Replay Value: 8
Due to its lack of broad appeal in America, the game of tennis always ends up being one of the quietest sports entries to make its debut on a given console. While it did take well over a year for the PS2 to finally get a tennis game, there are also many more to come -- Davis Cup, Tennis 2K2, and WTA Tour Tennis. The game leading the pack is none other than Namco’s Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament and it’s leading it with a pretty strong title. Namco doesn’t serve up an ‘ace down the line’ but more of a ‘great first serve.’
Going into this game, you wouldn’t expect some technologically advanced work of art in spite of the numerous screens Namco has set forth in past months. However, the overtly simplistic player models and lack of detail is disheartening. The player models appear a bit blocky -- not much body structure -- and lack a lot of polygons. To make matters worse, the players’ faces hold little-to-no resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Yes, they can be distinguished between each other, but aside from their hairstyles, they don’t display many likenesses to the people they are portraying. One of the main reasons that this is so disappointing is the fact that there are only eight selectable characters, so Namco surely could have added a lot more detail and time into creating the faces and proportioning their body structures better. The audience doesn’t help things either, if anything, it makes the visuals even worse. They’re flat and very blurry -- sprites at their finest, in a bad way, of course. Notwithstanding these graphical nightmares, the courts look quite good as do the players on them, from afar that is.
The horribly rendered players are overtly noticeable; however, the animations enthusiastically define the word ‘perfection’ to a tee. Namco didn’t just develop one forehand and furnish it to every player, or produce one serve and make every player utilize it. No, Namco took their notes and quite a bit of motion capturing, and in turn have created some phenomenally genuine animations. Pete Sampras’s serve looks authentic; Agassi’s serve looks just as real; Rafter has his unique serve. They all look really great and realistic. This goes for every player in the game, for virtually all the strokes -- forehands, backhands, serves, volleys. Not only does this help to remedy the horrendous graphics, but it also results in a more authentic looking game because the people on court not only wear the same outfits, but they actually play as though they are the tennis pros themselves.
One excellent feature you’ll notice almost immediately, that definitely sets this game apart from other tennis titles to come, is its star-studded roster. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi -- without question, the two most well-known tennis stars in America -- are both included, and they haven’t been in a game in ages. There are also two other top-ranked men pros: Patrick Rafter, who is undoubtedly the most popular tennis player in Australia and Yevgeny Kafelnikov in which the same can be said about him and his country, Russia. On the women’s side of things, there are also four top-ranked tennis pros: Lindsay Davenport (US), Monica Seles (US), Anna Kournikova (Russia), and Martina Hingis (Switzerland).
Smash Court also boasts an array of gameplay modes to choose from. Exhibition, Time Attack and Arcade are mainly just to get the hang of the game or play a quick one. Then there are the modes that actually mean something: Pro Tournament and Challenge. Challenge is a very fun mode that offers an abundance of goals to complete, such as hitting as many ground strokes (in a row) as you can, or hitting as many overheads as you can. These challenges are all timed and by reaching certain criterias you will then unlock new challenges and objectives.
In Pro Tournament mode, the meat of the game, you can choose one of the eight aforementioned players and duke it out in tennis’s four most prestigious tournaments of the year: Australian Open (hard court), US Open (hard court), Wimbledon (grass court), and the French Open (clay court). For what ever reason, Namco couldn’t obtain the license for the French Open, so it is instead called the Tournoi de Paris. In addition, the game offers up a very engaging doubles mode. Despite what it says on the back of the box (1-2 players), Smash Court does support the multi-tap adapter, which can be used towards a four player doubles match. This is one of the most entertaining parts of the game that takes a while to get tiresome.
Smash Court does have a few evident problems gameplay-wise, but as far as fun goes, it certainly delivers. Smash Court actually plays a lot like Visual Concept’s Virtua Tennis. You have your lob shot, a topspin shot, a slice shot. The impact and angle that your shot possesses will be a result from your positioning. So, for example, if you’re running all over the court trying to get to a shot, it won’t have a lot of power or direction. However, if your opponent hits some weak little shot, all you have to do is position yourself and the point is as good as yours. The basic idea is to just run the opponent around the court and set him up for a winner. In essence, the basic idea to winning a point is the same strategy that people utilize in chess. The reason you make one shot is to set up for another shot later on. If you don’t play with smarts and strategy, players such as Agassi and Rafter will tear you apart limb from limb because their AI is top-notch.
Smash Courts audio is a bit of a mixed bag. Actually, the only thing that really hinders the audio are the BGM’s, which are thankfully off on default because these tunes can become quite bothersome very fast. The sound effects are surprisingly very realistic. No, not the sound of the racquet hitting the ball, that isn’t too impressive. What is pretty amazing though are the sounds and grunts the players make as they hit an overhead, hit a serve, exhaustingly dive for a ball, and etc. Agassi in Smash Court, for instance, actually sounds just like Agassi in rea life, as he grunted when he hit the ball and so forth. This isn’t a very big part of the game, but is quite nice nonetheless.
Smash Court certainly isn’t the best tennis outing to date. But it offers something very important in games these days and that’s fun. Despite the relatively simplistic graphics and the few other shortcomings here and there, Namco’s endeavor into the world of tennis was quite good, and it’s a great game for any tennis fan to experience -- or sports fan in general.