Plumber. Intergalactic explorer. Speed demon. Is there any job Mario can't turn his hand to?
While Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash isn't the moustached multitasker's finest tangential adventure, it's still a decent romp with the racket and ball. One that offers up some surprisingly varied gameplay, online multiplayer and plenty of Mega Mushrooms.
Miyamoto's creation remains a versatile ol’ fella and he's good company for most of this sporting spin-off. Especially if you get your mates involved for a knockabout.
Now with ginormous dinosaurs
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash for Wii U is actually the seventh such outing in this particular series. Having first finessed his serve and volley on the Virtual Boy in 1995, Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom crew have dabbled with golf (Mario Golf), football (Mario Smash Football) and athletics (Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games).
This means Ultra Smash is a fairly routine affair for the most part. Its mechanics haven't moved on much from Mario Power Tennis on the Gamecube and, as you'd expect from a game featuring a green dinosaur called Yoshi, realism is often cast aside in the interests of fun.
Honestly, I'm OK with that. There's only so much room for manoeuvre when in the realm of tennis simulators, no matter how bonkers you're willing to make things.
Slice and dice success
And let’s be clear about this, Ultra Smash is dizzyingly silly. Its main Mega Battle gaming mode often devolves into a game of giant vs giant, where both players have devoured a Mega Mushroom and are big enough to almost fill their entire side of the court.
If you think this would reduce these points to a lumpen round of back and forth, you would be right. Luckily, watching this happen as Mario vs Bowser is a lot more entertaining than it might be in an entry level Davis Cup fixture.
As gimmicks go, I prefer this one to the Power Shots you could pull off in Mario Tennis, which too easily gifted you a point when used properly. There’s a bit more skill involved in Ultra Smash, especially when both players are naturally proportioned.
Smashing good fun
Granted, you can get by and successfully defend your serve by thwacking away with a thuggish forehand, but to snatch a break point and win a match you'll have to mix your play style up.
A little backspin here. A drop shot there. This kind of variety is encouraged by Chance Shot spots that appear and will charge up a specific shot-type should you stand on them. The Jump Smash one appears once you've really whipped your opponent onto their back foot, and harnessing its vicious purple fizz is a glorious experience.
While its gameplay is fundamentally solid, Ultra Smash mostly forces you to make your own fun, meaning you won’t be compelled to stick with its single-player offering for much beyond a few hours.
There’s no Tournament mode, as there was in Mario Power Tennis, so you often end up arranging your own matches across the game’s nine unlockable courts. The super-slippery Ice Court is clearly the best, but traditionalists can enjoy grass, clay and hard court offerings too.
These puritanical folk have also been served up a straight-edged Classic Mode, where Chance and Jump are barred from proceedings. So if you want a more boring Mario Tennis experience, then that’s where to look. The majority of my time with the game has been spent playing as a ginormous Luigi, because he’s great and we share the same inferiority complex.
These puritanical folk have also been served up a straight-edged Classic Tennis mode, where Chance and Jump are barred from proceedings. So if you want a more boring Mario Tennis experience and have had your fill of the humdrum Mega Ball Rally mode, which does exactly what it says on the tin, then that’s where to look.
The majority of my time with the game has been spent playing as a ginormous Luigi, because he’s great and we share the same inferiority complex.
Replacing Tournament mode is a new Knockout Challenge, where you play an endless succession of CPU opponents in a tie-break format. The more challengers you slay with a well-placed serve and volley, the harder they become to face off against. Eventually, after 14 matches, you’ll have to trump a giant Bowser who’s always in Mega form - a challenge that sounds more difficult than it actually is.
If only Djokovic and Nadal were this susceptible to slice shots, I’d be a Grand Slam champion.
Triumphing over Bowser unlocks a star version of your character, which doesn’t really mean much. The real challenge comes when you try and push your win count to ridiculous lengths and mix up the characters you use, as they all have slightly different playing styles. Boo, the kind of scary but mostly lovable ghost, can add some demonic swerve to his shots, while Wario is all about the power play.
It’s possible to unlock four more characters (including Toadette and Dry Bowser) via your Ultra Smash endeavours, but pretty much anyone you’d want to play as is available from the off. This isn’t Mario Kart 8, so you can’t get Link involved in the action.
More multiplayer, more fun
If you can rope in some mates to enjoy Ultra Smash with, then you absolutely should - it’ll ensure you spend a lot more time with Mario and co. There’s an online mode available for friendless Nintendo fanatics, but local multiplayer is where this game excels.
Ultra Smash is a breeze to pick up and play, even for complete newbies to the series, and pairing up with someone for a doubles match actually makes the game a lot harder to play. Plus, there’s the shared enjoyment in an inherently ridiculous the experience. Toad’s celebratory waddle around the court, arms aloft with glee in his eye, is elevated from ‘mildly amusing’ to ‘nigh-on hysterical’ with the right people sitting besides you.
Ultra Smash isn’t half as fun when played on your lonesome. Or sober, if we’re laying all our cards on the table here.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash verdict
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash is a decent enough lark that’s lacking in longevity. Although Nintendo is clearly hoping online multiplayer will help with this, a proper Tournament mode would have helped make solo play a lot more compelling. As it is, Ultra Smash does stray towards monotony once you’re familiar with its gimmicks.
Cram a hoard of chums in front of your TV though, and these quibbles no longer apply. Ultra Smash isn’t quite the same social spectacular as Super Smash Bros or Mario Kart 8, but Nintendo’s most famous son still knows how to kickstart a party. He’s been well-versed in revelry for some time now.