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Sega Superstars Tennis
Graphics: 7.5
Gameplay: 7.2
Sound: 6.8
Control: 7.1
Replay Value: 6.5
Rating: 7.3

Nintendo was the first to blend tennis with its own mascots (Mario Tennis for the N64), and since then, we’ve seen more than a few arcade-based tennis games. Now, Sega has kicked in with theirs. Some might want to compare it to something like Hot Shots Golf due to its fun and cartoon-y exterior, but make no mistake: while HSG really is a golf simulator, there’s nothing even remotely realistic about Sega Superstars Tennis. However, just about everybody knows that going in, and provided you’re a fan of Sega’s quirky characters, you’ll probably get at least a few hours of entertainment out of this one. Like most games such as these, though, it’s best if you play with a friend because the single-player experience can wear out very quickly, as the gameplay limitations become both repetitive and even boring. But up until that point, Superstars has a lot to offer for the fun-seeking individual looking to pass the time on a rainy day.

The graphics hold true to Sega’s typical palette: lots of color, plenty of detail, and environments that are both diverse and visually appealing. The tennis courts are set in a variety of locales that will be familiar to many a Sega fan; we’ve got settings based on Out Run, After Burner, Super Monkey Ball, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. These graphics aren’t the most intricate or the most technically accomplished, but they still serve their purpose. The animations aren’t too bad, either, as Sonic will roll to stretch for a difficult shot and other characters have unique gameplay actions as well. The frame rate stays relatively solid despite one bit of slowdown we noticed during a particularly crazy point, and when “Superstar” is activated, more pretty visuals ensue. The game looks good in high definition, but there isn’t much to get excited about. It’s basically everything you might expect; nothing less, nothing more.

The sound is similar, and although you can unlock different tracks for each court setting, there does seem to be a repetitive theme that runs throughout the game. There’s a lot of upbeat rock tracks with a few that differ slightly – angling more towards the cutesy or the somber and intimidating – but for the most part, the music isn’t really a highlight. The sound effects fall a little short due to the same lack of impact and variety, as character exclamations almost never change and the smack of the ball combined with the movement of the player isn’t impressive. Designed to be lively and happy, the sound in Superstars Tennis ends up being bland. We’re not about to be anal, though; the overall quality is good and being able to unlock new soundtracks certainly gives this category a boost. Because there isn’t much in the way of voice acting, and due to the fact that tennis tends to have a repetitive sound to it – back and forth, you know what we mean – there’s no reason to unleash with more criticism. Let’s just say there’s nothing memorable about the graphics or the sound, but both are better than passable. That’s not a bad thing, people.

The gameplay is simple, straightforward, and accessible to all ages. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, but for the sake of this review, we have to delve a bit deeper. Unfortunately, there isn’t that much more to say in regards to the control, game modes and difficulty. As for the latter, the default difficulty level is set to Easy, and we have no idea why. Even if you set it to Normal the game is a breeze, and given the brevity of all events, it takes very little time to conquer the vast majority of the game. The control consists of simply moving around with either the d-pad or the analog, and hitting four different shots (Fast, Slice, Lob, and Drop), but here’s where things get a little weird. For some reason, instead of simply assigning one shot to each of the four face buttons on the Sony controller, we actually only use two buttons. Hitting the X is a fast shot and hitting the Square is slice, but hitting Square first and then Triangle is a lob. Er…how about just making us hit Triangle?

But that’s okay, because you’ll never need to use anything but the regular fast shot, anyway. Slice can be effective for giving you time to get back into a point, but it’s so rare that you’re out of a point in the first place, it’s almost useless. Lobs and drop shots can be somewhat effective – especially lobs in Doubles matches – but again, nothing forces you to really mix it up. The key to every match, regardless of which character you choose, is the same: hit to the corner, rush the net, and keep running the opponent back and forth until he/she can’t reach the last volley. You can sit back on the baseline if you wish, but this gets even more repetitive. Besides regular matches, you will also spend a lot of time participating in strange little mini-games, which you have to pass in the Superstars game mode. Sometimes, you have to clear the other side of the court by knocking balls through rings, and other times you have to collect rings (or bananas, or whatever) without getting hit by flying projectiles.

