Nintendo feared that the recent collapse of the videogame market would mar the launch of its first videogame device in North America, so the Nintendo Entertainment System was marketed primarily as a toy. It came with a videogame, yes, but that game also came with a home shooting gallery and a robot that would haunt your dreams. As videogames as a concept regained its footing, the NES dropped the robot (forever), but kept the gun and the plumber. The intention here seemed obvious: Super Mario Bros. is a videogame’s videogame, with abstract monsters and gameplay where you literally have to learn to walk. But Duck Hunt? That’s just aim and shoot. So whether it’s Wee Bobby or grandpa at the console, you’ve got at least one game that is going to sate your very real need to kill chestnuts and/or ducks. But videogames were much more established by the time we saw the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, so that console was bundled with only (“only”) Super Mario World. Besides, why did you need to bother with the “casual” crowd at that point? Nintendo had already conquered that market in the portable sphere by bundling Tetris with the Gameboy. Going into 1995, Nintendo had a perfect record in America with bundling carefully selected games with their featured systems.
And then there was the Virtual Boy. Then there was a new Mario game, and it was… Tennis?
It is illegal to pen an article about a Virtual Boy game without noting that the Virtual Boy is the product of bad decisions. It may be hard to believe today, but, when the Virtual Boy was being developed, many industry analysts believed that iterative videogame systems were a dead end. Sure, the Super Nintendo was a success after the “regular” Nintendo, but Sega Genesis tried to solder all sorts of upgrades unto its base, and it got nowhere. Hell, you could make the argument that Sega never had a successful console again (you’d be wrong, though, because we can’t discount any hardware that hosted cannon spiking). Then there was the parade of “other” systems that barely put a dent in the market. The Atari Jaguar? 3DO? Playdia? The prevailing thinking of the time was essentially that there was nothing wrong with these new consoles (like their complete lack of decent games or omnipresence of Primal Rage), and people simply didn’t want new home consoles at all. In such an environment, Nintendo had to do something wholly different. Sony was obviously going to send its new Playstation straight to the junk heap like all the others, but Nintendo was going to try to do something absolutely new. Nintendo was going to launch a portable virtual reality machine.
… And then they released something that was neither.
The Virtual Boy has so many problems. Right off the bat, the controller is theoretically a shining step between the perennial SNES controller and its important N64 descendant… but it is absolutely terrible for a system that 100% precludes the player from actually seeing the controller. Sure, you’re going to be able to easily find that second crosspad on the right, but the players of 1995 were still getting used to shoulder buttons, and now you’re going to toss a pair of buttons behind the controller? It’s a controller that probably worked really well for the designers that had been tinkering with the thing for a year, but it was terrible for a kid that has to shove their attention up the system’s virtual ass. And speaking of which, the Virtual Boy was a big ol’ beast, and about as portable as a St. Bernard duct taped to a cow (look, I don’t know where you grew up, but I’ll never forget my junior homecoming dance). It didn’t require a TV hookup, but it was a bulky battery beast, so you were more likely to be tethered to an outlet than the Gameboy’s “play it anywhere” access. And we have to address “the red thing”, right? How it was so eye-searing, there was literally a warning every twenty minutes that you were supposed to stop? Could you imagine playing Final Fantasy 6 on the Virtual Boy? You’d be incapable of seeing blue before you saw your first moogle!
But, most of all, the Virtual Boy was damned by the fact that it was all based on a lie. The Virtual Boy looked like what we all imagined a Virtual Reality head seat was going to look like, and it was, ya know, named Virtual Boy. But was this humble videogame system from 1995 a “Virtual Reality Machine”? Hell no. It was a Gameboy with modestly 3-D graphics. There were no sprawling polygons or intricate worlds contained within the Virtual Boy, there was only… red. There was not a single game on the Virtual Boy that couldn’t have been easily adapted for any other system of the time. We understand how three dimensions work, Nintendo! We didn’t need new hardware to figure out Mario Clash!
But was Mario’s Tennis, the Virtual Boy’s own/only pack-in title, yet another Virtual Boy mistake?
