The trouble with the PSP is that it's just too delicate to want to take it out of the house. One misplaced fumble and it's an unscheduled visit to the Tourettes clinic for you as the glorious slick black sheen of your handheld marvel is ripped asunder by the unforgiving abrasion of your local pavement. It's not even worth taking the risk - unless, of course, your PSP happens to have Virtua Tennis Word Tour strapped in amongst its willing innards.
In the case of SEGA's all-time classic, you're unlikely to want to play anything else for a very long time indeed, as you once again hone those tennis playing skills that you mastered all those years ago; five, to be precise.
But while it's incredible to reflect that it's almost exactly half a decade ago that the original VT was sitting proudly at the top of the UK's All Format chart, it's even more incredible to note that this apparently ageing title hasn't aged a jot, and is still by far the most intuitive, most playable and easily the most addictive tennis title there has ever been.
To be precise, this pixel-perfect conversion is actually based on the even-more-brilliant sequel released a little over a year later (a.k.a. Tennis 2K2 on the Dreamcast or simply Virtua Tennis 2 for the inferior PS2 version released 18 months later), which added a more fluid playing style and the added bonus of female stars thrown into the mix. In essence, all Sumo Digital has done is port the game more or less wholesale, thrown in wireless multiplayer, and updated the roster to reflect the current balance of power within the tennis world. Not a bad idea, given that the game was definitely not in need of tinkering with.
Blessed with an almost-complete build over the past few days, we've given the blessed PSP a more concentrated going-over than perhaps any game released to date on the system - and that includes taking it on numerous train journeys and risking the very fate of our hallowed handheld.
Paper bag writer
And you know what? It's probably going to be pushing Zoo Keeper and Meteos as the most-played handheld title of the year, with so much going for it we're struggling not to hyperventilate while we scribe.
Featuring all the modes we've long since taken for granted, VT: WT caters for every possible permutation, from the standard one-off Quick Match that gets you into the game with a random pairing, the more specifically tailored male/female, single/doubles one-off, single set Exhibition match, three-match knockout Tournaments, the-pick-up-and-play quartet of Ball Games, (wireless) Multiplayer and the life-sapping all-encompassing World Tour career mode.
Most interesting of the above is doubtlessly the wireless multiplayer, which could prove to be a deal-clincher for most hardened VT fans looking for a means to carry on their enduring love for the game. Although it means that you're going to have to rely on your mates owning a copy, the chances are that the game's multiplayer reputation will make it a must-have for many PSP owners in the early days following the European release.
Throw down the gauntlet, not the PSP
Naturally, multiplayer support takes care of up to four players, so if you're lucky enough to have a little VT club going on around your way, those old rivalries can now be well and truly resumed. Just don't throw the PSP down in a strop when you've been thrashed in straight sets six-love okay? These aren't indestructible joypads...
And while you're busy honing your skills, there are a remarkable number of ways to get your fix, from the aforementioned Exhibitions/Tournaments to the adorable Ball Games. They're all pretty throwaway mini-games, similar to those found within the World Tour, but as standalone high-score matches they're fun for a while. Each of the four test you with a strict time-limit. Kicking off with Fruit Dash, the idea is to simply dash around one side of the court picking up fruit as it appears while trying to avoid a red ball that's being fired at you from the opposite side. As you pick up fruit you also top up your time, but, the more you collect, the more balls get fired your way.
Next up, Blockbuster tasks you with smashing a wall of descending blocks; hit one, and blocks adjacent of the same colour also disappear - topping up your time in the process. Mess up your rally, though, and the time ticks down to nought and it's Game Over. Balloon Smash, meanwhile, is a simple case of trying to pop balloons in the opposite court before the time runs out, while Blocker has you running around trying to return the balls being fired from a machine opposite while defending the block behind you. Fail three times and it's Game Over. Simple, addictive, and fun.
All around the world
The World Tour mode, though, is the area you'll probably devote most of your single-player energies to, with the idea simply to claim the No.1 throne in both the male and female category.
As with the full-blown version you have to create your own custom player to drag up through the ranks and try and improve your stats in the disciplines of serve, stroke, volley and footwork. At first you'll be at level one in every single area, and barely able to take on even the easiest of examinations. But pushed through an exhaustive round of mini-games, you slowly begin to build up your player in every area.
Veterans will recall that these training matches are a mixture of the stupendously easy (Stomper, Danger Flags), the challenging (Bull's Eye, Pin Crasher, Alien Force, Prize Sniper), and the annoyingly tough (Tank Attack, Disc Shooter). But persistence doesn't go to waste even when you're persistently failing, as any experience gained always goes towards bettering your stats.
The great thing is, even when you're investing hours into playing the mini-games, you always get a sense of reward, and they're just perfect for filling a few minutes here and there. And after several few hours of intense training on each of these, you'll really be in a position to romp through the various singles and doubles matches that await you.
Once you've earned a bit of cash out there on the circuit, you're then able to buy new equipment. Not only does this serve to upgrade your abilities still further, it gives you the chance to purchase a few unlockables, such as new stadiums, shirts, and even sweatbands. (Okay, fair enough, "even sweatbands" isn't exactly awe-inspiring, but unlockables are unlockables.)
But the real question is not so much how many features the game has, but how it looks and - more importantly - how it plays. If you hadn't guessed already, we were blown away when we first caught a glimpse of it back at E3, but after several days in its company we're completely sold on it.
Hail to the king
The visuals, for a start, are a stunning showcase for what the PSP is capable of, with the same smooth, slick animation and fantastic detail that put the game so far ahead of its time five years ago. Even now there's a real wow factor to what's on show, and everyone we've shown the game to so far have elicited the same starry-eyed 'omigod' response. The beautiful animation works in perfect harmony with the consistently responsive controls, and it's fair to say the exact same level of intuitive playability has been retained.
The AI is, once again, pretty much top-notch, and every player in the game offers a discernable variety in terms of tactics and playing style. But if there's one small criticism at this stage, it's that the CPU difficulty in the non-World Tour matches isn't always what it could be - but maybe we're just too bloody good for it these days! The loading times, though, are well above acceptable, with relatively bearable 30-second delays to load up a match. Small loading pauses within the map menu and after you win a point are a slight bugbear at this point, but SEGA lists them as a 'known issues' which will hopefully be fully ironed out when the game ships next month. We'll be sure to let you know if they have.
Until then, our advice is to put the game straight to the top of your pre-order list and get ready to enjoy once of the best-ever games all over again.
Virtua Tennis World Tour is due out on the PSP on September 1st. Check back soon for a full review.