GENRE: Arcade Sports
PRICE: £39.99

Mario Tennis Aces is a welcome return to form for the long-running arcade sports series.

After the disappointing Ultra Smash for WiiU, Camelot returns with a more full-featured entry complete with both local and online multiplayer, as well as the series’ first story mode (now called adventure mode) since 2005's Mario Tennis Power tour on the Game Boy Advance.

Aces retains the nuanced play and core mechanics of previous entries but ups the ante with smart new mechanics.

Each player has an energy gauge that fills by performing charged strokes and trick shots, one requires players to be in best position to whack the ball as hard as they can when reaches them, and the other demands players smack the ball at the last possible moment when it's almost out of reach.

You can then use your stored-up energy to slow down the action to help you keep the ball in play with the Zone Speed ability, or fire blisteringly fast Zone Shots back at your opponent, which can damage an opponent’s racket, or wait until the gauge is full and use a special shot which can destroy your opponent’s racket, knocking them out if they don't successfully block it.

It’s a system that does a lot with a simple set of swings, as energy surges and drains as the rally progresses and seeming knockout blows countered with well-timed blocks.

One of Aces biggest selling points is Adventure Mode, which sees Mario island hopping on an adventure to reclaim five power crystals and save the day with the power of tennis - defeating bosses and taking on challenges in a variety of vivid locales. Highlights include batting fireballs back at Piranha Plants in a lush jungle and playing a match against a Shy Guy on a wintery train platform while a stream of commuters rushes across the court. The game's boss fights make clever use of special moves and trick shots, with players having to use zone shots to blast the ball through the gaps in a wall of floating furniture during a battle against a haunted mirror or countering swipes from a sea monster with a well-timed trick shot.

Attempting each challenge earns experience which levels Mario up - strengthening his shot speed and agility. There are also six rackets to win which improve Mario's shot power and give him spares should one break in the middle of a match.

However, the longer I played Adventure mode the shallower it felt. The problem is that once all the courts are unlocked, with no New Game+ or the ability to play through it with a different character, there's no reason to keep playing it.

Moreover, the bosses though cool, are all mostly variations of the same theme, with similar attack patterns and, ultimately strategies required to beat them.

The single-player Tournament mode is also incredibly bare bones. There are three singles tournaments to choose from; Mushroom, Flower, and Star, each comprised of three rounds of increasingly tricky opponents. But there's no reward for doing so. Completing the tournaments nets you nothing - no new rackets, costumes, or additional characters. (All 16 are unlocked from the start, with Koopa Troopa and Blooper being added for free post-launch despite already featuring in adventure mode.)

Although Mario Tennis Aces' single-player offerings are a vast improvement on those offered in Ultra Smash which was practically non-existent, they still fall far short of the considerable single-player offerings included in Mario Power Tennis.

Meanwhile, multiplayer has a lot more to it but still has some niggles.

There’s a wide variety of courts, from simple grass or clay to crazier courts that feature game-changing hazards like explosive Mechakoopas that turn the court into a war zone, or haunted mirrors that spit the ball right back at you.

However, setting up a match is cumbersome and convoluted because you have to toggle off all the courts you don’t want instead of simply picking the one you do.

The lack of offline tournament play is also a glaring omission.

Lastly, while each character has notable strengths and weaknesses, Mario and Luigi remain the a-typical jack of all trades master of none, while Donkey Kong and Bowser trade in brute force. Mario Tennis Aces’ would have greatly benefited from more customisation options like Mario Kart 8 or ARMS. It seems odd that they gave Mario the ability to collect rackets in single player, but then dump the idea in the rest of the game.

Likewise, you gain points from multiplayer matches, but they aren't really used for anything.

If you could customise your racket or had a range of different types with different effects then there would be a lot more to the game, and if these could be unlocked from single player matches or tournaments like in the aforementioned Mario Kart 8 it would have made both adventure mode and tournament mode feel a lot more vital.

That being said, online play is simple, straight-forward and you can be playing against an opponent in seconds.

Thus far I have experienced no lag and no problems with online at all.   

Finally, there's Swing Mode, which sees players use motion controls to control their swings and backhands. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well at all. Which is surprising considering the JoyCon has a more advanced gyro sensor than a Wiimote and the Wii version of Power Tennis, with full motion controls, worked really well, Half the time it wouldn't register a shot and the other half it got it wrong. The result is a frustrating and borderline unplayable mess that is best forgotten.

At its core, Mario Tennis Aces is an absolute blast. the moment to moment play is colourful, fun and challenging in equal parts, while its myriad of systems makes for some truly tense matches.

If the single-player mode had been more substantial, and its multiple rackets had made it into the multiplayer, Mario Tennis Aces could easily be called the best entry in the series to date.  As it is at the moment though, Mario Tennis Aces is still a brilliant game, but not quite the grand-slam we were hoping for.

SCORE 8/10