s screen on the controller and the other’s on the TV. It’s small in the scheme of things, but it’s a great way to work around split-screen play, and something I wished more games would do.
What you won’t like
Running on empty
Simply put, there’s just not that much to do in Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash.
It doesn’t have a tournament mode. Or a RPG mode. Or a story. Or a campaign. Or Mario-themed courts or stadiums. Or cool power-up modes. Or special games. Nada. Zilch. Or as they say in tennis … love.
Bigger isn’t always better
The hallmark feature — Mega Battle mode — is one note, and it’s not nearly as big of a deal as its name — or Nintendo — is trying to make it out to be. The game will randomly throw you Mega Mushrooms, which pretty much just make you giant (and quite susceptible to body shots, might I add). It tends to give both players the mushrooms at around the same time, but it’s still a random element that doesn’t feel as natural or nearly as important as items are in Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros.
But Nintendo doesn’t seem to have much faith in Mega Battle, including a Classic Tennis mode that removes the mushrooms, and another that takes away the chance and jump shots (but for some odd reason still keeps the button prompts there for them). But even these modes don’t feel different enough, and they seem like a peace offering to people who won’t like the Mega Mushroom mode.
(It also has a Mega Ball Rally mode, which is just seeing how long you can rally the ball back and forth, but which is pretty annoying playing with A.I. players who don’t seem to get that the idea is to keep the rally going as long as possible).
Some people may enjoy these better than I do, but I wonder at what point Mario Tennis started becoming a tennis game with Nintendo characters instead of a Mario twist on a genre game. I had that problem with the 3DS’s Mario Tennis Open, and sadly, it’s barley addressed here either. It doesn’t have cool Mario-themed courts or stadiums, or different challenge modes, and while it isn’t playing the basic gameplay quite as straight as Mario Tennis Open did, it’s still closer to being a real tennis game that it is the crazy, hectic Mario sports adventures it could be.
The Amiibo implementation is also minimal, and every so often your figure will gain a level and randomly get an upgrade in a random stat. It’s a shallow Amiibo implementation that doesn’t add much of anything except a slightly customized A.I. player. You can take them online at least, something that even Amiibo in Super Smash Bros. can’t do.
The online is playable — but it’s limited. You can’t find friends; once you start the online mode, you can pick what type of game and play options you want, and then it will randomly pair you with another player. You can’t make lobbies or find other players you know, and you also can’t choose to play the same person again. It’s nice that the online works (and was almost flawless, save for one small lag hiccup I had during my testing), but it’s implemented in such an outdated fashion here, and it makes finding people to play with a real chore.
Selective cast and controls
While character selection may not be the biggest deal for some, it’s surprising that in 2015 Nintendo is still including only a handful of playable characters, especially when you are talking about a well as deep as the Mario universe. Past characters from older tennis games are gone, and while I’m glad to see Rosalina make an appearance, Dry Bowser and the Sprixie Princess aren’t exactly going to be anybody’s new favorites.
It’s sad to see motion controls gone, too. Mario Power Tennis for the Wii had them, and it just seems silly to play Mario Tennis Ultra Smash with Wii Remotes — but only sideways and without any motion controls. Nintendo has such success with Wii Sports it sometimes seems a little too hesitant to draw comparisons sometimes, but it also seems odd that the company that once championed motion controls has all but abandoned them, even in places where they make sense and were the most successful.
Oddly enough, it’s also missing any type of training mode or tutorial, which doesn’t make getting the hang of all the different types of shots any easier. And with balancing all the different types of shots (and either a bit of input problems, or just me getting the hang of it), something here to introduce new players to the game would have been welcomed. And that’s usually something Nintendo really does do well.
You also can’t pick the handiness of a player, which really isn’t a huge deal — it’s a detail that matters to some players.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is fun. I enjoyed my time with it — much more so than I did with Mario Tennis Open. It’s a step up over the last iteration in some areas, yet still it manages to be a lackluster entry in a series that seems to be sadly suffering from continual decline.
The introduction of HD graphics, the one-note Mega Mushroom battles, and a paltry online system aren’t enough to make this Mario Tennis anything more than a blip and a game that really could have been so much more, especially with the strong foundation at its center.
Mario Tennis could be better, and should be, better.
Mario Tennis Ultra Smash releases for the Wii U on November 20, 2015 for an MSRP of $49.99. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review.