Fans love compilations. Just recently in the US Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Brawl sold a staggering 1.4 million copies in its first week on sale. Yes, it's a good beat 'em up but its real draw is the huge number of Nintendo characters all in one package. In SEGA Superstars Tennis SEGA has attempted to mimic the Smash Bros. formula of taking classic characters and putting them in a solid game - in this case tennis. With Virtua Tennis 3 to work from, developer Sumo Digital has managed to create an entertaining if slightly more casual tennis experience and a game that all SEGA fans will get a real nostalgia kick out of.
At its core Superstars Tennis is essentially a slightly simplified version of Virtua Tennis. You've got your standard stroke and a slice shot, and combinations of these two buttons let you perform a lob and drop shot. It's remarkably simple and should be easy enough for anyone to pick up. What long-time Virtua Tennis fans won't be pleased with, though, is the lack of depth. Whereas in Virtua Tennis it was obvious if an experienced player was playing a novice, in Superstars Tennis it's not so clear cut. Sure, it's almost certainly intentional on Sumo's part in order to make the game appeal to a broad range of gamers, but it does mean that real tennis fans will move back to Virtua Tennis once all the SEGA goodness has been squeezed out of Superstars.
Thankfully there's a lot of goodness to be found. Everything about the game is bathed in SEGA. You've got tonnes of classic SEGA music tracks, themed courts, classic SEGA characters as players, SEGA themed mini-games, SEGA themed Achievements (in the Xbox 360 game at least) and more secret unlockables (obviously SEGA themed) than you can imagine. It really is a lovely package, put together with the kind of care that you'd expect from SEGA itself. The fact that an independent developer has managed to produce such a game is pretty incredible.
You get eight characters to choose from to begin with, offering a mixture of Speed, power, spin and all-round play styles. For example, Sonic and Beat (from Jet Set Radio) are speed characters, Monkey Ball's Aiai is a spin player (meaning he can swerve the ball) and Eggman is a Power player. Your character's play style does influence the game, but it's not as pronounced as you might think. Again, this comes down to the game being hugely accessible, with any character having a decent chance against any other.
'... the Virtua Cop mini-game is easily among the best non-tennis game in a tennis game we've ever played.'
Something that might sway your player choice is the special move available to each. A yellow star under your player represents your Superstar move meter. When the star is full you can activate your special move, giving you a huge upper hand for a very limited amount of time. Seeing them all for yourself is part of the fun, but we aren't ruining much by saying that all Superstar moves are linked to your character and cause the ball to fly around in hard to read patterns. Fears of these moves totally unbalancing the game were quickly alleviated as it's perfectly possibly to return a Superstar shot and they can't be used all that often.
Once you get over the slight lack of depth there's an undeniably fun game begging to be played, but solo gamers might find the core Superstars mode a little repetitive. Without any character building to keep you hooked the game's unlockables and rankings for each challenge are left to keep you playing, and it's not really until the latter half that things get interesting. Early on you'll find yourself taking part in similar challenges over and over again, but gradually new themed areas open up and more interesting challenges are offered. It's a shame this wasn't spread more evenly over the entire game, but stick with it and you'll get to play in some truly excellent themed stages.
We had much hope for the mini-games on offer, filling the gap between standard match play, but we couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. They're not bad by any means, but only a few manage to live up to the classic games they're based on. Detailing them would ruin some of the surprise, but the Virtua Cop mini-game is easily among the best non-tennis game in a tennis game we've ever played.
Online options in the Xbox 360 and PS3 games are also plentiful. You've got ranked and unranked matches, tournaments and a way to view other people's matches, either live as they're happening or as saved replays. If anything it all seems a bit too much for a game that is likely to have a larger casual gamer following than it is hardcore tennis fans, but its inclusion can't be sniffed at.
It looks superb too. All the themed courts do an amazing job of bringing the classic games to life, and they're full of characters and items. We won't spoil all the courts featured in the game, but even the first few you'll unlock will make you smile. Sonic's court looks better than any 3D Sonic game we've seen and is surrounded by bit-part characters long-time fans will recognise. The Monkey Ball court is bright and colourful and will make you long for a next-gen Monkey Ball with equally sharp presentation. The Sam De Amigo court, complete with the crazy Samba music from the game, features a carnival of dancers all around. Sumo wanted to make Superstars a game for fans and it's succeeded.
Things aren't all rosy though. The graphical richness comes at a cost to frame rate, meaning you won't find the silky smooth frame rate seen in Virtua Tennis. It varies in severity from court to court, and rarely becomes an issue that affects gameplay, but it's a shame that we couldn't get a game that ran as smooth as it looks.
SEGA Superstars Tennis is a great bit of fan service for SEGA's army of die-hard supporters but it's also a highly entertaining game of tennis that almost everyone will get some fun out of. It lacks the depth required of a game that will stand the test of time and live on for months if not years to come, but for simple fun, either alone or with a few mates, SEGA has a winner on its hands. We're already trying to work out which characters will appear in the sequel.