As a lifelong fan of sitting in comfy chairs whacking things, I've been a massive proponent of the industry's push to outlaw running in sports games. Wii Sports? Brilliant, amazing - a revolution in fake exercise. So when my friend who works in a game shop told me that Rafa Nadal Tennis didn't seem to care about running either, and that Codemasters had quietly slipped it out the door while we were off on Christmas holiday, I was filled with confidence and excitement. My enthusiasm was only strengthened when Nadal himself got crushed in the Australian Open last month and said it was because he didn't run.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when I discovered that it was all a sham. Worse, it was a trick to lure us in. To begin with, the game's worried about overloading you with new controls, so all you have to do is stroke the stylus across the screen in little jabbing slashes to direct the ball about, with Rafa happy to position himself for you. But sooner or later you do have to run after all, tapping the court surface to reposition Rafa before playing a shot. Double worse, the alternative approach of using buttons is all about running. A mockery of a sham. (Which is roughly what I've been aiming for with this intro, incidentally.)
Of course, the idea of using the stylus to whack a ball around isn't a new one, and the fact that Rafa Nadal Tennis is a bit too complicated and imprecise for its own good - so much so that the developer doesn't even trust you to pick it all up in one go - is hardly headline news either. It's no coincidence that the best DS games revolve around activities that involve pointing, pushing, stroking and prodding, or simply ignore the stylus completely, and Rafa Nadal isn't about to turn that logic on its head. What's quite surprising is that the game's actually good fun anyway.
Initially your hopes won't be very high. Your first dozen or so matches using the stylus will be about as successful as... well, about as successful as a tennis player who can't run. It's the perennial problem with DS games that try to reinvent the stylus as an instrument it's completely unlike: there's no tactile or visual feedback to aid you, so the only way to build up an instinct for how much is too much is through the painstaking process of failing 17 thousand times in a row. After that, your pen hand grumpily complies, but still makes mistakes from time to time, which you could quite fairly blame on the game.
In Rafa Nadal Tennis, the effect of having tried to reinvent the racket is worsened by the sudden realisation that - bollocks - you do have to run after all. Otherwise rallies seem to last forever, as your positioning and shot execution is never quite as good as it might be with a little manual refinement. Not only that, but the game treats the auto-positioning as training wheels, and soon leaves it up to you. Running involves tapping the space on the court that you want to move into, after which you need to play the ball, perhaps holding one of the buttons while you do to turn the shot into a lob or topspin drive.
The thing that redeems it is that Rafa Nadal's countrymen at Virtual Toys are wise to the fact it's a bit difficult, so they've simply made it an option. By default, you use the stylus. If you prefer to use the buttons, you just flip a switch in the options menu. Lo and behold, the game is much easier when you do, allowing you to make consistent progress through the Career mode, auto-Rafa-ing your way to the game's equivalent of the coveted losing handshake with Roger Federer. (Or rather, working your way up the world rankings, on a variety of court surfaces, against an array of tennis players that are either made up or I've never heard of before.)
Played with the d-pad and buttons, it's a sort of Virtua Tennis Lite. The ball physics are never as good as those in SEGA's game, the service mechanics are a bit clunky and the line calls sometimes appear dreadful, but the gameplay in general is a convincing tribute. Like Virtua Tennis, positioning doesn't have to be precise, but the better it is the better you do. Like Virtua Tennis, there's surprising depth and variety to the outcome of each point, the animation system does an impressive job of handling your movement and shot relative to the ball, and while there's nothing to compare to SEGA's wonderful mini-games there are a few secondary objectives to try and complete in tournament-play, like winning X number of consecutive points.
It's a perfectly enjoyable tennis game, which does a reasonable job of emulating the genre champion. It's even got the option of single-card multiplay, which does wonders for its chances of finding an audience (or would do if Codemasters hadn't buried it in the festive schedule like so many bodies under Henman Hill). There's even, in the long run, something to be said for the stylus control system. Your first instinct, of course, is not to use it, and this is only reinforced by the (correct) assumption that it will be much easier and less frustrating to stick with something you know. But if you do persist, you'll find there's something oddly compelling about triumph in these circumstances. It's harder fought, and there's no additional reward for your trouble, but with the challenge increased, it feels like quite a different game. The stylus control is easy to dismiss or even ignore, but it's not without its charm. Like the game as a whole then.
Also, it's nice to be reminded of where games started going wrong back in the '90s. It wasn't 3D, it wasn't FMV; it wasn't anything like that. It was when we did away with big stupid smiling still photos of sportsmen gnawing on trophy handles as background graphics, with preposterous guitar music playing over the top, like a sort of hungover Sunday morning TransWorld Sport nostalgia vomit fantasy. If I can't have sports without running, then at least developers could give me a bit more of that. In the meantime, this is worth a go if you absolutely must have portable tennis and can't play Virtua Tennis on the PSP.