Mario Tennis Ultra Smash – Review
OverviewPlatform: Wii U
After 2012’s awful Mario Tennis Open on 3DS, does this Wii U follow-up signify a double fault for Camelot and Nintendo?
I was fully prepared to take one for the team by reviewing Mario Tennis Ultra Smash. Since I’ve somehow become a Mario Tennis aficionado in recent years – having covered every entry in the series here at Citizen Game – I thought I might as well go for the grand slam and review the next game, which happened to be bound for the Wii U.
Things weren’t looking promising for this one. The series’ previous title, 2012’s Mario Tennis Open on the 3DS, dumbed-down the excellent arcade-style gameplay thanks to the hand-holding Chance Shots system. Trailers for Ultra Smash clearly showed that said system would be returning, along with a seemingly gimmicky use of size-increasing Mega Mushrooms that would probably ruin the core experience even further. Other warning signs for Ultra Smash included its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unveiling in a Nintendo Direct segment earlier in the year, a meagre amount of marketing, and a raft of negative day-one reviews slamming it for a severe lack of content.
Going in, this looked like the second tennis-based embarrassment for the usually excellent Camelot. I fully expected to be trading in the game after finishing up the review, as I had with Mario Tennis Open. It’s a surprise, then, that I’m not only enjoying Ultra Smash but I’m also thinking of holding onto it, at least for the near future.
Before I elaborate further on that, let’s address the main bugbear of every other review; the game’s apparent content deficiency. Typically, a Mario Tennis title comes with a decent number of things to do besides the standard one-off matches. Single and doubles tournaments are normally available to beat with each playable character, representing the meat of the single-player experience. Multiple tennis-based mini-games are also included, which are usually playable with friends, including the long-running ring mode that has also graced the Mario Golf series. The absolute best single player content, the JRPG-style campaigns set in a tennis academy, were sadly only present in the early Game Boy entries in the series, but regardless, the home versions have typically provided the player with a lot of things to do.
None of this is present in Ultra Smash. The simple but often challenging array of tournaments are replaced with Knockout Challenge, a never-ending series of tiebreaker rounds against different characters. Taken on its own merits this mode is okay, but it’s not a patch on what it replaces. While completing all those tourneys from prior games with every character could certainly be a slog for completionists (the more difficult ones could often take hours to beat due to the increasingly difficult AI), there was something to be said for earning cups and witnessing each character’s victory cutscene. They gave you a sense of progression, and were usually partly required to unlock all of the secret characters and courts.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about how Ultra Smash handles progress, since this ties in with its only minigame. You now earn coins from just about anything you do, including playing online matches. These are used for continuing when you fail in Knockout Challenge and can be spent to buy the in-game achievements instead of meeting the usual prerequisites for them.
I’m in two minds on this system. On the one hand, if you’re not very good at the game you will eventually earn enough coins to unlock everything. On the other, most of the afformentioned achievements are pretty tame by Nintendo standards, consisting primarily of ‘complete X amount of Y’-type challenges. Players who are of an average skill level or above will find themselves quickly swimming in coins, allowing them to unlock the meaningful extras like additional courts and characters within a handful of hours. With so little content in the game, you’d have thought Nintendo would have wanted to artificially drag out the progression, not speed it up.
That one mini-game I alluded to, Mega Ball Rally, is really simple and probably only exists as a way to grind out coins even faster than normal. It’s a singles match against an AI-controlled opponent where the goal is to rack up currency by keeping a rally going as long as possible. That’s it. There’s no ring collecting, painting, ghost-busting, fighting against a giant squid or item battle modes from prior games. Even the one great thing from Mario Tennis Open, the mode where you played through stages from the original Super Mario Bros. with a racket and ball, isn’t brought over.
