Nintendo's 'Mario Tennis Aces' combines charm with surprising depth

And that was just the demo.

Before Mario Tennis Aces appears in stores and on your Switch, Nintendo offered up a weekend of tournament play to whet appetites and convince you to preorder its first in-house sport title for the Switch.

The demo sticks to purely tournament play, and while we didn't get the chance to play one another, there's something addictive here. That is, once you've figured out what the heck's going on. Two editors offer their very early impressions.

Jamie Rigg

Jamie Rigg
Reviews Editor

When I first saw the trailer for Mario Tennis Aces, I thought it looked like the perfect kind of game to throw on the TV when a bunch of friends visit. Over the years, Nintendo has spoiled us in that regard, with Mario Party, Wii Sports, Smash Bros., Mario Kart and others taking the top spots in my go-to party-game library. Naturally, then, I was excited to play the Mario Tennis Aces multiplayer demo this past weekend, but I came away feeling the game is a little more serious than I had anticipated.

After running through the tutorial, I felt I had a good understanding of the general mechanics -- from the basic shots to special moves and energy system. The more tournaments I played online, however, the more I became aware of just how clueless I was when it came to actually playing the game. On the surface, Mario Tennis Aces looks fun and arcadey, but in the heat of batting, it's kind of intense and, at times, frustrating.

That's because, in my experience, the game is all about momentum. Once you're on the back foot, your opponent has more time to pick their angles, power up their shots and build energy meter towards a killing strike. Certain defensive mechanics, like slowing down time and trick shots that let you reach distant balls, seemed more like ways to stay in the point than reset the advantage. In some matches, I felt completely outclassed (and vice versa) purely based on character choice.

I didn't play long enough to really get comfortable with the core gameplay. Instead, I simply tried to stay in the point until I had a special move to attempt to clutch it with. The racket damage mechanic (players must forfeit if their two rackets break) didn't come into play much for me, so there's even more I still don't fully understand.

When Mario Tennis Aces launches later this month, there'll be a story mode, a game type where you swing the Joy-Con controller a la Wii Sports and local multiplayer in addition to online. There'll be plenty more to do, then, but I'm not sure it'll be a game I whip out at parties. It feels to me more like a complicated, competitive game best enjoyed alone, screaming at the TV at 2AM on a school night.

Mat Smith

Mat Smith
Bureau Chief, UK

I'm not a high-level Smash Bros. player. And while I'm okay at Mario Kart, it's rare for me to come first against anyone that's had even passing exposure to the racing series over the last two decades.

So, I thought, let's get in at the start for Mario Tennis Aces -- claim a multiplayer Switch game to excel in.

I may already be too late, to be honest. Until now, I've never played a Mario Tennis game (somehow six of them have passed me by), and the only tennis title I've ever invested significant time to is Anna Kournikova's Smash Court Tennis -- a simple, addictive game that deserves to be resurrected. (You could play tennis as Pac-Man, Ridge Racer's Reiko Nagase, or even Heihachi -- what's not to love?)

With Aces, Nintendo has followed up on its early demos for both ARMS and Splatoon 2, offering yet another tantalizing early glimpse of a major flagship game weeks before launch -- and reviews. Adding a thick coating of saccharine, Mario (with costumes and unlockable characters, even in the demo) helps keep it all interesting, and like my colleague Jamie, I was caught off-guard by everything that's been heaped on top of the typical tennis game mechanics.

The introduction tutorial is appropriately thorough -- and I'd say mandatory. There are many dynamics at play, and they usually involve special power gauges, tennis-racket health and shot strength. (Fortunately, there's a simple mode, even in this demo, that kicks most of these features to the side.)

But it's once you're ready to embrace the power shots and tricks, like Mario Kart or Smash Bros., the learning curve starts to steepen. Use your slow-down skill mostly for special power shots; don't return smashes too early or your racket will smash and, most importantly Charge Every Shot. Shot charging is like power slides in Mario Kart -- so yes, important -- but your efforts this time reward you with stronger shots (occasionally powered-up flaming volleys) and the ability to launch your character-specific special. Each character also wields a showboating move that, while high-risk, sends your character rocketing across their side of the court and, if successful at returning the ball, amps up your special gauge even further.

I'm also intrigued to see exactly how much Nintendo can eke out of its one-player mode, which will center around tennis-based challenges and some bizarre plot. (No-one plays a Mario game for the plot.)

Gameplay may change a little in places by the time Aces reaches your Switch, but everything already works like a finely oiled machine; another well-polished multiplayer game to erase the memories of its poorly received predecessor on that poorly received console. So yeah, it's a slightly-complicated iteration of what's meant to be a family-friendly tennis video game, but that makes it all the more intriguing. This may be my new summer sport -- just don't expect to play like a pro from the beginning.