Video gaming has been looking to tennis for inspiration since day one. One of the very earliest arcade games, and certainly one of the most famous, Atari's Pong, presented gamers of 1972 with two on-screen paddles and a "ball," and asked them to have fun with it for the sum of a quarter per turn. You've probably never played Pong, given you're not ancient, but the years between then and now have seen a healthy clutch of racket sport adaptations earn critical and commercial acclaim.
I absolutely hammered Nintendo's Tennis in its Game Boy port—with just four difficulty levels, a single useable player avatar, and Mario as umpire, it was enough. I played Wimbledon, a 1992 release for SEGA's Master System, to death, creating my own tournaments for its array of not-quite-real-life professionals, drawing out competition brackets on sheets of A4 to track the winners and losers. Codemasters' Pete Sampras Tennis was one of the Mega Drive's best sports sims; Super Tennis for the SNES was a worthy alternative for gamers averse to SEGA systems; and the original Virtua Tennis, for the Dreamcast, is still held up as one of the greatest arcade sports games of all time.
Tennis games featuring playable Nintendo characters go back 20 years, beginning with 1995's Mario's Tennis for the Virtual Boy. Since 2000, the House of Mario has looked to Japanese company Camelot to produce its cartoon-styled tennis and golf titles, and it's that same studio behind Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, a streamlined take on the multi-mode experiences that those familiar with this series have come to expect.
Ultra Smash immediately lays its limitations out for players to see: 12 selectable characters at the outset, expanded to 16 once you've unlocked everyone (some fast, some powerful, some tricky, you know how this works); just one arena to play in, albeit one that's home to a variety of surfaces, from grass and clay, to ice and sand; and no tournaments to compete in. There's a knockout mode, where you play tie-breaks against the AI, for as many matches as possible before you're beaten. Rally mode exists only to generate a paltry purse of coins—which you use to unlock new court types, characters, and difficulties (more on that in a second). There are two main ways to play one match at a time—classic tennis, which still allows for powered-up "chance" shots, and Mega Battle, where characters can pick up mushrooms tossed onto the court, making them massive (in standard Mario fashion) and improving their stats.
I quickly gave up on Mega Battle—the cutaway transitions to your avatar becoming a giant break up the gameplay, and doubles matches where everyone's big become uncomfortably crowded. Classic is where I'm happiest, but with the chance shots left active. What this means is that striking a ball within a designated space, using the button indicated, produces a shot that might leave your opponent in a pickle. These can include fiery forehands, slice shots with incredible bend, and lobs that send the other player scrambling to the back of the court. If they only just manage a return, this can open an ultra smash window of opportunity—a spot on your side of the court will flash pink, and if you double-tap the Y button while standing on top of it, your character will produce a gravity defying leap and rocket the ball into next week. It's an almost-guaranteed point-winning shot on any of the game's initial three difficulty levels.
Ultra Smash, for some reason, locks its upper two difficulty levels—"pro" and "ace"—until you've either played enough matches or earned enough coins to activate them (most likely the latter—coins are accumulated quickly, so I just used those to unlock all characters, surfaces, and difficulties). Pro level is still easily beatable, although the AI is much quicker to punish any unforced errors on the player's side. Expect to lose some games, but never a match. It was only when I started to play on the ace difficulty that my dominance was shattered—I'm still to win a single game at that level, which indicates a sharper-than-expected challenge incline between pro and ace settings.
'Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash' trailer
Playing against the machine will only get you so far—to reiterate what I wrote above, there are no cups to play for, no offline rankings to rise up. The most fun you'll have with Ultra Smash is local co-op play, either in doubles against the AI or online, or against one another in couch competition. The game plays smoothly in the latter set-up, although the rear-court receiver is always at a slight disadvantage given the camera's perspective of being quite low down, almost on the server's shoulder. The camera immediately shifts upwards, though, allowing for fairer play, whatever side of the court you're on; and you can use the GamePad as a second screen, allowing one-on-one players to both work the foreground. Online play, in my experience, is patchy—I've had matches drop to an astonishingly poor frame rate, but that might be more down to my internet connection than anything else. It's early days for the game, but I've also had to wait for a fair few minutes before getting a match—which is fine when you get to play, but your opponent always has the option of dropping out of the pairing when they see who they're up against. (As do you—but why would you choose to cancel a match after waiting so long?)
Related, on VICE Sports: Roger Federer Fan Who Woke From 11-Year Coma Shocked Fed Is Still Good
Ultra Smash isn't going to be a permanent fixture in anyone's Wii U, like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon have proved to be when it comes to the just-one-more-game factor. Its shallow single-player options come as a surprise given Camelot's work on 2014's Mario Golf: World Tour for the 3DS, a game I still turn to when stuck on delayed commuter trains. That handheld sports sim featured a wealth of avatar customization, colorful tournaments to compete in, and special courses full of collectable coins and power-up blocks. Ultra Smash feels like a demo in comparison, with such a meager array of game modes and uninspired roster of playable characters. If this were a mid-price game, retailing somewhere south of premium cost, it'd be worthy of a recommendation for anyone who regularly has friends over for local co-op sessions, or simply loves tennis. But at the same RRP as the imminent mechs-and-aliens RPG of Xenoblade Chronicles X and endless creativity of Super Mario Maker, it's asking too much of consumers, for too little content.
The Wii U's suffered slightly in 2015 for not making good on previous promises to have new Star Fox and Zelda titles out, which leaves anything with the Mario name attached having to carry some significant expectations. In the run up to Christmas, this is the Wii U game with known-to-millions characters on its box art. This is the time of year where the Wii U really needed another system-seller, off the back of September's amazing Mario Maker. Ultra Smash is so far away from being that game—but it's still a fun one when the price is right, if you're OK with seeing everything it has to offer within the first few hours of play and can call on a pal or two to ensure that matches remain competitive in the long run.
(Apologies to amiibo fans, as I've not tested how that functionality works in Ultra Smash, on account of not having a stackload of said figurines on hand. But I'm sure you can find out for yourself using this internet thing.)
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is out now in the UK and US, exclusive to the Nintendo Wii U.
Follow Mike on Twitter.