Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash (E for Everyone) came out for the Nintendo Wii U on November 20. It’s very straightforward in a lot of ways (especially if you’ve played a Mario Tennis game before). One to four players can go head to head in singles or doubles matches against each other or against computer-controlled characters. The rules are more or less the same as the rules of tennis: hit a ball back and forth, keep it inside the lines, and don’t let it bounce more than once.
Once you get going, however, you’ll discover that Mario Tennis is secretly a rhythm game. Watching the ball fly back and forth and back and forth puts me in a sort of hypnotic trance. While the game certainly allows room for strategy, it’s the kind of strategy that you can’t really plan ahead for. So the whole thing has a fast-paced yet off-the-cuff feeling that I could very easily get into for long stretches of time.
Most of the gameplay itself consists of running around after the ball and hitting various button combos to create different kinds of shots. (There does not seem to be an option for swinging the Wii Remote, only for hitting buttons.) If you are standing in a sparkly circle, your shot may become more powerful. The combos correspond to colors: hit B while in the blue circles, hit Y in the pink circles, etc. Occasionally you’ll get the chance to do an Ultra Smash, which is a super cool shot that is very difficult to block.
Unfortunately, there are only a few game modes, and they are all incredibly similar. You can play Mega Battle in single-player or multiplayer mode, and in singles or doubles. In Mega Battle, players will occasionally get the chance to intercept Mega Mushrooms, which are thrown onto the court at random intervals. Mega Mushrooms activate a short animation and turn you into a giant, with improved strength and speed.
You can also play in Classic Tennis mode, which is basically the same as Mega Battle but without the Mega Mushrooms. If you play Classic Tennis in Simple mode, you’ll also lose Jump and Chance shots.
There’s also Knockout Challenge, which has you playing single-player against an infinite series of computer-controlled opponents. Your mission is to get as many consecutive wins as possible. If you lose, you can spend a certain amount of coins to continue without breaking your streak. If you run out of coins, though, that streak is done.
Lastly, there’s Mega Ball Rally, in which you hit a beachball back and forth as many times as possible without messing up. This mode was annoying because it continued to encourage you to hit crazy jump shots, but as soon as you “beat” your opponent the rally was over and you’d have to go through a multi-step menu. The whole design was super clunky.
Speaking of clunky, when I was playing in two-player, it took me a long time to figure out how to be on the same doubles team as my friend. That’s because the option is buried. After you have selected your characters and the com characters, you can select the court, then the number of Sets and Games, and then you’ll have a chance to select who will play in which position. If you hit Quick Start, you’ll skip this menu entirely. BAD DESIGN.
Of course, you can also play Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash online either with friends or strangers. It’s great that Nintendo included this option, but it didn’t feel like anything really special. As you play in any mode, you can unlock rewards. Some of these are useful (like extra courts or players), others seem kind of pointless.
I can very easily say that Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is an excellent $30 game. …Unfortunately, it costs $50 before tax. When you compare Ultra Smash to games like Super Smash Bros. for Wii U or Super Mario 3D World, the small amount of content is almost laughable.
But overall, despite my lack of excitement for this release, I found it to be a satisfying, if small, entry into the Wii U canon of titles. It is not very diverse, but it is great at what it does. There are hours to lose in Mario Tennis, but I solidly advise waiting until it goes on sale.