Understanding Mario Tennis’ surprisingly brutal crucible
Nintendo games may be famed for their accessibility and fun-for-all-ages festivity, but make no mistake - these titles are brimming with polished competitive gameplay, and the traction Mario Tennis Aces is gathering is no exception to the rule. Just recently, the game received its own tournament spot at Community Effort Orlando (CEO), one of the biggest fighting game tournaments in the world, sharing the limelight with titans Street Fighter V, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and perhaps the most intricate and popular competitive game Nintendo have ever made, Super Smash Bros. Melee. How on earth does a tennis game made by Nintendo end up at one of the biggest FGC events worldwide, and just how deep does this game really go?
To understand a game’s depth, one must first understand the game’s overall philosophy, in addition the options available to the player and their potential applications. At its core, Mario Tennis Aces is, well, tennis, and in that respect it inherently assumes some of tennis’ core strategic philosophy. Fundamentally, it’s a game about landing the ball within the boundaries of your opponent’s half of the court in such a way that they cannot return it. The meat of the game however is spatial control, or simply, the art of using a series of different shots to condition your opponent into exploitable behaviors, or force them into disadvantageous positions.
This is true of Mario Tennis Aces as well, as briefly examining the game’s toolset and mechanics will show. Available to the player are five types of regular shots:
Flat: A hard-hitting shot at a straight angle. Great for overall offensive pressure and returning weak shots.
Slice: A very slow travelling shot with a curve. Given how slow this shot is, it’s useful for buying yourself some time to reposition. The curve can also throw people off.
Topspin: Not quite as fast as a flat, but has a much wider angle. Perfect for punishing players at a poor horizontal position.
Drop shots: Slow shots that land very quickly at the front of the court. Ideal counterplay to players who stick to the back of the court too often.
Lob: A shot which soars over your opponent’s head and lands at the back of the court. The opposite of a drop shot, lobs are great against opponents who are getting a bit too comfortable at the net.
With the exception of drop shots and lobs, each of these moves can also be double-tapped for a more powerful version at the expense of angular versatility. And if that wasn’t enough modularity, you can also position yourself where the ball is due to land and perform a fully charged up version of any of these moves. That brings the total number of basic return options in this game up to a staggering thirteen. Not only does this mean you must choose the best of thirteen options in any given situation, but you must also be prepared for any of your opponent’s thirteen shots as well. You’ll be spending most of your time trying to keep centre-court whilst using these shots to force your opponent into a disadvantage state - but with so many mixups to deal with, this is much easier said than done.
It’s at this point that one must divorce themselves from their contemporary understanding of tennis, because Mario Tennis Aces flies off the beaten track from here on out. Physical tennis presents excruciating demands on the body, and in this respect, rallies can become a war of attrition between two highly skilled players. Characters in Mario Tennis Aces however don’t get tired - theoretically, rallies could go on forever in fact. Instead, players have access to an ‘energy meter’ which, instead of representing the character’s physical stamina, represents a resource that can be expended in exchange for supernatural abilities. It’s in these abilities that Aces burns the rulebook of tennis and the laws of physics to become its own beast.
Meter can be used in three different ways. It can be used in offence: provided you have enough energy, you can position yourself where the ball is due to bounce to return with a ‘zone shot’ which freezes time and allows you to precisely aim a top-speed return. If your opponent mistimes their return against your zone shot, their racket takes damage. If you have full meter, you can use an even more powerful zone shot called a ‘special shot’, which threatens to destroy your opponent’s racket in one go should they botch the return. Break your racket twice and that’s it, game set and match. It doesn’t matter what the score was - you’re out. It has defensive applications, too - you can burn meter to slow down time with ‘zone speed’, making it much easier to react to those high-velocity and high-damage zone and special shots we just covered. It’s also useful generally speaking for regaining lost ground.
The duality of meter is an important yin-yang to wrap your head around, because managing it is half the game. Consider this: offensive applications of meter (zone shots and special shots) are so fast and represent such a threat to racket health that they can usually only be countered by defensive applications of meter (zone speed). Therefore, the best position to be in is one where you have plenty of it and your opponent has very little. Sounds obvious, but the sheer magnitude of this advantage must be illustrated. Imagine you have no meter, and your opponent has full meter. Your opponent can serve at you with a zone shot three times before they deplete it entirely. Your racket has three bars of health. Coincidence? If you can’t recuperate enough meter in the ensuing rally, your racket is doomed - and it’s all because your opponent has managed their meter superiorly.
