Version tested: Xbox 360
Sumo Digital has made quite a lot of games since its formation in 2003, but our favourites are the two OutRun games and Virtua Tennis 3; love letters for SEGA fans, penned on SEGA's behalf. Superstars Tennis, by contrast, is dinner, dancing, cocktails and fellatio. It's absolutely stuffed with SEGA characters lovingly recreated in 720p high-definition, full of tennis courts built in honour of games like Super Monkey Ball, House of the Dead, Golden Axe and Space Channel 5, with unlockable Achievements for 360 inspired by their names. SEGA Rally is a 40-shot rally, After Burner is a 100mph serve, OutRun is covering 6 miles on foot.
Mechanically it feels like a simplified take on Virtua Tennis, with a familiar service bar that takes one tap to initiate and a second well-timed tap to play the ball, and a pair of shot buttons and a lob available when you tap two buttons in sequence. Not unlike Mario Tennis - dead now, perhaps, thanks to Wii Sports' success - successful shots allow you to unleash character-specific special moves. A golden star outline fills up as you play, and once full you tug a trigger button, watch a cute animation, and take advantage of the result.
Everything is gloriously indulgent: AiAi's special shots bend like a boomerang as bananas tumble around the court; Beat from Jet Set Radio sends the ball cross court via two sharp turns accompanied by spray-can sound effects as Rokkaku police shoulder-charge the opposition; and Tails sends the ball over the net in a whirlwind that leaves his adversaries seeing stars. Balls on the Samba de Amigo court leave the racket to the sound of maracas, Flagman is the umpire on the OutRun level, break-dancing when he gets bored, and every court has several unlockable tunes bequeathed by the host product, selectable before each match. Smashing a glowing ball back and forth in-between dancing sombrero-wearing cacti is all the better for Samba de Janeiro belting away in the background.
Like Virtua Tennis, the main "Superstars" game mode is not just about tennis matches and tournaments but mini-games as well. Sonic the Hedgehog tasks involve collecting rings, Monkey Ball tasks you with smashing monkey balls through giant rings, and House of the Dead - named Curien Mansion here for reasons beyond our understanding or limited tolerance for research - has you bashing zombies. We won't identify all the games, though, because SEGA fans - for whom this game is solely intended - will delight in discovering them for themselves. Needless to say, UK:R, the sky's as blue as can be. The novelty never really wears off, and a steady stream of unlockable courts, music and characters - often glimpsed on the other side of early tournament line-ups - ensures that there's always more to see.
Initially though, it feels as though the big absentee is Virtua Tennis itself. That game's superbly realised tennis rules and controls appear to be simplified too much, resulting in a game of tennis that rarely evolves beyond simple rallies. A Virtua Tennis expert can all but destroy an amateur, just as Roger Federer would dismantle a part-timer, but here there's less of a gap between experience and inexperience. Similarly disappointing is that Superstars mode isn't about character-development in the way that Virtua Tennis was, and the game offers no sort of alternative; mini-games are played and replayed simply to achieve triple-A rankings, rather than to improve your skills in any particular area. As you move through the first few hours of them, it dawns on you that the quality's distinctly mixed, too, with too much collecting and dodging.
But things gradually improve. Better efforts lie hidden in other unlockable game worlds, with Virtua Cop's - sorry, Virtua Squad's - easily the standout, as you play through a mock-up of instantly recognisable docks level from the first game firing tennis serves at pop-up enemies before they can shoot you. Tasks like trick shots (based on snooker's equivalent) in Monkey Ball and the Puyo Puyo blob-smashing are sparks of innovation that eventually ignite prolonged satisfaction. From an initial sense of boredom emerges a desire to keep doing the same things for Achievements, and those AAA rankings you scorned, pausing and restarting repeatedly as you try to complete a series of Jet Set Radio tagging objectives - picking up paint canisters and then volleying a ball into complex designs painted across the opposing baseline to colour them in.
The seemingly inexact tennis mechanics - while blunted versions of Virtua Tennis's - prove sufficient for a solid competitive game when you play against another human, or in a group of four, or when the AI finally wakes up. This takes a while, but Tournament mode - a straightforward Grand Slam series of increasingly difficult matches, with a high score leaderboard at the end - hints at it. Opponents - particularly powerful characters like Dr. Eggman and spinners like MeeMee - force you to the baseline, and need to be thought past rather than lazily dispatched with increasingly acute cross-court power shots. Online, you can take part in ranked and unranked exhibitions and tournament matches, and there's also a TV element for watching other players live or as highlights. There are rarely any line calls to dispute in SEGA Superstars Tennis, the ball never brushes the net on its way over, and the range of shots is narrower than SEGA's fanbase will be used to, but what is on offer ultimately proves satisfying, backed by the sort of fan service that only Sumo does with dignity.
So, SEGA fans, run don't walk to the shops, but be prepared to give Superstars a few hours before the gameplay starts hugging you as hard as the graphics and sound. Everyone else, dust off Virtua Tennis 3 for a more complete alternative.
7 / 10