Console Yourself: Sega Superstars Tennis
“Sega Rally: Complete a 40 shot rally.” - Xbox 360 Achievement
Format: Various (360 Reviewed) • Developer: Sumo Digital • Released: Mar 2008
It’s hard to imagine any adaptation of Virtua Tennis failing to entertain, and allying its gameplay with bucket loads of Sega fan-service seems a sure-fire winner. Sheffield-based Sumo, responsible for the competent ports of Virtua Tennis 3 to home systems, have been given free reign to pick from their employer’s rich history, yet the result doesn’t quite match the glory of its inspirations.
Although Sonic and his friends predictably headline, there’s a commendably wide range of familiar face on show here. The cast is mainly drawn from Sega’s Dreamcast era and more recent titles, with a smattering of figures from the late eighties for a touch of nostalgia. Although there are some noticeable omissions as a result of this approach, it’s probably the best way of ensuring that there’s at least one favourite of any Sega fan present (plus, the spectacle of a hi-def Alex Kidd is priceless). The characterisation of the characters is brought across well in their animation, although this occasionally impedes the gameplay. For example, Dr Eggman’s frantic lunges for the ball are enough to convince a beginner to the game that he’s on the ropes, when this is merely the manner in which Sumo have chosen to bring his unathletic physique to life. Less successful are the “Superstar Powers” granted to each character, the use of which is charged by successfully returning shots. Unfortunately, these abilities are more likely to loose you a match than win it, with the resultant lightshows being just as bewildering to the player as their opponent. The better picked of the abilities are undeniably fun, with Sonic’s deployment of the Chaos Emeralds instantly raising a grin, but you’ll probably be turning off the powers before you’ve seen them all.
Games that don’t contribute any characters to the proceedings sometimes serve as courts, with Sumo’s work on the Outrun series making its inclusion in this capacity inevitable. Outside of the core tennis gameplay, there are a variety of minigames on offer, such as trying to fend off the undead hordes in The House Of The Dead’s DBR Facility or attempting to propel Monkey Balls through gates using well-placed shots. These bonuses may be tackled in single or multi player, and the initial selection is supplemented by unlocking new games (not to mention characters, courts and music tracks) in the game’s Planet Superstars mission mode. This gives the title the majority of its one player duration, and the locking of content isn’t as unfair as it sounds. The game is fully capable from the off, and less high profile faces such as Gum and Pudding acquire value in the eyes of those unacquainted with their original appearances from the effort which must be made to render them available.
The not-so subtle inspiration for the game is Nintendo’s highly successful Smash Bros series. The high concept is exactly the same- take a serviceable, but simplified, competitive party game and drench it in nostalgia for its maker’s other works. Unfortunately, Sumo has obviously been denied the extensive resources available to HAL Laboratories, as the retro appeal of the title is slightly truncated. In a way, the team’s success with some of the titles presented works against them in their audience’s minds. “If Jet Set Radio can be so stunning re-animated,” thinks the player, “then why hasn’t my all-time favourite X been a recipient of this obvious love?” Satisfying the whole audience in this way may be an impossible task, but Sumo has obviously been insufficiently resourced to even attempt it. Courts such as Samba De Amigo’s are brimming with life, in contrast with more deserted locations elsewhere.
A more serious problem, however, is the obvious difficulty in integrating gameplay elements from the title’s inspirations. If something can move, it can fight. Adapting unrelated concepts to the rules of tennis is obviously rather more challenging. Shooting games fare well here, with The House Of The Dead mini game the title’s highlight, and an extensive Virtua Cop section perfectly reproduces the original’s appeal. Although it doesn’t have a dedicated court, the Space Harrier section of Planet Superstars has obviously received considerable resources, presenting a fiendish high-score challenge. Outside of these easy adaptations, matters are a little more strained. Jet Set Radio’s panic-based gameplay has been twisted into a focus on aiming and precision. Commercial pressures have obviously required Sonic to be at the forefront of the title, but the Green Hill minigame has no common gameplay elements with its platform incarnation. Although Sumo’s affection for NiGHTS and Space Channel 5 is obvious, with two characters from each in the game’s line-up, their appearances in the game’s quest mode are little more than cameos, with no attached mini-games. The developer is obviously fully capable of creating compelling tennis variants, as shown by the wonderful Puyo Pop Fever mode, but integrating the majority of the games shown has obviously defeated the team.
In many ways, this criticism is superfluous, as Sumo have taken an excellent game and added a wealth of extra content. The last two paragraphs have been a critique of the icing, not the cake. However, with Virtua Tennis itself now available for a bargain price, it’s hard to avoid wishing that its little brother were just a bit more comprehensive.