When I was a kid, games were reserved for special occasions, or were the end result for an unreasonable amount of chores. The only instance that I was given a game after doing chores resulted in Nicktoons Racing for the Game Boy Color.
To avoid anything like that ever happening again, renting games until Christmas or my birthday was just fine. Not so with Mario Tennis. I remember looking up the website of Mario Tennis, getting giddy with it's imminent release of the summer of 2000. I just tried to remember why I was getting giddy about a tennis game, because not only had I never played an actual game of tennis at the time, but I also loathed sports. I think the answer was, and I shit you not, that I thought it was a direct sequel to Super Mario 64.
...You have to understand that I was 10 at the time, and the only game with Mario I ever had was Super Mario 64. So, to a boy that thought that this was a sequel to Super Mario 64, coupled with the fact that Super Mario 64 is essentially one of the greatest, most revolutionary games of all time (my 10-year-old self thought so too), one can understand my excitement. Unfortunately, Mario Tennis was released a few weeks after my birthday, forever damning it to rental status in my collection.
And I rented that game to no end. Initially surprised at the steps back that the developers apparently had taken in Super Mario 64, I took a minute to try to take everything in. At the Player Select screen, I questioned why they would call it "Mario Tennis" if you could play as someone other than Mario. I probably asked this out loud, because I had no friends.
Speaking of which, why is Bowser in a friendly game of tennis with Mario and Peach? Isn't that taboo?
I mean, the guy just kidnapped Peach, like, four years prior.
Fan-banter aside, once I really sunk my teeth into the game, absolutely nothing else mattered. I deducted that Mario Tennis was the embodiment of fun, which was odd because it was a sports game. I think the key was in it's accessibility; within a few minutes of picking up the controller, I was already a master of technique. You see, the only real buttons you need are A and B, coupled with the joystick of course.
Looking back, its incredible that they only provided two buttons into the control scheme, but there's so much depth to be discerned between playing casually and playing like a boss. Both buttons provided different methods of hitting the tennis ball, and each could be held down for a more powerful shot. You could also hold both of them down for a third type of shot! These shots were all manipulated by pushing the joystick in different directions, which is where the real challenge was, because you had to be mindful that you were controlling the direction where you were running and the direction you planned to hit the ball in. It was a simultaneous effort that I had a hard time with at first.
Whatever happened to Mario Tennis, you ask? Unfortunately, nothing. It got lost by the wave of other rentals that summer, the likes of which were Banjo-Tooie and Majora's Mask. By the time Christmas rolled around, it was already too late; I opted for more PlayStation games and Super Smash Bros., with Mario Tennis sorely forgotten.
However, I picked up Mario Tennis a few days prior to this write-up to re-indulge myself in it's glory, and its amazing the extent that Camelot, the game's developer, went with just how different each character class controls. I started by acquainting myself with Luigi, as my tastes have developed and been refined in the last 10 years, and obviously Luigi is superior to Mario. What I said earlier about it's accessibility couldn't have been more true; within minutes, it was like the last ten years weren't Tennis-less, like I had been playing for ages. My girlfriend, who had never played a tennis game in her life, joined me in some doubles games as well. Of course, there was a learning curve at first, but the rate at which she picked it up was astounding. She even noticed patterns in the game's AI, and began curb-stomping them accordingly. The fact that someone who isn't much of a seasoned gamer, yet was almost at the same level as me says a lot about how much fun the game is.
What's interesting to note is that as a kid, I didn't understand that each character controlled differently; I stuck with Mario for the majority of my rental so I could maintain that Super Mario 64 authenticity. Really, I thought it boiled down to Nintendo catering to people's different favorite characters and didn't add any layer of technique to the game itself. However, every two or three characters are coupled into different classes of technique, and if you spend a lot of time with one character, switching to another character brings a very noticeable change. For instance, Luigi is more of a balanced character, perfect for beginners. But when I switched to Donkey Kong, his girth made him slower than Luigi, but his powerful hits were ridiculous. At one point, I won an entire game just by serving. On the other hand, Peach was terrible and I didn't win a single game with her. Regardless, there's a different class for everyone, and I'm pretty positive most will be pleased with the added layer of depth in this as well.
The music isn't anything to write home about. It's mostly sports-y, and I was too concerned with the white-knuckled tension of every game anyway to really notice it. On the Donkey Kong-themed course, it did have a nice medley of the 8-bit theme from the first game, but that's about it.
I can't recommend Mario Tennis enough, if you haven't noticed. The controls are superb, the graphics are meh, and the fun is through the roof. I can't believe I just wrote that.