Version tested: GameCube
Sports games have grown up. And damn them for it. Originally the technology was so limited that they had to cut corners. Having ice hockey players dart around like waterboatmen was just the way it had to be; having the ball glued to a footballer's feet was easier than trying to compute them as separate objects; and using button-mashing to simulate running and other athleticism was just logical. After all, this was back when digital buttons, never mind your crazy new-fangled analogue contraptions, were at a real premium.
But, having watched sports games grow out of these habits and lurch onward in pursuit of "realism", we've come to lose interest in a great many. We haven't ever enjoyed anything with "NHL" on the front of it as much as we did when it was followed by "95", to give you an example. Was it not more fun when the players were superhumanly nippy? And when the whole thing was viewed like an air hockey table? These days it's like trying to hack your way through a Teflon jungle with an ice pick, which, however authentically chilling, certainly has its drawbacks.
Of course a number of them have survived our burgeoning disinterest, but now we like them separately and for different reasons. Take Pro Evolution Soccer, for example: brilliant because it's a lot like actual football in a lot of key aesthetic, mechanical and tactical ways. But it doesn't make us look back on Sensible Soccer and wonder why we bothered. In fact, looking back on Sensible Soccer just makes us want to go back and play that too. Links 99 and Tiger Woods 2005 are very different but equally lovable beasts. Athens 2004 is... okay that's a bad example. Button-mashing was always going to be a short-lived infatuation (for your joints, quite literally).
But you get the point. Fortunately there's one sports genre that seems to be awake to all this. There's one that refuses to grow up. It's tennis. Tennis games are fantabulous little things precisely because the people making them recognise the importance of holding on to that unrealistic, forgiving, overly fast-paced approach and introducing depth and realism on levels that don't mess with the fundamentals. Topspin on Xbox was full of all the right people but it was incredibly unrealistic. And yet it's one of our favourite examples in recent years. They might have called it "Sweetspot" instead.
Looking at Mario Power Tennis, however, our initial reaction was that it wasn't just clinging on to the past because it wasn't broken; it was clinging onto the past and moonwalking back in the direction of Pong. It's a Day-Glo arcade tennis game to a greater degree than perhaps any other. Fortunately we were wrong about it. The fundamentals are pretty much exactly right, give or take the odd perspective-related profanity - you use the analogue stick to move, and you can play normal shots, top-spin, slices, drop-shots, lobs and so on by using combinations of the A and B buttons as the ball comes to you. You can charge up a bit too. And just batting the ball around is responsive, intuitive, and suitably forgiving. The ball more or less always lands "in", for example, whereas we reckon Mr Realism might want us to measure how far we push the analogue stick in a particular direction to gauge that. Or just arbitrarily make us hit shots long when he feels like it. Death to Mr Realism. Our worry, though, was that that was more or less that.
Fortunately they put the word "Power" in the title to remind us not to be so stupid. And having spent the best part of a week on and off volleying and smashing our way through the various championships, unlocking most of everything and getting to grips with the superbly balanced multiplayer game for up to four friends, we've decided that Mario Power Tennis very much proves our point. Tennis games needn't be so bothered about maturing in all the fundamental ways, and Mario Power Tennis plainly isn't. What it does do is introduce an array of changes - most notably the power shots - that gently manoeuvre the game in a new and surprisingly thoughtful direction. It is, after all, all very well sprouting a 34D rack at 15 and learning how to flutter your eyelids and talk dirty, but what use is that if you keep tying your shoelaces together? Mario Power Tennis is the girl with the goofy glasses who was always intelligent to begin with and then gets made over and suddenly becomes a sex object.
The power shots, particularly in multiplayer, turn the game into a sort of Mexican standoff. The idea is that whenever your racket starts glowing through repeated use (you know, we don't feel so bad about that dodgy big-titted-woman gag now) you can unleash either an offensive or a defensive power shot. The latter is useful because it's basically a Get Out Of Jail Free card; if you use it, the world stops and your chap or chapette will go into a distinctive animation and return the ball from wherever it went, whether they can feasibly reach it from their standing position or not. The former, power shot meanwhile, is typified by Howitzer-style forehands that batter your opponent back to behind the baseline, or immense swerve that wrongfoots and disorientates the other player's character whether they manage to return it or not, and offensive shots also strip opponents of any racket-glowage they may have accumulated on their side of the net.
And, naturally, the offensive shot is generally best met with the defensive, lest you lose the point. Unless of course you can reach it anyway, in which case a split-second judgement to pull out an offensive power shot return may do well instead, putting the ball back into their court so to speak. (In fact, not "so to speak"; that was exactly what we meant.) So the quandary often is... do you shoot first and potentially win the point? Wait for your opponent to pull out his power shot first? The whole time you're thinking, "I should go for it, but what if I miss?" Layered on top of a more than decent arcade tennis game that's perfectly enjoyable without power shots, and trussed up in typically vibrant Ninty threads, the whole thing comes off like Reservoir Dogs on a bouncy castle, as Mr Donkey Kong prepares to stop barking all day and bite Mr Wiggler with a barrel cannon...
