After the mixed to low-scoring reviews of Mario Tennis Ultra Smash on the Wii U in 2015, Mario Tennis Aces for Nintendo Switch has a lot to live up to. The main criticism of Ultra Smash was that it was barebones and lacked content, despite the core gameplay feeling solid. Does Aces redeem itself for the Mario Tennis series? Well, sort of…
Unlike many games that start off at a main menu with options to choose from, Aces immediately starts you off in Adventure Mode, the single-player campaign. But don’t worry, you can quit out at any time to play the other modes. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away, but my goodness is this story bonkers. A sentient tennis racket named Lucien (I know..) is imbued with dark energy that has possessed Mario’s friends. Naturally, he and Toad must go around from world to world to save everyone and gather the five power stones before Lucien does. The setup of the overworld is a lot like that of New Super Mario Bros., wherein you must follow a path to select levels.
Even just having an overworld makes the single player feel more fleshed out, which is important in a game like this. There are seven stages, featuring themes you’d expect: a haunted mansion, a volcano, a grassy area. I would have liked to see Camelot take a risk and include fewer expected areas, kind of like what Super Mario Odyssey did with the New Donk City stage. The Mario games are usually well designed, but safe, and Aces falls into that category, sadly.
What is interesting about Adventure Mode is that it features light RPG elements, where you can level up your stats, like speed, power, and range. You can also level up your rackets. This was a surprising feature, considering it’s a Mario Tennis game. Even failing a stage will result in XP, so you’re always constantly leveling up. It’s also neat that there are different rackets to choose from like wood, ice, or mirror racket. While each of the rackets do look different, they don’t feel distinct outside of that. It would be neat if they had noticeable differences or abilities.
Adventure Mode shines in its level diversity. If you think you’re jumping into a story mode with every level being a 1v1 tennis match, you’re mistaken. Sure, you’ll see that, but there are just as many stages that feature challenges, like having to knock down a certain number of Shy Guys from a train, or bouncing the ball back and forth without letting Spike touch it. There are even boss battles that are so creative, I was surprised. Some of them require you to dodge obstacles and use the free aiming to hit the weak spot. It’s best to experience them for yourself, but let’s just say this mode is way more than just regular tennis matches. It’s an amalgamation of the creativity behind Mario Party, Mario Kart, and tennis, resulting in a diverse, unexpected story mode, even if the plot itself is bananas.
All of that being said, there are abrupt difficulty spikes within Adventure Mode that I feel are unwarranted. Some of the levels took me 30 minutes to beat because my stats weren’t high enough, or because I kept running out of time. Almost every challenge level is timed and they don’t necessarily do a good job of explaining how to beat them. Sure, discovering it for yourself is important, but when it starts to get frustrating, that’s obviously no good. The boss battles were especially difficult, despite having creative design. Admittedly, I got better the more I played, but I can see a situation where players quit before finishing. It’s odd because there is a robust tutorial, but that doesn’t exactly tie into how to beat some of the tricky challenges.
Surprisingly, there is deep complexity in the mechanics of Aces. It’s not just hitting the ball back and forth with one button, like you may expect. There are different types of swings that are applicable in certain scenarios. Once I had the “Ah ha!” moment, I realized when to use certain swings and had a much better experience. Beyond that, there is a way to slow time, which adds an element of strategy to each match. There’s even a way to free-aim, using a reticle to zoom in and pick where to “shoot” the ball. That combined with the over-the-top finishers make for a ton of options while playing. It still feels like an arcade tennis game, but the complexity makes it more compelling and increases the competitive nature of each match.
Once you’ve learned the mechanics and unlocked all the stages from Adventure Mode, you should be ready to play what Aces is intended for, multiplayer. Since it’s a Nintendo game, local multiplayer is in the forefront, allowing you to pair up with up to four players to participate in either competitive or cooperative matches. This is where the bulk of the fun will happen, because online still seems to be iffy.
Playing online multiplayer works similar to offline, but unfortunately, the online infrastructure needs some work. I was having trouble finding other players to participate with, and when I finally did, the games were so laggy at times, they were unplayable. Not that there is any context in which lag is acceptable, but in a fast-paced game like tennis, timing is everything and lag ruins the experience. This wasn’t always the case, but it happened more than half the time, which is unacceptable. I’m not sure why Nintendo struggles with the modernization of online-play so much, but it needs to be addressed soon. Perhaps once the new Nintendo Online service launches in September it will be fixed.
There’s also Swing Mode, that allows for players to use the Joy-Con to swing their rackets like in Wii Sports. This definitely feels like a mode for casual players who are familiar with the Wii. It’s fun, but swinging feels unresponsive, resulting in some frustration. I wouldn’t recommend playing Aces this way; just stick to the buttons.
In terms of content, Mario Tennis Aces is an improvement over the last entry, but still feels lacking, especially at the $60 price-point. If you have roommates or friends constantly over, you may get your money’s worth, but otherwise, the Adventure mode doesn’t have enough content to justify the price. Perhaps if the online functionality worked more consistently, it would be different. At least developer, Camelot will support Aces with tournament events and more characters, featuring Koopa Troopa, Blooper, and Diddy Kong, with more on the way. Will that be enough to create a more complete package? We shall see.
Mario Tennis Aces is a fun, mechanically-sound tennis game, with an innovative single-player adventure mode. It takes the tennis formula and gives it that quirky Mario spin that so many people love. Unfortunately, the lack of compelling content and the online issues make this hard to recommend to everyone. If you have some friends to play with locally, then sure, but otherwise, I’d wait for a price drop, which won’t happen anytime soon.