Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash Review (Wii U)
Contrary to the main menu's recommendation, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is best played with the silly mushrooms and scorching chance shots turned off. Since E3, Nintendo has been hyping up these two gameplay features, trying to convince Mario Tennis fans that this would make Ultra Smash's on-court action much more exciting than the franchise's traditional three-button, five-shot gameplay system. But all these mushrooms and chance shots have done is dumbed down the gameplay, making it a race to reach the powerups first. Even if the defending player guesses the right direction and successfully steps in front of a screaming chance shot, the returning hit animation usually leaves the defender stunned, and the ball floats back over the net so slowly that it can easily be slammed off the court on the following stroke.
Tennis is sport where high-power and sharp-angle shots frequently fail -- either by hitting the net or by landing outside the lines. But in more than 50 games of Ultra Smash, I've seen only three balls fall out of bounds -- once on a slice serve, and twice on a slice chance shot. Turns out, you're leaving very little to "chance" by taking a chance shot in Ultra Smash, since they produce so many winners and so few errors. These hot spots also pop up so often that there's little opportunity for lengthy rallies to take place.
The only time you'll see double-digit rallies is when both players ingest giant mushrooms, as these massive character models can cover more than half the court just by standing still. But these artificially created rallies don't contain much drama, since the only way to consistently score when both players are big is by triggering an unstoppable ultra smash animation, or by hitting a lucky body shot that bounces off an opponent's face.
Ultra Smash's "Simple Mode" will be much more appealing to tennis purists, since its gameplay is modeled after Camelot's first Mario Tennis title (released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64). Even then, the curve, loft and speed of the five different strokes (lob, drop, slice, top spin, smash) all feel way too weak on Simple settings, especially after charging up a shot to its maximum power level. This classic control setup remains the best way to play Ultra Smash (if you choose to play sober), but Simple Mode still struggles to maintain a basic gameplay balance, because of the unrealistic disparity between return aces and service aces.
Serving and returning in Ultra Smash is a rock-paper-scissors guessing game, as the defending player will receive a power boost if he/she returns a slice with a top spin, a top spin with a slice, or a smash with a smash. Servers will also want to immediately hit the ball instead of shuffling along the baseline and lining up a precise angle of attack, as the returner can accumulate a second power boost if he/she completes a taunt animation before the ball arrives. Because of those attribute bonuses, return aces feel significantly easier to achieve than service aces. I've consistently been able to break both CPU and human opponents' serves just by hitting taunt-fueled return blasts with powerful characters like Wario and Donkey Kong. Scoring service aces with those super-strong villains, however, has been much more difficult. This scenario is completely backward compared to professional tennis, where service breaks are generally tough to perform without the benefit of a few court errors or double faults.
Nintendo products typically excel at nailing all the minor details that might help an average game become good, or a good game become great. Ultra Smash is an exception to that tradition, as it's packed with minor annoyances that dampen the experience and turn a potentially good game into a plainly average one.
Ultra Smash's surprisingly metal soundtrack pleases my ears, but since there's no audio mixer, the enjoyable background tunes get buried by the obnoxiously loud and maddeningly repetitive character voices. A more crucially absent option is the inability to disable the automated lunging shot animations. There's already a dedicated dive button in the game (right trigger), but for some reason, Camelot's algorithms like to force players into point-losing lunge animations at odd times. Too often, I'd be in good position to deliver a quality ground stroke, but instead, the game would mistakenly trigger a weak diving hit, allowing my opponent to crush an ultra smash into the crowd on the very next shot.
Players also should've been able to turn off the over-the-shoulder camera angle that appears right before the server puts the ball into play. It's disorienting to start points with a baseline perspective, then snap right into a traditional overhead view once the ball is struck by the server. I'd prefer to play with the TV-style overhead camera all game long, but Ultra Smash doesn't provide that option. Stadium selection suffers from a similar lack of diversity, as even though you can choose between nine total courts, they're all set inside the same boring blue-and-white venue, which makes Ultra Smash's environments feel monotonous.
You'd expect an arcade sports title like Mario Tennis to contain lots of interesting diversions from standard singles and doubles matches, but surprisingly, Mega Ball Rally is Ultra Smash's only minigame. It challenges players to keep a rally alive as long as possible before finally winning the point, and after you achieve triple digits for the first time (unlocking Sprixie Princess), there's not much reason to return to this tedious time waster.
Knockout Challenge is the game's primary single-player mode, asking players to climb an NBA JAM-style ladder of increasingly difficult computer opponents. These first-to-seven, win-by-two tiebreaks cycle through the entire roster of characters, and while the initial lap is fairly easy, the AI's court behavior starts becoming incredibly cheap by the end of your second run. If you don't own an Amiibo partner who can give your side of the court a two-on-one advantage, then your third pass through the CPU roster will be extremely difficult to complete. Without any Amiibo to help me out, I grew too frustrated to keep fighting the superpowered CPU in round 31, so I simply bought the mode's final reward from the store using the coins I'd earned along the way.
A single weekend is all it will take for series veterans to finish every solo mode and unlock all 25 rewards in Ultra Smash. Doing so will unveil six extra courts, four additional characters, two tougher AI difficulties and higher-rated "star" versions of the 12 default characters. These meager unlockables hardly make up for Ultra Smash's lack of a lengthy single-player career mode, something that Camelot included in the Game Boy Color (2001) and Game Boy Advance (2005) versions of Mario Tennis.
Multiplayer was clearly meant to be Ultra Smash's go-to mode, but even that portion of the game feels rushed and incomplete. Knockout tournaments are the primary way that professional tennis has been played for multiple decades, but that century-old setup doesn't exist anywhere in Ultra Smash. One-off exhibition matches are the only way to compete, both offline and online. If a $30 indie project like The Golf Club can offer online tournaments and tours, then there's no excuse for those features' exclusion in a $50 game from a company the size of Nintendo. You can't even meet up with your friends for private online sessions, since the matchmaking system restricts you to playing against randomly selected strangers. Ultra Smash's online performance is at least lag-free, but going round after round against stubborn serve-and-volley try-hards just isn't much fun. Local multiplayer is the only way I was able to enjoy Ultra Smash, and in a world where most of my friends are spread out across the country, or are occupied with maintaining jobs/families, couch multiplayer isn't something that I'll be able to experience very often.
Unless you've got a steady supply of local competitors, or you're the type of tennis fan who relishes ranking up against randoms online, there's little reason to purchase Nintendo's newest Mario Tennis. It's missing the imagination of SEGA's Virtua Tennis series, it doesn't have the gameplay depth of PAM's Top Spin franchise, it's not moddable like Mana Games' downloadable Tennis Elbow, and it doesn't offer a compelling single-player mode, like Camelot's handheld Mario Tennis titles did a decade ago. Ultra Smash is Mario Tennis' first career service fault.