The French Open is upon us, and while not everyone gets into tennis, it’s a big deal around the world. Not only is it the first major tournament in the past five months, it’s also the unofficial beginning of summer for many people.
While I can’t resist a good rally on the clay court, I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. However, video games save you the energy of actually playing tennis by playing it virtually. Everyone wins!
The first game that springs to mind for me was Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Color. I played this at some length on a family vacation from Cleveland to Hilton Head and can barely explain how much I enjoyed it. I had no prior expectations and had barely even played a tennis game before in my life. This game was a direct descendant of Mario Tennis for the N64, which had set the bar for quick learning ability with its simple two-button shot mechanics that allowed seven different shots to come off the racket. It also provided a fun leveling-up system for your player where you had unlockable courts/stuff.
In short, I liked this game.
Around this time (~2000) the Sega Dreamcast was gaining steam and Virtua Tennis joined the fray. Virtua Tennis grabbed great reviews and people seemed to love it, but as with most tennis games it never became a huge commercial success; the Venn diagram of tennis fans and video game players doesn’t have a huge overlap. Anyway, the Virtua Tennis series is still around and still doing as well as a tennis series can do.
Shortly thereafter came Topspin Tennis for the Xbox. Again: well-received, relatively popular and a good tennis game.
But one tennis game changed the way people perceive video games as a whole. Before you raise your arms in disgust/disagreement like an angry dad at a middle school basketball game, just know that the game I’m about to mention is the most popular by about a million miles.
It’s Wii Sports: Tennis.
No, it’s not the most realistic game. No, it hasn’t spawned an entire series of successful spinoffs. And no, it’s not going to wow you with its realism; the players don’t even have arms. It was just a wildly addictive, incredibly fun, genre-changing game.
For those who don’t know, Wii Tennis is just a regular tennis game, except you have to actually swing the control to hit your shots. Time it wrong and you miss. Swing backhand instead of forehand and you miss. Lob one up in the air and you lob one up in the air. Very simple stuff. The only difference, and what makes Wii Tennis so intense, is that there are no difficulty settings. If you win, the opponent improves. The first game you play might only last five minutes, but by the time you’re five matches in, you’re breaking a sweat and working 30-shot rallies against your opponents. It’s exhausting and exhilarating.
I know that Wii Sports as a whole was an entirely new thing, but Tennis was the best of the bunch. It could breed shouting matches, spark fights, break TVs and so much more. Perhaps more importantly, it influenced games behind it, so every tennis game on the ensuing Nintendo platforms were shaped by Wii Tennis.
However, a big thing that I harp on with these articles is “replayability,” and that was lacking in a big way from the Wii Sports universe. So in a surprise, I’m sticking to my principles and Wii Tennis isn’t taking the top spot.
So here’s the score:
1st place: For ignoring all the extra buttons on the N64 controller and making topspin/backspin/lobs/drops easy to figure out, Mario Tennis takes the crown.
2nd place: Wii Tennis, for being the shining example of what the new technology was capable of.
3rd place: For being the best of the real tennis games, I’m going with Topspin Tennis. Your player’s rise to the top was so detailed that it started with choosing your DNA type. That’s crazy.
Feel free to tell me I’m an idiot.