This review originally published on June 20, before its online was live. We've since updated this review with multiplayer impressions and a score.
I admittedly don't know much about traditional tennis. I know there are tennis balls. I know there are courts. I know that sometimes there are teams of two. But I imagine at the likes of Wimbledon we don't see Serena Williams wacking a tennis ball so hard that it shatters her opponent's racket. In Mario Tennis Aces though, that's par for the course, and it can even lead to a disastrous K.O. like a fighting game. And we don't usually consider "K.O.s" as a viable way of winning in the sport of tennis.
Mario Tennis Aces basks in its brutal reimagining of tennis. It's the most complex game in the series yet. It brings forth a multitude of ways to hit the ball: Trick Shots, Special Shots, Zone Shots, topspins, lobs, slices, and probably other moves that I'm somehow forgetting about. You can win a match either by getting more points or, as I weirdly described above, dealing enough damage to your opponent's racket and destroying it. It has more in common with its Wii U predecessor Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash than any other game in the series (even Mario Tennis: Power Tour, where its story mode was born). Mario Tennis Aces is not for the faint of heart.
It takes a while to get a feel for the different sorts of shots in Mario Tennis Aces, and even after learning the ropes they're still hard to remember all at once. Trick Shots are handy for sliding across the court in style—hell, Waluigi moonwalks in his. Alternatively, you can slow down time (insert out of date Matrix reference here) to perfectly land a block from an opposer's Zone Shot, but it wastes your stamina. Flat shots are useful for catching your competitor off guard and quickly hitting the ball in a clean and straight direction. A slice lightly curves the ball. Once you get a grip on all the different shots in Mario Tennis Aces' arsenal, you'll be a tennis pro in no time. It just takes a long while to attain that mastery, especially given the relatively light tutorial in Adventure Mode.
Adventure Mode, a sorta-revival of the story modes of the series' past, stars Mario. It could be argued that in its entirety, it's just an elongated tutorial mode where you happen to unlock new courts for the rest of the game. In Adventure Mode, Mario's on a quest to save Luigi after he's become possessed by an evil tennis racket. Back when I previewed it around a month ago, I remarked that it's putting the Mario back into the Mario Tennis series' story mode, and after finishing Adventure Mode, I couldn't have been more dead on. With its light RPG touches as your skills level up to the clever bosses you face, Mario Tennis Aces' Adventure Mode's only staggering faults are that it leans too much on traditional tennis matches and at just a few hours long (including optional side challenges), it feels a tad too fleeting.
The meat of Mario Tennis Aces comes in its tournaments and free play. There are three tournaments: Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, and Star Cup. The tournaments have you selecting your character and facing off in a bunch of bracket matches until the Finals, where you hopefully win the cup. It's randomized each time depending on what character you choose, so you'll never be facing off against the same characters each tourney. As the tournament goes on, the matches get more difficult. (You can also tweak the enemy A.I. in the menu too, if you want to make things a little bit harder or easier.)
Surprisingly, my favorite mode for Mario Tennis Aces, aside from the cooler boss fights in Adventure Mode, came in the casual-aimed Swing Mode. Swing Mode does away with all the complicated curve balls and Zone Shots that litter every other mode in the game. In Swing Mode, you're geared with one Joy Con, and you utilize its motion controls to swing your tennis racket. You use the analog stick to move your character around, and I found it really relaxing to just rally a tennis ball with my opponent. There's even a nifty "Big Ball" option for Swing Mode where the tennis ball grows massive and is thus easier to swing your racket at. Swing Mode can be played multiplayer, but only locally and only if the Switch is docked. (In September, local wireless Swing Mode multiplayer between multiple undocked Switch systems will be added.)
There are 16 characters in total at launch to choose from. If the roster seems slim, worry not, because DLC characters will be added through updates and occasional online tournaments, similar to Arms and Splatoon 2. The next characters joining Mario Tennis Aces include Birdo, Diddy Kong, and Paratrooper, among others. The characters all have particular quirks—positive and negative—that make them all individually worth testing out.
The characters, both new and old, feel much more distinctive than the usual "big, medium, small" classes that seem to follow other Mario sports games and even Mario Kart. For instance, Waluigi is a strong defense character who can clear a court with ease while Chain Chomp, the ever-barking annoying dog, can make really quick shots, partially due to its immense size. Waluigi, Chain Chomp, and Zone Shot expert Toadette were my favorites that I bounced between across the Tournament and Free Play modes after trying out the roster. So, sorry Mario—I guess you'll stay hitting fireballs back at piranha plants in Adventure Mode where you belong.
Free Play can be played solo or with up to four players locally or online. At the time of this writing, online is not yet live for Mario Tennis Aces. As such, we're holding off on scoring our review and writing up multiplayer impressions until it is fully launched. During a recent demo weekend for Mario Tennis Aces, its online functionality was not very stable and suffered some severe lag issues, so here's to hoping its official launch later this week remedies that hiccup.
Multiplayer Thoughts: Post-Launch
Mario Tennis Aces has been unleashed to the world with a Day One patch in tow. The new patch most notably brings online stability to the game and a new Online Tournament mode. In Online Tournament, you venture forth through a large-scale tournament, battling random other players along the way for points. Unfortunately, there's no ranked mode—and Online Tournament is the closest it gets.
In terms of its online, during a recent weekend demo there was some significant lag issues. Last night while playing it shortly after it launched for the public, I found the same problem returning. Every time I swung the racket, there'd be a frustrating delay. Trick Shots were even trickier than usual because I had to account for the potential lag in making my way towards the ball. However, after scavenging Reddit and Twitter and playing more Mario Tennis Aces in the wee hours of the morning, that might have just been a lone occurrence. After a few hours with it this morning, both in Free Play and Online Tournament, I played with ease and no lag.
For matchmaking, finding other players in Free Play (specifically with Doubles) takes a long while. With so many players split up between modes though—simple to standard play, single to doubles, online tournament—it's understandable why matchmaking takes a bit longer than expected. There's not much to work towards in any of the online modes either. In the coming months, playing Online Tournament will allow you to build up enough points to access new characters before they're officially released, but other than that there's a Rankings Board for Online Tournament for bragging rights and not much more. While there's a Classic Mario outfit for those who played the demo, there's no other cosmetic rewards to currently work towards unfortunately.
Local play is where Mario Tennis Aces' multiplayer stable is at its strongest, especially in Swing Mode. There's no surprise lag or strange stumbling, and there's plentiful features that can be toggled on and off. I can see Mario Tennis Aces becoming a regular in my rotation of "friends are over, time to pop in a game" for a quick few matches.
Mario Tennis Aces has a lot more in common with fighting games than anything else. Zone Shots and Special Shots are basically the equivalent of an expertly-executed combo or special move, and consequently, can render a point to feel cheaply won in a flash. With no ranked mode available or cosmetic rewards to earn, there's not much to really keep players coming back to it either. Online Tournament and Free Play are fine and scratch the tennis itch, but fail to incite a competitive spirit. Overall with Mario Tennis Aces' lackluster (though sometimes exciting) Adventure Mode, finally-stable online modes, and the unique characterizations of every character, there's a solid package here, even if it doesn't feel like it has legs for the long term.