"Instead of a traditional career mode taking the single-player centre-court, you’re subjected to a seemingly never-ending flow of repetitive Sega-themed mini-games. Superstar mode is split up into a range of game-themed segments; many of Sega’s more familiar franchises, like Sonic and Super Monkey Ball, are well represented but you’ll also be treated to some of the more obscure and retro from the Sega catalogue. It all sounds great in theory, but rather than the clever and inventive training mini-games seen in Virtua Tennis 3, you’re subjected to the same recycled games with different twists."
The gaming world seems to mutter a collective sigh whenever another sports spin-off hits the market. And that’s why Sega Superstars Tennis is so disappointing: it could have, perhaps should have, been so much more than the mediocre spin-off it’s turned out to be.
So why should it have been so much better? Is there any difference between SST and the next generic sports spin-off? There is, and the difference is the people behind the game. Sumo Digital worked on the excellent Virtua Tennis 3, which is widely regarded as one of the top tennis simulators around. It featured a rich single-player component and extensive online matchmaking options, but SST only retains shreds of what made its simulator counterpart so successful.
Instead of a traditional career mode taking the single-player centre-court, you’re subjected to a seemingly never-ending flow of repetitive Sega-themed mini-games. Superstar mode is split up into a range of game-themed segments; many of Sega’s more familiar franchises, like Sonic and Super Monkey Ball, are well represented but you’ll also be treated to some of the more obscure and retro from the Sega catalogue. It all sounds great in theory, but rather than the clever and inventive training mini-games seen in Virtua Tennis 3, you’re subjected to the same recycled games with different twists. Collecting rings in the Sonic the Hedgehog section is fine, but ring collection is the same any which way you try and spin it. Making the rings move around court, or forcing you to pick them up in a certain order, does little to disguise the lack of creativity. There are some genuinely enjoyable games like the Virtua Squad shooting gallery and a tennis-themed Space Harrier recreation, but these are relatively sparse in comparison to the abundance of tired-out games with tired-out twists.
Compounding the Superstar mode’s woes is weak structure and progression; there is a terrible imbalance between the length of each section. Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Monkey Ball are packed full of similar-and-samey mini games, whereas the Alex Kidd and Golden Axe sections only contain so few events that they might as well not have bothered. Instead of focusing so much on packing the more popular franchises with loads of mini-games, it would have made much more sense to cut the amount in the over-inflated franchises and fill out the sections that have too few challenges.
Few and far between these occasions may be, but there is some actual tennis to be played in the Superstar mode. The game of tennis itself is very well-crafted; each of the sixteen characters has distinct strengths and weaknesses which make for a surprisingly well-balanced game. Sonic’s blistering speed makes him well-suited to taking on the spin-kings like Tails and AiAi, but he won’t have it all his own way against the controlled hits of a player like Ulala. This sense of balance prevails despite the presence of superstar powers, extravagant skills that can be unleashed when you’re playing well. Although skilled players will give no quarter when unleashing Super Sonic’s physics-defying ground strokes or calling in an army of monkey balls with MeMe, the superstar powers aren’t game-breakers. It’ll certainly turn the point in your favour, but you’ll only be able to get two-or-three shots off in your superstar state. And all this action takes place in a range of marvellous Sega-themed courts. Destinations such as Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog and an OutRun themed beach court are really vibrant and have a lot going on in the background. Apart from the occasional slow-down that this busyness causes (particularly on the Samba de Amigo court), it’s a great game to look at (and listen to thanks to the mountain of music tracks you can unlock).
So the tennis mechanics are top-notch and make for a fun and well-balanced game, but what about the artificial intelligence? It’s frustratingly inconsistent. Considering how infrequent the tennis matches are in the Superstar mode, they’re usually finished far too quickly due to poor AI. Your fleeting footwork, godly ground strokes, and stellar service prove too much, too often for the feeble computer… but on occasion, the difficulty spikes and you’ll find it tough to match those often-incredible strokes it pulls up out of nothing. When it partners you in a double match, the AI player likes to try and hit every shot except the sensible one. Prepare to swear at the television as your partner makes a mess of that perfect shot you were about to hit, and inexplicably leaves the ones that require you to make a mad (and usually insignificant) dash across court to save the point. It’s as predictable as a mood swing and really makes single-player matches a frustrating experience.
Outside of the Superstar mode, it’s actually possible to enjoy SST. The collection of mini-games are quite fun if you’ve got another one-to-three people to play with (they’re certainly more enjoyable than they are in Superstar mode), but the actual tennis is where it’s at. The well-balanced and refined gameplay (without dodgy AI to spoil it) is fantastic for local multiplayer or over Xbox Live. Connection speed and geographical location aside, it holds up very well online. Matchmaking is usually a quick and simple affair, and lag is minimal to non-existent in most cases, something Virtua Tennis 3 can’t boast. Unfortunately there’s still something to complain about in the online portion. At the time of publishing, the online ranking system is pretty broken. Sore losers who quit at the first sign that they might lose aren’t punished for their heinous acts, and you, the innocent victim, aren’t compensated in any way. Hopefully a patch is on the way as you’re reading this, but it still shouldn’t have shipped in the state it’s in.
The bottom line is that Sega Superstars Tennis is a good tennis game, but everything else about it is below-par. Battling it out with friends, or taking to the online arena, is great fun, but the repetition and lack of creativity that plagues the single-player is hard to take. Those of you without access to Xbox Live or the capacity to engage in regular local multiplayer sessions will want to give this one a miss. The exception would be the hardcore Sega fans, who will appreciate the old-skool nostalgia of the courts and mini-games. Still, you’d have to be real hardcore to buy Sega Superstars Tennis just for the single-player.
Freelance review by Paul Josua (March 25, 2008)
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