|System: Wii U|
|Release: November 20, 2015|
|Players: 1-4 Players|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080i||Content is generally suitable for all ages.|
by Becky Cunningham
I wasn't the worst tennis player in my high school P.E. Class, but that's only because one of my friends lobbed the ball out of bounds and over the back fence every single time (you know who you are, Jennifer). It's been over twenty years since then - my first and last exposure to actual tennis, but I wasn't half bad at Wii Sports Tennis, so surely Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash would provide a warm welcome to a novice like me. Accessibility is what Nintendo is all about, after all.
At least, that's what I thought until I booted up my disc and was greeted by a menu grid that offered no tutorial mode. I jumped into a person versus CPU match, figuring I'd at least get an explanation of the controls before I started. Nope, instead I was staring straight into the face of a smug racket-holding Boo with no idea of how to proceed beyond, “press button to hit ball.” He kicked my butt back to the main menu faster than... well, it was actually kind of a slow match, but eventually I lost and then did what I had to do in order to learn how to play.
That's right, I actually had to RTFM. I can't remember the last time I actually had to crack a book (or in this case, hit the home button and go to the documentation screen) to read basic instructions for a game, but there you go. The manual taught me which buttons corresponded to which kinds of shots and how to do the all-important new jump shot, but this introduction to Ultra Smash left me bemused and a little bit bored. That feeling continued as I explored what little there is to discover in this stripped-down tennis simulator.
The main modes in Ultra Smash include Mega Battle (which is obviously supposed to be the main event), normal tennis without mega mushrooms, a knock-out mode for amiibo, and a volley mode that's meant to help you practice your shots. You can play any of these modes single-player, via local co-op, or online, but that's all there is. There are no real crazy modes, and there's no tournament or career mode.
Basic gameplay works about how you'd expect, as you volley with your opponent and attempt to throw them off-guard with unexpected shots that they can't return. Colored circles appear on the court regularly, allowing you to perform power shots if you position yourself in them and hit the right button – or just press X for a lower-power version of the specified shot. In Mega Battle, you get those circles, plus Mega Mushrooms that make you gigantic, giving you power and excellent court coverage in exchange for being a big ol' body shot target.
There's a huge problem with Mega Mushrooms, however. Whenever any player picks one up, the game zooms in for a mega transformation sequence. I searched everywhere, but could find no option to turn off this transformation, which takes all players' eyes off the ball and greatly increases the chance of a miss for whoever is on the receiving end of the current shot. This makes Mega Mushrooms a good tool for trolls, but a fairly uninteresting power-up otherwise. I mean, if you're going to have a crazy Mario sports mode with power-ups, where are the fire and frost power-ups that leave hazards on the opponent's court? The Spiny ball that slows the opponent for a bit if you hit them with a body shot? The Tanooki tail that gives extra power to your jump shots?
That's exactly what's wrong with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. It's a perfectly competent tennis game – the controls are precise and responsive, and the different shot types can be great fun once you learn to use them – but it's not much of a Mario tennis game. The usual cast of characters is here, but they seem oddly subdued. They're even lacking their signature catch-phrases. No, “Hi, I'm Daisy!” No, “It's-a-me, Mario!” Waluigi doesn't even have a racket-breaking temper tantrum when he loses, and that's the entire point of Waluigi.