It’s been over three years since the Wii U first launched in late 2012 and finally a new Mario Sports title is here with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash! In fact, it’s the first home console Mario Sports game since Mario Power Tennis on the Nintendo GameCube.
With all this in mind, my expectations for Ultra Smash after its announcement at E3 2015 were high. The Golf and Tennis iterations on the Nintendo 3DS weren’t perfect, but they were good enough for handheld games. A new home console Mario Tennis game for the first time in over a decade though, not to mention on a high definition system, has got to be excellent!
Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here. What we have can best be described as a skeleton of a Mario Sports title. Yes, the core tennis gameplay is excellent, but all the meat around it is missing. But I’ll start with the good stuff first.
I won’t go into the nitty gritty specifics of how a game of tennis is played, but Mario Tennis is essentially a game of hitting the right type of shot in the right direction at the right time. Pull this off successfully with the right moves and you’ll catch your opponent off mark scoring yourself a point.
Pressing different buttons when you hit the ball produces different types of shots of course, varying in strength. Adding to it all, special spots appear on the field which trigger a trickier or more powerful shot with the right button combo.
Performing these moves at a brisk pace while ensuring you don’t get beaten by your opponent is harder than it sounds and is what makes Ultra Smash fun. The controls are simple enough for a beginner to pick up, but offer enough flexibility too. (and even the much beloved Wii U Pro Controller is supported!) It all feels quite snappy and responsive too, helped in part by the game’s sixty frames per second performance.
This is great and all, but after a few rounds you yearn for something a little different to keep it fresh and enjoyable. This is where Ultra Smash completely drops the ball. And (ultra) smashes it to pieces.
In past Mario Tennis titles, there were special game modes that offered unique alternative gameplay. Games like Ring Shot where hitting the ball through small rings was key to success. Or Super Mario Tennis, a game mode akin to playing Super Mario Bros. on a wall with tennis balls. But in Ultra Smash, the only extra option is Mega Ball Rally, a lackluster game of hitting the ball back and forth as long as you can.
Other than special game modes, changing the playing field is another good way to keep the game fresh. But the selection of courts to play on in Ultra Smash is embarrassing too. Every option is almost the same basic stadium with a texture swap on the ground and some modified attributes. This leads to a general feeling of dullness after playing a few rounds.
Even Mario Tennis Open on the Nintendo 3DS offered a robust selection of unique courts. You can play on an intergalactic arena from Super Mario Galaxy, or an arctic penguin iceberg from New Super Mario Bros. There’s nothing even close to matching these creative courts in Ultra Smash. The best the game has to offer is a slippery ice rink and a bouncy mushroom court.
These shortcomings might be okay for a budget title by another developer, but Nintendo fans have rightfully come to expect more from a full priced retail title.
But that’s enough talk about what’s missing. What new features does Ultra Smash have going for it?
For starters, the largest tile on Ultra Smash‘s menu is the Mega Battle mode, which is not-so-coincidentally the highlight in every trailer.
It’s Tennis with Mega Mushrooms. No, really, that’s Mega Battle. Every so often, a Toad throws a Mega Mushroom out into the field and running into it supersizes your character. Your shots become more powerful and you’re absolutely massive.
On the upside, controlling and watching a giant Wario run around the court is pretty entertaining. Downside? It adds little to the gameplay in my experience other than waiting for your opponent’s mushroom to expire. I wish there was more to say about Mega Battle, but there isn’t.
But while Mega Battle is generally fluff, the real highlight for most is likely the inclusion of an online battle mode. I can happily report that I’ve had nothing but a positive experience so far online and it plays just as well as single-player. But unfortunately in another miss, support for playing with friends is left out resulting in online play with randoms only. This is disappointing, but otherwise online battles work just as you’d expect them to.
Ultra Smash supports Nintendo’s popular Mario line-up of amiibo too in the game’s Knockout Challenge mode. Instead of playing on your own, you can scan a Mario series amiibo figure to summon the character in as your own match partner.
In game, your amiibo character acts just like a standard AI partner, but completing matches increases its rank. Every time an amiibo’s rank increases, a random new skill bonus is unlocked and eventually a full training menu. There’s a familiar feel to the Super Smash Bros amiibo integration here, but I enjoyed it far more compared to my sour Smash amiibo experience.
Knockout Challenge happens to act as the closest thing Ultra Smash has to a conventional single-player campaign or tournament too. You fight a series of progressively more difficult opponents one after another striving to get as far as you can before defeat.
Each victory awards an increasing amount of coins and making it to 15 wins on a character unlocks the star version, a more powerful edition of a character. Get defeated and either start over from Match One, or insert coins to continue! It’s not a replacement for a proper tournament mode, but it’s enjoyable and was where I spent most of my time in Ultra Smash.
It’s worth mentioning that there’s a solid presentation here too. Great character models, vibrant colors, and well done animation are on display everywhere. No game is saved by its looks, but they definitely don’t hurt here.
The Bottom Line
If there’s one word to describe Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash, it would just be shallow. Yeah, it’s fun, but those are short brief bursts of fun until you grow bored of the limited content. I had hoped Nintendo would play it like Splatoon and return with some free content updates later, but two months have now passed with no sign of that. Alas, we’re left with a game fairly solid at its core but without anything else to support it.
Even the Nintendo GameCube iteration twelve years ago offered far more content in almost every regard. With that said, I just cannot recommend Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash at its full retail price of $50 USD / $65 CAD. Pick this one up on a sale, or don’t bother — there’s simply not enough content here to justify the price. Hunt down a copy of Mario Power Tennis or Mario Tennis Open instead.
What I Liked
- Solid and beginner friendly core gameplay
- Snappy and responsive controls with sixty frames per second
- amiibo integration is enjoyable and better than expected
What I Didn’t Like
- Devastating lack of appetizing special game modes besides the boring Mega Ball Rally
- Playing the same god damn stadium over and over with a different texture swap
- Baffling exclusion of online battles with friends
Full Disclosure: Nintendo of Canada provided a retail copy of Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash to Animal Crossing World for review.