Nope, not even Love.
I know what you’re dreaming. If you had the chance to break out all of your favorite Sega characters from The Nursing Home For Retired Mascots, you wouldn’t recast them in the classic titles they come from and gleefully play those titles one more time. No, that would be too much fun. Instead, you would pit them against each other on the greener side of the tennis court, a rectangular field of grass divided into yet more rectangular fields of grass by ambiguous white lines, a place where they can hit hard balls with hard racquets and give a hard grunt whenever they feel hardy for more.
You imagine yourself sneaking into the retirement home, lying low behind the overgrown bushes, and tiptoeing up the corroded staircase, but then, you freeze in shock. All the lights and windows have been smashed by Sega Superstars Tennis. It has beaten you to the punch, and you wake up, battered and alone, hoping never to relive that nightmare ever again.
Like ye-olde Mario Tennis for the N64, it’s hard not to see Sega Superstars Tennis without all the “I’m-just-a-sports-title" that’s ripping off the brand dollar signs flashing above it. In fact, I’m surprised that Sega didn’t copy Nintendo sooner. (Oh, sorry, Sonic Shuffle is
exactly the same as totally different from Mario Party.) Of course, as far as the “fair market” is concerned, there’s no fault in following Nintendo’s scheme of shoving simple sports titles through the “It’s-a-meeee!” fax, copier, scanner, and printer (though I’m sure Daisy is glad to get any exposure she can get). And if #14 on the list of game sales for the last twelve months has any validity, combining the powers of both Nintendo and Sega on an Olympic field can cause the fanboy sleeper cell to explode.
Unfortunately, there is no excuse for a bland, by-the-numbers tennis outing that tries to pawn itself off as a celebration of Sega’s history. From the get-go, you are immediately thrust onto the court as your favorite racquet-whipping Sega character, and asked to perform serves, lobs, forehands, backhands, drop shots, and overhead smashes. Didn’t understand the last part of that? Well, tough. You are offered no tutorial, no assistance other than, “If you’re losing, you’re doing it wrong.”
Winning points usually amounts to simply hitting the Pong-like ball where the opponent isn’t: whack to the left, whack to the right, then whack again to the left, whack again to the right, ad nauseum. This certainly isn’t any different than the flow of play from, well, tennis, but there isn’t enough immediate hit-or-die tension here.
In real tennis, you can realistically win a point within the first few exchanges or even on the rare serve with an ace. Here, rallies go on and on, mostly because characters - from a speed class character like Sonic or Beat from Jet Set Radio, to a power class character like Dr. Eggman - are fast enough to chase down most any ball. Every exciting shot in the incredibly realistic Virtua Tennis 3 which is also developed by Sumo Digital - sharp cunning drop volleys, sky-high lobs, and top-spin down-the-line backhands - all turn casually ho-hum once Sonic & Pals turn up.
Whether you’re in the Planet Superstars career mode, Quick Play, Tournament Play, or online, you’ll be disappointed by how run-of-the-mill everything is. Character-specific special moves try to mix up the action, but are a bit too unbalanced. Every character has a star meter beneath their feet that can unleash a powerful shot that can change the path of the ball and cause various effects like making the opponent dizzy or coating the opponent’s side of the court with slippery paint. Some characters have powers that virtually guarantee a free point, while some don’t. Guess which character you’ll choose?
Now, this doesn’t mean that Sega Superstars Tennis doesn’t work or isn’t polished. Both the court design and the musical tracks are extraordinarily inspired by Sega’s classic titles. The court for Samba de Amigo is festive and flashy, decorated with colorful flags and palm trees, while the court for NiGHTS is flooded with water and soaked in soft, magical undertones. Coupled with songs that are either remixed or ripped straight from the soundtrack of the original game, it’s enough to bring you back.
But then Superstars mode takes you one step back too far. On top of challenging you to a series of tournament matches, this single-player career mode forces you through a gauntlet of tennis-based mini-games with such exhilarating goals like “Paint the ground!” What, not exciting? Well, what about “Dodge the spikes!” or “Collect the rings!”? Or “Hit the Monkey Ball or asteroids from Space Harrier or columns of Puyo Puyo!”? Or “Kill the zombies with a tennis ball instead of a chainsaw!”? Yeah, I thought not.
It doesn’t really matter whether these goals are time-based, life-based, or score-based. It doesn’t matter that the letter grade you’re given after each event doesn’t add any replay value, since there’s no reward for getting higher grades other than the passing ‘A’. It doesn’t even matter that completing the entire Superstars mode doesn’t give you anything, not even an ending. No, what matters is that these mini-games only serve to remind you of how much fun you would be having if you just went to your attic, dusted off your old Genesis, and popped in the classic titles the mini-games are based on. (Which by the way, why are there characters from Alex Kidd and Golden Axe here, but not any from Virtua Fighter, or Double Dragon, or Streets of Rage, or Shinobi!, or… all right… just breathe...)
Better yet, what about just a compilation of Sega classics? You know, something that usually costs half the price of most full retail games? Wait a minute, why am I playing a tennis game anyway?! And that’s exactly what will be going through your head. If the actual tennis wasn’t tedious and mundane, you wouldn’t have to ask whether Sega Superstars Tennis was just used to justify a reunion of Sega characters, or the other way around. Either way, the dream of a Sega-filled game that actually lives up to the legacy of Sega remains to be fulfilled.