Version tested: Wii
Wii remotes worldwide are crying out of their little speakers for a full-featured tennis game, so natural is the fit of the sport for the controller - but a new version of this over-egged 2004 effort can't ever be more than a stop-gap. If the objective of Nintendo's New Play Control! reissues of GameCube games for the Wii is to give these games an extended lifespan, then Mario Power Tennis' return from the grave might end up being somewhat brief.
There are several reasons for that. The first is that you need a really, really good reason to look past the deceptively simple and addictive Wii Sports Tennis that comes bundled with every machine - a game that sacrifices character movement for the subtle and responsive racquet-head control that still stands as some of the best gesture-recognition the Wii has seen.
The second is that that reason is coming. Wii MotionPlus is out this summer - it's an add-on offering greatly increased responsiveness and fidelity from the Wii remote, and it impressed us at E3 last year. It has clearly impressed EA too, which is using MotionPlus as its excuse to finally enter the videogame tennis grand slam with EA Sports Tennis. You'd be a fool to bet against this becoming the default tennis game on Wii - and even if it fails, there will surely be one or two competitors waiting for it to slip up.
The third is that New Play Control! Mario Sports Tennis doesn't actually work that well. Unlike Pikmin, whose pointer control system was an obvious and automatic improvement when mapped to the Wii remote, this is an arcade game designed for high-speed button-and-stick input. The replacement gesture commands are simply not reliable or quick enough to give you what you want 100 per cent of the time.
A horizontal swing with the remote gives you a flat shot; give it an upward slant for topspin, and downward for slice. Forehand and backhand are now determined by whether you swing from right to left or vice versa, rather than the placement of your character relative to the ball. Straight up gives you a lob, straight down a drop shot or smash depending on the context. It's a completely logical and intuitive scheme, but it's not a precise one, and it's quite easy to trigger the wrong type of shot, which rarely loses you the point, but might lose you a winner.
Offensive and defensive power shots - Mario Power Tennis' marquee feature, the over-the-top special moves you can use once a power meter is maxed out - are executed by combining shot gestures with A or B. Press the plus or minus buttons when swiping horizontally for a lunge to the right or left. If you're a novice player, someone's mum, or you just want to concentrate on getting the swinging right, power shots and lunges can be triggered automatically with various difficulty settings.
Mario Power Tennis' biggest draw over Wii Sports Tennis is the ability to direct your player around the court yourself. This can be done with a nunchuk stick or, if playing with a solo remote, the d-pad. D-pad control works surprisingly well, especially with the game's generous auto-correction giving you plenty of time and space around each shot to get your swing in, and it's a thoughtful addition - the game supports up to four-player doubles matches in multiplayer, and few are the households that have four nunchuks lying around.
The rest is as you'll remember, or not, from the GameCube version. There are standard tennis surfaces and "Gimmick" courts with themes and hazards hallucinated by the creators of the Mushroom Kingdom. Matches can be played with regular tennis rules, or as Ring Shot or Item Battle contests. The former's a rewarding test of shot selection that awards points for hitting the ball through rings; the latter a rather haphazard, but basically enjoyable attempt to squeeze Mario Kart's familiar arsenal of items into a game of tennis.
Three-round tournaments - playable in singles or doubles and on Gimmick or normal courts - unlock the cast of playable characters and offer an instructive and well-judged difficulty curve in their opponent AI. You also have a range of Special Games - single-player mini-games crammed with fan-service references to everything from Mario Sunshine and Luigi's Mansion to Mario Paint, but mostly Mario Sunshine. They're fun ideas, but arguably not as well-tuned or pleasingly absurd as the Virtua Tennis series' silliest moments, and they won't divert you long.
As an arcade tennis game, Mario Power Tennis has serious pedigree that goes all the way back to the SNES classic Super Tennis - and it's basically an update of the N64's superb Mario Tennis, which many (well, me) would claim still plays the best four-player doubles match videogaming has ever seen. As such, the game's basics are rock-solid: vivid visuals, consistent and punchy ball behaviour, a nice mix of AI playing styles and surfaces, great variation in pace, some tactical nuance, a gloriously satisfying system for overhead smashes and that magic ingredient of multiplayer Mario games - the sense of teetering forever on the brink of chaos, but never tipping into it.
But, in common with most of the moustachioed icon's Cube-era output - including Sunshine and, especially, Mario Kart Double Dash!! - Power Tennis tries just that little bit too hard, and ends up missing the point. In the early 2000s (those dark days before NEW Super Mario Bros, Mario Kart DS and Super Mario Galaxy reclaimed what was rightfully his) Nintendo's Mario games, while still well-made, were starting to slip into the gimmicky, high-concept desperation and egregiously wacky presentation of the production line.
So Mario Tennis' excellent core got weighed down with needless frippery like the Gimmick courts and Special Games. More damagingly, its shot-to-shot perfection was disturbed by the introduction of Power Shots. Their cartoon gratification doesn't really make up for the way their lengthy animations break up the rhythm of play, or their near-infallible success rate upsets the balance of the point, or their hyperactive silliness cheapens some well-loved characters. It's not like Mario Tennis was lacking in exuberance without them, although at least they can be turned off.
Power Tennis, then, is a decent arcade tennis game but not a classic - and this New Play Control! conversion isn't anything more than a more-or-less functional reboot that gives away a little precision, and doesn't add much in return apart from a sore arm the morning after. Physically swiping at shots adds to the general air of vigorous silliness, but getting the wrong one will wipe the smile from your face in short order - and when friends and family are round, it'll seem easier to just slip Wii Sports back in the slot instead. When it comes to the Wii tennis game we're all waiting for, the ball's very much in EA's court.
6 / 10