We'll probably still be banging on about the merits of Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast until we're old and grey, but it really is one of the finest games ever made, so you can't blame us. "How can a mere Tennis game, a glorified remake of Pong, be so compelling", you're probably musing. And if we'd never played it, we'd be wondering the same thing. But we have, and our lives have never been quite the same since. How on earth could Sega hope to cram in all that instant playability and bottomless depth into a handheld version?
Happily, this is not one of those loveless ports. Contained within are all the modes that fans of the full game could wish for, including a selection of training mini-games. The game is split up into the traditional Tournament, Exhibition and World Tour modes, with four levels of skill, 12 CPU opponents (six men, six women, with presumably a couple of super-skilful opponents once you've defeated World Tour), three types of surface (Clay, Grass, Hard), and various options to vary the number of games/tie break.
Anyone for Pong?
Tournament and Exhibition are the staple diet of the proceedings, and barely need an explanation. Simply decide whether you want to play singles or doubles, set the number of games (up to six), the difficulty level, select your opponent, the type of court, and off you go. The game is almost ridiculously simple. Just you, a racket, two buttons (A for top spin, B for Lob shot, L and R for calling out doubles commands, and the D-pad for movement) and a mindful of evil shots that you will inflict mercilessly upon your hapless opponent. Well, that's the plan, at any rate, but the CPU opponents are pretty good. Sadly, the licensing of known players hasn't extended to this version, with the exception of the Williams sisters, who are featured on the box art, natch. Each player has its own set of skills, and you're advised of their strengths, such as 'Powerful Strokes', 'Hard Hitter', 'Big Server' and so on, and you'll soon discover which ones are cannon fodder, and which are the tricky ones.
For the committed among you, World Tour is where the real one-player action is. Starting as a relative rookie with no skills to speak of, ranked 300th in the world, the ultimate aim is to worm your way up the ladder, as either a man or a woman. The world map tells you of the current singles and doubles tournaments you can enter, and then it's up to you to either plump for those to earn some cash and increase your ranking, or enter the training games. Once you've amassed a booty of cash, you can then go off to the shop and spend your winnings on improving your equipment, which in turn helps boost the stats of your player, and thus your chances of climbing the ladder further.
Another way of improving the many capabilities of your player(s) is to indulge yourself in one of the ten slightly oddball mini-games. Each is designed to improve certain aspects of your game, including footwork, speed, control, stamina, technique and jumping. Sounds reasonable, but once you enter into them, they're all as quirky and amusing as you'll remember from previous versions of the game, such as Tank Attack, which has you running around returning a ball back to a moving tank to 'destroy' it within a preset time limit, Egg Crasher, which has you serving as accurately as possible to smash one of three giant eggs, or how about Burger Chef? Serve onto a chequered board in order to select the ingredients for the perfect burger. Hmmmm. All superb, irreverent fun, and the kind of lightweight distractions that are perfect for handheld gaming.
This rookie sucks
The actual Tennis is also a surprisingly good approximation of the old versions of VT, with the exact same serve mechanic (tap A to throw the ball up, tap again to set the power and point it in the direction required) and much the same playability. Due to the relative lack of animation the fluidity isn't quite there, but the same instinctive play seems possible, although our rookie absolutely sucked during the early part of Word Tour, constantly spooning the ball up in the air, and utterly lacking any power, speed or conviction, but that's up to you to work on.
Multi-player will be down to you and bunch of your mates all going out and buying it en masse; a scenario we're not sure is likely given the prohibitively high cost. But if you've all got the required funds, then we can foresee that this could conceivably be one of the all time best link-up games on the GBA. Certainly, four-player sessions on the original are still a regular staple of our gaming diet, and we can imagine this would be almost too much fun. But as you'll have guessed, we've not got four copies and four GBAs to test it out, so allow us to speculate on its greatness.
Too much compromise, or an unfair comparison?
For all its features, there are a few issues that'll make you question your need to own this game. Visually it could never even hope to compete with its grown up brother, but although Altron has done a fair job of making the players move convincingly, the inherent lack of animation compromises your player's freedom. For example, on the original, if you hit the shot button anywhere near the ball, the game would always try to reach a shot, even if it meant performing skin shredding dives to do so. However, in the GBA version the capabilities of your player are much more restricted; while they'll reach a little bit, there's none of the diving and lunging dramatics that you're used to. While we appreciate there are always going to be compromises in a handheld version of a game with so much animation in it, when it's such an integral part of what made the original so slick, playable and intuitive, you're still justified in feeling a pang of disappointment.
Having said that, taken in isolation, it's easily the best handheld Tennis game, and once you get over the inevitable (and possibly unfair) comparisons you're left with a game that's going to brighten up a lot of dull journeys for a long time to come, especially if you've got a mate who's up for some link-up action.