There is something strangely appealing about playing certain sports on the Wii U. From tennis to bowling, there’s a reason that Wii Sports was such a smash hit. Combining this with beloved characters from the Mario universe? Well that should just be a guaranteed recipe for success. Except somehow Nintendo managed to serve it up undercooked.
Mario Tennis Ultra Smash just isn’t very good. It all starts with gameplay. Players can choose to use the Wii U GamePad, Wii Pro Controller or Wiimotes to play the game. However, before you get excited about using the Wiimote, this game actually doesn’t support any motion controls so you’ll just be playing with the controller on its side anyway. So instead of a tennis game as we’ve come to expect it from Nintendo, this tennis game basically involves running your character around the court and using the various swings to return the ball to your opponent. There are Chance Shots, Smash hits and Jump Shots to mix things up, but these essentially involve hitting the right buttons from within a specified circle on the court – your standard QTE fare, rather than feeling like you’re actually strategizing about how and where to hit the ball.
This style of gameplay is used primarily in Mega Battle and Knockout Challenge modes. Mega Battle is the default mode of the game where Mega Mushrooms spawn periodically and are thrown onto the court. When players run into them, their characters grow to give an advantage in offense and defense, although I sometimes found my oversized character got in the way of seeing the ball properly and the process of shrinking back to normal size almost always cost me a point. If you’re playing doubles, only one character can be oversized at a time. While Mega Battle can be played with up to four players, the lack of motion controls and feeling that it’s essentially about being in the right place at the right time to hit the specified button takes away from the enjoyment factor rather significantly.
Knockout Mode is something of the single player campaign, replacing tournament modes. Players challenge a consecutive number of CPU opponents who are meant to get more challenging over time, although I found the difficulty scaling to be rather uneven depending on the character selected – sometimes my most difficult matches would be the third and tenth matches instead of gradually getting trickier with each consecutive battle. But there’s more than just difficulty that makes this mode disappointing.
Despite the relatively small roster of characters available locked at 16, there aren’t any intros when the characters take to the courts. In fact, when players defeat (or are defeated by) an opponent it doesn’t even say the name of the character who won or lost, simply defaulting to “server” or “receiver”. Each character is apparently better in some way or another, with a variety of “all around” characters, vs speed or power characters. there are short moments of Boo smiling or pouting in replays, and sometimes Princess Peach will wink when she does well, but there isn’t really enough to make these brief moments feel memorable or interesting. Without introductions or even the use of their names within the knockout game, they end up feeling like generic opponents who have been stripped of their signature Nintendo charm.
Mega Ball Rally is essentially about volleying a giant ball back and forth for as many turns as possible. It can be played solo or with four players, although it ends up feeling incredibly pointless – with the goal being to hit the ball back and forth as much as possible, the best bet is for players to avoid all the specialty moves and ability and simply gently lob the ball back and forth until someone falls asleep. I’m not really too sure why this mode even exists.
Classic Tennis lets players engage in their tennis action without Mega Mushrooms. Standard mode still includes the chance and jump shots while simple is pure tennis without those extras. Players can choose the court and length of the game, but the allure of standard tennis wears rather thing after a while, especially with the continuing problem of generic characters and lackluster controls.
All these modes help the player to earn coins which can be used to unlock specialty courts, star characters and even an Amiibo training area. Keep in mind, only certain Amiibos are supported in the game – and their implementation is disappointingly basic. Most of the coin-based unlocks can be earned in-game, such as by playing a certain number of matches or winning the Knockout Mode with each character. However, for those who don’t want to worry about accomplishing each of those challenges, the coins are an easy way to unlock the new courts more quickly. I ended up using most of my coins for continues in the Knockout instead, though.
I hoped that the mundane and honestly boring experience would be livened up by playing against other humans. There’s nothing quite like the competitive spirit and joy of smashing a ball into a stranger’s animated groin. Yes, only strangers – there is no way to play with friends online, eliminating one of the main reasons people enjoy online gameplay. Online play is divided into Relaxed (which has no ranking) and Series, where every point can change a player’s ranking. Players can choose the game type and set count. Unfortunately, I did not have the best of luck finding people to play with. Without a lobby or community, it was simply a matter of inputting the fact that I wanted to play a singles match and waiting for the computer to find someone for me to play with. With the game not having been released yet, I thought that there might be a relatively low number of opponents online, but in the total time of playing I only ever managed to find two. Then both matches suffered horrendous lag, jitter and eventually disconnection. Here’s hoping that it’s a more enjoyable experience once there are more (local) people available to play against, but if my experience is anything to go by, it probably isn’t really even worth the wait time to find an opponent.
Lacking in party-style gameplay or adorable Nintendo narrative, the best thing I can say about Mario Tennis Ultra Smash is that it functions well enough and can offer about an hour of entertainment at a time. If you’re actually looking for a fun tennis game to play, though, you would be better off looking elsewhere – like the infinitely better Mario Power Tennis on Gamecube
Last Updated: November 18, 2015