Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sega Superstars Tennis (X360) Review

Nowhere near an ace, nowhere near a double-fault

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Nintendo and Sega were once the fiercest of rivals back in the NES/Master System and SNES/Genesis days. My, have times changed. While Nintendo's all-stars are battling against one another in the epic contest otherwise known as Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a small sample of Sega's superstars have been assembled to play one another in a tennis game-- Sega Superstars Tennis. Can developer Sumo Digital pull off an ace with Sega's franchises, or will they come up with a fault?

You start out with eight characters to select from, but by the game's completion you'll be able play as one of sixteen of Sega's beloved characters. Of course, you have Sonic the Hedgehog, his buddy Tails, his nefarious foe Dr. Eggman, Amy Rose, and Shadow the Hedgehog. Wait, there's five Sonic characters out of sixteen and no Knuckles?! There's definitely some major representation for Sonic and company. Other franchise characters entered into the tennis court fray include Super Monkey Ball's Aiai and Meemee, Space Channel 5's dazzling reporter, Ulala and nemesis Pudding, Jet Grind Radio's Beat and Gum, NiGHTS and foe Reala from NiGHTS Into Dreams, and Sega's original mascot, the boy-wonder, Alex Kidd.

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While Mario's battling Nintendo all-stars, Sonic is playing tennis.

Sega Superstars Tennis offers a pretty fair amount of modes to choose from. The meat of the game, however, comes in the form of Superstars mode. This mode has you playing various mini-games, singles and doubles matches, mini-games, tournaments, and did I say mini-games yet-- to unlock new characters, courts, and songs to play during your tennis outings. You start out with the ability to choose from Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Grind Radio, Samba de Amigo, and Space Channel 5. By completing a stage, the next one opens up in its franchise. It's all well and good in theory, but the execution is where the developers missed the mark and just narrowly went out-of-bounds. Many of the franchises have loosely-based tennis games to play. The first time playing them is rather fun, and you get a feel of what you're expected to do. However, these start to drag on in later stages as you're playing the same mini-game only with small altercations each time, so basically if plowing through a mountains of mini-games and the occasional traditional tennis games has you drooling at the mouth, then Superstars mode is probably for you. Thankfully for the rest of us, the Superstars mode can be completed in about five or six hours. For its credit though, trying to see what you'll unlock next from completing a mission is a good treat.

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Knock those Monkey Balls into the goals in this mini-game.

By their lonesome, the franchise-themed mini-games are creative and well thought-out. Each game has its own game, way to win, way to lose, and how to score. While Sonic the Hedgehog's mini-game will have you putting away your racket in exchange for dodging electronic mines while trying to grab rings, Super Monkey Ball's mini-game will have you serving your tennis ball against a series of Monkey Balls trying to direct them into the various goals for points. My favorite games feature the House of the Dead mini-game (referred to as Curien Mansion perhaps to fit in with the kiddy theme) where it's your mission to rally the tennis ball into hordes of the undead slowly creeping to your side of the court. There's also an amusing game where you serve tennis balls at targets while trying to avoid hitting hostages in the Virtua Cop mini-game. This isn't to say that all the mini-games are winners. Some just feel uninspired such as the Jet Set Radio and Space Harrier mini-games (full of targeting follies of the unfunny kind).

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Sonic's court is filled with side-line: Chao, Blaze, and even Big and Silver-- MUST KILL!

There's ten courts to select from after unlocking everything, but it's unfortunate that some of the characters don't even receive their own tennis courts. The Golden Axe portion of the Superstars mode takes place on the Curien Mansion court which makes little sense and just seems lazy. Alex Kidd doesn't get his fair share of the bargain either. However, what there are of the courts are pretty creative. Sonic gets two courts-- one Green Hill, one Scrap Brain-- while every other franchise with a court gets one. My favorites of these include the awesome After Burner court where you play within the arena of two juggernaut airplanes, the sun-baked beach of OutRun, and Jet Set Radio's metropolis court.

Since Sega Superstars Tennis is based off of the Virtua Tennis 3 engine, the developers borrowed the control scheme to build the one found in SST. Your standard ground shot is hit via the A button while the X button is set for a swifter slice shot. A and then quickly pressing X is used to lob the ball into the air, and X and then a fast tap of A will serve up a drop shot, just falling into the opponent's court. It would have been much simpler and more intuitive to have each button on the 360 controller be routed to a type of shot, but then again, I'm not a game designer, so what do I know? What we have otherwise is a silly control scheme that could have been much better.

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Superstar moves can luckily be turned off.

Like Mario Power Tennis before it, Sega Superstars Tennis gives each character the ability to perform a Superstar shot. Sonic will turn into Super Sonic, and hit the ball in an unpredictable direction while Amigo's serve will send the ball swirling around, dropping maracas onto the opposing court. These would be great if they even worked on the Easy difficulty AI. They seldom do. The ones that do work are annoying to play with when you're doing a one-on-one match, and you're in a fifty shot rally when all of a sudden your opponent uses his or her Superstar move and gets a point when the ball soars past you. For those on the edge of their seats reading this, you can happily turn Superstar moves off in the options menu.

The AI doesn't end there. I wouldn't call the AI overly difficult or too easy. I would call it inconsistent. One match you're scoring numerous aces against your AI opponent while during the same match the character is rallying your shots from across the court faster than Sonic should even be able to. And don't get me started on the hidden match after the tournament. The AI speeds across the court when they're losing and rockets shots back at you. Not fun and not fair.

If the AI isn't tickling your fancy, you can play with up to three other players locally or online in singles, doubles, tournaments, or ranked matches. Online isn't the best, unfortunately (for the ten people who play on it). Some matches play smoothly for the most part while on others there's erratic lag and slowdown on a massive scale. For those couch-potatoes in us, a cool feature Sumo Digital brought back from Virtua Tennis 3 is the spectator mode where you can watch live matches or highlights from the comfort of your own home. It's pretty nifty, but since online isn't actually bustling it's not used much.

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Aiai guards his territory, ready to strike.

Sadly, an all-star compendium of Sega's top efforts couldn't even beat an effort by just Mario and his friends. This isn't a bad game by any means as you can really see the effort Sumo Digital put into this title. However, given the Sega license, the game could have been much better with more personality, more franchises represented such as Virtua Fighter and Phantasy Star, and just more time invested into the game's development. Characters and courts are well done, but what drags down the experience are the repetitive mini-games lingering throughout Superstars mode.

[SuperPhillip Says]

Graphics: It's okay graphically, but a lot more could have been done to impress. There's framerate issues even with the low-polygon action.

Gameplay: The AI won't entertain you for long, so it's best to play with friends for the long run.

Sound: There's a wide selection of songs to listen to while playing through the various courts. Sound samples are mostly borrowed from past games-- and for a game that really scorched Sonic's image with Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, why would you want anything from that game into this one?

Replay Value: Superstars mode takes six hours, but there's AAA scores to attain (they do not do anything worth mentioning to my knowledge) and high scores on mini-games. If you have friends, this game will last you longer for those that don't.

Overall: 7.25/10 - Okay. Hopefully a sequel fixes the problems of this title.

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