Release Date: June 22, 2018Platform: Nintendo SwitchDeveloper: Camelot Software PlanningPublisher: NintendoGenre: Sports
In a perfect world, copies of Mario Tennis Aces would be shipped out to Switch owners everywhere like those America Online trial discs that everyone used to receive in the mail. That way, the conversation around the game could be entirely focused on the game that developer Camelot has crafted.
That might sound like an odd request, but the biggest problem with Mario Tennis Aces is that it has a $60 price tag attached to it. If we could just buy the world a Coke, then maybe Aces could just be the entertaining game that it was seemingly designed to be. Instead, Aces finds itself as the most recent centerpiece in the roundtable discussion of video game value relative to the value of other video games (and other forms of entertainment) in 2018.
Of course, Mario Tennis Aces wouldn’t be in that discussion at all if it weren’t entertaining in the first place. Since the N64 edition of Mario Tennis – let’s forget the Virtual Boy title of the same name – Mario Tennis has been this fundamentally entertaining and traditionally over-the-top take on the sport. Even when the series was at its most disappointing (you know what you did, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash), it usually offered fun gameplay.
The thing that makes Mario Tennis Aces so impressive is that developer Camelot was brave enough to use the game as an excuse to make some major changes to the Mario Tennis formula, and the studio has come away with what is indisputably the most fascinating tennis gameplay a Mario Tennis game has ever featured.
Mario Tennis has always emphasized a kind of rock/paper/scissors duel of varied shots and strategies, but Aces turns the series into what is essentially a fighting game. The addition of the charge meter and all the new mechanics it allows for makes it more difficult than ever to get a shot past a skilled opponent. Rather than just “hitting it where they ain’t,” you must now carefully consider your opponent’s ability to use their power meter to counter your strategies as well as their position on the court and how they may react to your shot.
Timing and shot selection still matter in Mario Tennis Aces, but the resource management elements that the power meter introduces means that you must also consider how efficiently you are using your abilities. The reason the whole thing works is that every ability can be countered in some way. It might be difficult to block a character’s special move – and you run the risk of breaking your racket and losing the game in the process – but it all just contributes to the dance.
At its best, Aces offers the kind of back-and-forth duels that few other games outside of the fighting genre can offer. That’s a comparison complemented by the various characters, who all have different playstyles and even variations on similar playstyles. We’re already seeing character tier-lists emerge (Hint: Pick Yoshi).
The difference between Aces and the many fighting games, though, is that Aces is accessible enough to make you feel like you’re having fun even before you really learn what you’re doing. It then scales with your experience and skill level to offer a different kind of game than you could have imagined when you were just a rookie, but one that is just as much fun. That’s a trick that games like Destiny have never managed to properly pull off.
However, some have raised some fair questions regarding just how accessible Mario Tennis Aces really is. For younger gamers, or even gamers with memories of old Mario Tennis games dancing in their heads, the more complicated mechanics of Aces might simply not be what they are looking for. Aces offers a simple mode that offers more traditional Mario Tennis gameplay, but whether because it pales in comparison to the new mechanics or it just wasn’t tweaked properly, the mode feels like cold leftovers. The same can be said of the game’s motion control options, which sadly don’t offer a Wii Sports alternative.
Ideally, this is where the game’s adventure mode would come into play. Mario Tennis Aces features a single-player mode built around a typically absurd and simple plot that, in this instance, sees Luigi teleported to another dimension courtesy of a magic tennis racket. It’s all just an excuse to send Mario off to exotic locations to complete a series of tennis-based challenges.
Here again, Mario Tennis is burdened partially by expectations. For the most part, Mario Tennis Aces’ adventure mode is fine. Some of the mini-games are far more annoying than they are clever, but Camelot does a great job of utilizing the game’s core mechanics and finding ways to use them to create puzzle-like scenarios that play out across a variety of creative and well-designed environments.
The problem is that Aces isn’t Mario Tennis: Power Tour. Power Tour featured a surprisingly brilliant RPG campaign similar to the one we’ve seen in games like Mario Golf: Advance Tour and Golf Story. Gamers have been begging for a Mario Tennis game to revive that concept, and Camelot made the unfortunate decision to flirt with that idea by giving Mario stats and teasing those RPG elements without fully committing to them. Even without the comparisons, Aces’ campaign ultimately doesn’t offer enough content.
This is where the question of Aces’ value becomes the game’s identity. Without a meaningful solo adventure, substantial casual play options, or even motion control gameplay that feels like it was supposed to be a standalone feature, you’re pretty much left with the game’s multiplayer.
While that multiplayer is absolutely incredible from a gameplay standpoint, not everyone is going to be able to get their friends together often enough to justify a purchase. The game’s online tournaments ensure that you’ll always be able to find someone to play against, but even that option is hindered by a seemingly non-existent skill-based matchmaking system and the possibility of connection errors impacting your game in a very serious way.
Even in its ideal format, Aces’ multiplayer suffers from a lack of customization options. Much has been made of the fact that you can’t play a proper game of tennis against a human opponent, which sounds silly – this is Mario Tennis after all – until you realize that the real issue is that Aces customization is so bare bones that you can’t even pick which court you play on when you play against human opponents.
It’s why I wish for that ideal world in which everyone owns a copy of Mario Tennis Aces. In that world, you could just play a round of multiplayer whenever it suits you, appreciate the game’s astonishingly good core gameplay (and, for that matter, fun visual and sound design), and never worry about value.
We don’t live in that world, though, and in the one we do live in, it’s unacceptable that one of Nintendo’s biggest releases of the year is so light on even the most basic features and fails to realize the potential of certain concepts that developer Camelot is so bold to hint at without really building upon them. Mario Tennis Aces features the absolute best gameplay we’ve seen from a Mario Tennis game and some of the best gameplay we’ve seen from a sports title of any kind in quite some time. Unfortunately, many will find it hard to justify paying $60 for a major release that feels like it is shortchanging fans on features for no other reason than just to do it.