Does the handheld version of Sega's tennis classic match up to the original?
Ask Dreamcast owners what their favorite title for Sega’s final console was, and you’re bound to hear the same handful of games every time. Some will recall their fondness for Sonic Adventure, which was the main launch title for the system, whereas others might lean towards the more unique and abstract Jet Grind Radio. While Shenmue garnered a colossal amount of hype within the Dreamcast userbase, Soul Calibur still might be the most talked about DC game of all time. But ask Dreamcast owners what their favorite multiplayer game for the system was, and the majority of the replies should point towards one game. Wacky Racers.
Alright, so maybe Virtua Tennis would get a few more nominations than Infogrames’ cel-shaded multi-thousand seller. Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Virtua Tennis was ported to the Dreamcast from the arcade nearly three years ago, and it quickly became one of the system’s best titles. Combining an extremely simplistic, yet effective, approach in regards to the game’s mechanics with amazing visuals, the game became a big hit with DC owners. In the most recent iteration of the series, Sega has managed to encapsulate nearly everything that made the Dreamcast version so great.
In comparison to the original, Virtua Tennis has obviously taken a graphical hit, which is understandable. Despite the fact that other Game Boy Advance software has featured polygonal characters, the developers decided to construct the tennis players using sprites. While the models aren’t the most hideous creations to look at, they lack any interesting detail, sport jagged edges around their body, and animate quit poorly. The latter fault is often emphasized when a player is slowly winding up for a big hit, as the model will jump from one frame in the animation to another without any sense of fluidity whatsoever. Thankfully, not only is way the character models look and animate the lone detriment to the game’s visuals, but the appearance doesn’t hamper the gameplay in the least. The variety of tennis courts are nicely presented, the ball and its corresponding shadow are easy to view at all times, and the camera’s angle and movement is well implemented.
The music featured in Virtua Tennis is also fine. While the majority of the songs prominently feature the same drum and synthesized noise, the sound fits the game well. Those who played the original Virtua Tennis to death will recognize a few of the menu’s tunes, and similarity in a few other songs. As far as sound effects go, there isn’t much that can be added into a tennis game to begin with, but most anything that should be in the game is there. Different swings are all complemented with different sounds, so if your opponent attempts to lob the ball over your head, the accompanied thwack could be the indication you need to get back in time. There are a few voices for the umpire, and a handful of players will occasionally grunt, but apart from that, there’s not much else.
The area of control in the Dreamcast version of Virtua Tennis was where the game really excelled, and it’s no difference for the handheld rendition. Players can perform a top spin shot by pressing A, a slice with B, and a lob shot by simultaneously pressing both buttons. When playing doubles, the shoulder buttons issue commands for your partner. While the simplicity of control is part of the reason the game shines, function is another aspect. The moment the ball is hit to your player, one can hold down a shot selection, and choose the direction or placement of the upcoming shot. This system of control truly rewards smart positioning, as the longer you stay in place and wind up for a shot, the harder and faster your return shot will be. While the game of tennis may seem simple from a glance, Sega really nailed the core intricacies in terms of giving the player the most amount of control possible without hampering any other aspect of the gameplay.
The development team behind the handheld version of Virtua Tennis didn’t really change how the game plays in relation to its predecessor, which is a move few can fault.
Entering an exhibition match or tournament will eventually lead you to your standard game of singles or doubles tennis. Serving is accomplished by timing a button press for a power meter while aiming in unison. Virtua Tennis adheres to the standard tennis rules, in that games are won, which lead to sets being earned, and eventually the match. Unfortunately, the artificial intelligence (AI) in the game is not very challenging, or smart in the case of having a computer-controlled partner. Even if you have your opponent set on the highest difficulty setting, playing at the net will always result in winning, as they practically never attempt a lob shot. On the other side, either your partner will be very slow to react to your positioning orders, or they won’t move at all. Aside from those few shortcomings, the gameplay in Virtua Tennis offers everything you’d come to expect from Sega’s flagship tennis title.
While the exhibition and tournament modes of play are self explanatory, the game also offers the World Tour, which is the primary focus of the game’s single player appeal. After entering the World Tour, you’re given the option to create and customize a male and a female tennis player. Everything from home town, to play style, to which hand they hold their racket with, can be manipulated.
Once the process of creating your players is finished, a map of the world appears, littered with icons. The majority of these icons represent mini games, which can be played in order to improve multiple facets of your player’s and your own personal skill. Despite the fact that the majority of them mainly rely on accuracy and shot placement, the variety and creativity of the mini games allow them to be surprisingly fun. Whether you find yourself hitting balls towards a giant bulls eye, running to pick up assorted food on a giant treadmill, or adding ingredients to an oversized hamburger by hitting the corresponding pictures of the food on a tile floor (don’t ask), the game’s are entertaining, and quickly teach beginners the fundamentals of the game.
After each round, one is allowed to add attribute points to the control and technique of their game, which subsequently improves their volley, smash, and top spin points. Once you’ve bulked up your player’s attributes, single and doubles tournaments become available. Hundreds of items can consequently be unlocked by playing mini games or tournaments, some of which enhance your player’s game, and others that are just for show. The World Tour mode is the perfect mode for those who don’t have any friends to play Virtua Tennis with. While the game does feature a 1-4 player multiplayer option, each player is required to own a copy of the game. It’s unfortunate that the developers didn’t work in a single cart multiplayer mode, even if it just made a two-player game available, as much of the original Virtua Tennis’s praise stemmed from the fun of having four players go at it.
While Virtua Tennis does harbor a few blemishes, the entire package is definitely a worthwhile experience for those looking for a fun tennis game. The poor odds of finding three other people who own the game hurts the title’s appeal, as playing with a few other friends is what made the original Virtua Tennis so much fun. The same holds true for the Game Boy Advance edition. This also upsets the single player aspect, as the plethora of options and collectables can’t hide the barebones approach to the game Virtua Tennis takes. Playing alone eventually gets repetitive, as there aren’t nearly enough varied approaches to the actual game of tennis, at least not in comparison to something like Mario Tennis. Virtua Tennis is a great game with few flaws that eventually gets stale… until the next time you play it.