How Mario Tennis Aces Could’ve Been One of the Biggest Esport in Years

by in Fighting Games | Jun, 21st 2021

When I was living in my childhood home for a few weeks in May between apartment leases, my younger brother and I played a boatload of Mario Tennis Aces. See, I had this game for a while but never got too into it until then. I could sense the competitive potential behind its mechanics in my brief playthrough of its single player content, but I wanted to focus on other gaming endeavors, like my years-long journey to git gud at Super Smash Bros. Melee or the other various titles I’ve enjoyed since Aces’ release. Plus, I didn’t (and still don’t) have the Switch’s laggy online “service,” because I didn’t (and still don’t) want to support Nintendo monetarily after they hit The Big House Online’s Smash tournaments with a cease-and-desist order.

Nobody told me that Aces is – and I say this with only a slight hint of irony – the best fighting game to be released in years. Positioning, timing, adaptation, meter management, reads, reactions, hype… it’s just all there, in huge quantities. Another fighting game staple nailed by Aces is the ability to form a variety of playstyles with interesting characters, from slow-moving hard-hitters to relatively weak but speedy characters to defensive “zoners.” There are even fireballs, if you’re willing to count the playable Fire Piranha Plant. All that’s missing are the superficial punches and kicks.

The game’s tournament scene, as per usual with Nintendo, was purely a grassroots community affair. If the big N had injected some cold hard cash and any effort at all into Mario Tennis Ace’s competitive side, I think we would have seen a deep, engaging, long-lasting, one-on-one esport. It could have been a reflection of what real tennis is to the traditional sports world, as pretty much the only mainstream sport with a one versus one focus… that doesn’t revolve around one athlete giving another a concussion or making one tap out while the other chokes them, anyway.

Mario Tennis Aces for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Game Details
The Mario Tennis Aces cover art

Had Nintendo put their money where developer Camelot’s mechanics were, it would have lent both a sense of authenticity to Ace’s esports scene and a monetary incentive for its players to try and become the best of the best. Camelot president and lead designer for the game, Takahashi Hiroyuki, actually went on the record in an interview to say that it was designed specifically with “eSports” in mind, both for players and spectators. But Camelot themselves lack the resources, expertise, and perhaps even permission from Nintendo to promote such events. All we got from the publisher itself was a brief stint of official tournaments with little to no fanfare in the few months after release. Given similar amounts of effort, money, and passion to those put in by companies from Capcom to Riot Games to Netherrealm Studios in their pro tours and tournament circuits, we could have seen world-class talent duking it out in one of the best one-on-one competitive games to be released in years.

Now, the upcoming Mario Golf: Super Rush looks good, but it just doesn’t have the same potential as tennis for mano a mano mental battles. It won’t have the same potential to make it as an esport, much less a one-on-one one. That ship has sailed, and it’s a shame. We can hope for a sequel that refines Ace’s mechanics further, but that seems difficult and unlikely for several more years, maybe even until Nintendo’s next console. And either way, the finely-tuned gameplay never turned into what it could have – a world circuit of dedicated players pushing each other to be the best.

On top of the incredibly tight, esports-worthy mechanics in Aces, the cast of Mario also has gigantic broader appeal to casual and competitive fans alike. Aces also lands in the sweet spot of easy to learn (and watch) but hard to master. It’s a shame that Nintendo has such contempt of and / or apathy toward anyone who gets their fun by grinding to be the best they can be.

The DNA of Mario Tennis

This section will be one of my long-winded gaming retrospectives in the same vein as a taxonomy paper. I’ve always been at least mildly into Mario Tennis, ever since I played the GBA title subtitled Power Tour, which is a remake / tweaking of the Game Boy Color title without a subtitle to speak of. The story mode setup for that pair of handheld games is one of the best hooks in the medium, in my opinion, one it shares with the Game Boy Mario Golf titles, which were also developed by Camelot. Basically, you’re a kid who’s training to be a pro player, and if you prove that you’re among the best of the best, you get to kick it with Mario at the end of the campaign. It’s pretty weird yet very engaging, and the plot is bolstered by solid RPG leveling mechanics. Power Tour was straight up one of my favorite RPGs for a while, though I don’t think I can go back after getting used to the new additions in Aces.

