The “secret” for Mario’s continued success and popularity lies in his ability to fit anywhere without issue. Seriously, the man gets around. If he’s not busy being super and saving the world/universe from the next big bad (likely Bowser), he’s probably doing any number of activities. Kart racing is one of the more popular alternatives. There’s nothing like a good party either. Outside of those, Nintendo has made Mario especially fond of sports. The Mario Sports banner has grown quite vast, encompassing a whole wide array of athletics. Titles like Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games are a regular smorgasbord while other focus on specifics, like golfing. Despite that sub-series breaking out pretty extensively, the most popular of the bunch is easily Mario Tennis, which has a new installment (Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash) coming November 20th.
Along with the Mario Golf series, Mario Tennis officially existed before it featured the Mario brand. It’s easy to see why though. Tennis was first released in 1984, well before Mario reached the untouchable popularity he has now. The game was as basic as it can be too. You played single or double matches, the characters were generic, and the graphics were exactly what you’d expect from an NES launch game. It’s only real unique quality was having Mario as the referee. This is one of the earliest examples of Nintendo bringing their star into other properties, but at this time it was purely cosmetic. Take away Mario’s iconic look and what you have is a tennis game. Nothing else.
It really wasn’t until 16 years later that Nintendo decided to give Mario Tennis some real life. Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64 was an incredible game, and it featured Mario all-stars like Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Yoshi, Peach, and Wario. Combined with the likes of Mario Kart, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros., Mario Tennis continued the Nintendo 64’s trend of bringing iconic characters together. Suddenly bringing Mario characters into the fold gave the series a swift boost of what makes Nintendo special. It didn’t attempt the realism that Tennis clearly wanted. How can it when you have a dinosaur and a gorilla on the court?! The basic sport elements were there, but the characters could do special hits, colors were flying all over the places, and there were different modes to play. Mario Tennis on the N64 could even get info from the Game Boy Color version via a transfer pak, though that wasn’t used nearly as often by average players.
The success of Mario Tennis isn’t surprising. When your game features iconic characters and extremely enjoyable gameplay, it’s nearly impossible to fail. The series has since continued on multiple Nintendo consoles and each are loved in their own way. Perhaps what’s the most interesting is that Mario Tennis is probably the most popular tennis series out there. No one game company can completely claim a single sport, though golf, soccer, baseball, football, basketball, and hockey easily have their flagship games. Tennis on the other hand has yet to get a dominant title, nonetheless one fully backed by the International Tennis Federation. Mario Tennis will never have that distinction, but it doesn’t need it. If you were to ask the typical gamer which tennis game they most enjoy, there’s a great chance it will be a version of Mario Tennis.
Mario Tennis also has the distinction of being one of 22 games released on the short lived Virtual Boy. It was even one of the very first titles! Mario’s Tennis, released in 1995, was actually fairly well reviewed, but it was hampered significantly by the Virtual Boy’s design (as many games were). Despite Mario’s Tennis proving that these themed sports games were a great idea, it’s frequently overlooked by how quickly the Virtual Boy went away. Many point to Mario Tennis on the N64 as their first experience with this sub-genre. These games are also maintained by their incredible multiplayer functionality, something the Virtual Boy sorely lacked. So while the console didn’t last and the game itself isn’t remembered often, Mario’s Tennis still has an important part in Mario history.
I’ve played a lot of sports games in my time, and I’m fairly certain Mario Tennis occupies a significant part of that. The Nintendo 64 was one of my favorite systems for multiplayer games, and if I wasn’t playing Mario Kart 64, Smash, or Mario Party, it was Mario Tennis. This game was just pure fun. It’s really easy to understand, as Mario games usually are, so anyone in a group can participate. Whether or not they win is up to them though. Mario Tennis in any capacity requires pretty quick reflexes and a honed skill. Personally, I was a monster with Yoshi in singles, but something about doubles always tripped me up. Mario Tennis is actually what turned me into a Yoshi fan, and since then I always strive to pick him first.
Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash isn’t coming for another month and a half, but there’s no reason to expect anything less than another top notch game. Mario Tennis has a history of doing very well on major home consoles after all. There really is nothing like this outrageous sports game on the market, and that’s exactly what appeals to fans. If they want a realistic look at tennis, there are plenty of other options. The sports game market is vast, if nothing else. However, if what you’re looking for is pure, uncut fun and happiness, Mario Tennis has you covered.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.