So how do you manage meter? We know how to spend it, but it’s important to know how it’s gained, and how one player might hinder another’s ability to generate meter whilst consolidating their own. It’s very simple: you generate meter by charging shots. Stand where a shot is due to land, and you can hold down either slice, topspin, or flat to deliver a powerful blow that generates plenty of meter.
If your opponent is constantly charging their returns, it means they had the time to move to the ball’s landing zone and a little extra to spare. This only happens if your returns are predictable and do nothing to displace the enemy. The trick therefore is to constantly use different shots, forcing your opponent all around the court. Everyone has a comfort zone; usually it’s centre-court, but you’ll certainly find some players who like the security of being at the back of the court to catch strong lobs and flats. Other players are more aggressively minded and will dog you at the net. Get an idea of where these players like to be and make them go somewhere else. Being hounded at the net? Use a lob to get the ball straight to the back of the court - they’ll have no choice but to move. Blocking all your flats and lobs? Use a drop shot to force them towards the net. If your opponent is constantly being forced to move, they won’t have time to charge shots and gain meter. It’s a vicious cycle: if a player is on the ropes, they’ll be returning with weak and predictable shots just to keep the ball in play - and those shots are easily charged against. Maintaining this advantage also means maintaining meter, which in turn is another advantage.
There is another way to gain meter however, and it’s perhaps the most controversial mechanic in all of Mario Tennis Aces: trick shots. By using the right stick (or double-tapping X and moving the left stick), players can leap across the court to catch stray balls that would never be caught on foot. Caught on the left side of the court, only for your opponent to launch a ball to the right? Flick the right stick to the right in time and you’ll leap across the whole court to offer a strong shot that builds meter.
Trick shots have picked up a lot of criticism because of their seemingly unbalanced strength. The sheer utility of trick shots is so bizarre that a lot of the time, there is little reason to do anything else. On a mechanical level, they are far superior to most other shots, which function very simply. If you get near the ball, you press a shot button, and the game returns with that shot. Simple enough, right? Well, when you press the trick shot in a direction, you’re actually creating an invisible zone to that side of your character. If the ball passes this zone, your character will instantly magnetise towards the ball and return with a decent shot that builds a lot of meter. The key issue here is that the timing of trick shots is not only very forgiving, but the zone is massive. In the eyes of many players, this makes trick shots not only an optimal choice in most situations, but also offers absurd reward when considering the very little risk. In truth, trick shots are only risky if motivated by a very poor read on your opponent. But otherwise, they are a reasonably safe and extremely powerful tool which some feel ruins the neutral game.
Balance is an issue when it comes to the character roster, too. Bowser Jr. terrorises the current meta. Where most characters have certain specialisations - Yoshi is quick but weak for instance, whilst Boo’s shots have a tighter curve at the expense of his own speed - Bowser Jr. is a character who, at this time, has no weaknesses. His shots have terrifying speed. The mechanical arms of his clown car offer enormous reach. The range of his trick shots reach wider than the entirety of the tennis court. Simply put, this character is a reviled demon in the competitive community, with most players outright refusing to play matches against Bowser Jr altogether. It’s reminiscent of Meta Knight’s domination in the dark days of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Outside of Bowser Jr, things are still fairly unbalanced but not quite as extremely. Waluigi is a close second, with lacking strength but excellent reach and respectable speed. Behind him is Peach, whose trick shots are extremely versatile and normal shots hit at a scarily wide angle. Bowser’s sheer strength and excellent topspin make him a fine contender for third, but after that, things are fairly vague. The game is barely a month old, meaning the meta is difficult to determine right now - but things are looking promising for Boo as well, whose insane shot curvature can make for some devastating mixups indeed.
All in all, Mario Tennis Aces is a fascinating competitive spectacle. This game defies any superficial expectations by creating a canvas of remarkable depth in strategy and gameplay. Indeed, it is easily the most technically demanding tennis game of all time. It’s a shame it’s marred by balance issues, but competitive games do normally have a few hitches at launch, and a patch is coming on July 20th, so let’s hope Bowser Jr. gets nerfed a bit. In any case, we hope this guide to Mario Tennis Aces’ technical and strategic complexities has you feeling ready to taken on those who might dare oppose you on the court. Who knows - you might even see some of FragGeeks’ staff on the other end.