From a mechanical standpoint, these games have been solid long before esports, ever since the original title on the Virtual Boy: Mario’s Tennis. I had the privilege of playing that red “3D” game for a Virtual Reality class my senior year of college, and I was surprised to see that it kind of held up in multiplayer, if only as a novelty.

The Virtual Boy title, however, doesn’t have the same mechanics that Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64 standardized: topspin with A, slice with B, flat with the two buttons together, drop shots and lobs with different button combos, all aimed with the control stick. Those shots after the first two would benefit greatly from the revolutionary concept of having more than two face buttons, but would remain in the series with different controls. The first three were all color-coded with trails of orange, blue, and purple respectively; Aces would make lobs yellow and drop shots white. This makes them immediately visually distinct, a very important feature that enables quick recognition and execution of counterplay.

Please don’t eat the racket Yoshi

Starting in 64 and continuing all the way through to Aces, some characters have more spin or power or speed than Super “The Default” Mario, but drawbacks in other areas. The characters are accordingly placed into categories like “All-Around,” “Tricky,” or “Powerful” and all of them remain relatively balanced, all the way through to Aces.

As spotted in the Virtual Boy title’s instruction manual, there are even some character differences in that ancient game, albeit limited ones and none in terms of spin. Yoshi can be seen showing off his advanced “om nom nom” strategy, which may explain his smaller “racquet contact area.”

Starting in 64, yellow stars would sometimes appear on the ground to indicate where you should stand to send back a potentially devastating spike with a flat shot. Mario Power Tennis introduced the fighting game mechanic of having a meter that builds up to either an offensive or defensive super move, called a “Power Shot.” It did so in a very similar way to Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo’s meter, since there were no ways to use this gauge other than performing a Super. From these basic building blocks, we got interesting and engaging left-right gameplay with forward-back variance and special shots to keep things interesting. Characters can “lose form” or make a short dive for a ball just out of reach, at the cost of sending back a relatively weak shot. There’s also the ability to charge up topspin, slice, or flat shots for more power, provided you don’t lose form. All sensible stuff, a solid take on tennis in video game form.

Mario Tennis on the N64, Mario Power Tennis for the GameCube, and so on were all fun little time-killers, though only the Game Boy games had a single player mode worth talking about. That remains true even after Aces came out, with its Adventure Mode being halfway decent at best. The Wii U title, Ultra Smash or whatever, felt more like a prototype of Aces than its own title, with gameplay much staler than what we got on the Switch. None of them even come close to the mechanical masterpiece with esports potential that is Mario Tennis Aces, though they all contributed a solid foundation of video game DNA.

Under the Hood of the Best Tennis Game Ever Made

So, in addition to all the types of shots that have been in Mario Tennis since the Nintendo 64 iteration, we got a suite of new mechanics that gave Aces all the potential in the world to be a huge esports title. Camelot’s dev team gave us a more fleshed out fighting game super meter to manage and numerous new shots. For starters, drop shots and lobs can now be charged for better versions – a precise backline lob with ludicrous spin and a drop shot that drops even quicker. Oh, and each fully charged shot now comes with its own negative effect on the opponent if not properly countered. Fully charged slices cause the receiver to spin around in stun unless countered with topspin, topspin shots push back if not countered with slice, and flat shots push back even further unless countered with another flat on the return. And standing in a Star will now allow a player to get what is effectively a fully charged flat shot off, even if they don’t charge at all. These flats are even more effective if performed against a high shot, which gives an extremely satisfying sound effect, overhead animation, and devastating speed. All of these new options contribute to the freeflowing complexity and competitive mixups present in Aces.

And as I said, Mario Power Tennis’s super meter straight out of a fighting game returns, charged up primarily by sending over charged-up shots. This time, Camelot gave players many more options for using it, and officially called it an Energy Guage. The option used most often at high level is “Zone Speed,” though many players call it Bullet Time, since it slows everything but the player using it way down, a la the Max Payne series or a scene out of The Matrix. Zone Speed allows for some truly unbelievable saves. There’s also the Zone Shot, which allows a player standing in a Star to send back a gyroscope-aimed shot (and the longer you aim, the more meter you use) which must be “Blocked” – countered with perfect timing – to avoid taking damage to one’s racket.

