Something to Love.
Tennis has never fared well as a video game. We see more football, basketball and golf games than even the most dedicated jock could play in a year, but tennis games are far and few between. The reason? Pong.
No matter how much you tweak it, no matter how realistic you make it, tennis eventually boils down to a game of Pong. Without fail, every single game of tennis goes like this:
1. I hit the ball
2. You hit the ball back.
Now don't get me wrong - the sport is plenty of fun to play in the real world, particularly when you get good enough to stop hitting the ball over the fence. But frankly, it's hard to make such a "thrilling" sport translate into a video game, and in fact we haven't seen a really good one since, well, ever. Which makes Sega's beautiful, fun and addictive Virtua Tennis even more of a shock.
A 'smash' (ha!) hit in the arcades, Virtua Tennis comes to the Dreamcast amidst quite a bit of hype. At the time of this review, you can't find a copy anywhere as most retailers have sold out their stock. So is it worth it? Well, yes and no, but mainly yes.
The game features a slew of international male tennis stars. Those tennis licenses must be damn expensive, as the only U.S. player is the underappreciated and often disappointed Jim Courier. The only other guys most of you have heard of are Mark Philippoussis and Yevgeny Kafelnikov (actually, have any of you heard of these two?). In other words, no Agassi, no Sampras, and absolutely no women. Billy Jean King must be up'set.' (ha!)
The graphics are truly fantastic. Players look eerily real and move with grace and fluidity. The courts show ball marks and scuffs - witness the dust kicked up on clay courts. The framerate is blazing and the polygons are seamless. Sega 'serves' (ha!) up some definite eye-candy in this flawless port. [I can't believe I'm going to 'let' (ha!) you get away with these puns... ~Ed]
For the most part, the gameplay is, well, tennis. You serve the ball, you hit the ball, you return the ball, you lob the ball, you smash the ball. But thanks to some excellent control, it's actually a lot of fun.
In fact, the intuitive controls help make Virtua Tennis that rare sports title that even non-sports fans will enjoy. You don't need to be a genius to figure out how to hit the ball pretty much anywhere on the court (push back for near court, push forward for far court, push left for left, etc.).
In addition to the standard Arcade mode, you can customize your own Exhibition match or take on the world in the World Circuit.
The World Circuit is something of a quest mode. You pick a player and advance through singles and doubles matches, gaining money along the way. This can be used to purchase new playable characters, new stages and sporty new outfits. There are also a bunch of training stages that help you hone your skills. These odd levels include games like "Pin Crasher" (serve to knock down bowling pins), "Drum Shooter" (lob tennis balls into cans), and "Bull's Eye" (hit balls at a big target). While certainly bizarre, the training levels are fun and will make you a better player.
After a while, you'll tire of whupping on the computer, and Virtua Tennis shines as a multiplayer game. Challenge a friend to a singles or doubles match, or take on the computer together. There's even four-player doubles games! No matter how you slice it, it's entertaining.
Yet despite the good gameplay and awesome graphics, there are still a few 'faults' (ha!) that mar this otherwise stellar title.
For starters, the difference between the players is negligible. One has an expert backhand and another has a brutal serve, but I just don't see it. More distinction would have done wonders; some player specific, arcade-like shots would have added depth (or is that game called Mario Tennis?).
The sound is not very good, and the music is an absolutely terrible 'racket' (ha!). I don't know why Sega is in love with cheeseball 80's metal guitar riffs, but Virtua Tennis is filled with 'em. Pseudo-Iron Maiden rock and the aristocratic sport of tennis are not a 'match' (ha!) made in heaven.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Virtua Tennis is mentioned right at the start of this review - the Pong factor. After a while, the game just gets a little dull. The strategy of "hit the ball where the opponent isn't" has its limitations, and most gamers will eventually reach their boiling point once the initial addiction wears off.
But in the end, this is a worthy addition to just about any Dreamcast library. You may not fall in 'love' (ha!) with it, but you can do much worse.