Aces dares to ask the hard-hitting questions: what if we mixed Tennis with an Avengers plot?
Two and a half years ago wasn't a fun place. The memories of Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash come floating back and make me sad all over again. It makes it hard to be excited for a new entry in the series... or does it? To be honest, the lead-up to playing Mario Tennis Aces was mesmerizing to see. The showcases in the Nintendo Directs were impressive, and the game simply offered a lot more than before. Actual gameplay improvements played a leading role in my intrigue, causing me to stand up and take notice. All of this came to a head when I got to try the game yesterday. It is here that I got to play around with the Adventure Mode as well as Free Play.
Nintendo threw me into the deep end and let me play select moments of the Story Mode. The first three missions, taking place at the Bask Ruins, introduced all Aces’ basic mechanics. During the opener, you start learning the things you already know from the previous games. This includes tossing, various swing types and just overall tips and tricks. The temple will test your knowledge and reactionary abilities immediately after, ensuring that you can nail the basics. Mario Tennis Aces wants to see that you can do each semi-flawlessly before bringing the new.
By heading deep into the temple, you will get your first glimpses into the story. Aster, the guardian of King Bask, tells you about Legendary Racket and why it needs to be stopped. Lucien, as the racket is actually called, is a dangerous device that can control people. Bask grew scared all of its power and spread it across five Power Stones (Infinity Gauntlet anybody?), which he then promptly spread across the island. Wario and Waluigi came across the racket, now uncovered after years being sealed, and wanted it purely because of greed. It is your job to find all gems before Luigi does, who is fully under the spell of Lucien. Mario and friends make a run for it!
Aster helps Mario achieve greatness by teaching him a variety of moves. The one that will likely draw the most attention is the Zone Shot. Performed by heading for a Star Point or filling up your Energy Bar, this shot throws you into a first person perspective and lets you aim at a certain spot. Zone Shots use the motion sensing abilities of the various controllers, allowing you to make precise calls. The system is a grand departure from anything that before it and changes the way you approach the game.
Another game changer are the Zone Speed and Blocking elements in Mario Tennis Aces. With Zone Speed, you can use energy to slow down time and get a bigger chance to strike back. This is crucial while dealing with incoming Zone Shots or slices you simply didn't see coming. Striking back against these shots requires a strong block. The timing is incredibly important here as doing it late or early will make you lose a racket health point. When you lose all three, story based missions will result in a game over. Do it well and you will receive a big boost of energy, much bigger than your usual charge.
The Energy Bar plays a crucial part in making Mario Tennis Aces' gameplay work. Every shot brings your energy back up, while a mistake will cause you to lose a bunch. Building energy makes special moves possible as, without energy, you are basically a sitting duck. When two good players are at it, they will constantly charge up until just the right moment. The match then becomes a barrage of slowing back, special moves, and Trick Shots. In Mario's Trick Shot, he does a flip to the side or up and knocks the ball back with extra power. It took awhile for me to nail this, but landing a Trick Shot is so crucial for a last minute effort.
The joy of exploring characters is purely figuring out what works about them. For example, I found Boo a bit slow, but his Trick Shot is incredibly satisfying. He does a quick invisible slide, pops out of nowhere and sends the ball packing. When you combine that with some Zone Speed, you get a very effective set of tools at your disposal. It helps that the controls are pretty easy to learn. A more novice player will need to practice the button combos for a longer period of time, but it isn't something that can't be overcome by trying.
After you're done with a lengthy tutorial, it is time to put all of it into practise. It starts easy enough with a match against Donkey Kong, but you will soon realize why you learned all those neat tricks. The first harder mission showcased required bouncing fireballs back from Piranha Plants. By hitting a plant in the process, you would score a point. You will need thirty points to pass, which is way harder than it looks. The mission requires optimal usage of the various shot types as they are placed at different heights and angles. Luckily, the timer is long, so you will be allowed some mistakes at the very least.
The final mission of the build saw us fighting against Petey Piranha. It was a proper boss fight with a health bar, a strict time limit and a hard-hitting enemy. By shooting balls her way, she’s forced to react, causing her to lose energy in the process. By reaching the end of an energy bar, you will get the chance to do a Zone Shot and hit her belly. This needs to be done three times before you win. Every wave gets harder as she starts relying on Zone Shots and other specials that really threw me for a loop. The time limit is plenty long, though three early blocks and your round comes to an end. With a focus on special attacks, this might be more annoying than it sounds. It was a hefty challenge that I found interesting.
As my story session came to an end, I was allowed some matches in the Free Play Mode. Simple option menus allow you to play the way you like. Various match types, CPU difficulties, play time and court options were presented for us to try. And yes, there are actually different courts in this one, a concept that seems so foreign after the last Mario Tennis, I had to check that I wasn't actually dreaming. During the demo, we could play in the Jungle or Stadium courts with any of the announced characters. I usually went for my mains like Boo and Bowser Jr., but Chain Chomp was also surprisingly fun. He is frantic, surprisingly fast, and bulky enough to overcome any obstacle.
What impressed me the most here are the introductions and characters watching in the audience. The fans are decked out with gear of their favorite characters, making for some funny close-up shots. The introductions are an absolute show stealer with characters like Yoshi, Daisy and Wario making quite an entrance. It is such a far cry from the lifeless Ultra Smash. Everything in the game is beautifully animated and presents a part of something truly grander. Mario Tennis Aces is rich of color, sharp assets and attitude befitting of a Mario sports title.
As a complete package, Mario Tennis Aces might become my game of the Summer. With mechanics that combine traditional sports and fighting game mechanics, there is a lot to keep in mind. The challenging story forces the player to multitask, while the multiplayer has a little something for everyone. Throw a nice presentation on top of that, and you have a return to form for Camelot. I'm really rooting for the game to stick the landing.