You're SEGA (bear with me). You've got arguably the best tennis game engine around from Virtua Tennis 3. You've got tons of iconic IP dating back more than 20 years. There's a gap in the release schedule, and pop SEGA Superstar Tennis emerges out of the delivery room fully formed, and with none of the desperate screaming and emergency surgery of a protracted labour.
Holding aloft its new baby, SEGA proudly stormed the gates of EG towers (we do have towers now - did you see the press release?) to give us a hands-on with a near-complete 360 build of the game, currently looking good for a mid-March release on about 97 platforms. Okay, five: 360, PS3, Wii, DS and (uhuh) PS2. "No PSP or PC?" you cry. "Where's the love?" That's meant to be a tennis joke.
Anyway, let's start with some facts and figures: 16 characters, ten courts, eight mini-games, and - fun! - unlockable music. Of the 16 characters, six are available from the start from a cast that includes Sonic, Tails, Shadow, Amy Rose and Eggman (from Sonic The Hedgehog), AiAi and MeeMee (from Super Monkey Ball), Ulala and Pudding (from Space Channel 5), Alex Kidd (err, Alex Kidd), Amigo (Samba De Amigo), NiGHTS and Reala (NiGHTS), Gum and Beat (from Jet Set Radio) and one more currently top secret character that we're forbidden to reveal for fear of severe reprisals and sullen rejection. And, no, it's not Ryu from Shenmue. Or the dragon from Panzer Dragoon. Don't be silly.
In terms of the ten courts (four of which are open to start with), there's the Green Hill and Scrap Brain Zones (Sonic the Hedgehog), as well as Coconut Beach (OutRun), Monkey Island (Super Monkey Ball), Galactic Cruiser (Space Channel 5), Shibuya Cho (Jet Set Radio), The Curien Mansion (The House of the Dead), Aqua Garden (NiGHTS), Carnival Park (Samba De Amigo) and one more we're bound and gagged not to reveal yet. On top of that, the obligatory daft mini-games will be inspired by The House of the Dead, Puyo Pop, Space Harrier, Samba De Amigo, Virtua Cop, and a few others we, again, must take to our graves. Assuming we meet our doom between now and mid March. You never know who's in the trees. Waiting.
With only a brief hands-on opportunity, we didn't get a chance to explore the intricate nuances of each character or anything, but certainly had enough time to get a feel for the game and how it's shaping up. Taking its cue from Virtua Tennis, the serving and shot mechanics are broadly along the same lines, with a few tweaks here and there to give it its own personality and unique feel. For example, it feels initially harder to serve, with a more sensitive approach to aftertouch ensuring that you'll be out if you hold the stick for too long in one direction.
Likewise, returning serves and keeping rallies going doesn't appear to let you stretch for shots in quite the same way as VT does. Whereas you might reasonably expect your man (slash monkey, slash hedgehog, etc) to stretch and dive to meet the ball, time after time we found ourselves punished for shots that would be considered routine in VT. Whether that's a set-in-stone gameplay decision or something being tweaked and balanced in the final stages of development was hard to say. Right now, though, SEGA Superstar Tennis definitely doesn't feel like Virtua Tennis with SEGA icons instead of grizzled professionals.
The overall look and feel, though, is exceptionally slick, exactly as we've come to expect from SEGA's rather wonderful tennis titles to date. It runs in 720p without a hitch, giving it the kind of super glossy sheen you'll either love to death or want to smash to bits with a 2-by-4 (sorry, they demoed Condemned 2 afterwards). Each themed court is instantly recognisable, and, obviously developer Sumo has gone to town to make sure the characters, the music and all the little touches are perfectly in tune with the whole SEGA mythos. If that word is allowed in this article. The title screen has blue skies and fluffy clouds, for gawd's sake. UK:R will be in heaven.
Playing off against a beaming Bramwell, we eventually sussed out a nifty power-up system, unique to each character. After clocking up a few decent shots, it appears to top up your special move gauge, allowing you to unleash (via both trigger buttons, if we remember correctly) what amounts to a gigantically unfair special attack, such as a volley of bananas for AiAi and Sonic's SuperSonic transformation with a ball that zips all over the place. You'll duck. You'll dive. You'll dance through the debris. You'll desperately try to get your return shot in, and probably fail and curse the mother of your foul opponent. Still, the beauty is, you can simply do the same back to them and laugh in their stupid face as Eggman throws bombs in reply. This is all ripped off rather shamelessly from Mario Power Tennis, of course, but it's still fun to be evil in tennis games. There's never enough evil in games, no matter what the do-gooders have you believe. Mwahahahahaha evil, we mean, just in case Keith Vaz is reading this.
And then there's the mini-games. The only one you can play at the start (and therefore the only one we could get our hands on) was The Curien Mansion one, based, obviously, on The House of the Dead. Similar in nature to the Alien Attack one in VT3, you have to see off a succession of lurching zombies as they shuffle their cankered limbs toward you. Accurate serving is basically your only weapon against the living dead, and once you've cleared a wave, another one appears, only slightly faster than before. Unlike VT, there's no real level cap - if you can keep clearing them, the game keeps on ramping up the difficulty until, presumably, it all gets a bit mental.
In terms of modes, expect the usual array of singles and doubles options in Exhibition mode, along with the main Tournament mode where you'll unlock everything. Multiplayer wise, expect the usual offline and online options, with four player support promised - including the mini-games (with each player getting their own coloured ball to denote who's who). Let's hope they make the online mode slightly more user friendly and lag tolerant than VT3, which was, let's face it, a bit of a lottery when it came down to it on 360. This time PS3 will also boast online, while each platform is expected to have its own exclusive play mode of some sort.
With tons of unlockables (including the music associated with each game), SEGA Superstar Tennis is a bit of a fanboy's dream. The Xbox 360 Achievements will make you smile, too, although - again - we were told not to reveal them at this stage. With so many unique versions promised, it'll be interesting to see how it translates to the Wii control system, and whether the DS and PS2 can truly represent the graphics without too many compromises. With the game just a few weeks away from release, check back soon to see our full in-depth verdict on this intriguing new tennis offering.