There's fun to be had with Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash if you're jonesing for a fix of Mario Tennis, but it's far from the best in the series, and it comes up short in terms of lasting appeal. While there's something to be said about doing one thing well, this game is as bare bones as it gets. If they had at least the same amount of content as the N64 title, this game could have been something great.
As it is now though, Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash feels like the skeletal remains of a very pretty Mario Tennis game. I can only recommend it to long time fans and those with extra cash burning a hole in their pockets. If you don't mind the Wii U's crappy N64 colors, or alternatively going through the Wii menu, just pick up Mario Tennis for the N64 on the eShop. It has a lot more content and is easier on the wallet.
In the interest of full disclosure, Nintendo provided us with a copy of Mario Tennis Ultra Smash for the purposes of this review.
The game looks bright, colorful, and clean. It may be over simplistic to most, but there's little distraction from the action on the court. There's not much else to say here other than Mario games almost always have a great level of visual polish for what they're working with.
The tennis game play is rock solid. Top Spin, Slice, Lob, and Drop shots are here, along with dramatic diving saves and the eponymous Ultra Smashes. There's also Chance Shots, which allow you to give additional effects to your shot, knock back for example, if you use the appropriate type when prompted. This is a solid tennis game.
There's online play and added amiibo functionality that isn't total garbage. Train your amiibo buddy, like in Super Smash Bros., and they learn while gaining various stat benefits. Also, players can finally take their amiibo buddies online to square off with opponents on the net. Even though SSB has better amiibo customization by a mile, being able to team up with amiibo online makes this one of the better implementations of Nintendo's cash cow.
Camelot has made all the Mario Tennis games since the N64, but they're continually regressing in content or effort. There are five game modes here, and they all play almost exactly the same. Why does Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash have less content than Mario Tennis on the N64? It was made by the same developer, over 15 years later.
The game play is solid, but the little variation means it wears thin quickly. I'm sorry, but adding a Mega Mushroom doesn't make it a different game mode. Just one item, really? Mario Power Tennis had six off the top of my head, and that was on GameCube.
Where is the style? I know I said I liked the clean, simple aesthetic, but that doesn't mean the personality has to be sterile. Just look at the opening to Mario Power Tennis, it's big, dumb, and over the top to the point of being amazing. Character seeps into all aspect of that game, but here you have a splash screen with a title, then some extremely plain menus, and boring versions of these characters. This absence of personality doesn't help Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash's lack of longevity either.
Shocker, but the online component of a Nintendo published game is archaic. The options for online play involve picking the rules you want and then being randomly paired with someone else. This a step back from games like Mario Kart 8, Smash, or Splatoon, which weren't exactly the greatest in online functionality in the first place.
Mario is a talented man. The moustachioed Italian icon has been a plumber, a carpenter, a boxing ref, a fighter, a go-kart racing superstar, an artist, host of the best parties in the Mushroom Kingdom, and a multi-sport athlete. The sport Mario is most familiar with? Tennis, of all things
Mario actually takes tennis very seriously., possibly to an unhealthy degree:
Mario Tennis is the biggest of the “Mario Sports” franchises, and despite its decline in quality, Nintendo has gone with the old standby as their Black Friday representative. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash has been chosen to fill the hole left by Star Fox: Zero's delay, as opposed to pushing Xenoblade Chronicles X, to the chagrin of many.
This time around, Matio Tennis: Ultra Smash shows us an old dog can learn new tricks, bringing us online play and a new use for our amiibo buddies. Is that enough to return to form, or should Mario have taken a cue from fellow Italian Flavia Pennetta and called it quits?