Oh, yeah: There’s a health bar in addition to tennis’s weird scoring convention, which is more evidence that Aces is secretly a fighting game. Each racket can take three missed Blocks on Zone Shots before breaking, or just one super. The latter are officially called “Special Shots.” These can only be performed with full meter and play a little animation before allowing the player to send an even more powerful Zone Shot the opponent’s way. These use much more meter than Zone Shots but can return the ball from anywhere on the court. If you run out of rackets (the number of which changes from mode to mode and from ruleset to ruleset) due to too many missed Blocks, then it’s game over by K.O., language that would again be familiar to any member of the fighting game community.

Aces’ “Block” mechanic is the most satisfying thing in a fighting game since Third Strike’s parry. You can use Zone Speed to make it easier, positioning your character in the bright spot in the center of the ball’s “shadow,” making it more about easy positioning than difficult timing. You can also activate Zone Speed, Trick Shot over, and then hit a button at the right time to return the shot with a Block. Or, if you’re a maniac, you can even go for a Block without using anything else – provided that you can get in the shot’s path – to potentially gain a ton of meter.

Apparently, at the esports / enthusiast / basement-dweller level of play in Mario Tennis Aces, people often try to send shots the opponent’s way that specifically trick them into using an unwanted Zone Shot, draining precious meter which is better used for Zone Speed. My brother and I didn’t git that gud in the time we spent playing match after match at home, but I could sense the potential for draining meter that way after doing it to him accidentally – I mean totally on purpose – a few times. Another layer to Aces’ mental game and meter management aspect.

Oh, and the real kicker, my favorite mechanic in the whole game has to be those Trick Shots I mentioned above. You can still lose form and get a mini dive if the ball is just beyond the reach of your arm and racket, just like in the earlier titles. But flicking the right stick (I recommend turning off the “feature” that double tapping X + a direction also does it, since I think that button is better used for drop shots and lobs alone) up, down, left, or right will play a character-unique and much longer dive animation in the given direction. Each direction returns the ball with a specific shot – drop shots for forward, slice for sideways, and flat for backward. Time your Trick Shot right and gain a ton of meter; time it wrong and lose a bit when time slows down for you automatically. Go in the right direction at the right time and feel like a tennis god; go in the wrong direction and feel like the most gullible chump who has ever wandered onto a tennis court. If done with no meter remaining, the Trick Shot will send back a super high lob which will usually end up losing you the point. This ingenious mechanic can be employed either as a risky gambit to gain meter or a way to use it in order to make an improbable save.

From this suite of mechanics and mindgames comes a whole new dimension to Mario Tennis’s gameplay, which really needed such a refreshing shakeup to liven up the formula. See, in past titles, if your opponent was on the left side of the court, you almost always wanted to send them right, or vice versa. There wasn’t much point to tricking them with a shot back in the same direction, since they usually had more than enough time to react and just go back the other way. You’d try to get them to lose form and quickly send the ball back in the other direction. This was the main win condition in older Mario Tennis titles. Other than that, we had drop shots or lobs against opponents who came up too far or stayed too far back, or sending a Power Shot once you had the one-dimensional meter stocked up.

The Trick Shot mechanic which gives you meter if you time it early enough, so that you don’t have to use any Zone Speed to get there, incentivizes metaphorically breaking their virtual ankles with a devastating mixup. If you read that they’re about to Trick Shot in the opposite direction to gain meter, you can trick them and instead send the ball right to where they are. Watching their character summersault away from the ball because you had the read that they would go for that Trick Shot never ceases to be immensely satisfying.

Of course, there’s also the base yomi layer where you simply stand still and wait for them to send a free ball your way. The fact that I can accurately say that there are exploitable, readable layers of yomi in this game is another piece of evidence to add to the growing pile of it that this is the best fighting game in years. Standing still when one thinks they’re about to get their Trick Shot baited out will often return the advantage to the player who was until then scrambling back and forth like Rafael Nadal (who actually appeared in a sweet trailer for this game, one that features the greatest autograph of all time) in the French Open. By breaking the laws of physics and time in borrowing from fighting games, Aces opens a whole new dimension of fun to the tried-and-true Mario Tennis formula, makes it more than worthy of the esports scene. If only.