It is… difficult to say Mario’s Tennis was a good choice for launching a system. For one thing, this is a Mario game, but it’s not a Mario game. This is not an experience like Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario World. This is a sports game that happens to have a Mario veneer. Were there “real” Mario games available? Well, Mario’s Tennis launched right alongside Mario Clash, which was at least closer to Mario Bros. if not Super Mario Bros. And, during the Virtual Boy’s abbreviated lifespan, Wario eventually offered a more traditional platforming adventure, so there could have been a Virtual Super Mario Land. But once you get past the “I wanna Mario” factor, Mario’s Tennis doesn’t fare all that well as a Mario sports title. The characters are varied, but not in any interesting or exaggerated ways. Put it another way: this is the same cast as OG Mario Kart (minus Bowser, as no one wanted to figure out how that shell works in 3-D), but there isn’t a red shell or turbo mushroom to be found. And the most egregious issue: this is a competitive sports game on a system that never got around to having a 2-player option. There was eventually supposed to be a link cable, but it never materialized, and it certainly wasn’t available at launch. Sorry, Mario’s Tennis players, you’re stuck fighting against the AI from now until Mario’s Tennis 2: Red Racket Boogaloo.
But while Mario’s Tennis may be limited from a Mario perspective, it is a good sports game. While we would have to wait decades to see a chain chomp wielding a racket, the actual “tennis” part of the equation knocks it out of the park (that’s a good thing in tennis, right?). Matches are quick and simple, but also include all the tennis moves you’d expect, like…. Uh… that lungey one? And the overhead… smash? I’m not thinking of another game, right? Smashes are a thing? Whatever! Look, I don’t know from tennis, but this feels like tennis, and that’s what a good tennis game needs to do. And, what’s more, at a time when the majority of sports games felt vaguely slow for following the rules and encouraging play selection and alike, Mario’s Tennis moves at an exciting clip, and you’ll be done with a match within minutes (as opposed to nine innings of agony). And, ultimately, that is a great way to make videogame sports fun for people who don’t like sports. The other uncontested best sports game of the era took a similar approach to making a digital recreation of physical activity actually fun, and, while we might not have any flaming hoops in Mario’s Tennis, it is an exceptional, zippy tennis experience.
But does that make it a good launch title? Is a game that is best described as “doesn’t overstay its welcome” the right choice for trying to sell an entirely new, untested videogame console? Could friggin’ tennis ever be a killer app?
Well, there was that time that tennis kicked off the entire industry…
And that time when, about a decade after Mario’s Tennis, when it was part of the biggest pack-in game of all time…
And I want to say that Mario has had a few good runs with Tennis of late…
So could have Mario’s Tennis been a success? It certainly seems that history has been kind to tennis titles, so that’s a yes. It might not be flashy or extravagant, but Mario’s Tennis could have simply been a good tennis game launching with a good videogame system. Unfortunately, the Virtual Boy’s other crimes are numerous, so Mario’s Tennis was damned to be another one of its parent system’s failures.
Sorry, Mario, you can’t always have a smash hit, but it’s not always your fault (oh God please tell me I got that pun right. I can’t think of any other way to end this article).
FGC #543 Mario’s Tennis
- System: Oh man I forgot what system this game was on. Was it the Turbo Grafix-3DO? No, that doesn’t sound right.
- Number of players: Successful tennis titles are two players. This was not a successful tennis title.
- Mario’s Face: It doesn’t impact the gameplay one iota, but Mario’s Tennis doesn’t get enough credit for having the most expressive versions of the Mario cast until approximately the Gamecube era. This seems like the logical progression of the canned animations in Super Mario Kart, but before the polygons of the N64 forced everyone back to being animated like white boards for a generation. You really feel Toad’s disappointment when he screws up a serve, and that is not something you would see again for about a decade.
- Favorite Character: Princess Peach is adorable in this title, but Donkey Kong Jr. has the badunkadunk to end all dunks. And he’s such an expressive ape! It’s a shame he was either never seen again, or usurped his father’s throne, as he really did know how to rock a onesie.
- Did you know? This is technically the first “Mario Sports” title, so all future times Mario picked up a baseball bat or kicked a soccer ball can trace back to Mario’s Tennis. This also means that, without Virtual Boy and Mario playing tennis, there would never be a need for the one and only Waluigi. Imagine a world without our greatest hero…
- Would I play again: No. What? This was a great game for its time, but it has fallen behind practically every other game that involves both Mario and a ball of some kind. And it doesn’t help that the whole damn system gives me a headache…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Combat for the Atari 2600! Pew pew, we’re gonna fight some stuff! Please look forward to it!