This particular area of omitted content also relates with another problem I picked up on. As I was unceremoniously dumped to the Ultra Smash’s title screen with no cut-scene or introduction of any kind upon first firing it up, I couldn’t help think about how newcomers to the game must feel. There’s no explanation of the controls or even the rules of tennis. The menus do a decent job at captioning what the differences are between each mode and you’ll get random tips on the loading screens, but that’s it. This stuff is buried in the game’s secluded digital manual but I’m pretty sure most Wii U owners still don’t even know their games even come with these. While the previous Mario Tennis titles had little to no tutorials too at least they had physical manuals to refer to and mini-games that forced you to learn about the different gameplay mechanics.
So what are the positives of Ultra Smash? The most obvious thing is its graphics, which maintain the Mario sports series’ presentation of being colorful, cartoony and vivid. However, don’t look too far beyond the on-court action as you’ll spot dodgy-looking 2D crowd members and only a single stadium design. The audio fares less well than the visuals though thanks to cheap-sounding midi music, and limited and often recycled sound and voice samples.
Online play returns from Mario Tennis Open, marking its debut for a home console Mario Tennis game. However, as with Open you’re limited to playing either tiebreaker or two-game matches with competitors. To make matters worse, you’re now only allowed to play with random strangers, with no options provided for creating custom sessions or joining friends. This is a true head-scratcher (especially since you could play with people on your 3DS friends list in Open) and severely limits the game’s online worth. Since you can’t play with people you know, Ultra Smash conforms to Nintendo’s restrictive policy of omitting voice chat or any form of communications between players. On the upside, you and a local friend can take on randos as a doubles team and, at least in my experience, online play seems to be almost competently latency-free.
Falling into the middle of the success spectrum are the new gameplay tweaks. Mega Mode throws Mega Mushrooms into the mix which make players grow to giant proportions. This increases racket reach, the amount of bounce on balls hit and also makes volleys knock back the returning opponent. These effects are less prominent than you’d expect coming from a power up that looks so over-the-top, which is both good and bad. I’m grateful that the Mega Mushrooms don’t completely unbalance the game, but on the other hand you have to wonder why they were included at all, given that they have so little impact.
The titular Ultra Smashes are new too, allowing you to leap into the air after particularly high balls for powerful smash shots. Much like the Mega Mushrooms, they add an extra spectacular element to proceedings but I don’t feel like they make much difference to standard play. As with any shot type, if you’re standing in the proper place Ultra Smashes aren’t that difficult to return.
The dreaded Chance Shots from Mario Tennis Open make a return, but thankfully they aren’t as obnoxious and dominating this time around. For one thing, they can be switched off in standard and online matches by selecting ‘Simple Rules’, so, combined with the new coin system, you never have to experience them to unlock everything in the game. Secondly, they seem to have been significantly dialled back in terms of frequency and power so even when they do show up they no longer completely dominate matches. So, whether you preferred them in Mario Tennis Open or you enjoy the classic Mario Tennis experience like myself, you’re catered for. It’s just a shame that this is one of the few aspects of inclusivity in the game.
Given all its problems, why am I not as upset with Ultra Smash as I was with Open? Well, the Chance Shots are optional – that’s a huge saving grace. Also, I think a big reason is that Ultra Smash does manage to provide the core home console Mario Tennis experience which we haven’t seen since 2004’s Mario Power Tennis on the Gamecube. Much like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, this is the type of game best experienced on the big-screen, preferably with friends beside you, and not on a portable system. Despite only being able to play against strangers online, there’s still something nice about having the option to do so at home without having to huddle around a wi-fi access point with a 3DS.
So then, Mario Tennis Ultra Smash is one of those games that’s only recommendable with a large list of caveats. The gameplay and graphics are probably the best in the series (especially since you have the choice of playing without Mega Mushrooms and Chance Shots), but the lack of content means it’s only really worth the investing the £40 asking price if you’ve got friends to play offline with or you don’t mind competing with online with randos. I may not actively hate it like I hated Mario Tennis Open, but it’s still a far cry from the triumphant, series-redefining Mario Tennis extravaganza that I hope Nintendo will make someday.