Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: March 18, 2008
Sega Superstars Tennis blends a broad range of mostly iconic Sega characters with tennis. I wouldn't mention the vastly superior Virtua Tennis franchise in the same breath as this game, as they're about as distant as cousins can be in terms of playability, with VT being the prodigal son and SST being the one covered in drool that has to wear a helmet on the playground.
Sumo Digital has handled dev duty on a variety of titles and managed to pull off most of them, including OutRun 2006 (PS2, Xbox, PSP, PC), TOCA Race Driver 2 (PSP), and even Virtua Tennis 3 (360, PSP). How they managed to screw up the playability of Sega Superstars Tennis is beyond me.
There's one main thing you need to get right in a tennis game: swinging the racket. The timing, angle, and spin, while performed beautifully in Virtua Tennis 3, here feel completely off, enough to make the game joyless to play, if not entirely unplayable. Of course, you can adapt to the unnatural and unwieldy (and sometimes non-functional) timing required to simply return the ball, but you shouldn't have to. They reinvented the wheel for the worse.
In Virtua Tennis, Wii Sports Tennis, heck, even real tennis, you can rely on the tried-and-true guideline of keeping your eye on the ball and swinging when it gets close enough to hit. That doesn't work in Sega Superstars Tennis. You have to start your swing immediately when the ball is returned, as soon as it leaves the opponent's racket. Swing any time after that, and you'll either swing late, or not at all, and that's just the regular topspin swing. If you dabble in the slice swing, you'll find it even less predictable. This made the first hour or so with the game so maddening that I wanted to throw it away and forget I'd ever played it.
Timing also makes negligible differences in terms of play. The best approach, particularly when returning a special hit from a superstar power move, is to just stand right in the middle of the court and mash the X button. No skill required. Combined with the lagged hitting interface, you mostly end up just jamming X as fast as you can while running around the court like a crazy person trying to stay ahead of the ball.
There are special returns you can make, the lob and the drop shot, that require pressing square and then X, or vice versa. This presumably explains the lag in hitting controls, as you have to do button combos for these fairly simple moves. Considering the number of unused face buttons, why they didn't tighten up the hitting mechanics to something more natural, such as mapping the lob and drop shot to other single buttons, is a mystery.
The autosave system also needs work. It stops you after every match for about 10 seconds and puts up a big "Saving" message. Ever heard of background saves? Seems like it would work perfectly well here, and Assassin's Creed managed it without any trouble. The constant interruptions and length of time needed for each save reeks of decade-old design choices. Get with the times. Autosaving can be toggled off, but seriously, it should be a process transparent to the user experience by now. Also tedious is how the game asks you, "Are you sure?" every time you choose anything at the end of a game. I know this is a somewhat popular trend, though it's more often a hassle than a help, and it quickly got annoying.
Now, let's move onto the better stuff. Visually, the game is quite nice, with an abundance of sharp visuals and vibrant colors. There are several things going on in the background of each stage, and the themes are executed well. From the ring boxes and little Chao critters running around Sonic's courts to the flighty feel of the NiGHTS stage to the neon dance-club vibe of the Space Channel 5 venue, each one has a distinct look and identifiable feel to fans of the source games.
The cast of characters is deep if not broad, with a large slant toward Sonic characters, including Sonic, Tails, Amy, Shadow and Eggman (Dr. Robotnik), which comprises almost half the roster. Other players include Gilius from Golden Axe (the dwarf with an axe), Ulala and Pudding from Space Channel 5, Alex Kidd, Beat and Gum from Jet Grind Radio, Aiai and Meemee from Super Monkey Ball, and Amigo from Samba de Amigo. These are the obvious and more recent choices, though it would have been nice to see more variety from some of Sega's older notable franchises. I suppose there's always room in the inevitable sequel.
The differences between the characters are minimal at best. It would have been neat if Gilius used his axe instead of a racket (he does, but only during his superstar power move) or if there were similar character-specific play options. The only thing to make them very different is the aforementioned superstar moves, which build up as you play well, and make it very difficult for the opponent to return the ball when hit while using these abilities. Gilius brings down thunder like his super move in Golden Axe, Eggman launches electrified spiked balls down the court that paralyze whomever they hit, and Ulala fights back with music, aliens, and flashy lights. All of this looks and sounds good, but beyond the cosmetics, they don't improve the game a whole lot other than essentially awarding you a cheap free point whenever you desperately need it. These powers can also take a second or so to wrap up their requisite prep animations, and the ball could be past you before you get it ready to go. The computer sloppily makes this mistake a lot, especially on the easy difficulty.
There's a slew of minigames beyond the basic tennis action, giving you different tasks such as running around dodging objects, trying to maim zombies with tennis balls (wouldn't grenades have been more fun?), or doing trick shots with the Monkey Ball second stringers to bump their balls through a portal, among others. The variety of ideas isn't bad, but it still relies on the screwy hitting controls, and they end up just being a chore required to unlock new players and other minigames.
Some sounds stand out above others, but all are generally pretty good. One of my faves was hearing the original Green Hill Zone music on Sonic's court. Effects are geared more toward the younger set, voice-overs are sprightly and fun, and it overall has a very arcadey feel to it.
When you tire of what you can do in your own living room, you can try your hand at the online content. You get Ranked or Friendly matches, Leaderboards, or TV mode, which allows you to view replays or watch other players going at it right then. Playability was mostly lag-free, and I was able to join a ranked match almost instantly, though it auto-selected my opponent.
A few other fumbles appear in the manual under even the lightest of scrutiny. Under "Instructing Your COM Partner," it says, "… press the button to switch your partner's play style …" but doesn't say which button. (Turns out it's L2 or R2, just FYI.) On the Settings page, under Save/Load, it has Autosave listed twice, once in place of where it should read "Load."
All in all, Sega Superstars Tennis works as an homage to obvious Sega characters, but the playability suffers under some questionable shot-timing implementation, and the fun factor takes a sizable hit for it. Next time I'm hoping for better playability and some less obvious characters get some love, like anyone from Altered Beast, Chakan, Ecco, Eternal Champions, Phantasy Star, Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Vectorman, Virtua Fighter, or even MJ's Moonwalker if he's politically correct by then. Sure, not a lot of these franchises are still alive today (maybe they should be resurrected, given Sega's iffy track record lately), but there are a lot of people who remember them fondly. If Smash Bros. has room for the Ice Climbers, Sega can squeeze in some of these oldies. The younger set may be more forgiving and enjoy the flash and pizzazz of it all. People seeking a tennis game that's actually fun or intuitive should look elsewhere.
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