If you were asked what first made the Super Mario Bros. series such a smash, one might point to Mario's jump. His jump is precise, perfect; there is no better jump in platforming than Mario's, arguably. When I think of Mario, I think of jumping in Mario and how the simple mechanic has shaped hundreds, even thousands, of platformers.
In Mario Tennis Aces, Mario's Trick Shot move sends him flipping through the air. It's his familiar jump, only now it's over embellished. He's the late former tennis player Bobby Riggs doing an asinine display of showmanship. Mario has seemingly never heard of the word "humble" in the phrase "humble brag" before. Mario just flips across the court with glee, because he can and that's what he's best at. He's showing off.
During my short time playing Mario Tennis Aces last week alongside some Nintendo representatives, I found that all the characters on the game's roster radiate the best (and worst) elements of their personality. The extremely round Spike, the familiar Koopa you've dodged spike balls from in other Mario games, rolls around the tennis court like a rollie pollie. Chain Chomp hobbles across the court with a hilariously tiny racquet clenched between their teeth.
I've only lightly dabbled with Mario Tennis games in the past. I played a little bit of the Wii U one, Ultra Smash, and wasn't into how it over complicated the act of tennis. (An aspect that seems to be unfortunately returning to Mario Tennis Aces.) The one I played the most before that was from long ago: its Game Boy Advance iteration Mario Tennis: Power Tour, a reimagined port of its GameCube counterpart. I loved the game's story mode which had you playing against new characters as you attended a Tennis academy—it felt like a Nintendo-sponsored anime. The game only had six actual Nintendo characters, even though it had 36 playable characters overall (slowly unlocked over time). In Mario Tennis Aces, the long-forgotten story mode of the portable versions of some Mario Tennis games is making a grand return in a new way. And there's no made up Tennis Academy or silly non-tennis related minigames in sight this time around.
Instead, there's a world map. You're playing as Mario, not some random human competing to be the very best. As you play through the campaign, you unlock more maps from the story mode that become playable in the rest of the game, like in Free Play. In what I played of the campaign—from expertly deflecting a bunch of fireballs spit at me by a crowd of Piranha Plants to facing a giant Piranha Plant boss—Mario Tennis Aces' swing at bringing back the series' story mode is taking the tennis-inclined Mario back to his roots. It feels like something that should have been in the series to begin with: retaining the Mario series' spirit. Coupled with the story mode's very Super Mario Bros.-like world map, the story mode feels strongly like, well, a Mario game. Just with tennis racquets instead of those great platforming jumps.
That translates again, of course, into the individual character animations. During my time with the game's Free Play mode, I chose a character that's become synonymous with Mario Tennis (because it's where he first appeared): Waluigi. Waluigi looks slicker than he's ever been in this game, his mustache curved upwards and his new visor resting on top of his head. It's just one of the adorable tennis outfits all the characters don in this game—from Daisy's comfortable-looking shorts to the ominous glow around Boo as they glide around the tennis court.
Waluigi's Trick Shot, a particularly powerful move that slows down time for a moment, is the most Waluigi-y ability possible. When he does a Trick Shot, Waluigi moonwalks across the tennis court with style, making the same inhuman noises as he always does along the way. A Nintendo representative tells me that while the Trick Shot for every character is fundamentally the same, the animation between everyone is unique. For particular hits on the opposite end of the court, the Trick Shot is essential to get across in time and whack the ball in the opponent's direction. It's also useful for setting up an unexpected Zone Shot, where you aim at a precise point on the opponent's side to spike a ball (for this demo, it was gyro-enabled aiming).
While my time with Mario Tennis Aces was relatively brief and the dense amount of moves and skills may seem initially daunting, I'm sure the more I eventually get to play of it, the more natural it will feel. At the very least, Mario Tennis Aces is packing way more character into every whack of a tennis ball than previous entries so far, and that might be just what it needs to get an edge above its varied predecessors. So bring on those fireballs, Mario has a different sort of jumping to do.