Platforms: Switch (reviewed)

The first time I played the original Mario Tennis on Nintendo 64 was a bit of a revelation for me. There I was, a 10 year-old kid that couldn’t possibly care less about the sport of tennis, playing Mario Tennis for hours on-end, milking every last minute of that Blockbuster rental before needing to return the cartridge. I’d never cared for any sport, really, up until that point, but Nintendo proved to me that Mario can make anything fun. The game also introduced Waluigi, the undisputed, greatest Nintendo character of all-time.

And once again that’s proven to be true with Mario Tennis Aces, the latest in a growing line of spin-off sports games featuring the Nintendo mascot along with his family, friends, and enemies. There isn’t much to it, but what is there is so good it’s hard not to get lost in the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Serving up an ace

At its core, Mario Tennis Aces is pretty similar to every other Mario Tennis game released since that N64 original, and that’s a very good thing. The basics are all here, with each volley starting with a serve, and each player returning the ball back and forth until someone misses or gets hit. You can play using nothing but the control stick and A button, or you can get fancy by mixing in different shots with each face button. Both options are a ton of fun.

Mario Tennis Aces has a few new mechanics as well. Every time you hit the ball (especially with a charged up shot) you’ll build energy into your power meter. You can expend this energy to do things like slow down time and run/leap across the court with the right stick to hit the ball at the last second, leap into the air and do a powerful zone shot, or even do your signature move that’s incredibly difficult to block and return.

This added nuance helps make each individual character stand out, and really feel unique with their own strengths and weaknesses. This character based opposition makes Mario Tennis Aces feel a bit like a fighting game. That feeling is amplified by the fact that you’ve only got a certain number of rackets (each of which have their own health bar) and when they’re all broken, you must forfeit the match. That means, for some players, the strategy is less about winning the match outright and more about forcing an opponent to quit by sheer force.

When playing locally or online, you can opt-in the Simple control method which removes all of the loud, fancy special moves and power shots that shake up the formula. Honestly, I think I prefer to play the stripped down version since it feels more sincere and pure, but the full Standard mode of play is great as well.

Lacking adventure

Long ago, on the Game Boy Color, there was a follow-up to the N64 Mario Tennis that released the same year with the same exact name, but it was a profoundly different game. In the marketing pre-launch for Mario Tennis Aces, Nintendo spent a lot of effort building up the “Adventure” mode which introduces a board-game like overworld, similar to classic Super Mario games, complete with a leveling mechanic, and plot-based dialog scenes. Unfortunately, the depth they were hinting at was a bit of an illusion.

Instead, the Adventure mode in Mario Tennis Aces is a collection of arbitrary and completely off-the-wall challenges that have very little to do with the core mechanics of the game. It’s all very bizarre when you spend the first 20 minutes learning how to play a proper game of tennis in the Mario world, only to then be thrust into a boss fight against characters that easily sidestep the rules and break the game.

Several of the boss encounters abuse powerful moves to force you to master difficult timing-based blocks and returns with rapid frequency, and failing in the middle of a match means repeating the entire thing from the start. After each stage you’ll gain experience points that level up Mario’s speed and power, but the upgrades are so miniscule the effects are completely negligible. I never once noticed a tangible difference at all from one “level” to the next.

This is frustrating. The story is so loose and completely nonsensical I can’t be bothered to remember any of the main plot points other than needing to collect power stones to stop an evil tennis racket from possessing people. Eventually I was able to accept the Adventure mode for what it was though, which is just complete lunacy for the sake of doing silly things on a tennis court, and didn’t mind as much. But I still wished it was something more meaty and satisfying; something like a Mario Tennis version of Golf Story.

Multiplayer shines through

Thankfully, the multiplayer mechanics are much better. The local play is fantastic, and brought memories of huddling around an N64 or GameCube rushing back to me. It plays well, even with a simple Joy-Con turned sideways in your hands. There’s even a motion-based gimmicky mode that reminded me a bit of Wii Sports Tennis, but I didn’t spend much time with that at all.

The real focus of the multiplayer is obviously the online functionality. Since the Switch is a WiFi only console, you need to have a good signal that’s strong and stable, because even a fraction of a second of lag can significantly impact your ability to do well in a tennis match. On that note, the network didn’t seem to be as stable as other Switch games. Fortnite and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe run great from anywhere in my entire home, but Mario Tennis Aces seemed to get choppy if I was anywhere other than the same room as my router.

Perhaps those issues can be ironed out with patches, and I haven’t heard similar reports from others, so your mileage may vary. When the connection was running strong on both ends (which was most of the time) it worked great. Playing online is really the ultimate Mario Tennis Aces competitive experience, and I can’t wait to see how this online community shapes up over time.

And yes, you can play Simple matches online without any power moves. It’s glorious.

For more on Mario Tennis Aces, check out our guide on how to unlock characters and new courts right here.