Final score : Nothing to Love.
Tennis has enjoyed a popularity resurgence lately, thanks in no small part to the perpetual comeback of Andre Agassi, the sheer dominance of Pete Sampras, and the sibling rivalry of the Williams sisters. Call me a chauvinist, but I personally watch tennis for the mini-skirts. Have you seen Anna Kournikova? More like 'Porn' ikova, if you ask me [Steffi Graf is on her way over to beat you up. ~Ed].
All testosterone aside, the sport of tennis has never fared well as a video game. I mean, really - how much fun can it possibly be hitting a ball back and forth over a net? Wasn't this pretty much covered already in Pong?
Sadly, the current console systems have barely made an effort to translate tennis. In fact, I think All-Star Tennis '99 is the first tennis game to be released in North America for the N64. And if this is a vision of things to come, I sincerely hope it will be the last. This game suffers from severely shabby graphics, sluggish control, and pretty boring gameplay. But before I lob it into the cheap seats, let's investigate.
All-Star Tennis '99 features tennis stars from around the world. In fact, most American sports fans will only recognize a few players. Michael Chang is easily the most famous, and is indeed plastered on the box. Some of you will have heard of Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champ. But the rest of the pack are just average tennis players from around the globe - Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, Australia's Mark Philippoussis, South Africa's Amanda Coetzer - not really household names. Where's Agassi? Or Sampras? Or Hingis? Seems strange to make a tennis game bereft of the top ranked players. Couldn't secure those licenses, eh?
The game itself is pretty straightforward. You choose a player, choose from one of 8 courts, and... well... play some tennis. Singles, Doubles, and Tournament modes offer the basic sports video game options. Pretty much what you'd expect.
There's no two ways about it - the graphics in All-Star Tennis '99 suck. The players are rough, lumpy, polygonal mishmashes. There's barely any definition. If you close your eyes and squint, they look like sprites. Plus, the clothing (particularly on the women) is just awful. The skirts are literally colored triangles.
The courts aren't much better. The line judge is a flat sprite pancake and the arenas have very few distinguishing details. Aside from court color and a few signs, you'd swear you were in the same place every time. Compared to the other sports games for the N64, this one just doesn't come close.
The sound is equally bad. Sure, the 'ball hitting racket' sounds fine, but the announcer really doesn't comment on anything. Every so often, someone in the crowd laughs too loud, and a voice booms, "Quiet, please." That's the extent of it. It really draws you in. I swear, after a few minutes, you'll be convinced that you're sitting on your couch playing a crappy tennis game. It's just that immersive. Ugh.
So what about the gameplay, you ask? Oy, do you really want to know? I mean, haven't you figured it out yet? Fine. I'll spill the beans. You can hit the ball all over the court. You can hit lobs, you can hit topspin, and you can hit backspin. You can run up to the net, or you can play further back. And that about covers it. Sorry you asked, eh?
The biggest problem with the gameplay lies in the controls. Players move slowly and awkwardly, and the response time is bad. More than once I lost a point because my player dove at a ball that was right next to him.
On the other hand, this game does offer some challenge that is not a result of bad programming. The computer gets harder as you play more and more, and in the end you might glean a wee bit of fun out of it, particularly if you're a tennis fan starving for action.
There are actually two remotely interesting things in All-Star Tennis '99. The first is the idea of 'special moves.' By winning points, you accumulate little units of energy. When you have enough units, you can perform one of two special moves. The moves are identical for each player. While a nice idea, this half-assed attempt at arcade action falls flat. The moves are hard to pull off and don't guarantee a winning point. You're just better off sticking to the normal shots.
The other kind-of-neat-but-ultimately-lame addition is 'Bomb Tennis.' When the ball lands in your opponent's court, it leaves a little sprite bomb. If you touch the bomb, you lose the point. And that's that. It's actually more fun than the rest of the game. Unfortunately, that's not saying much.
Tennis used to be a sport usually reserved for the snobs, the upper-class, the club members named Buffy and Chip. Nowadays, however, more and more people are getting into the game. Just make sure that game isn't All-Star Tennis '99. This one is a double fault.