A solid tennis game that needed turtle shells.
[Update: The review has been updated with a paragraph on online multiplayer.]
I still remember late-night sessions in college playing Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast. "Damn you, Piolin!" was heard a lot by my roommates. Nintendo has made tennis games too in recent years, but I’d never played them. I totally missed out on Mario Tennis Open on Nintendo 3DS. Further back, I had never even heard of Mario Power Tennis. Still, like everyone else on planet Earth I have played Mario Kart, so I assumed Ultra Smash would be the tennis equivalent: a game that sticks to the core mechanics of the sport while adding turtle shells, bananas, and mushrooms. Well, I got the mushrooms… but little else.
Weirder still, those so-called Mega Mushrooms, which makes characters grow really huge—and is the one of the main highlights of Ultra Smash—makes the gameplay awkward. It only lasts a few seconds, but it made me feel more like I was fumbling with a giant-sized Princess Peach. Think of the crazy, fun chaos when Mario gets that same mushroom in Super Mario 3D World. The addictive destruction is always too brief. This is not that. This is more of the 'not being able to see the ball' frustration.
The biggest issue beyond not adding fun powers to lob back at my enemy is that there’s no real tournament, no campaign whatsoever. At the start up you can choose from four modes: Mega Battle, Mega Ball Rally, Knockout Challenge: Amiibo, and Classic Tennis. Battle includes the aforementioned mushrooms, Rally is a practice mode, Challenge is for use with amiibos, and then there’s regular-old tennis.
No matter which mode you choose, you set up a game between two or four characters, set the parameters (number of sets and games)… and that’s about it. There’s no tally taken whatsoever over the games you play. When I played solo, I felt like I had done everything there was to do in Ultra Smash in about 30 minutes.
Multiplayer, in a room with friends, is still the way to go. Players can use any type of controller including the Pro Controller or old-school Wiimotes. As expected, the player with the Gamepad can just use the screen while everyone else shares the television display. Here, the game is what you bring to it. It’s absolutely easy to lose a few hours playing, but again there’s not really much reason to keep going.
As usual, you can choose hard, clay, or grass courts which affects the ball speed and bounce. Lobbing is as easy as pressing the A button and then the B button. Each strike of the ball then highlights an area for the opponent to reach, the expected place that the ball will land. All of this in terms is gameplay is simple and addictive.
Plus, the game looks great on the Wii U. The colors pop and the framerate is rock solid at 60. The dynamic mode, which adds close-ups while playing single player, was my favorite way to play. The music, on the other hand, is darn forgettable. Speaking of audio, since the game has an commentator to say things like “Game, set and match!”, why doesn’t said voice announce the victor's by their famous Nintendo names? The winner is simply declared “Game… receiver!” Seriously? I was looking forward to "Winner: Maaaaariooo!" No such luck.
Are there any bonuses? Sort of. The game starts with twelve characters to choose from. By using an in-game currency accumulated by doing specific tasks, you can unlock four more. But sadly they all play the same.
[Update: 11/23/2015, 2:30pm] As for the online mode, it's solid but also pretty bare-bones. I had no issues setting up a match and didn't experience any lag. Players can choose between fun (isn’t that every game?) or serious. The difference is that “serious” affects the coins you’ve acquired. Losing a match in "serious" mode only lost me a few hundred coins so I played serious mode all the time. Even though you might have unlocked new courts (like carpet) you can only choose from the standard three for online. Beyond a few options, the matches are pretty short. You either do a best of 7 match or choose “extended” which is 2 games or 2 sets. Either way, it’s relatively quick. But unfortunately, there’s no way to communicate with your online opponent.
In the end, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a solid tennis game that feels thin when it comes to content. But the gameplay is fun and the visuals are great eye candy. Playing with friends in a living room is a fun way to kill a few hours.