I could talk about this game’s mechanics and mental game all day… which I guess is what I’m doing, as this piece has seen a ton of revisions. I haven’t even mentioned doubles yet, but it matches Smash (and real tennis, obviously) in its ability to transform from a beautifully deep one-on-one battle of brains and brawn into a two-versus-two throwdown with teamplay and chemistry being put to the test along with individual mechanics. Doubles can make for the perfect side event at tournaments, or even the focus of some niche exhibition events, in any of the games mentioned here. Aces is just so deep, engaging, and fun, whether played solo or paired up.

It also has a great replay system, where a point-winning overhead flat smash or service ace has the potential to echo three times with an in-built “video editing” algorithm, as well as the ability to “reroll” for a better camera angle with the push of a button. There’s potential for even more there, with the game already featuring shot placement replays in the style of real tennis’s Hawkeye system for the game’s simplified, motion-controlled “Swing” mode, as showcased in that trailer with Rafael Nadal. We could have a Mario Tennis game with esports production values worthy of the Australian Open, if Camelot steps it up even further for the next title in the series… if there is a next time.

I dream of a world where the game’s tournament scene made it to an esports level, where Nintendo actually sponsored events and monetarily incentivized people to reach new heights of skill, rather than the players exploring the metagame’s heights for the love of it alone. Sure, it’s fun and deep enough to warrant that, but the game’s pretty much “dead” at this point, unfortunately. The Aces esports scene is like a pet that Nintendo “forgot” to feed.

The Rest of the Game is a Little Lackluster

The truth behind the heading of this section makes me think even more that the Camelot developers knew the esports potential of the title they were putting out. Mario Tennis Aces just sort of goes through the motions with the non-multiplayer aspects of the game.

The soundtrack has only one banger (which I’ve been listening to while typing this draft) and the rest of the songs get old after a while. If I ever hear the Break Point track again… I’ll just be a little too annoyed to come up with a good metaphor for this sentence. It’s not so bad the first time, but it can really drive you nuts in a prolonged Deuce.

The stages are decent at best, as well. We got pretty much just a port of the stadium from Ultra Smash with its standard tennis surfaces like grass, clay, whatever the heck a “hard” court is made from, and uh… night… time. I prefer the clay surface since you can always see where the ball landed, even if you have the motion controls turned off. Camelot also put in some welcome varied venues, which you have to play Adventure Mode to unlock. There’s a desert stage, a wooded area, a boat trip, a snowy and heavily populated town, a haunted mansion filled with Boos, and of course the given Bowser level, which features a distant castle and lava on both sides of the bridge that the court is inexplicably constructed on.

The stage hazards on these unlockable courts are more so distractions than anything else, preferably just turned off so you can enjoy the ambiance of the ship trip without having to worry about your opponent’s shots taking a nasty bounce off the center mast… or getting blown up by mechakoopas on the Bowser stage. Plus, we don’t even get to unlock the coolest stage in Adventure Mode, which is the inside of an ancient temple.

Speaking of and circling back to Adventure Mode, it’s very lackluster when compared to Camelot’s GBA titles, though not bad on its own merits – just a little short yet also very repetitive, which is far from a great combo. Those handheld sports RPGs, featuring the ability to play against Mario if you win the biggest tournament in the game, had such an effective setup and payoff. Here, we instead get to play a weird version of Mario Party where you go through pretty much the exact same levels in a few different biomes. It was… fine, and I’d go so far as to call the varied boss battles “fun,” especially coupled with that music I linked a few paragraphs ago. You don’t get any reward but stages for beating the mode, unless you count the free DLC trials that give you a weird looking ancient racket which only Mario can use in multiplayer or against CPUs.

This all reinforces my hypothesis that Camelot’s development was focused entirely on getting a title ready for an esports scene (which would never properly exist) by honing Mario Tennis Aces’ mechanics to perfection. Nintendo’s publishing department must have been focused on drinking their bubbly and taking their free money to the bank, without putting in one ounce of effort to ensure longtime player engagement, now that the in-game work on that front had been done by someone else.

Nintendo’s Historic Neglect of Competitive Play

And here we go again, again, again. I’ve talked about this a few times for EsportsTalk before. I’m sick and tired of the company refusing to see that people will always want to be the best at any given game, and refusing to provide the right space for that to happen in their own titles. It can’t be that hard, given their resources; plenty of other companies have organized impressive tournament circuits. Granted, my second article on the subject features a correction, since community pushback seems to have pushed Nintendo toward working with PlayVS rather than against them.

