Nintendo typically has a large list of first-party releases to fill up their holiday season, and although Star Fox Zero was delayed to next April, that didn’t stop another title from taking its place. Cue Camelot’s Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, the third home console release in this classic franchise. Earlier this year, we previewed the title and had high hopes for it, wanting to see more after the little appetizer at E3. Unfortunately, now that the final product has hit shelves, it appears this was just a rushed release to make it for the holiday schedule.
Camelot is well known for making both the Mario Tennis and Mario Golf titles, as well as another Nintendo franchise, Golden Sun. After last year’s impressive Mario Golf: World Tour, and even Mario Tennis: Open, there were expectations to meet for their next Mario Sports title. Eleven years after the fantastic Mario Power Tennis, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash proves that while Camelot knows how to create fantastic gameplay, they have been lacking a lot of heart upon recent titles. Ultra Smash relies on their new gimmick, Mega Battles, where players will be given Mega Mushrooms to increase in size and power. This feature, while fun, does bring with it a few drawbacks as well, more on that later. Also new to the series are Jump shots, where characters can jump high into the air to return a shot, making it a lot harder to get the ball over an opponent.
Fans that have grown up with these games will likely remember the humorous cutscenes that play when booting up either Mario Tennis for the Nintendo 64, or Mario Power Tennis. Even finishing the Tournament modes in those games offered a fun and charming cinematic featuring the chosen character, celebrating their victory and providing incentive to complete the mode with each character. Not only does Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash not feature these cinematics, it doesn’t even have a Tournament mode. What once was a charming and fun experience has now been watered down to the most barren presentation.
Despite not having a Tournament mode, Ultra Smash does have a single-player campaign in the form of the Knockout Challenge. Players will select a character and take on opponent after opponent in a series of Tiebreaker rounds, the difficulty jumping with each new challenger. Upon reaching the 15th challenger, Bowser, players are treated to a sort of “boss battle”, where Bowser will be given magic power from Kamek (who despite being fully modeled, is not playable), and will remain in mega form throughout the match. It is an interesting twist on the difficulty, though players will really test their skills after defeating him, when they are challenged yet again by the “Star” versions of the characters. The rules even change slightly as courts are changed to other types like the Ice court or the Morph court. Even though the mode is a lot of fun, and it does have a proper ending, players are only treated to credits, not even a victory celebration from the character they used. At least earning victory in these challenges (and all other modes for that matter) will earn coins for the player, which in turn can be used to unlock more content.
Another feature of Knockout Challenge is the game’s Amiibo support, as players are given the option to tap an Amiibo (assuming it has no Mario Party 10 or Super Smash Bros. game data) to create an AI partner. This partner will typically stay in the back of the court, capable of returning some of the shots that come their way. It becomes a little unusual because it makes these matches two against one, even if the Amiibo player doesn’t have a lot of skill from the start (often times hitting the ball directly into the player’s character), this seems like it wouldn’t really be fair. Unlike Super Smash Bros., it would also seem that the way the player plays would have no effect on the Amiibo regardless, as the Amiibo ranks up every five matches, earning a randomly selected trait to increase it’s stats. The Amiibo may as well just sit on the sidelines to watch, as that would not only make more sense, but it wouldn’t effect the balance of the game mode.
As far as the content goes, the game offers 16 playable characters, four of them having to be unlocked either through specific challenges, or by using coins to purchase them. They are each separated into classes: All Around, Speed, Technique, Tricky, Power, and Defensive, which are the typical player types from previous games. This is actually the smallest roster in a console Mario Tennis to date, as even the Nintendo 64 version had four more characters to play as (granted they had to be transferred from the Game Boy Color game). There are also nine different courts, from clay courts to sand courts, all featuring varying physics that determine the way the ball acts in a match. Despite the variety, all of these courts take place in the same stadiums, previous entries offering various locales like Isle Delfino, or DK Jungle. It again goes to show that the presentation could have been heavily improved, as this game really just needs more charm overall. Even the mode selection is very limited, having the previously mentioned Knockout Challenge, as well Mega Battle, Mega Ball Rally, Classic Tennis, and Online. Previous entries had several different modes, Mario Power Tennis even boasting eight “Special Games” that featured challenges like Artist on the Court or Terror Tennis. It’s not so much that what is on offer in Ultra Smash is bad, but in comparison to previous titles, it is severely lacking.
Online mode returns, previously introduced in Mario Tennis: Open, and with it offers more of the same, just against people around the world. Players can go online solo, bring a friend locally, or even enter an Amiibo and have them play as their doubles partner, which is a great feature given the missed opportunity of the feature in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. When playing online, players are given the choice of playing for fun, or playing a serious match for rank points. While it is an expected addition, even this mode offers a lack of content, as players aren’t even given a way to play online with their friends. This is a huge oversight by Camelot, and while some could say it would encourage more local play, in the year 2015, it’s pretty much a non-negotiable expectation to have the option to play with friends.
Even though there is a lot wrong with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, there are still a lot of things that went right. Despite a lack of variety in locales, this is one of the most beautiful Mario games out there, being one of the few Wii U games that is actually anti-aliased and seems to run in full 1080p. Characters are colorful and animate with a lot of life and give at least a little charm to the presentation. Matoi Sakuraba returns as the composer of the series and creates energetic tracks to pump up the matches, and while the music is good, the serious lack of modes and presentation would indicate that there could have been a larger soundtrack if given more to do. Aside from the graphics and the music, the gameplay still stands very strong, and Classic Tennis mode, where the gimmicks are turned off, can prove to be a lot of fun and very competitive. Even with the gimmicks, they are mostly enjoyable, though one of the biggest issues with the Mega Mushroom mechanic is when the effects wear off, the character will shrink, and when returning a shot, this often results in a missed swing as the character is no longer within range of the ball. While it can be a blessing when it happens to the computer, it mostly results in a curse for the player when it happens to them. Unfortunately, great graphics and gameplay aren’t enough to make up for a disappointing lack of overall content and mediocre presentation. Hopefully this title receives the free DLC treatment, because anyone who makes this purchase definitely deserves more bang for their buck.
Final Score: 4 out of 10