It's the Tetris problem. Occasionally a game maker happens upon a flawless recipe on the first attempt, a kind of perfection that would be compromised if any of the ingredients were added to or taken away from. So it is with Sega AM3's Virtua Tennis, an arcade game that translated the stretch-and-dive drama of professional tennis with such assured brilliance that, aside from a conspicuous lack of female players, precluded a sequel.
But while perfection may be the goal of every game designer, it's the enemy of the businessmen that pay for the game designer's computers, electricity and crunch-period pizzas. No, a publisher wants the recipe to be delicious, but somehow flawed or lacking. That way, it can be improved and built upon in sequels and the initial investment recouped time and time again. It's the great unspoken tension at the heart of the sequel-driven games industry. And it's a tension that runs through Virtua Tennis 4's centre court.
Because the fundamentals of Virtua Tennis cannot be improved upon. Its breezy court play, with its arcade heritage, is as fresh and comfortable today as it was 12 years ago. Viewed at the ground level of matches, it remains the best video game approximation of the sport available. There have been tweaks made to the core engine – with characters less likely to leap into cross-court dives, and more balanced AI – but they are just tweaks, and the game has all of the delicate balance of its earliest predecessors: easy to pick up and play, difficult to master.
So it falls to the gimmicks and framing of the package to attempt to introduce relevance in an increasingly competitive niche. Virtua Tennis 4's innovations come not in ground-level play, the way that lobs and volleys are handled, but in 3D television support, Kinect and Move control options (Wii MotionPlus having already been introduced in Virtua Tennis 2009) and an overhauled World Tour mode. They're additions that give the illusion of expansion without messing with the secret recipe that earned Virtua Tennis its place in the canon.
"Better with Kinect" proclaims the Xbox 360 packaging, a bald lie that will disappoint every person it convinces. While playing Virtua Tennis 4 with Microsoft's motion sensing camera is relegated to a bespoke Motion Control Mode specifically designed for the task, the execution is a resounding disappointment. Reasoning that the average living room floor is considerably smaller than a tennis court, Sega auto-handles your character running for the ball in the Wii Sports style, relegating the interactivity to swinging your empty hand around to set up strokes.
However, these map poorly to your motions, the racquet failing to turn as you swivel your wrist (and as the wrist is the only piece of the body the Kinect needs to pick up on, it's a fundamental flaw), while lobs are read as gentle forehands. Inexplicably, the camera jumps from first- to third-person in between each shot during play, a perspective shift that will make even the most focused player feel as though they're playing on the deck of the Titanic minutes before it sank.
PlayStation 3 owners fare a little better, benefitting from the fact they hold a piece of hardware that has some resemblance to the handle of a racquet. Here movements map accurately onto the screen, and there are glimmers of excitement and enjoyment to be found. However, the wider issues with the mode, from the low-slung camera to the shifts into and out of your character's eyes to the problems in reading the power of your inputs ensure that, for players who want to pretend they're playing tennis with their bodies, Wii Sports remains a more enjoyable proposition.
Thankfully, once you settle down with a plastic controller (or better still, an arcade stick to replicate the original Naomi cabinet's click precision) the game responds exactly as it should. There's just one innovation to the core tennis experience here, the introduction of 'Super Shots'.
During play, a gauge at the top of the screen fills. Once filled, there's a chance that your character will execute a Super Shot, a quick, precise strike that is near-impossible to return.
Before a Super Shot is played, the game slips into slow motion, the camera wheeling around your character as they power up for the strike. The gauge empties as soon as a Super Shot is played and, as it often takes a full two games for it to fill each time, it's not so intrusive as to upset the balance. It's ridiculous but nevertheless exciting, the kind of mechanic that only Sega would drop into a game like this, but Virtua Tennis 4 is all the better for it.
Elsewhere, the only other changes Sega Japan has made to Sumo Digital's previous two games are structural, specifically to the expansive World Tour mode. Here you embark upon a series of four epic tours across different regions of the world map, which is divided up into tiles like a board game. Each city in a region is a tile, and they're linked together in a broadly linear string. You must spend 'tickets' to travel between them as you progress towards a final tournament at the end of the route.
At each city there's an activity to engage in: one of eight different mini-games; an exhibition match; a rest spot (where you recuperate your character's health); or a special event such as a fancy-dress match or a fan signing. To progress around the map you must spend move tickets, which act a little like dice throws. Each time you spend one of your three tickets you are randomly given a new one, so there are elements of luck and strategy involved as you seek to land on the cities you want to in order to participate in those events that interest you.
As you progress around the board, you earn experience points to level up different attributes of your player, earn money to spend on new gear and, most importantly, earn 'stars' that raise you up the leaderboard of world players and gain you entry to more advanced tournaments. Development of your character is primarily fuelled by engaging in a range of mini-games, the one area where Sega Japan is allowed some creative freedom to break away from the tennis template. Each mini-game is playable at five different difficulty levels, with experience rewards increasing in step with the challenge.
There are eight mini-games included in Story Mode, including Egg Collector, in which you must hatch chicks from eggs by running over them and returning them to the mother hen. Chicks trail behind you in the style of the classic Sega arcade title Flicky, but will – somewhat distressingly – drop dead if struck by one of the tennis balls being fired down the court towards you. As such, the emphasis is on speed and accurate footwork.
In 'Wind Match', meanwhile, you must try to achieve the longest possible rally on a windswept court. Burst one of the wind balloons on the court and the wind speed will pick up yet further. The mini-games are fresh and interesting and, while the basic concept has been a Virtua Tennis staple for years now, it adds welcome arcade-style variety from the play-offs in the main game.
It's a solid, workable single player 'campaign' structure, and while initially it can seem set up to arbitrarily limit your play options, in time the sense of journey and progression work together to draw you in to your avatar's career in a way previous entries to the series never quite managed.
Visually, Virtua Tennis 4 is solid but rarely beautiful. It has the bright, hard-lit ambiance of its predecessors and, while the character models are robust and well-animated, the thick white sweat that covers players' faces as a match progresses has a disturbing look. A generous range of court locations and a huge array of unlockable clothing (including fancy dress items) add another layer of distraction. There's not quite the commitment to collectables and silliness on offer in Sony's excellent Everybody's Tennis, but there's enough there to provide added interest and motivation.
A mixed success, then. The core strength of the experience ensures Virtua Tennis 4 is best in class where it matters, on the court. Likewise, a well-structured World Tour mode, while slightly anachronistic in its straight Japanese presentation, provides a sense of journey and progression that is wholly engaging. But the motion controls, core selling points for many buyers, are woefully implemented and provide little interest or value. If nothing else, it's a specific shortcoming that should keep Sega's financiers happy – providing, as it does, room for improvement in the inevitable sequel.
8 / 10