You can tell Nintendo is starting to hit the waning days of a hardware lifecycle when it starts putting out mediocre Mario sports games. “Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash” is the Wii U’s harbinger, offering a casual package that is bare bones even compared to 2012’s “Mario Tennis Open” on 3DS. If devoted “Mario Tennis” fans exist, they may enjoy seeing the characters realized in gorgeous HD, but even for those hypothetical diehards it’s a difficult recommendation to make.
BIGGER AND SMALLER
“Ultra Smash”s most notable new mechanic is the Mega Mushroom from the “New Super Mario Bros.” series. Toads will frequently toss one towards the back of court, allowing your character to become much larger with increased power and reach. Playing as a massive version of your character empowers you to take tougher shots, and if your opponent grows bigger when you don’t it becomes a test of will to maintain the volley until their mushroom runs out.
However, even this slight addition comes with its own challenges. The animation that signals a growth change is quick and peppy, but still jerks control away from you at critical moments when you may be aligning your shots. Plus, it happens so regularly and with so little variation that it quickly becomes boring. “Mario Tennis” needed to either commit to a wild mode full of Mario-styled power-ups like Fire Flowers and Hammer Suits, or find another gimmick. Having access to only one power-up gets repetitive fast.
The main game mode, judging by the size of screen real estate, is Mega Battle, a simple Versus mode with Singles or Doubles matches that include the Mega Mushrooms and new jump shots. The other modes are generally variations on that theme. Knockout Challenge pits you against a series of opponents in the style of a Mega Battle tiebreaker, and you can bring along an Amiibo A.I. companion to stack the challenge in your favor. Classic Tennis strips out the new features for more basic variants. Mega Ball Rally is simply about seeing how many times you can volley the ball back and forth, which is exactly as dull as it sounds. Plus, you can play online in a Mega Battle or Classic match.
That’s all there is to it. You won’t find a Tournament Mode, or even special mini-game modes like Ring Shot or Galaxy Rally. Just an exhibition match, a tiebreaker gauntlet, and Classic. It really is the barest possible minimum of a “Mario Tennis” game.
The bare-bones presentation applies to the characters as well. “Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash” has only 16 characters, four of which are unlockable. Again, “Mario Tennis Open” on 3DS compares more favorably, sporting 17 characters along with color variants like Metal Mario and colored Yoshis. It’s good to see Mario sports games continue to add new characters to the roster as the Mushroom Kingdom grows, like Rosalina and the Sprixie Princess. Still, it’s hard not to feel like existing characters — notably Diddy Kong, Luma, Baby Mario and Peach, and your personalized Mii — didn’t need to be cut.
You’ll unlock the few hidden characters as well as Star versions of the basic set, and new Court types, by fulfilling certain objectives listed in an unlockables menu. Most of these are straightforward enough, like playing a certain number of matches within a certain mode. You can also bypass the requirements entirely by purchasing them with coins you earn during play. After only a handful of hours, I was able to either earn or buy almost everything the game has to offer.
The longevity appears primed at players who want to power up their Amiibo long term, earning randomized Amiibo upgrades by playing the Knockout Challenge and then spending coins to customize those upgrade slots to their liking. It’s possible that having the patience to train up a grand master Amiibo could give the experience some legs, but since you’d still be stuck playing the same basic modes with your hyper-competent automaton, I doubt it.
The dearth of content that is in the game is well-presented, consisting of Nintendo’s lively animations and colorful characters. The Wii U still manages to impress with its consistent quality in this respect, but the limited scope of a tennis court means it’s not as impressive as similar games like “Mario Kart 8,” which affords itself more opportunity to show off.
“Mario Tennis”’ transition to the Wii U feels like one step forward and two steps back. The addition of Mega Mushrooms is clever enough, but the game doesn’t commit to the idea of power-ups enough to sustain it. Meanwhile the no-frills package feels so anemic that I was burned out on the experience after only a few hours. If you want a great “Mario Tennis” game, stick with the better, cheaper and more complete 3DS version.
Shacknews is a leading online provider of videogame, entertainment and lifestyle content, as well as community and interactive services. Read more at Shacknews.com