I learned tennis from Mario Tennis.
Don’t think I picked up a rack and hit the local courts, mind you. I was too obsessed with playing the game to go outside and play actual tennis.
I was never much of a sports enthusiast when a kid. While I went outside and played, and passed through roller-blade and scooter obsessions, I never lost a spare moment watching football or eyeing the covers of sports video game boxes.
To be honest, I also thought that sports video games, like tennis, were too complicated and moved too fast. I couldn’t keep up with it, I assumed.
Then I played Mario Tennis, the first sports game I ever played. It made me want to be a tennis star. I was obsessed with it. The thwock of the racket against the ball, the desperate dives to hit the ball …I got into it. All of it.
This is what Mario sports games can do: open the door into the world of sports gaming for someone, like me, who otherwise never would have given a sports title a second thought.
Though I never became a professional tennis player, from Mario Tennis on I suddenly cared for sports and started to understand the lingo. I understood why professional sports could be exciting and why people could obsess over them.
Now, 20 years out from its Japanese release, I can still look back and appreciate how Mario Tennis gave me a taste for sports. But beyond that—outside of my personal story with it—it’s also a great Nintendo 64 game and a wonderful collection of Mario goodness.
Great N64 Game, Great Tennis Game
Mario Tennis captured the energy of N64 multiplayer games perfectly. A unique characteristic that helped it stand out from the pack is that it wasn’t split-screen. Like Super Smash Bros., each character model was on the same screen. This setup enhanced the experience of sharing the same virtual space with the other players, and it kept the action all in one view.
Beyond N64 multiplayer mayhem, Mario Tennis also captured at least some of the nail-biting, tortuously back-and-forth nature of tennis. Quite a few times I’d be locked in a tense match of never-ending deuces. And prior to this game, I had no idea what a “deuce” was. Similarly, I didn’t know that 0 was “love” in tennis. Bits of real tennis filtered through the accessible Mario action. At the time I was oft derided for playing video games, but here I defended myself—I was learning tennis!
Tennis complemented the Mario universe exceptionally well. Though Mario Golf was the first N64 Mario sports title, Mario Tennis is where Mario sports games really came alive. Mario and company were much more at home on a tennis court, and the faster action more channeled Mario’s platformer gameplay. It's a fantastic N64 and Mario experience.
Mario Tennis is one of the best Mario sports games and an exceptional N64 game. It’s also a superb Mario game.
If there was a Mario character you wanted to play as, you had that option. I was seeing Mario universe characters I had never heard of before. I remember this was the first game where I encountered Birdo or Waluigi (though Birdo had appeared in games prior). Donkey Kong Jr. is in it. Shy Guy and Toad are both playable. There’s also Boo, and Daisy too. Plus tons more. This is the Super Smash Bros. of Mario sports games.
Each character felt unusually alive as you ran around the court and hit and dove for the ball. The letdown noises exulted when a ball was missed or a foul incurred were hilarious. The theatrics at the end of a match were like a stage drama. The losing character flailed in misery, while the winner joyfully leapt about.
But at the time, nothing beat the replay cam. After each score, this showed a new angle to the shots just played. If there was a particularly entertaining hit, miss, or slam into someone’s noggin, watching it again—complete with the hilarious expressions of the characters—was a joy. At the time, it was the most lively the full cast of Mario characters had ever been, certainly in 3D.
Behind all the animated liveliness and theatrical vocals, there’s actually a gameplay purpose to each character, too. There are Power ones, Fast ones, All-Around ones, and some oddball ones, called Technique and Tricky. With so many characters, there’s likely an aesthetic choice for you in each class type. I’m a Wario Land fan, so Wario was my Power character of choice. I thought Toad was cute, so he was my Technique character. Otherwise, I liked mixing things up with Boo or, for an All-Around character, Mario.
Mario Tennis also had an impressive selection of courts. To start the game, there were five courts, each with a different surface type (grass, clay, and so on). Where the real joy came was in the unlockable Mario-themed courts.
Now these were some delightful courts! They carried with them the same joy that new Smash Bros. stages do. There was the Mario Bros. court, the Donkey Kong court, the Wario court (my favorite), and several others. Each had wonderfully realized aesthetics and music tracks that made you feel like you were playing tennis deep in the worlds of Mario and company.
With all these stages and characters, you could hit the court with one-on-one play or doubles. Doubles play allowed for some awesome matchups and vibrant four-player action. If you’ve ever wanted to slam it out with friends as Shy Guy, Donkey Kong Jr., Boo, and Paratroopa, you can do just that in Mario Tennis. It’s wild.
Mario Tennis | Spinoff Mario Greatness
In the N64 original, there were no red shells or cruel games of chance. There was just tennis, Mario style. For me 20 years ago—well, 20 years minus about a month, since I was in the U.S.—this was my real Mario party. I had never cared about sports or tennis, but I dove into Mario Tennis and became joyfully lost.
It was a great Mario game, a great N64 game, and a great tennis game. So much nostalgia may be coloring my memories, but you must check it out if you haven’t. It’s the 20-year anniversary—what better time would there be?