The Tricky Serve of Mario Tennis Open

Does the general populace care about tennis anymore? I’m inclined to say no. Granted, my perspective is from an American pop-culture point of view, which is a position of double ignorance; but the only name I recognize in the men’s rankings is that of the aging Swiss ace Roger Federer, who was No. 3 before entering the French Open. On the women’s side, I fare a little better. I know Maria Sharapova (ranked 2nd) largely from Sports Illustrated photo shoots, and Serena and Venus Williams (5th and 52nd in the world, respectively) because, well, who doesn’t. Missing are athletes who I recognize by one name. I don’t see an Agassi or Sampras or McEnroe. 

If the sport is waning in popularity, surely its virtual counterpart has already dropped off a cliff. Maybe this explains the apathy shown toward Mario Tennis Open by reviewers listed on the review aggregation site Metacritic—the Nintendo 3DS game currently averages a score of 70—who seemed to yawn in the middle of saying, “Yeah, it’s Mario doing his sports thing.” A polite dismissal could be long overdue.

Tennis has roots going back to the 12th century. It is also arguably the oldest living videogame genre, aside from computer chess and tic-tac-toe. Tennis for Two, created in 1958, was a stone’s throw away from a Turing machine, running on straight-up resistors, capacitors, and relays. It may have been the first computer game whose graphics were representational. In the ’70s, there was Pong, Pong, Pong, and Pong. Out of the necessity of liking videogames, I’ve played a ridiculous amount of tennis-themed games. For Nintendo alone, I’ve played Tennis for NES, Mario Tennis for Game Boy, Mario’s Tennis for Virtual Boy, Mario Tennis for Nintendo 64, Wii freakin’ Sports, and Mario Tennis Open.

By now, I know what to expect. Do Mario and friends play tennis to catchy tunes? I turned the volume up once to check, and they do. Are there cute animations of bragging and hissy fits thrown between serves? Are there ever! Can you play as your Mii, a tiny virtual avatar that is supposed to look like you, but probably doesn’t? Sure you can. You can even take your Mii online and quit in fumes because apparently some people sit around playing Mario Tennis Open all day. It’s more enjoyable to me to just play against the computer, who can be beaten early on by hitting the ball hard at a sharp right angle and, then, following up with a backhand to the opposite side of the court.

One thing that Mario doesn’t tell you is that tennis is a deceptively complex sport. It looks simple enough. You move to a position where you can hit the ball, and then you hit it, right? But behind the outward obviousness is a near endless number of variables. In a series of lectures on YouTube, the Yale economics professor Ben Polak uses a hypothetical match between the Williams sisters to illustrate the payoff matrix of game theory. He scrawls big, intimidating equations across the chalkboard. In his essay “The String Theory,” author David Foster Wallace grappled with putting the finer points of the game into words.

A shot’s depth is determined by the height at which the ball passes over the net combined with some integrated function of pace and spin, with the ball’s height over the net itself determined by the player’s body position, grip on the racket, height of backswing and angle of racket face, as well as the 3-D coordinates through which the racket face moves during that interval in which the ball is actually on the strings. The tree of variables and determinants branches out and out, on and on, and then on much further when the opponent’s own position and predilections and the ballistic features of the ball he’s sent you to hit are factored in. No silicon-based RAM yet existent could compute the expansion of variables for even a single exchange; smoke would come out of the mainframe.

That said, a tennis videogame’s success hinges on its ability to fake it—to abstract unsolvable conditions into something that can be played with two thumbs and two forefingers, while still managing to hold on to the essence of tennis, without boring you to tears. Mario Tennis Open’s developer Camelot has been iterating on Nintendo’s tennis and golf franchises for almost 15 years, and I’m glad to say that it has yet to become a burnt-out former champion who refuses to retire. Playing is refreshing, engrossing, and fun. 

Open is a very pure experience—the kind of videogame where you move a cursor onscreen and push buttons skillfully. This manages to be enchanting, despite how quickly the illusion of tennis breaks. It becomes clear that, first and foremost, you are pushing buttons. Chance Shots are special moves that catch on fire to emphasize that you are awesome, although all you’ve really done is memorized the correct buttons to push in a color matching meta-game: Press Y for Purple, A for Red, B for Blue, and a combination of buttons for both White and Gold.

One thing that Mario doesn’t tell you is that tennis is a deceptively complex sport.

If you hit a winner with a Chance Shot, the game recognizes it with some visual flair. As a replay begins to play, the crowd and the bleachers and the court fade out. You watch the replay of your little tennis player diving for balls on a geometric shape. All that’s left are wireframes of the baselines and so forth. The rest is laid bare by a black void where nebulas should be.

In this brief moment—when the material clutter of fuzzy yellow balls, and Mario looking up Daisy’s skirt between sets, and a mushroom man (Toad) sitting in the umpire’s chair, and his assistant Lakitu, a turtle that resides in a cloud, who once tossed spine-covered offspring in your path in Super Mario Bros.—when all that has been stripped away, you can almost see the outer edges of the software’s form. You aren’t playing anything much like tennis after all. There’s not even depth here—just a flat plane that is tilted on its axis.

Videogame tennis isn’t so much about tennis. It’s about two sets of functions alternating between action and reaction in insidious rhythm—with tennis stuck on top of it. Somehow this is enough to suck you into the happy place that blurs out from the stereoscopic screen. This is enough to hold you in the framework of a fancy smiling abacus, where millions of beads representing time and space and physics splay out before you. When this abacus is doing math down pat, which it can’t help but do, it will suspend you in a state of obsessive heightened focus. That is something you can care about, even if you don’t care about tennis.

Illustration by Jason Johnson