MARIO TENNIS / Nintendo / Game Boy Color
I dunno if anyone ever wanted Shining Force Tennis, but if you did this is probably going to be as close as it ever gets. After cranking out a series of good golf games, this was developer Camelot's first tilt at tennis (along with the companion N64 game released two months earlier) and also their second sports title to try incorporating some RPG elements from their Shining Force past. The game world that ties all the tennis together here is actually a repurposed version of their Genesis Shining Force engine, down to the pulsating and twitching characters and the camera that kind of pans and swings loosely.
Mario Tennis actually does play a very solid game of tennis considering the humble hardware, but man does it insist on throwing a bunch of shit in your way to get to it.
The meat of the game is an RPG mode that has you pick a prefab male or female kid and take them through their tennis education at some sort of elite private academy. You start in the "junior class" and have to complete a bunch of tennis drills and matches to move on to the "senior class", rinse and repeat for that, make the varsity team and travel around playing competitive matches, and then eventually become a pro on the Mario Tour.
It's ambitious, and there's a lot of meat to it, but it's really not well-constructed. In spite of the focus on training and classes, you're never told a lot of key things in-game like how to actually aim and perform all the different shot types. Another thing that only becomes clear with experimentation is that your stats are just too low to complete some of the junior drills at first, your character is basically artificially hobbled (slow, crappy shots, aim goes awry) until you level-grind for a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, the main way to grind is to literally bounce balls off of a wall over and over and over in the training center; tedious enough on its own merits, but made even worse with one mistake kicking you out of the training session and forcing you to restart complete with really annoying "game over" music every time.
Exhibition mode is more fun, because you can just jump right in with a developed character. The rub here is that you only get six characters to choose from at first, and only three are Mario characters (the other three are the generic schlubs Camelot was so fond of padding their sports rosters out with). OK, unlocking is usually the order of the day in these Camelot-Nintendo joints ... but it's particularly nasty in this title. The GBC-N64 link system was being VERY aggressively pushed here, with a lot of the major Mario characters only unlockable by using it with N64 Mario Tennis. The remaining handful, including Mr. Mario Mario himself, require you to grind through the single-player game to nearly the end to get.
As far as aesthetics go, I guess this is about as good as you can make a GBC sports title look. Animations are simple and not inspiring, however. The sound is the usual harsh, over-loud Game Boy stuff. Only Koji Kondo seemed to be able to make this sound chip work.
Ultimately I felt like Mario Tennis was just trying to do too much with too little hardware. The RPG elements are just too grindy and extra and not in a way that benefits the game or makes it more fun to play than just giving you the Mario roster up front and letting you go to it. I admire the depth they tried to pull off with the actual tennis action, but this really would have been better suited to an analog stick rather than the Game Boy's clunky d-pad and two buttons.
* Gameplay Video
* Original commercial