With Mario Tennis Aces, developer Camelot is making a bet. In the age of unlockable skins, skill trees, and 50+ hour long AAA games, all Aces has to offer is a racket that feels really good to swing. Like a great fighting game or like couch competitive titles like Nidhogg and Gang Beasts, Aces is all about the providing moment-to-moment gameplay that is its own reward. And in 2018, that’s a serious risk.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of the “games-as-service” model in multiplayer titles, and games like Breath of the Wild and Assassin's Creed Origins push the length of AAA single player games. With so many games available, players often need to decide what’s more important to them: the way a game feels in any given second, or the way it packages all those moments into something special.
Which is why, even after loving the way Anthem felt at E3 last week, I still have questions about its longevity and structure, which will blend single player narrative with repeatable multiplayer content. This tension is also what Bungie seeks to address with Destiny 2: Forsaken, which aims to incentivize returning daily play in a way that the original release failed to. In the realm of sports games, developers seek to appease all sorts of players: A story mode for those who want a taste of the life of a star athlete; a franchise mode for would be GMs; and “Ultimate Team” for those who need something new every day. Capitalizing on that last sort of player is also a big part of what helped Fortnite find success: However good it felt to win a chicken dinner in PUBG, Fortnite kept players coming back with daily challenges, unlockable skins, and special events.
This is the territory onto which Mario Tennis Aces steps. And while part of me still wishes it had more unlockables, a longer story, or a more in-depth progression system, by focusing on game feel and deeply rewarding competitive mechanics, Camelot has made a tennis game that sings. Aces is the rare game that proves that sometimes it is better to focus on the tree than the forest.
On first glance, Mario Tennis Aces isn’t too dissimilar from past Mario Tennis titles. Choose from one of 16 characters, and then smack the ball back and forth trying to get it past your opponent’s defense in either solo or duo play. Like many tennis games, matches are filled with feints, power moves, and desperate, last second saves. What separates Aces is the way developer Camelot has adopted a number of systems from the world of fighting games.
In Aces, certain shots can be countered by certain other shots. When your opponent flings a charged up topspin shot at you (marked as such by the bright red energy tail behind the ball), you have a split second to remember that you need to respond with a charged up slice. If you fail to execute in time—or fire back with the wrong shot—you may still return the ball, but you’ll wind up knocked back and out of position for the next volley.
Aces also imports super meters from fighting games. As you exchange charged shots and fire off counters from special Star Spots on the court, an energy gauge slowly increases. You can cash in that meter in a few different ways. From anywhere on the court, you can spend a full meter for a devastating “Special Shot” that pops you into an elevated, first person view and lets you carefully aim a shot even if you were nowhere near the ball. Alternatively, if you can plant your feet in one of the Star Spots, you can spend a smaller chunk of energy to fire off a “Zone Shot,” which again lets you target your return from that first-person perspective.
These shots are also part of why the game recalls fighting games: They aren’t just extra fast shots that are hard to return, they actually do damage. Across most modes of Mario Tennis Aces, you’re outfitted with a number of rackets as you head into a match, and if you try to return Special Shots and Zone Shots a little too early or a little too late, your racket will take damage. Break all of your rackets, and you’re KO’d. You can try to avoid that by spending energy to slow down time and line up the perfect counter.
From the oppositional shot types to the energy meter to the focus on precise timing, Mario Tennis Aces’ offers an exceptional, arcade-y take on the sport. It requires you to both think strategically and execute exactly. It’s not enough to hit every shot back perfectly, you also have to choose when and how to deploy your energy, whether or not to mix up your shot types, and how to navigate special court hazards—like Piranha Plants that can eat-and-redirect a ball mid-flight.
Unfortunately, if you play the game alone, it’s possible that you’d miss most of this.
The centerpiece of Mario Tennis Aces’ single player offering is the five-hour long Adventure Mode, which offers a collection of 27 missions that range from traditional matches to novel challenges, like successfully keeping a rally up for dozens of exchanges or defeating a giant, possessed mirror in a haunted mansion. It’s endearing in places, but it’s also much more limited in scope than I’d hoped. Despite the inclusion of stats like Speed and Power, character progression in Aces is totally fixed and linear (unlike Camelot’s fantastic Game Boy Advance Mario sports RPGs).
However unique the courts or charming your opponents, though, Adventure Mode never does the one thing it needs to: Teach you how to play Aces well. While it offers a couple of particularly challenging tasks, you can plow through the vast majority of levels with the same rote maneuvers you learned at the very start. It never demands that you really learn the difference between a topspin and a slice.
In fact, nothing in the single player experience really provides any of the tutelage necessary to really enjoy what Aces offers in its multiplayer modes, nor any reward for achieving deeper mastery of its systems. Aces’ single player tournaments are slight and breezy, even on the hardest difficulty. And while Free Play lets you quickly try out various characters, there’s no sort of dedicated training mode.
The truth of it is that, after completing all of Mario Tennis Aces single player content over the last week, I was ready to write the game off as a disappointment. The bet that Camelot and Nintendo had made—focusing on the core, moment-to-moment experience instead of on long term reward mechanisms or an extended campaign—hadn’t paid off. Batting the ball back and forth felt great, but why bother? The bet, I thought, had failed.
And then, finally, Nintendo turned on the multiplayer servers. My first match in the game’s ranked Tournament Mode was a little laggy. My second was a blowout victory. But my third brought me up against someone who made me put in effort in a way that nothing in the single player had. In match after match, I found myself forced to be a better player.
This is encouraged by the Tournament Mode’s structure, which pits you in a mock bracket against players who have won the same number of consecutive matches you have (up to 4), and each of my matches against another player who has won at least three-in-a-row wound up as either nail-biting victory or hard-fought loss. Where the hardest single player tournament offered me a boring 15 minutes against easily exploitable AI opponents, a particularly trying multiplayer match stretched my skills across a 20 minute duel I won’t forget anytime soon. (It was Bowser vs Donkey Kong, two powerhouse players, for those curious.)
All of this works so well because Camelot brought over something more fundamental to fighting games than special moves or super meters: mind games. In every match, I’m probing my opponent’s style for weakness. Figuring out if they rely too heavily on the powerful flat shot, drawing them closer with drop shots, forcing them to burn meter defensively because I know that I won’t be able to defend against their power attacks. And I feel myself being analyzed, too: I go to the back left too often. I get tricked into charging the net. I forget how deadly the backspin is.
I still have some doubts about the current state of the multiplayer game: I’d like more options during match setup (at least in the more casual Free Play mode), and I’m pretty sure that Power and Defensive characters are a little overpowered right now. And if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m the sort of player who would be happier to have the version of Aces with a more in-depth single player mode, like Golf Story or Camelot’s own Mario Tennis: Power Tour).
But none of that erases the great work done here. Aces is a game that has me thinking about character matchups and court composition. It helps me understand intimately (and not just academically) why so many people spend so much time with fighting games. It illustrates the unique, psychological mode of play comes from facing an opponent one-on-one. It makes me study the tideline currents of a 50 shot rally, and turns me into an admirer of those who beat me.
All of which is to say: Congrats Camelot. The bet paid off.