Those mini-games are all about timing, aiming your shots and reflexes. But none of them are all that difficult to pass, even though you’re graded on every event; you’ll get an A, AA, or AAA depending on how well you do. The only way to land the enviable AAA status is to be absolutely perfect in a match – which means not losing a single point – and that’s nowhere near as hard as it sounds. But the way they add up your ranking during the course of a tournament is ridiculous. For example, if you score three AAA rounds and one AA round, your overall ranking will be AA. …what? Why? Apparently, the only way to get an overall AAA is if all the individual rounds are AAA. That’s definitely annoying, but after a while, you realize those rankings really don’t mean anything. Provided you just pass the event, be it a match or mini-game, you will score the unlockable it protects. You’ll discover new missions, new soundtracks, and of course, new characters for play. And yes, as you might expect, most of Sega’s familiar faces are all here.

There are a grand total of 16 characters in the game, half of which you have to unlock. Most avid gamers will be able to recognize each and every classic character: there’s AiAi (Super Monkey Ball), Ulala (Space Channel 5), NiGHTS (NiGHTS Into Dreams), Beat (Jet Set Radio), and many more; each of which is either skilled in Spin, Power, or Speed. A few select characters are “All Round,” although that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best; it just means they don’t excel in any one particular category. Sonic is Speed, Samba is Power, NiGHTS is All Round, AiAi is Spin, etc. This is where some strategy should come into play, but again, it doesn’t seem to matter, as most players will be able to finish the entire game by using any one character throughout. One might expect we’d have to use a Power character to push balls around in one of those mini-games, or a Speed character to pick up as many items as possible, but even that isn’t essential. You might need to do that for the top ranking, but it’s not a requirement for passing the missions. We ripped through a Tournament and much of SuperStars in only a few hours time.

Rather than the Tournament – which is just a single tournament and nothing more – Superstars mode is the meat and potatoes of Sega Superstars Tennis. Here, you will find many different stages based on all those Sega games we’ve loved in the past, ranging from Samba de Amigo to Golden Axe. In each stage, you will attempt several different individual missions and you have to pass the tournament within that stage to unlock the character. Some will be quick; unlocking Amy in the Sonic the Hedgehog stage only requires you finish off a match against Sonic (yes, Sonic vs. Sonic) and then go through a tournament. After that, you’ll find more mini-games, which you can play to unlock soundtracks and other missions. The tournament to unlock MeeMee in the Samba stage doesn’t pop up until after completing 8 different mini-games, though, so you never know how long it will take until you start moving through the stage. Some of this is really fun, but many gamers will soon grow tired of the process.

Sega Superstars Tennis is a good-hearted and fun game that offers solid control, a bit of accuracy (diving for a shot means you can’t get back into play so easily, and fending off a tough shot means your return might go out), and plenty of missions/events to complete. The Tournament and Games mode are nothing more than separate sections of the Superstars mode, but even so, Sega fans will get a kick out of seeing and unlocking so many classic characters. The backdrops only add to the agreeable atmosphere, and there aren’t any critical mechanical flaws. But beyond the surface goodness, there just isn’t anything else there. You’ll end up doing the same thing over and over to achieve success, and the special abilities are only cool for about an hour. Yeah, changing into “super” Sonic and having the ball do all kinds of crazy things is fun to look at, but just like the extra shots, it’s almost entirely unnecessary. The depth is almost non-existent, the music can get a bit annoying, and a best-of-3 games for every match in Superstars mode makes everything go all too fast. There’s just no challenge.

But at the very least, the fun factor is undeniable. Even though it’s kinda short-lived, that ought to count for something. Well, no, it counts for a lot. When this game drops down to about $20, it’ll probably be worth picking up for Sega fans.

5/27/2008   Ben Dutka