Sega Superstar Tennis PS3, Xbox 360
Let’s get the cynicism out of the way from the very start. Sega Superstar Tennis is clearly an attempt to take the excellent Virtua Tennis series and make it appeal to the new “expanded market” that now makes up a good chunk of the industry. The addition of Sonic and his furry friends gives the game a bunch of faces far more recognizable than any tennis players who aren’t called Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. But do the mums, dads and kids who make up the “casual market” honestly know what game Ulala is from? Have they played Jet Set Radio? Do they even know what Samba De Amigo is?! It is a great Sega fan service, no doubt about it, but one that seems to pander to those in denial of the Dreamcast’s spectacular failure – the kind of fans that would have bought this whether it had Sonic or Venus Williams face on the cover, because they know that Virtua Tennis means that this is a great tennis game.
We’re big fans of Virtua Tennis 3 here at DarkZero, so it comes as no surprise that the fun, arcade-style gameplay is intact. The controls have been streamlined further since that release, leaving you with a button for a hard shot and a button for a softer, more accurate shot, while pushing one after another will cause a drop shot or a lob, depending on the order pressed. The diving has been tweaked slightly, so you don’t find your character leaping all over the court at the touch of a button, which further tightens up an already tight control scheme. The big new addition to the controls is the inclusion of a new special shot mode, where successfully returning the ball, use of the technical shots and serving aces all fill up a star around your character. Once full, you can unleash a potentially game breaking move upon your opponent. These vary in usefulness, from insane curving shots to a barrage of electric bolts being thrown your way. Virtua Tennis purists are no doubt turning their noses up at this, but they’re actually a lot of fun. With a little skill, they are easily dealt with, with the real skill in knowing when to unleash them to catch out an opponent, rather than spamming the other player with them as soon as they have charged up.
Power, curve and speed are the three different character types that are on offer and dictate the kind of special shot at your disposal, so you have Dr. Eggman blasting his opponents off the course, Beat from Jet Set Radio darting around to reach any ball while Tails can perform some ridiculous curving banana shots. After a few goes, you’ll not only find the style you like to play with, but also the style you hate to play against!
Single player matches won’t last you long – beating the A.I in tournaments or individual matches gets dull fast – but the multiplayer is great fun. Up to four players can tear up a court in singles or doubles matches, while two players can take the proceedings online to take on all comers. Perhaps a reflection on Sony’s lack of headsets as standard or even the lack of a unified friends list, but the PS3 version feels slightly soulless during the online play. You log in, get paired up with another player/team and without that human touch, feels like you are playing against either a more intelligent or stupid A.I opponent. Sega Superstar Tennis falls well and truly into that set of games that are far, far more enjoyable when you are playing against someone in the same room as you, so you can experience every shout and scream as rallies get faster and special shots are defended. Online play is a token addition, but not something that will make or break a title such as this.
The bulk of the single player content is the Superstar Mode. Here, you select from one of the various Sega themed stages and have to complete a bunch of themed missions in order to progress. You’re given a rank from a fail all the way to an OutRun2 style “AAA”, unlocking different characters, courts and even background music as you go. These “missions” range from beating a single opponent to finishing first in a tournament, as well as a plethora of the casual market’s absolute favourite thing – minigames!
Like all games that feature a collection of minigames as part of the proceedings, some are great – genuinely excellent and could even be fleshed out to their own game – while some are unmemorable, frustrating and boring. The Puyo Puyo game; where you hit the ball towards a wall of Puyos, clearing any coloured Puyo you hit and all the connected ones of the same colour – is genius. The Virtua Cop themed level, set in the familiar dock area, is also excellent, as you smash balls into criminals before they get a chance to shoot at you. Then, you’ve got the rubbish ones – Jet Set Radio’s graffiti tennis, which involves you picking up coloured spray cans then hitting the coloured ball into a specified area is an exercise in frustration. How about the Sonic the Hedgehog minigames? Further proving that ANYTHING the blue erinaceinae does in 3D turns sour quickly, his section largely consists of collecting rings that appear on the court while dodging projectiles – which is as tedious as it sounds.
It is worth persevering through the weaker minigames, though, as the constant stream of Sega unlockables means there is always something new to see – something new to turn to your mates and shout “Oh! Do you remember that from the Megadrive?!” or “Holy shit! It’s Alex Kidd!” – so you keep powering through, gunning for that higher rank and chance of unlocking more wonderful Sega stuff. Later in the game you get the aforementioned Virtua Cop stages, as well as the excellent Monkey Ball minigames – all of which are playable in multiplayer mode – and secret characters such as Gillius Thunderhead from Golden Axe and the slightly less impressive Reala from NiGHTS. Whenever you play a match, win a tournament or have a quick blast on one of the minigames, you always feel like you are making some kind of progress.
Still no sign of Burning Rangers. Why no love for them, Sega?
In all honesty, the simplification of the controls and hit-miss nature of the superstar mode mean that Sega Superstar Tennis isn’t quite as good as the tennis masterclass that was Virtua Tennis 3. Multiplayer games with friends are always good fun, but I can’t see this taking over from Mario Kart or Pro Evolution Soccer in most people’s lives. However, if you’re the kind of person who died a little when the Dreamcast failed, can hum Magical Sound Shower in their sleep and know exactly what I’m on about when I mention UK:Resistance, then you’ll get a huge kick out of the sheer amount of fan service on display. It’s a glimpse of what a world would be like should Sega have managed to keep their finances in check. A happy world, with blue skies… and a competent game of tennis to boot.