Sega Superstars Tennis
Sega deliver a Virtua Tennis tangent filled with fun and fan-service. However, after marketing heavily to the casual gamer it ends up being more of an in-joke than an accessible tennis game. Regardless, it demonstrates how much fun video tennis can be, roll on Virtua Tennis 4.
There was a moment in the late 90's when video game tennis came alive. Depending on your delinquency, you may have encountered this either in the Arcade, on the Dreamcast or later on the PlayStation 2. The game was Virtua Tennis and it combined a return to looser controls with realistic visuals. By balancing the player's direction of their character with that tennis star's abilities the game produced an experience that not only looked like real tennis but was endlessly playable.
In a family setting the visuals get siblings, parents and grandparents interested in the game. The various tennis players are instantly recognisable and the presentation is styled after that of a TV broadcast. If this is enough to get them to sit down and pick up a controller next to you, the semi-automatic controls mean that they can get started playing straight away. As long as they press a button at roughly the right time the game will try and hit the ball, even if it means a last minute dive.
The genius of the game however, is that beneath this simplicity there beats a proper tennis game. As you spend more time with the game you can develop different shots, tactics and techniques. What at first seems to be a basic simulation gives way to a nuanced control system that can be used to squeeze every last ounce of ability from your player.
Having run the series through a few iterations on each of the subsequent generations of console hardware, Sega are now straying from their serious sporting aesthetic. Today we are talking about Virtua Tennis because it is the chassis on which Sega Superstars Tennis has been built. Much like the playful re-imagining of the VW Beetle that was just a Golf under the new shell; Sega Tennis Superstars takes the old tennis game and applies a considerable new shell.
The main game structure itself is unchanged with the usual single and multiplayer modes. There is the recent addition of online play that complements the progress through local tournaments and competitions. But the difference in this game is the absence of any real life tennis players or courts. In there place we have an impressive array of characters drawn from other Sega games. This includes the widely known Sonic, Monkey Ball and Knuckles (well known to some at least), as well as the more obscure Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio characters. Each of these has their own themed home stadium and signature special moves which is the only real departure from the Virtua Tennis play mechanic.
The main addition to the game, apart from the aforementioned window dressing, is a range of unlockable mini-games. Most, although not all, of these retain a tennis theme. Each location offers a bizarre scenario where you are usually trying to get your shots off whilst avoiding zombies, exploding mines or lava balls. Add a few family or friends to these mini-games and you have the makings of a great rainy day game. Unfortunately, you have to put quite a bit of time into the main game to unlock each of these so you need someone in your tribe who is willing to put in some hours of play to gain full access to these mini-games.
Although my family had a good few hours messing around with these mini-games, as a whole Sega Tennis simply served as a reminder of how good Virtua Tennis is. The irony here is that by replacing the real players with these cartoon characters Sega have made there game considerably less attractive to a casual audience. Maybe they never intended it to garner wide appeal, but the addition of their various mascots seems to play to the hardcore market. Most people who brought the new Beatle had previously owned an old VW, so too the obscure characters and locations here serve as a big inside joke to those who have already played the games in Sega's (hardware manufacturing) heyday.
I was happy to spend some time with the game, and certainly had some fun. But ultimately I wanted to play a proper Virtua Tennis game again. I know this would easily appeal to more members of my family. And now the consoles are back in the living room it seems like an ideal opportunity to get granny and grandpa involved in some centre court action. Persuading them onto Sega Tennis Superstars will be considerably harder. I guess at the end of the day, the new Beetle just served as a reminder of what a good car the Golf is. Content over style is the decider again for me.