The fact remains that Nintendo have consistently tried to kill off or have completely ignored competitive Smash, arguably their most esports-worthy franchise, despite developers packing the games with advanced mechanics for us sweaty nerds like “Smash DI.” This is the community’s name for the ability to TELEPORT WHILE BEING HIT (if only slightly… most of the time) by performing repeated control stick inputs in the desired direction, before getting sent flying. No other fighting game I’ve played has that absurd a mechanic. And it works wonderfully in the context of Smash, contributes to the free-flowing quality of both the series’ offense and defense, yet unmatched by other fighting games.

And Mario Tennis Aces continues that legacy of Nintendo’s developers putting in wild advanced mechanics, like the Trick Shot’s required timing to gain meter rather than lose it and the ability to send uncharged but full-power flat shots while standing in a star, which are worthy of esports athletes everywhere. It also unfortunately continues the much less revered tradition of the publishing and marketing teams to then proceed to ignore said dedicated players. It’s not a one-to-one comparison with Smash, of course, since the latter’s creator (Sakurai Masahiro) has gone on the record to say that he wishes he hadn’t made the earlier titles in the series so mechanically deep. He prefers to make titles with a much broader appeal, like his other baby, the Kirby series. But the Camelot devs are, again, on the record saying that they were designing Mario Tennis Aces with esports in mind.

Those devs didn’t completely ignore the casual crowd, obviously. There are motion controls in one of the game’s modes, after all, one of the last continuing taxonomical strains of the Wii Sports mutation in a non-extinct gaming species. But they also clearly wanted to give people an engaging space to be the very best, with mechanics in the actual game like Trick Shots, Zone Speed, Blocks, and the rock-paper-scissors elements of fully charged standard shots.

Peach is ready to play some tennis

We can see Nintendo’s neglect of competitive play in Mario Tennis Aces without even closing the game software. The online tournaments happen just once a month and feature only very limited skill-based matchmaking. A player with 100,000 rating points could theoretically be matched against a first-time newbie who got out of their first round, since there’s only a gate between players with a “B” rank (2,500 points) and everybody below them in points, and this gate just gives those higher ranked players a single bye round. Granted, the format is pretty cool, a matchmaking queue that pairs players up with only others with the same number of rounds survived until the championship round, out of a random pool of everybody playing their “tournament.” It’s an effective illusion of a bracket, and there is some natural matchmaking going on by the end as a result. But still, there’s no proper ranked mode, no competitive play when tournaments aren’t happening, no real incentive to be the best other than love of the game…

and there were very few official in-person esports tournaments for Mario Tennis Aces. That’s true of those sponsored by the big N, anyway. The competitive crowd has had to make do with these in-client “tournaments” that feature Nintendo’s patented dialup netcode, and unofficial grassroots events. It’s just sad, really, which I’m saying in thousands of words. Aces had all the gameplay pieces in place to be the biggest one-on-one esport in years. It is (in my subjective opinion, granted) simultaneously the best tennis game of all time and the best fighting game to be released since Guilty Gear: Xrd. This game is a wonderful Mushroom Kingdom rendition of tennis, a reflection of the sport’s beautiful showdowns of individual skill and potential doubles teamwork. Aces achieves this through incredibly tight, easy to learn but hard to master mechanics. To boot, the game also contains solid graphics… passable music, and amazing character designs. Shoutouts to all the rackets and Peach’s fresh tennis shoes with little crown logos on them.

Nintendo don’t know what they’re missing. All it would have taken was a little cash injected into official tournament prize pools, promotions of streams, and working closely with community influencers like tournament organizers to have made Mario Tennis Aces into a dream of an esports title, one that could have filled the one-on-one niche currently mostly filled by traditional fighting games and we nerds who still play Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube. Smash Ultimate is still around, of course, but remember what I said about dialup netcode. I think Aces could have met or exceeded the entrant numbers of many titles in the fighting game community with just a little bit of help from Nintendo itself. That would have, in turn, been great marketing, driving sales for years after release.

I can only dream of a universe where there are still major tournaments for Aces. Oh well. Hopefully retrospectives like this piece push Nintendo in the right direction in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.


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