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July 2, 2018

RE: Mario Tennis Aces

So Mario Tennis Aces has forced me to endure one of the greatest existential crises I’ve had in a while: it made me realize I’m really bad at tennis.

I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.  Ever since a disastrous Little League season when I was in second grade (and managed to get hurt in virtually every game), I pretty much only played sports when forced to.  That carried over to video games; outside of some wrestling titles and the SSX games, I haven’t had a single entry in the genre since the Wii version of NBA Jam.  Honestly, I think this is the first time a sports game has ever come up on this blog.

And what better way to celebrate than with the latest offering from Nintendo and Camelot?  The answer is none.  There is no better way.  Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash may not have set the world on fire, but I’d like to think it at least paved the way for Aces.  That Nintendo Direct from a while back helped, too; if not for its rundown of the gameplay mechanics, I would’ve shrugged Aces off and gone about my merry way with more Pokken.

Speaking of?  I know that this is a sentiment that’s been repeated elsewhere, but yes.  Mario Tennis Aces is as much a fighting game as it is a sports game.  With a little shooter DNA mixed in for good measure.

…For good or ill.

Pretty bold move of the marketing team to jam in that 7.5 from IGN in there.  Guess they want to wear that “too much water” badge with pride.

Since this is far from the first tennis outing in the Mushroom Kingdom, I’m going to assume you know the score.  If you don’t, reevaluate your life I’ll explain quickly: choose your favorite Mario mainstay and take to the court.  Smash that ball back and forth to try and slip past your opponent’s defenses and score points.  Use every kind of shot you’ve got to trip up your foe, or go for the kill by stepping into a star on the court and gaining a massive boost in smashing power.  Game, set, match.

Unless you choose to thrive in the gimmick courses, Aces does away with the bells and whistles of previous titles (so no Attack on Waluigi via the Mega Mushrooms).  The focus here is on raw, hard gameplay -- actual mechanics instead of incidental hazards.  So on top of your different racket swings -- topspin, slice, flat, lob, drop shot -- you’ve got Zone Shots, Zone Speed, Trick Shots, and Special Shots.  The latter four hinge on one decisive new addition: like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, you have to spend energy from your meter for your best moves.

In my experience?  Building and maintaining meter is just as important -- maybe more so -- than returning the ball to your opponent.  Why?  Well, to put it in stark terms, here’s a list of things you can’t do if you don’t have enough meter:

--You can’t slow down time to reach a ball that’s out of your reach.
--You can’t go for a powerful, directly-aimed shot.
--You can’t use your super move, which is strong enough to shatter an opponent’s racket if they don’t block correctly…and if they have no rackets left, you win the match.
--You can’t use your super move to instantly catch up to an out-of-reach ball and put your opponent on the defensive.

So in general, you don’t want to be without meter.  Careful use of it is vital, but so is the art of building meter in the first place.  Every time you land a charged hit, you’ll get energy relative to the amount of time you spent charging (though you’ll need to be VERY careful, as charging reduces your mobility drastically).  Alternatively, you can use your Trick Shots -- jumps, twists, dives, and moonwalks used to reach a faraway ball -- to get extra energy.  That’s a gutsy move, though; the startup frames make it so that you’re better off using Trick Shots on prediction instead of reaction, unless you want to completely whiff.  But if you’ve been successfully reading your opponent, the risks are worth the reward.

Christ, this really is a fighting game.

And because this is a fighting game, you’d better be ready to put in the work.  It’s not about learning combos or reviewing frame data, thankfully; on the other hand, there is a pretty substantive mix-up game.  Will you shoot left, right, or center?  Try to go for an overhead with a lob, or hit low with a drop shot?  Also, there’s a counter system in place so that you can maximize damage (relatively speaking) by hitting topspins with slices, slices with topspins, and flats with flats.  Then you bring in your meter-based abilities, and, well, it gets pretty complex pretty quick.

This is all just a fancy way of saying that there’s a good chance you’ll get your ass kicked in online play.  I got the game a few days after it came out, so by the time I jumped in, my first couple of matches were against guys that had amassed over a thousand ranking points.  It makes me wary of the matchmaking system in place, given that I was clearly pitted against someone outside my skill level.  And because I got a taste of what true, optimal play looked like, I know there’s a difference between the skilled and unskilled.

