Before you can progress up a snowy mountain, Mario's asked to fire some tennis balls at Shy Guys who are barricading the train.
When you first boot up Mario Tennis Aces, you don't see the main menu: you're launched immediately into the solo "Adventure" mode. It's about six hours of gameplay that gives you something to do outside of searching for online matches, but it's also an extended grind that wears thin very, very quickly.
The review embargo for Mario Tennis Aces lifted late last night, but the game doesn't come out at retail and the eShop until tomorrow. So instead of wasting time trying to hit the small batch of people in Australia who also had review codes, I've been spending more of my time with MTA's single player modes.
There's essentially three: the Adventure campaign, where Mario runs around the world chasing a possessed Luigi collecting Power Stones; a Tournament mode with three separate "cups", Mario Kart-style; and a free-for-all mode where you can customise the rules and matchup to taste.
But if you want to unlock all the courts for play elsewhere, you'll need to work your way through the Adventure Mode - and all of the associated challenges, too.
One of the "intermediate" challenges in adventure mode, which you'll need to do to unlock a more powerful racket (necessary for making boss fights easier).
Once you get past the tutorial - there isn't a separate offering in the menus to practice advanced shots separately, like there was in the online beta earlier this month - there's essentially three main tasks. One is the form of basic challenges, which range from essentially gaining meter and using charge shots to knock off individual targets, like the Shy Guy sequence above.
You'll gain XP at the end of every challenge, boss fight or practice match, giving Mario very, very slight gains in agility, shot speed and run speed. Other attributes are determined by the racket you're holding at the time, which you unlock through optional challenges on the board. (If your racket breaks mid-match, you'll use the previous racket in your arsenal, which will always be a little weaker and do a little less damage in boss fights.)
The other main challenges range from maintaining a rally with an AI opponent, Virtua Tennis-style target practice (but much more simplified, and not as challenging), and basic one or three-set matches on a variety of courts that throw obstacles in your way, ranging from mirrors that teleport your ball, a ship mast you can bank shots off, and mechabots that explode on the court to stun players. The obstacles in the court more often are just there to add some arbitrary challenge, while the player gets accustomed to MTA's controls and colour codes (used to identify what type of shot is coming your way).
The main drawcard are the boss fights, which all play out to the same pattern: the boss fires a ball at you initially, occasionally throwing a Zone Shot your way, and takes damage each time you successfully return the ball.
Once the boss gets to zero health, you're basically given an opportunity to perform a zone or special Shot to knock off one of the bosses' lives. You'll then have a series of attacks to dodge, and then the boss starts firing balls back in your direction, albeit with a few more direct attacks and zone shots to block.
In one of the earlier boss fights, you square off against a set of mirrors. A ball hit into one mirror will be returned through the other, and once the boss's HP is reduced to zero, you keep firing zone shots at the mirrors until you can get a clean shot at the boss. They'll lose a life, and you repeat the process until the boss runs out of lives or you run out of time.
One of the better boss fights takes places on a snowy mountain top against two giant ice hands. After the initial phase, one of the ice hands will return the ball in your direction, while the other rushes forward to squash Mario. It messes with your visibility a little, and forces you to lunge or burn more of your metre on zone speed, making the sequence marginally more engaging.
What's droll about the whole affair is that there isn't any real strategy. Your shot selection doesn't matter against bosses, for instance. Most of the challenges don't require any shot selection either, just some charging in advance and the occasional hit of zone speed if you need help flicking back the racket-damaging zone shots. And even those are deliberately slower in Adventure Mode than what you'll face in an actual multiplayer match.
This is illustrated in the most aggravating challenge of all: a non-boss fight where you're hitting a ball against a mirror into a series of bubbles and gears. Hitting the right gear or bubble ticks off a particular sound and vibration, and you go through this trial and error about six times.
It's just repetitive. I wish I could say it was a blast, as engaging as the online beta I played earlier this month, but it's not. It's a chore you go through to unlock all the stages for play in other modes, and there's no way around it.
Annoyingly, it's also the only way to access the tutorial. The online beta had some interactive tutorials in the help menu for advanced shots, but the release version only has pictorial guidelines.
There's no shortcut to the tutorial either: you have to go through the adventure mode, fast travel back to the first couple of challenges, and go from there. There's no reason that couldn't have been implemented directly into the help menu, and it would make it a lot easier if you're handing the controller over to someone else and they want a quick crash course before an actual game.
Update 2200: A patch for Mario Tennis Aces went out the evening after this was published, adding "Practice Basic Shots" and "Practice Advanced Shots" into the "How to Play" section of the main menu. It removes my previous complaint about burying the tutorial within the Adventure Mode, so cheers for that Nintendo.
Multiplayer, either through online, mucking around with friends or in the Wii Tennis-like Swing Mode, is really where it's at. We weren't able to try out online before launch, so we'll have to wait and see whether the experience there is better than the frequent one-bar connections people were getting in the beta.
But if you do pick up Mario Tennis Aces, it's worth knowing beforehand: if the online play really wasn't your thing, don't expect the singleplayer to take your fancy. A new Mario Tennis RPG, this is absolutely not.