Fleshing out the generally likable mechanics are an array of extremely varied characters and courts, which do a great job of sustaining your interest. Characters are obviously plucked from all the usual Nintendo games, but there are fundamentally six different types, each with various advantages and disadvantages to their play styles and their own distinctive power shots to get to grips with, and beyond the basic differences like speed or defensive prowess, there's also the question of stature to take into account. This has an interesting impact, since the likes of Bowser may be much bigger and slower to react but their towering bulk means they can reach further and better dominate close-court exchanges.
The courts themselves also give you a lot of options. In addition to the normal hard, clay and grass courts, which are fairly distinctive to begin with, Mario Power Tennis is also home to various "gimmick courts", which are generally built around a particular gimmick that has an impact on play. Wario Factory, for example, features conveyor belts that move your character around, and you can alter their movement by hitting arrows that are floating past on top of the net. Manage to whack a forward arrow with a well-placed serve and it might just net you an ace. Bowser Castle, meanwhile, literally rocks on its axis like a Monkey Ball level, and the DK Jungle themed level is an EG favourite; as you play, little crocodiles wander across the net and get knocked down when hit by the ball, after which they clamp on to your character and follow him or her around in a little procession, slowing things down until the game is over and they're frightened off.
A special mention is also worth giving to the sliding-floor-panels effort set in Mario Sunshine's harbour area, where the court is much wider but carefully choosing where to run can reduce or increase the play area. Indeed, with four players, that particular one is riotously entertaining - as are the various mini-games that you unlock as you play, which have you doing things like trying to play the ball back and forth through hoops suspended over the net. There are plenty of other unlockables to wheedle out of that six-pack-of-medallions-style Nintendo sports menu too. Beyond the obvious exhibition play option there are singles and doubles tournaments to win on normal and gimmick courts, which lead to more challenging tournaments, secret players (Wiggler being one of our favourites) and star versions of existing ones, and of course more mini-games.
A fabulously entertaining multiplayer tennis game with an unexpectedly strategic edge, then, and something that's been sorely underrated by a lot of people. Well - that's mostly right. But there are problems to acknowledge, even if some are more subjective than others. The most pressing of which - and the one anybody who's played Mario Power Tennis already, didn't like it, and is poised Mantis-like waiting to smash the comment-keys like a deskbound version of John McEnroe is about to yell at the screen - is the length and frequency of the unskippable power shot animations.
At first, these can feel a little awkward inserted into the flow of a normal rally; they effectively pause the game for about four or five seconds while an animation plays showing off the power shot. After a while you get used to them, even learn to love them, and they're all catered to that specific player so there are some interesting sights to see; Luigi sucking the ball back from an unreturnable position with his Mansion vacuum backpack and returning it on the defensive, for example, and oversized caterpillar Wiggler winding himself up like a spring and then uncoiling to hit a smash. But after a bit longer you may decide that they're tiring. In the single-player mode you almost certainly will. But, and this is where we think a lot of people have been unfair, when deployed in multiplayer the cushion of the generally gorgeous power shot animation is actually more tension-building than tiring; thanks to the paper-scissors-rock style dynamic of when and where to use power shots.
However, yes, you will find them irritating in single-player mode before too long. That's largely because, despite toughening up considerably in the latter stages, the AI controlled players are always a bit too predictable and basic in their play. There's typically some knack to taking points from each specific opponent, and it generally boils down to working out how best to exploit the aftermath of their power shot. Playing as Diddy Kong, for example, a lot of characters find it hard to return his viciously swerving offensive power shot without using their own defensive measure, and as the ball lolls back over the net and they're left disorientated, it's often easy to finish them off with a gentle forehand to the opposite corner. It's not that this doesn't happen in multiplayer; it's more that it isn't so obvious. Human players are much harder and less predictable to play against, and if you go into multiplayer having spent weeks doing nothing but hobble the AI then you're going to notice that. And, it seems, criticism of the doubles-partner AI in single-player is pretty justified; our 'team-mate' regularly stole the ball away and used up his or her power shots needlessly.
Compared to Virtua Tennis, the undisputed king of the tennis franchises around here, Mario Power Tennis is a bit fuzzier and more forgiving in every respect, but, unless you turn them off, the power shots shift the dynamic in quite a different direction. Still, we do prefer VT's brand of finely tuned and emphatic "basic tennis" to Mario's over-the-top "Pixar's Wimbledon with enormous power-bells on" approach. But there's still much to like here. You can pick it up and play it to a competitive standard with relatively little prior instruction (so much so that Kristan actually beat me regularly when he first played it), it's a fundamentally enjoyable and well-made arcade tennis game and it has the lure of power shots, gimmick courts, mini-games and countless unlockables.
We could take this opportunity to strut up and down ranting with self-righteous indignation about the stagnation of Nintendo's first-party line-up and the amount of repackaging and sideways steps that seem to belie its newfound "Revolutionary" principles. But as long as the games are still this entertaining, and do enough to keep us satisfied, we'll be happy to play them. So we're not going to. Besides, that'd be a bit too grown-up.
8 / 10