Maybe it’d help my chances if I settled on a main.  Chain Chomp is a contender just because of the sheer audacity of letting a limbless steel quasi-canine on the court; on the other hand, Rosalina’s here.  I think she’s cool.  Normally I’d be a Peach guy, but these days?  I wonder.

The game’s online infrastructure and stability are going to be crucial from here on out.  Unless you’ve got pals around who are always willing to play some sets -- which to be fair might be the optimal method -- then Aces is going to end up feeling pretty anemic to those that want meaningful single-player content.  And sure, to be fair there’s a decently-sized adventure mode, but it hasn’t been enough to maintain my interest.  It’s more of me going through the motions and hoping that it’ll teach me how to git gud.

If you want to git gud, you’ll need to play actual games instead of some of the gimmicks in the adventure mode.  Critically?  The connection strength and smoothness will be the difference between a win and a loss.  Setting aside the fact that you need to be able to motor to reach a waylaid ball in time, your rackets have durability levels.  Three green bars, a universal constant for the cast.

If you fail to successfully block three Zone Shots (and thus deplete your bars), you’ll lose a racket.  If you fail to successfully block ONE special shot, your racket will break instantly.  Run out of rackets, and it’s game over.  Given that, woe to those who miss the timing because of a lag spike.  Thankfully it hasn’t happened to me, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuut it still could someday.

Lag or not, I still haven’t decided how I feel about the KO possibilities in this game.  Whenever I see an opponent gearing up for a Zone or Special, I start to slip into panic mode.  I haven’t reached a point where I can comfortably, reliably challenge their offense, especially with the prospect of an instant loss on the table.  Granted Zone Shots aren’t as lethal, but you can still be put in a bad position even if you get the block.  At this stage, I’m more inclined to let the opponent get the point instead of taking a big stupid risk.

That’s kind of why it’ important to build and maintain meter in this game -- because as with any fighting game, you want to make the opponent deal with your shenanigans before you have to deal with theirs.  But because of the durability system, there’s a sense of dirtiness to the game.  If you can win with a gradual racket damage or a straight-up KO, then does that take away something from the game?  Does it eschew honor and fairness for ruthless pragmatism?  

I guess the saving grace in that respect is that there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to earn a KO (or even a point).  Nothing would sting more than challenging a foes reflexes and timing with a Zone or Special, only to have it utterly negated with a single, meter-free button tap.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I like Mario Tennis Aces; I’m glad it’s here, and I’m glad I have it.  Most of my complaints are aimed at the adventure mode, because A) some of the events along the way are time-wasting tedium, and B) prior to some patches, some of them require such specific meter management that anything less than a perfect run ends in failure.  But even then, there are some fun little bits throughout the adventure; using Trick Shots to vault over incoming attacks/projectiles is more satisfying than it should be.

The core gameplay is there, but refined as opposed to its predecessors.  Compared to Mario Power Tennis (the one I have the most experience with), the double whammy of inserting meter management and meaningful ways to use that meter makes a world of difference, at least when I look back on the basic, binary abilities of the GameCube release.  You don’t need a mastery of okizeme or inputs within 1/60th of a second; it’s more of a common sense application of skills and gradual understanding of your opponent.  So despite the complexities added, it’s overall a simple yet elegant system.

You want to know what the real clincher is, though?  At the end of the day, Mario Tennis Aces is just downright fun.  Salt-inducing?  Without a doubt.  But when I played solo and got cremated, I still had the same reaction as I did with Street Fighter V: losing just made me want to come back twice as hard as before.  When I played doubles with my brother, we both lost, and soundly, and consistently.  In the last match, dear old big bro tried to block an incoming special shot.  He failed and got KO’d as a result.  But we didn’t mind too much.  We were too busy laughing it up.

So yeah, good job Nintendo.  Good job Camelot.  Now I’ve got one more game to tide me over till Smash Ultimate comes out.

Now let’s see what happens with Octopath Traveler.

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