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Mario Tennis Aces impressions: unrelenting pressure in multiplayer

Winning online requires familiarity with a deep toolset

Mario Tennis Aces - Mario powers up a shot
Mario powering up a Zone Shot in Mario Tennis Aces.
Camelot Software Planning/Nintendo
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Mario Tennis Aces is a game of pressure. Relentless pressure, if you’re going to play against live competition. I figured this out about six matches into the demo tournament Nintendo staged this weekend — and I got throttled in all of them. I had a brutal introduction to the game’s multiplayer, sometimes perturbed by lag, and frequently determined by who built up their energy meter the fastest to unleash near-unstoppable attacks.

The game, launching June 22 on Nintendo Switch, does give players some defensive tools, such as a “trick shot” that is more about getting a player to the ball in a hurry, and the ability to slow time. But against a human player, once placed on the defensive, it is hard as hell to retake control — and in Mario Tennis Aces, even a modestly skilled receiver can take it away from the server on the first return.

This is, I suppose, a tribute to Mario Tennis Aces’ gameplay, because that’s how tennis is supposed to work in real life, right? Still, the slice (B on the controls) seemed a little too overpowered in its ability to move the opponent from sideline to sideline. I saw its blue trail a lot coming from my opponents, and to be fair, it was my go-to shot as well. A drop shot (down + X) is the silent killer of the arsenal, and it dies almost immediately. An opponent content to hang out on the baseline and direct traffic there can be frustrated with a carefully placed drop. It just depends a lot on surprise.

Mario Tennis Aces - Mario preparing to serve Camelot Software Planning/Nintendo

That left little differentiation — to me, anyway — between a topspin shot (A) and a flat shot (Y). The former does have some spin to it, but given the range that players can cover on the court — and it’s nearly all of it with a well-timed Trick Shot — there really isn’t much separating the two as a tactical choice. They’re basically default returns, which is probably why I saw so much of the slice.

But again, they’re still useful in a charged-up state (holding the button before the ball arrives) because of how much they will fill up that energy meter, which triggers the Special Shot. It was hard for me to tell, but a traditional charged shot seemed to fill that meter more than a double-tap of a button, which is a way to put some mustard on the ball if you don’t have time to charge a shot. Charging a shot is going to stop the player in their tracks; it can’t be done while running. So that places a premium on being in position, charging up as the ball comes to you.

Getting in position is lot harder than it sounds. The players were so mobile (Yoshi especially) that I often simply ran myself out of a play. Some of this may have been due to server lag. But other times, I outsmarted myself either trying to anticipate my opponent’s return or even just returning to the center of the screen, only to have the ball come back to where I was standing. Counterintuitively, staying put and reacting to where the shot is coming seems to be a better tactic.

That’s partly because of the enormous range of the trick shot. Flicking right or left on the right thumbstick (less frequently, up or down) will zip Mario, Peach or whomever to a ball they wouldn’t ordinarily get, and return it. Executed properly, this also adds to the energy meter. I was less apt to use the “zone speed” bullet-time ability (which costs energy) except to get into position to block Special Shots. That can be done, but poorly timed it can break your racket, and you only get two per match. I was knocked out of one of my tournament games, no doubt satisfying to my opponent.

Then there’s the new Zone Shot, which is basically a powered-up version of the jump-smash seen in 2015’s lackluster Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It’s available more frequently than a Special Shot, and costs energy. When a star appears on the court, race over to it as you square up your return, and the Zone Shot is yours to take. I’m not sure if I was dealing with input lag when this happened, but that star seemed to have a very tight box to activate the Zone Shot, as I whiffed on my fair share (or got hit by the ball). One protip is to hold down R (or ZR) as you move to the star; it not only slows down time (at the cost of energy, though), it’ll automatically trigger the Zone Shot once you get there.

Mario Tennis Aces - Luigi serving in a tiebreaker Camelot Software Planning/Nintendo

In a Zone Shot, the player goes into a first-person targeting mode to place the killshot. (The same is true for the Special Shot.) Because of my experience placing shots with the Pro Controller, I don’t recommend it, and if you do use one, do not use the right thumbstick. In fact, splitting the Joy-Cons and playing with one in each hand seemed to give me better tilt control over placing Zone Shots (although it made it harder to key the Trick Shot). A timer of inconsistent length, which seems to be tied to how long you were in place before the ball arrived, counts down as you try to target the shot. Zone Shots are no sure thing and had me swearing plenty of times. But they’re there to retake control of a point; I just need more practice.

Aesthetically, Mario Tennis Aces pours on the charm, even with just one court and 10 characters (five unlocked) during the demo. Rosalina, unlocked after 1,000 points in the tournament, seemed to be a favored character for top-notch players. Chain Chomp, of all characters, was available at 1,500. I don’t know why, but the officials’ blazer on Chair Umpire Toad made me giggle. So did the Toad linesmen. The special shots all have over-the-top animations tailored to their characters, which were fun to look at even as I knew I was going to get my ass handed to me or, worse, my racket broken.

When it launches, Mario Tennis Aces will have a lot more single-player content, including an “adventure mode” and a player-versus-CPU tournament. That may keep me more engaged than the maelstrom of online multiplayer, which saw impressive participation this weekend and, by some of the tournament scores I saw, had plenty of people who did nothing but play it since Friday evening. For them, and other Mario Tennis veterans who remember the ho-hum Ultra Smash, it should be a worthy return for the series.

Mario Tennis Aces launches June 22 on Nintendo Switch. As of publication time, the multiplayer demo tournament will be available for another nine hours, until 3 a.m. ET on June 4.