I think I’m one of the few people that was genuinely excited when Nintendo announced Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash at E3 this year. I’ve been a big fan of the series since the original releases for N64 and Game Boy Color – heck, I even had Mario Tennis for the much-lamented Virtual Boy – and I was really hoping Ultra Smash would be a reinvigoration for the franchise. Instead, Nintendo and Camelot delivered a bare-bones product that was seemingly shipped out the door just to have a first party release available for the holiday season.
Ultra Smash is very similar to previous entries in the series. There are 12 playable characters unlocked immediately featuring many favorites from the Mushroom Kingdom, including Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Wario, Waluigi, and more. There are also four unlockable characters – Dry Bowser, Toadette, Bowser Jr., and Sprixie Princess. Each character has a “type”, which include All-Around (no true strength or weakness), Technical (good ball control but weaker on power), Speed (very fast with below-average power and control), Power (strong hits with a slower speed), Defensive (excellent reach but not overly agile), and Tricky (shots curve much more than others). Players can play singles or doubles in Ultra Smash on a variety of courts that range from a traditional grass court to one that makes the balls bounce outward to another that reduces bounces to next-to-nothing to even one that can morph mid-game. Court variety is welcome, but it all takes place in the same arena so the backdrop wherever you play will remain static.
The big draw to Ultra Smash is the new Mega Battle mode. In this gametype, toads will throw mega mushrooms into the court at random intervals. If a player touches the mega mushroom they become gigantic for several seconds and get huge increases to both offense and defense. Essentially it’s a free-point button, and a massive gimmick. Mario Tennis games are known for their wacky additions to tennis but this one just isn’t fun. It’s nearly impossible to score against somebody in mega mode, and defending against one can be quite impossible for even the most skilled player. Having played the mode a fair bit, it’s safe to say I’ll never touch it again.
Luckily, there are a few other modes for players to try out. Classic Tennis has been where most of my time with the game has been spent. There are two types of Classic Tennis – Standard Play and Simple. Standard allows Chance and Jump Shots (introduced in Mario Tennis Open for the 3DS) for a bit of variety in gameplay, while Simple is just straight back and forth tennis with no gimmicks at all. There’s also Knockout Challenge, which replaces traditional tournaments. It is a ladder-style gametype where you challenge opponents of increasing difficulty in Mega Battles played with Tiebreaker rules – first to 7-points wins. Why Camelot decided to remove the popular tournament format and replace it with this mess is beyond me. If I wanted to play Mega Battle, I’d just play it! The lack of a tournament mode is incredibly frustrating and an inclusion that I’ve come to expect and love out of Mario Tennis games.
Online play did not disappoint though. I’ve played several dozen games online and there has been no noticeable lag or stutter in any of the games. Ultra Smash maintains its gorgeous graphics and fast-paced gameplay very well in an online match, and there are a variety of gametypes you can play online. However, again, there’s not quite enough variety. For instance, if you want to play a Classic Simple tennis match there’s only the options of “fast” and “extended” play – meaning either a single first-to-seven tiebreaker round or a short 2-game 1-set match. There’s no option to add games or sets on to that, so if I want to play a game with more than one set it has to be local.
Local multiplayer is a blast, but boils down to a very repetitive experience. With only nine courts to choose from and the stadium not changing from court to court, the gorgeous scenery quickly gets bland. The announcer’s voice can also become quite grating. He announces who wins points, but only through the words “server” or “receiver”. There are only 16 characters, would it really have killed Nintendo to record each of their names? “Game – Boo” would make a lot more sense.and become a lot less annoying than “Game – Server”. The game’s soundtrack itself is quite upbeat, but can also grow a bit stale. As with most of the game, it’s good but not nearly varied enough.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a game that just did not live up to even the small expectations the community had for it. Sure, it’s visually stunning and the online is stable and fluid, but the lack of game modes, mini-games, and replay value just make Ultra Smash feel more like an Ultra Crash.