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Mario Tennis Aces - Mario holding out his racket

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Mario Tennis Aces is great, but it’s not the game we expected

A weird, rich sports game best played with friends

Camelot Software Planning/Nintendo
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Mario Tennis Aces is a return to form for the Mario sports brand, infusing the tennis video game formula with the proven hooks of competitive fighting games. That’s the good news. The bad news: In no way does Mario Tennis Aces recreate the magic of the role-playing/sports hybrids in the Mario sports series that were published on Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance.

Fans of those retro handheld titles were reluctantly hopeful when Nintendo announced earlier this year that Mario Tennis Aces would include a story mode. More recent gameplay footage showed Mario traversing a large overworld, fighting bosses and increasing stats, further stoking expectations.

The game looks like a sports RPG, but it helps to forget all the marketing: Mario Tennis Aces is its own thing.

Having played most of Mario Tennis Aces’ campaign, I’ll distinguish what the game appears to be from what it actually is. The story mode progresses more like an extended tutorial than a compelling adventure, its challenges teaching players the game’s various strikes, explaining trick and skill shot strategy, and introducing new courts with unique hazards.

The plot — think the Avengers’ Infinity Stones saga, except replace the magical gauntlet with a magical tennis racket and subtract all the death — takes place in shallow dialogue before and after each match. Via an overworld map, Mario travels through a handful of kingdoms, each with a unique court, a couple of challenges and a boss fight. Each kingdom includes opportunities to collect a new racket and an aforementioned stone (called Power Stones, they’re an unintentional reminder to Capcom fans of the sequel they’ll never get).

The other trappings of role-playing games are equally thin. Sure, you can acquire additional rackets by completing optional challenges, and yeah, they have different stats, but their key benefit is serving as extra lives. The more rackets you carry, the more “lives” you have per showdown.

As for leveling up, Mario Tennis Aces is generous with experience points. Even quickly losing a match adds a healthy chunk of XP toward your next level. On the level up screen, you can see Mario’s speed, strength and other abilities improving as various bars fill up. But on the court, the difference between Mario at level 1 and level 24 is vague and tough to feel. Since the game progresses in a straight line, the improved rackets and stats seem to be doubly arbitrary, arriving just as you need them to complete the next set of stages.

Mario Tennis Aces - Koopa Troopa performing a trick shot Camelot Software Planning/Nintendo

All of this would be hugely disappointing were it not for one simple thing: Mario Tennis Aces is a fantastic arcade tennis game, debatably the best of its kind since the glory days of Sega’s Virtua Tennis franchise. Its creators have added a variety of special shots — not to superfluously expand on the sport of tennis, but to add greater depth to its video game counterpart.

A match in this game begins the same way it does in most of its tennis contemporaries. You volley back and forth with the standard mix of topspin, slice, flat, lob and drop shots. But things change quickly. You fill a power meter by charging swings (planting your feet and prepping a swing in advance) and pulling off trick shots (a flick of the right stick requiring serious timing that sends you across the court to strike the ball). Charge and trick shots often require you to gamble on predicting where your opponent will send the ball — it’s easier to simply sprint around the court returning shots with the generic hits. And so you process a risk/reward decision with every single return. Take the easy route or risk a special return in hopes of filling the power meter.

The trick shots are often worth it, as stored power gives you three crucial advantages. When stars appear on the court and you stand on them, the power meter allows you to perform Zone Shots, which slow time and allow you target the shot with a first-person aiming reticule. The meter also allows you, when on the receiving end, to slow time and sprint across the court to make a difficult return. When the power meter is full, you can trigger a Special Shot, a powerful, reticule-targeted strike that doesn’t require a star on the court and is unique to each of the game’s characters.

And then there’s another layer of risk/reward to these special abilities: Zone and Special shots can be used to deliver a perfect strike to a nearly unreachable corner of the court, but they can also be used to damage rackets. Unless a Zone or Special shot is returned at precisely the right moment, the opponent's racket takes damage. Eventually, rackets break. And when the opponent has no rackets left, they lose by KO.

Mario Tennis Aces - swinging with the Joy-Con Nintendo

Say an opponent is down to the final bars of health on their last racket. They may opt to let Zone and Special shots zip past them, lest they make a poor return, break the racket and lose everything. With these powerful shots, the offensive player must choose between a shot that guarantees a point or a shot that challenges their opponent to make a return — and risk damaging their racket. The defensive player must decide between returning the shot (potentially spending power to slow time and increase their chances) or surrendering the point.

It sort of feels like tennis, and it sort of feels like a fighting game, but really, Mario Tennis Aces feels mostly like something entirely new, like a weird indie multiplayer game inspired by sports (think Sportsfriends) that somehow secured the budget of a full Nintendo project.

The core gameplay is so rich and layered that it carries the otherwise flimsy story and a thin tournament mode (three cups, easily winnable by KO’ing even the most challenging opponents). Online Tournaments weren’t available ahead of the game’s release and lobbies were empty, so I’m reluctant to speak to the quality of online play, but let’s hope Nintendo delivers on the technical end. Because I predict that people will forget Mario Tennis Aces’ campaign, but will be playing multiplayer for years to come. It’s tough to guess how competitive communities will dig into something like this, but at first blush, it feels more akin to Splatoon 2 and Super Smash Bros. and Nintendo’s fun but somewhat forgotten Arms.

It’s a bummer that Mario Tennis Aces isn’t the role-playing sports game of our dreams, but a game should be judged on what its developers set out to create, and as a sports-fighting hybrid, Mario Tennis Aces delivers. In fact, it does one extra thing particularly well, something that both fighting and sports games tend to struggle with. All of the advanced techniques mentioned above can be easily carved off from the experience. Players have the option to play Aces without the Zone and Special shots, and they may also choose to trade traditional controls for motion controls similar to (but not quite as good) as the ones in Wii Sports’ tennis.

The options to play how you want demonstrate how Nintendo remains one of the industry’s leaders at making games for everybody — even when that game isn’t the one some of us originally wanted.

Mario Tennis Aces was played using a final “retail” Nintendo Switch download code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.