There are only a select few companies in the videogame industry that have enough of a back catalogue of star-studded icons to be able to base a game entirely on fan-service alone, and thankfully Sega seems to be wisening up to that fact. Sega Superstars Tennis follows a solid blueprint that Nintendo has been guilty of rehashing since the early years of the NES, collecting variously well-known starlets plucked from the annals of its rich history, and throwing them into one big package under a common premise – Tennis, this time round. It’s the sort of project that long-time fans of the company will be glad to see, and any excuse to wallow in the history of the once-great creative giant is good a reason as any to dust off your sports shoes and get down to action.
With long-time collaborator Sumo Digital at the helm (previously responsible for the excellent console conversions of VT3 and Outrun 2), Sega Superstars Tennis shapes up as a lovingly crafted slice of nostalgia, built on the extremely solid foundations of Virtua Tennis. There are a total of 16 characters from the back-catalogue to choose from, with the eight initial choices ranging from the ever-ready Sonic through to the likes of AiAi (MonkeyBall) and Beat (Jet Set Radio). The unlocks bring in some bizarre additions, such as Gilius Thunderhead (Golden Axe), and everyone’s favourite Master System icon, Alex Kidd – but you’ll recognise them all.
Such are the basic similarities to VT3 that you’d be hard pushed to notice any difference in gameplay at first, despite the gaudy palette alterations and considerably lavish amount of detail throughout the variously themed courts. That’s no bad thing of course, since Virtua Tennis 3 is already in pole position in the videogame tennis world at this stage. There are differences however, and SST eventually plays out as a half-way house between a title with arcade sensibilities and one with simulation at its core.
Shot placement is considerably simplified, with the ball rarely travelling out of bounds or striking the net at an awkward angle, and all the while retaining the tactical elements that determine early anticipation and quick movement as the key to victory. Lob shots and drop shots have been marginalised to the extent that they no longer have their own dedicated input, instead requiring a quick button combination to pull off successfully. This is no doubt an effort to keep the ball pinging around the court as quickly as possible, and whilst you can play through the entirety of the single-player action without using either type of shot, that certainly isn’t the case online – so get practising as early as you can.
Of course the biggest difference comes in the form of the titular star powers bestowed on each character. Every successful shot builds up your star meter to a glowing, bulging icon, which can then be triggered whenever you like. In that respect, matches often become a race to build the meter up as quickly as possible, and then activate it in a crucial match-winning or match-saving situation. It’s this arcade edge that differentiates SST from the more serious simulations, and smashes the overall experience firmly into the casual market.
Every character has their own unique take on Star Power to unleash, with some unfortunately a little more overpowering than others. Ulala’s ability is basically useless for example, with the ball spiralling in a stylised ’5′ shape, along with some easily avoidable aliens that pop up on the opposite side of the court. Dr Eggman (Robotnik!!!) on the other hand, catapults four almost unavoidable electrified mines to the opposing end, which invariably leaves an easy shot past a paralysed opponent. The lack of balance here may well frustrate some players, especially during online play.
Whilst offline and online play is broken up into the usual match and tournament sections, the main single-player appeal comes in the form of ‘Superstars’ mode, which sets up a series of mini-games and challenges themed on past and present Sega properties.
House of the Dead, for example, is represented by a series of zombie-killing levels, complete with power-ups and shuffling monsters. PuyoPuyo and ChuChu Rocket! are also highlights, managing to transfer the mechanics of the classic puzzlers to the tennis court almost in their entirety. Monkey Ball spins a series of events off the premise of knocking the little lighters through a bunch of different goal posts, and Virtua Cop is exactly as you’d imagine – with tennis balls instead of bullets to take down the bad guys. It’s here that SST truly shines, with every stage unlocking music, characters and environments that evoke memories of titles past.
Unfortunately though, some of the classics haven’t been treated to quite the same amount of affection, with Jet Set Radio’s graffitti-based challenges becoming particularly laborious, and the Sonic ring-collecting games suffering from some rather inexplicable slowdown and a shoddy framerate. Space Harrier is particularly notable here, with a targeting system that’ll leave you wanting to throw the pad within minutes. Not all of the stages contain a huge amount of content either, with Afterburner simply unlocking a themed court, and the Golden Axe stage simply recycling the House of the Dead environment without any alteration.
That isn’t to say that there’s a lack of value to be found. Overall, the amount of positive fan-service far outweighs the duds, and the total amount of classic characters, music and environments will leave any Sega fan satisfied. Also – for those of you on the fence – SST will require a good 8+ hours of play before you’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and by that time you’ll be left with a superbly playable multiplayer game to delve into whenever the need arises. Sonic-themed bedsheets are not required.
It’s unfortunate that the balancing issues and brief technical hiccups cast such a shadow though, as although Star Power is a fun addition to the mix, it could definitely have done with a little more tweaking to ensure less of a one-sided battle from time to time. Online play tends to be dominated by the stronger characters as a result, which is unfortunate for a title that will invariably command a strong multiplayer presence. It doesn’t ruin the experience, but it comes close to doing so, and we look forward to the inevitable improvements if Sega decides to build upon the foundations in the future. As it stands though, SST is worthy of a look for just about anybody, but if you know all of the Sonic levels off by heart, or you can whistle any of the Ourtun theme tunes; this game is clearly for you – and add 10% to the overall score at the top.