I’ve got to be honest here - I was never the biggest Mario fan back in the day. I was brought up always having a Sega console so naturally, I tended to lean more towards the Sonic side of things when it came to mascot-based games. Sure, there were other semi-mascot games around back in the 90s, like Ristar and (shudder) Wonder Dog, but I always found myself returning to Sonic time and again. I never actually played any of the Super Mario Bros games until my sisters got a SNES for christmas in 1995 (possibly - my memories of that era are a little muddied - which I put down to all the alcohol and Tesco Value baked beans that have, ahem, entered my system since the early 2000s), so I was a little late to the party, but when I got involved with the N64 all that changed. Actually, thinking about it, I need to correct myself - before I played any of the games that came on the Super Mario Allstars cart that came packed in with that festive SNES, I had played and indeed owned a solitary Mario game: Mario’s Tennis for the Virtual Boy. Yes - I owned a Virtual Boy. I didn’t actually go out and buy the damned thing you understand, no I swapped about 5 Mega Drive games with a friend for it. He didn’t want it because (as I later found out) it was absolute shit...but boy do I wish I’d kept hold of it now: they go for ridiculous money on eBay these days. But I digress.
|Mario's Tennis on Virtual Boy. Not the same as N64 Mario Tennis. Thankfully.|
And after that terribly long-winded and tenuous segue of an introduction, I once again find myself playing a tennis game featuring Nintendo’s very own moustachioed wrench handler. And after writing that last sentence, it has suddenly occurred to me that neither Mario or Luigi do anything even slightly resembling plumbing in any of the games they star in. Mario’s either jumping on the heads of the innocent citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom, racing a kart or pretending to be a doctor; while Luigi’s off terrorising ghosts in one mansion or another. They never do any plumbing, ever. Maybe they went out of business because they’re both always off doing anything but plumbing...but once again I find myself going off on a tangent.
So here we have Mario Tennis - a tennis game for the N64 that features Mario & Luigi, Princesses Peach and Daisy, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, Toad, Bowser, Wa-Luigi, Wario and a few other side characters who are only weakly linked to the whole Mario series (the pink dinosaur boss from Super Mario Bros 2/Doki Doki Panic springs to mind). Being a big fan of Sega’s fantastic Virtua Tennis series, I think I’m pretty well qualified to decide whether a tennis game is worth playing and I wasn’t holding out much hope for Mario Tennis. But I was wrong with a big fat W. Mario Tennis, quite frankly, rocks. It even rocks the pillars of Heaven, as ol’ Jack Burton might say. Well, maybe not quite...but Mario Tennis is about as good a game of racquets as you’re going to get on the N64.
The graphics are really colourful and (gasp!) actually pretty sharp for the N64, and while the arenas aren’t the most detailed of constructions they do feature a lot of nice background touches. Things like the Koopa Trooper ball boys retracting into their shells if the ball comes near them, or Lakito hovering around on his cloud with his camera filming the action are nice inclusions and things that you certainly wouldn’t see in other tennis games on the N64. No, not because they aren’t Mario Tennis (obviously), but because they didn’t have the same level of Nintendo magic lavished upon them by their respective developers.
The sheer number of gameplay options is impressive to say the least. There are the normal tournaments in either single or doubles flavours, and the obligatory multiplayer modes (which I haven’t actually been able to try sadly, because none of my mates will entertain the idea of playing a game on a console that isn’t a PS3 or Xbox 360 these days), but there are a multitude of mini-games and variations on the standard game that add a whole lot of diversity and replayability. There’s a game where you have to return balls that are spat at you by those big venus fly-trap plants (Piranha Challenge), there’s another called Ring Shot where you have to get the ball through enough golden rings within certain parameters (time, number of points etc) and then there’s my favourite: Bowser Stage, in which you play a match on an undulating court and can acquire weapons via the Mario Kart-style boxes floating above the net and then use them to scupper your opponent’s ability to return the ball. Very simple, but deviously addictive and a lot of fun.
|Check out the Picture-in-Picture!|
After playing all these different modes, you’d be forgiven for comparing Mario Tennis’s various mini-games to Virtua Tennis’s training games. And fortunately, the similarities do not end there, as Mario Tennis also plays a very good game too. The characters, as one would expect, all have different attributes - some are slow and powerful, others nimble but not so strong when it comes to swinging the racquet. The controls are pretty basic - you only really have to use the A and B buttons and the analogue stick (and the R button to fire your weapons in Bowser mode) and the game kind of takes over depending on the timing of your button presses/position of the character. Special ‘unstoppable’ serves and volleys can also be activated depending on your timing/position, and as you can probably appreciate, the pyrotechnic campness goes through the roof when this kind of thing happens. And while we’re on the subject of campness, a mention has got to go to the voice acting of the announcer. Wow. Just wow. I’ll say no more than that, but you’ll know what I mean if and when you play. The music and other sound effects are all typically Mario and are really quite pleasant and fit the game perfectly.
Overall, Mario Tennis is a brilliant fusion of terrific controls, luscious visuals and typically Nintendo music and sound effects. Chuck in some great variety in game modes and you’ve got one amazing game.
It’s also got one of the most bizarre into sequences I’ve probably ever seen, but that can’t detract from the overall quality on display here. My new favourite tennis game? Hmm. Almost. Maybe.
Here, Mario Tennis - take this: