Has it ever been fashionable to like Table Tennis? In this country sports tend to fall in and out of popularity, so one minute everyone loves football, then Cricket, then Golf, then Tennis, before everyone decides all sports bar football are boring and not worth bothering with. Still, big sporting events and a few brief weeks in the limelight can't be bad for the sports in question. What I can't remember though, is a period in my life when Table Tennis was the topic of discussion. It might be a popular activity at Scout camp, but I dare say that the UK has never been gripped by Table Tennis fever.
Table Tennis from Rockstar Games was more or less a cert to be the company's debut Wii title. Given the huge success of Wii Sports, another game that uses the Wii-mote as a racket of some sort would seem like a guaranteed success. Table Tennis on the Xbox 360 was actually a pretty complex sports sim once you got the hang of things, with various spin and shot types coming into play. On the Wii much of the audience fall into the 'casual' gaming bracket, so some kind of simple control scheme was necessary.
Rockstar obliged with the single Wii-mote solution, taking all player movement out of the equation. This most simple of control schemes is remarkably similar to Nintendo's Wii Sports Tennis, although the d-pad directions act as spin modifiers and the A and B buttons activate hard and soft shots. If you just fancy a quick game with a mate then you needn't worry about the complexities of spin, making it perfect for novice gamers who can simply swing the Wii-mote to hit the ball. The game apparently can detect various different strokes to let the Wii-mote-only control set-up aim your shots as well, but this proved to be rather random.
For more experienced gamers, two more advanced control systems are on offer: one for more precise aim and the other for full player movement. These two options require the Wii Nunchuk and take a little more getting used to. Aiming is handled with the analogue stick, with the exact position on the table being determined by how long the stick is held in a certain direction. Hold it down for too long though, and the Wii-mote will rumble, meaning the shot has a high chance of going wide. When using the Nunchuck to move the player, you lose the precision aiming, so you'll have to weigh up which gives you a greater chance of success.
The real complexity comes form how you use spin. The idea is to counter your opponent's spins by returning using the same spin. While travelling through the air the ball is surrounded by a spinning colour, which indicates the spin on the ball. Playing against the spin will result in shots being more likely to loop into the air or go wide of the table. You can also throw in weaker shots to try and disrupt the flow of a rally, or deliver a powerful 'Focus' shot to give you the upper hand.
Unlike a game of tennis, Table Tennis requires 100% concentration and discipline. If you're not focussed you can easily wander a few steps to the side of the table, making it easy for your opponent to put you in difficulty. It's essential that you try to remain in the centre of the table (if you choose to handle player movement) and play shots that keep your opponent moving. Trying to spot the spin of the ball is also harder than it sounds, and unless you spot it early, your fumbling for the correct d-pad direction will see you miss the ball completely. When locked into a battle with a player of equal ability, games become just as much about mental agility as they are skill. The pace of rallies can be relentless and one slight slip up will waste all your hard work.
Given that Rockstar has created a wonderfully playable game, the lack of game modes is a tad disappointing, with the basic training, exhibition and tournament modes feeling a little limited. The tournament mode offers a sizeable challenge, but once completed there's little else to play for if you're a lone player. Character creation, which has become a staple of the sports genre, is nowhere to be seen, and unlockables are limited to players and new clothing. The game has been released at a slightly cheaper price than regular Wii games, but the game really deserved a proper career mode - some mini-games would also have gone down well. A total lack of online functionality is also a huge disappointment.
Table Tennis features some of the most impressive player models seen on the Wii, although it's still far from the beautiful game that Xbox 360 gamers have had access to since last year. The crowd doesn't look all that great, unfortunately, but they do create a good atmosphere in the arenas, hollering and cheering for the players at key points in a match. Without the gorgeous HD visuals the game does lose some of its appeal, but thankfully the gameplay is still intact.
Despite the apparent glamour attached to the game thanks to Rockstar, Table Tennis is still a niche title. If you usually have no interest in sports titles, Rockstar's effort isn't going to suddenly blow your mind. If, however, you're a fan of tennis games and are fond of Wii Sports Tennis, Table Tennis is well worth considering. As a multiplayer game it's an incredible amount of fun, but lone players will suffer from the lack of online gameplay.