Mario Tennis Aces is the latest in a long list of Mario sports games, from Mario Tennis and Mario Golf on the Nintendo 64 to baseball, soccer, basketball, and more. These games have become known for their over-the-top Mario-flavored spins on the sports they simulate, sprinkling in Mario staples like red and blue shells, Piranha Plants, Bob-ombs, and other wacky cartoon elements.
In many ways, Aces represents a high-water mark for the Mario sports brand, though a few niggling flaws hold it back from greatness.
As is typical for Mario games, there is minimal reason for concern about the game’s content. Players sensitive to themes of the occult and magic will find the usual players in the Mario universe here: cartoon ghosts like Boo and Magikoopas. Other than that, the game’s clean as can be for a family or Christian audience.
It’s a peaceful day in the world of Mario as he and his pals relax from their latest tangle with Bowser to play tennis. The featured kingdom of islands has a tennis court on every corner, of course, and confrontations with enemies are resolved with tennis. (Maybe we could learn a thing or two about these people’s method of conflict resolution!) Waluigi and Wario steal a super-powerful magic racket—with help from a bumbling Luigi—because that’s what villains do, and Mario must journey across stormy seas and snow-capped peaks to gather enough power to defeat them.
It’s paper-thin, but it’s fun. Themed areas offer a sense of progression as you move from a spooky wasteland dominated by a giant haunted mansion to a volcano with flowing lava and more. Mario wanders the overworld, overcoming tennis challenges and playing mini-games to advance as he builds up enough power to come back and win the tennis tournament, restoring light and balance to the land once and for all. Or something. With a couple of exceptions, Mario sports games haven’t really been known for their single-player modes or storylines, but this one’s worth playing through for the 5 or 6 hours it lasts.
Tennis has a dynamic ebb and flow to it, where players test each other’s strengths and weak points until they find an opening and edge closer and closer to that perfect shot where they can finally exploit it. Every serve, every swing, every misstep builds toward the exciting resolution of a volley. The latest Mario Tennis succeeds because it successfully translates the beauty of the real-life sport into the digital world.
The first way Aces does this is its new power gauge: players can’t go for broke on every shot, but rather are forced to build their energy to the point at which they can finally let loose with a slow-motion precision shot. A full energy bar can be unleashed in a devastating super shot that’s very difficult to return. This presents an interesting gameplay dynamic you have to grapple with on the fly: do you save your energy for your super, or do you spend it little by little on precision shots and slow-mo saves? Players are forced to watch their opponent’s bar as well to figure out when their defenses are down and it’s a great time to fire away.
Previous Mario Tennis games could be frustrating because skilled players or high-level AI opponents could take advantage of the slightest mis-positioning on your part, with little chance for you to return. This is still true in Aces, as it should be, but now defenders have a couple of tricks up their sleeve: spending the power gauge for a slow-motion return and the trick shot. The trick shot lets you flick the right stick to make a physics-defying leap toward the ball. The net effect on gameplay is that volleys can last a little longer, but have more big, unexpected moments.
Video games are fun when they give you these big moments, and Aces excels at playing with the basic rules of tennis just enough to give it that exciting Mario flavor Nintendo’s better sports games are known for. You still have all the strategic considerations of regular tennis, with a full arsenal of spins and situational shots, but then you get just enough randomness and new tactical considerations to make each volley that much more engaging.
The game also offers breakable rackets, but these don’t affect matches enough for them to really matter. Only when you decide to go all-in on a racket break strategy can you possibly do enough damage to your opponent’s repertoire of rackets to achieve the instant KO. This should have been a more viable option, because when you can pull it off, it really does open the game up a touch and fits nicely in with the doublethink a good match of tennis is based upon. In the current state of the game, the racket-breaking mechanic feels like an afterthought.
And that’s Aces‘ biggest flaw: too much of it feels like an afterthought. It’s got a great adventure mode, but doesn’t give players a reason to return to it. It almost offers true stat-building and character customization, but instead dangles features it in front of you as a painful reminder of what could have been. The game has some awesome ideas but lacks basics like the option to play full sets and matches or fine-tune other important settings. It’s really strange that so much of Mario Tennis Aces is a glorious refinement of the formula the franchise is based on, perfectly suited to the Switch’s lean portable design, and yet basic elements are left on the cutting room floor. Without a future update, I’m afraid this won’t have the staying power of Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64.
Worth special mention is the Swing mode, which allows players to swing their Joy-Cons instead of push boring ol’ buttons. Despite the advanced design of the Joy-Con, Swing mode seems to factor in your swing’s timing much more than your angle or speed. I struggled to pull off basic spins and couldn’t aim worth much. I’d hoped this would be the killer motion-control tennis experience, but it’s not a huge leap up from Wii Sports’ classic tennis mode over a decade ago. This mode is best reserved for casual couch play in a party setting, unfortunately.
Mario Tennis Aces is gorgeous. Brightly colored characters stand out against busy, animated courts and crowds. Characters show off their unique and wildly different movement, trick shot, and super shot animations throughout a volley. The audio is nothing special, but hits all the right notes as the familiar characters grunt, shout, cheer, and moan throughout the highs and lows of each tennis match. Online play is stable, with only minor lag cropping up from time to time. The controls are perfect, as they’ve been since the Nintendo 64 days: tight and responsive.
Aces is a great addition to the impressive catalog of Mario sports games, with a strong “just one more match” feel thanks to its truncated match length and addicting power gauge gameplay hook. While it stumbles a bit thanks to some baffling omissions in gameplay and modes, ultimately Mario Tennis Aces succeeds because it builds on the intense seesawing power struggle of a real tennis match. It’s the best tennis game I’ve played in a long time, Mario or no, and it’s well worth checking out for Switch owners.
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The Bottom Line
Mario Tennis Aces is perfectly suited for quick pick up and play matches on the Switch, whether online or against CPU opponents. It has everything you love about Mario sports games in a fun, attractive package that'll keep you playing for hours.