Right off the bat, Mario Tennis Aces, the eighth installment in the Mario Tennis series, feels inadequate. Mario’s Tennis, which kicked off the series way back in 1995 on the Virtual Boy, featured at least six games per set, just like actual tennis. Conversely, Mario Tennis Aces offers up a truncated version of the sport across both its single-player and multiplayer modes, where a set can be over in two games. By reducing tennis to a relatively measly number of points, this puzzlingly inept game overlooks how the sport can drive players to adapt their style throughout the ebbs and flows of a grueling match.
Mario Tennis Aces seems lost from the start of its Adventure mode, a single-player quest in which Mario must collect five power stones to save the Mushroom Kingdom. Never going beyond the banality of its premise, this mode lacks the intrigue of such recent games as Golf Story, which satirizes the elitism of golf, and Pyre, which demonstrates how winning and losing in sports can be tied to political upheaval and spiritual fulfillment. The tennis in Adventure mode also leaves much to be desired: More traditional matches are too brief, given that you can defeat an opponent by winning, at a minimum, anywhere from one to four games, and the boss battles are monotonous, akin to hitting practice balls against a wall while dodging obstacles.
The game’s single-player Tournament mode is similarly devoid of compelling drama. There are only three cups in this mode, and the final one shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for anyone with an adequate grasp of Mario Tennis Aces’s mechanics. Each tournament only lasts three rounds, and considering that you can’t experience the grind of a proper six-game set within a match, the entire experience doesn’t come close to capturing the nerve-wracking nature of real-life Grand Slams. Thankfully, you can bump up the difficulty a great deal for a one-player exhibition match, but by default, you’re relegated to participating in short contests that amount to a single tiebreaker.
The game’s multiplayer experience is more rewarding in that competing against other players, either locally or online, is typically more interesting than responding to predictable AI patterns. But again, the streamlined matches only give you a taste of what genuine competition feels like. It’s frankly bizarre that developer Camelot doesn’t give players the opportunity to set up a best-out-of-five-set extravaganza (which was an option in the 2000 Nintendo 64 game Mario Tennis, also developed by Camelot).
Mario Tennis Aces does bring several new mechanics to the Mario Tennis series, but some lean on overly rewarding players who may otherwise exhibit subpar court positioning. The worst offender in that regard is Zone Speed, which literally allows you to slow down the ball while your character moves at normal speed. Given that building up the energy bar for Zone Speed is simple, you can suck your way into points that should probably go to the other player. And if the energy bar is filled completely, you can perform a Special Shot that allows you to hit any ball, no matter far away you are from it. This technique feels especially cheap, as players aren’t required to have to think about the appropriate movement to execute a crucial swing.
Mario Tennis Aces gets the closest to simulating a game of base-level tennis with its Simple mode, which disables the aforementioned special abilities and demands players to win points through fundamentals like top spins, slices, flat hits, lobs, and drop shots. But at times the online multiplayer version of this mode forces you to play on gimmicky stages littered with obstructions, like random characters running onto the court in the middle of a match. Showing little appreciation for what makes tennis a fascinating sport, Mario Tennis Aces is like a server who can’t stop committing double faults.