Mario Tennis Is the Best Kind of Tennis
It’s Wimbledon, so here’s a little love letter to the best virtual version of the famous racquet sport.
All ‘Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash’ screenshots courtesy of Nintendo.
I thought Super Tennis was the one. I was 12 or 13, into the sport IRL, enough to go to a club on the weekends, and this Super Nintendo launch title (in the UK, at least) had me smitten. I didn't have a copy of it, or a SNES, to call my own—but going over another tennis-playing friend's house got me hooked. I had to have my own version.
The (entirely different) game of the same name for the Master System was garbage—but Sega's 8-bit, which I did have, received a pretty decent imitation of the SNES classic. Wimbledon was its name, released in August 1992 (after the actual tournament, then), and it was a good enough simulation of tennis to earn itself a sequel the next year—at a time when Sega's own attentions had long since moved on from the Master System.
Officially licensed, bearing all the branding of the All England Club's famous competition, I thought the SIMS-made Wimbledon was great. Unlike Super Tennis MS, the ball didn't move like gravity was broken, and player sprites, while small, were detailed, and the little lads got angry when they lost. I used to draw up my own knockout brackets, to bring additional cups to the four (I think it was only four, the grand slams) that the game offered. Nerd. After I sold that first Sega system, I briefly got obsessed with Tennis on the Game Boy, a real blast from the past—but after that, I didn't touch the sport on consoles.
Until I realized the brilliance of the Mario Tennis series, developed by Camelot. Mario Tennis for the N64 was the Tokyo studio's second-ever game for Nintendo, following Mario Golf—and the rest, for both series, is history. They're simply among the most instantly accessible, long-term fun sports (but not-exactly sim) games out there. You can play their latest iterations straight, with no power-ups or special "chance shots;" or layer on the delightful silliness, with bizarre courts ranging from ice to sand to a sort of mushroom-patterned trampoline thing, and modes where the ball shrinks over the course of a rally.
Right now, I've two Mario Tennis go-tos. There's 2015's criminally features-sparse Ultra Smash on the Wii U, which plays brilliantly but gives the player so little to dig their teeth into (there's not even an offline tournament mode; you can only play exhibition matches against the AI). I've not had a lot of luck, lately, in getting an online match, either—it seems that the game's player base has moved on for the most part. But all the same, as a competitive couch affair, it's a cracker—shallow as a solo experience, but superb with a pal.
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And then there's the tennis mode housed in this year's great multi-event package for the 3DS, Mario Sports Superstars. This is basically a streamlined take on Camelot's full 3DS release, 2012's Mario Tennis Open, loaded with all the same trick shots as Ultra Smash and some basic tournament modes. And I prefer to play with these almighty lobs, fiery forehands, unreal slices and (the name's a giveaway) "ultra" overarm smashes active—because otherwise, it's just tennis. And just is rarely enough in video games.
Pushing both of these games to their highest difficulty levels—honestly, the lower ones are pointless—produces a frenetic and super-fun version of the sport currently playing out its annual dance around the grass courts of SW19. You have to put in a little time to unlock that level of challenge, mind, but in my experience it's a joy to do so.
Every character on the roster moves with individual style, with body sizes and shapes determining, much like old-school Mario Kart, what kind of player they are. Some are sprightly and speedy, others slower around the baseline but hit with a lot more power than most. I'm partial to picking Daisy—I like an all-rounder, and I love her celebration on winning a point in Ultra Smash. I prance her around the court, really rubbing in the victory as she finally squeaks, "I'm the best!"
It makes sense that Nintendo would bring its Mushroom Kingdom characters into its sports titles—after all, it's a lot more exciting for a kid to be thwacking balls as Bowser than it is, um, nope, I can barely think of one current tennis pro. Is Nadal still putting himself around? The Williams sisters, I know them, they're good. Oh, Murray, of course! I'm supposed to be supporting him, I think, as a Brit. Go, Andy! And all of that weird patriotism stuff, with lashings of strawberries and cream, because we're only allowed to combine those ingredients for two weeks per year. It's the will of the people.
I've not deliberately watched a second of 2017's Wimbledon. But I played three full tournaments on the Superstars tennis mode just this morning. Which just goes to show you, really: tennis is a lot more fun when it's faked, and better still when it's all ghosts and apes and princesses and plumbers, rather than steely-eyed professionals with sponsorship deals and glamorous partners in the crowd. Mario Tennis is the real super tennis, so put down the barley water and go serve yourself up some.