TORONTO — While video game superstar Mario is best known for stomping around the Mushroom Kingdom and rescuing its oft-imperilled princess, he has also garnered a reputation as something of a sportsman.
His adventures on the racetrack are well documented in the best-selling “Mario Kart” series, but he has also tried his hand at soccer, golf and even curling.
“Mario Tennis Aces,” the first original Mario sports game released for the Switch, is the eighth tennis title published by Nintendo and the seventh starring its flagship character. Like previous iterations of the series “Aces” sees Mario take to the tennis court to play against some of his best friends, and even a few of his biggest foes.
With seven tennis games already under its belt, one might forgive Nintendo for struggling to bring much new to the table outside of some roster tweaks and the allure of the Switch’s portability. But “Aces” mixes things up a little with some new gameplay mechanics, which work well, and an RPG-like adventure mode, which doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
“Aces” introduces an energy gauge, which can be filled by engaging in long rallies, hitting powered-up shots and performing difficult tricks. Sometimes a star will appear on the court, and standing in the star and expending some energy allows you to perform a “zone shot.” This puts you in a first-person perspective, allowing you to pinpoint where the ball will go.
Zone shots are also incredibly powerful, and even an attempt to return one could damage an opponent’s racket. If a racket is damaged three times, it breaks and can’t be used again for the remainder of the match. A player with no remaining rackets will be forced to forfeit.
That means aggressive-minded players can target opponents’ rackets and knock them out of the game through brute force rather than finesse. Hardly what you would expect from such a well-mannered sport, but a brutally effective strategy nonetheless.
A player that manages to fill the energy gauge can perform a special shot, which acts as a zone shot except it an be performed at any time and can destroy an opposing racket in one hit.
All is not lost for defensive players about to face a blistering zone shot, however. By pulling off a trick shot, another new “Aces” mechanic, players can send the ball safely clear of the net, and with a touch of panache to boot. Trick shots will see players lunge across the court to reach balls once seemingly impossible to return. They require impeccable timing to pull off, but a well-placed trick shot can quickly turn the tide of a rally.
Another way to counter a zone shot is with a perfectly timed normal return, called “blocking.” Normally this would be extremely difficult to do as a zone shot is rocketing toward you. But defenders who have enough left in their gauge can use some energy to slow down the game and position themselves for the perfect return.
Added in with the array of smashes, lobs, spins and drop shots found in previous titles, the new mechanics in “Aces” open up interesting strategies for a variety of play styles.
“Aces” also introduces an adventure mode, which sees Mario traversing an island and engaging in tennis-based challenges while tracking down an evil racket that has possessed Wario and Waluigi, two of Mario’s foes who are consistent obstacles in his sporting endeavours.
The mode has all the hallmarks of an RPG, including experience points, stats and tennis-themed bosses. But as appealing as that sounds, the execution isn’t quite there. Some of the challenges are a grind, like maintaining long rallies, and the difficulty ramps up very quickly.
One early encounter had Mario trying to defeat a mirror using zone shots to exploit weak points. It goes on for several rounds, with no checkpoint, so a couple of mistakes will force you to start the encounter again right from the beginning. It’s a beatable challenge, but can take a frustratingly long time if things don’t break your way.
The adventure mode takes around six hours to complete and is the method for unlocking some of the courts for normal play.
Completionists may want to power through the adventure mode, but the real draw of “Aces” is playing some over-the-top tennis against friends, online or locally.
“Mario Tennis Aces” is rated “E” for all audiences and retails for around $80.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press