So this is Tennis, the final of 5 launch titles for the Nintendo Game Boy. The 2nd of 2 sports titles in the launch line-up, Nintendo of America must really have been banking on the popularity of sports games, because the launch line-up included 2 games, much like the Japanese launch included Yakuman, a mahjong game. In the same way that every video game console ever released in Japan has likely seen a mahjong game (or thirty), every game system ever released in North America is generally peppered with sports titles throughout the console’s life span. The Game Boy was no exception, and it received both Baseball and Tennis.
Of the 2 sports titles, I prefer Tennis, in part because it’s a more fully realized game. Baseball suffered from very little replay value, somewhat broken game mechanics, and a touch of unforgiving CPU AI. Tennis, on the other hand, appears to be more fleshed out, in part because there are 4 different difficulty levels, and the gameplay just “feels” better. Something about how tightly the game plays makes it a better game. I realize that’s difficult to quantify, but I’ll do my best to explain.
For the uninitiated, the sport of tennis is fairly simple. 2 players face off on a court with a 3 1/2 foot net that divides the court equally. Each side has lines painted to designate the entire play field, as well as two smaller sections along the net that show the serving area. One player serves the ball by hitting it with their tennis racket to the opposite court, on the opposite side of the net horizontally. In other words, they hit the ball diagonally to the player on the other side. That player then returns the ball to anywhere in the serving player’s side of the court, and they continue to volley the ball back and forth until someone misses a shot, one player hits the ball out of bounds, or the ball hits the net and lands on the side of the returning player. The 1st and 2nd scores are worth 15 points, the 3rd is worth 10, and the 4th wins the game. If each player scores 3 times, and they’re tied at 40 points, a “deuce” occurs, and the players continue to serve and volley the ball until one player has scored twice in succession against the other player, so that they are 2 strokes or volleys ahead. This particular tennis game consists of 2 sets, consisting of anywhere from 6 to 12 matches per set, depending on whether the players are winning multiple matches in each set or not. If the 2nd set results in a tie, a sudden-death round takes place, and players volley until one player has scored 7 times, at which point they win the game. Clear as mud, right?
The game’s controls make for part of why I mentioned above that the game feels tighter and better than Baseball. Holding up on the D-pad means you’re hitting the ball toward your opponent harder/faster, and holding down means you’re hitting it with less force. Holding right or left on the D-pad when serving or returning a volley will make the ball veer in that direction, but be careful; sometimes you’ll end up overshooting and the ball will land out of bounds. Press A once to toss the ball in the air, and A again to serve. The A button is your basic, straight-ahead shot, while the B button is a high, arcing shot where you essentially lob the ball up and over toward your opponent. Start pauses the game, and that can be done at any time during a match. Other than sometimes overshooting, and occasionally failing to return a volley if you’re standing dead-center with the ball as it approaches you, the controls just work, and are pretty intuitive.
It’s not hard for a game to be more graphically impressive than the original Baseball for Game Boy, but Tennis is relatively impressive, as compared to its launch title sports brethren. The character sprites animate well, and are reasonably good facsimiles of real people on a court. The perspective above and behind the player is also just about as good as one could hope for, with enough view of both sides of the court to judge the distance, speed, and trajectory of the tennis ball. The ball makes a subtle little circle animation on the ground each time it bounces, and the ball’s shadow helps make it easier to gauge its relative position. Mario looks like Mario, in his referee role, and while the crowd is pretty basic, at least there’s an audience drawn in. Overall, the graphics are fitting, and the animations work well. There’s also the nice little touch of your player bouncing the ball on the ground a couple times, if you take too long before serving the ball. Also of note, all the original launch titles have special color schemes when used in the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and also the Game Boy Player for the GameCube. The court is a nice green, the players have different color clothing, and it just looks very sharp.
Sound design is basic and utilitarian, but it works. There’s a basic ball bounce sound you’ll hear a lot, as well as the sound when the ball hits the racket. When a ball is hit high, it makes a familiar “arc” kind of sound, and when the ball smacks into the net, it’s a good approximation of what that might sound like, at least as far what the Game Boy can produce. The sound that plays between matches is goofy, and seems more like filler, but the “crowd noise” sound is decent, giving that sense of the audience cheering you on. Music is basic, and like Baseball, the presence of only 1 music track means you’ll get tired of it really quickly, but at least it’s reasonably bouncy, catchy, and inoffensive, so until you tire of it, it won’t completely bore you. Once again, Nintendo gets the job done without the “wow” factor.
When I first started playing, I felt as though the game was quite difficult, because I found myself trying to beat the CPU by tricking it, using the right and left angled shots to send the ball where the computer couldn’t reach it, only to be flabbergasted when it actually returned the ball in the same fashion I was attempting to do, and beating me handily in the process. When I started to change up my strategy, alternating between fast and slow shots, and occasionally throwing in a “lob” shot, I started improving. However, I found that there’s a way to game the system, and give yourself a very good chance of winning. If you stand at the back of the court, and hit the ball with a slow shot (hold down on the D-pad and hit A, just as the ball is reaching the back court line, you can shoot it just far enough to hit the top of the net and barely bounce over. The CPU will not be able to return these shots, and usually won’t try. Occasionally, it will attempt to volley it back to you, but the ball will always hit the net on those occasions. Of course, this technique becomes harder as you move up in difficulty level, so your level of precision needs to tighten alongside that shift. There are other techniques more advanced that you can read about on GameFAQs, though strangely, none of the hosted FAQs mentioned this particular technique. However, they all mention a bug in the game, whereby you swing your racket at the peak of your serve, then move your player so the ball bounces on your head and you win the point. I can confirm their findings as well, as I tried it, and sure enough; it works like a charm!
Unfortunately, since I don’t know anyone else locally who owns a Game Boy, let alone someone who owns a copy of Tennis for the handheld, I was unable to test the 2-player mode at this time. Based on what I’ve read, it’s pretty fun, and you even have the opportunity to play doubles. I would love to be able to try that, as well as competitive play against another person. I quite enjoyed 2-player action on the Game Boy as a kid, and I still think it would be fun to have that kind of interaction today. I suppose I could cheat, and try to play against someone online via an emulator, but I prefer the real thing. There’s nothing like hooking up a link cable, or lining up your Game Boy Color units for infrared to go head-to-head in a game like this. Sadly, I can’t test that side of the experience at the moment.
Overall, Tennis on the Game Boy is a great little game, and one that I see myself going back to. There are other tennis games on the platform, as well as titles that came out later on the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, so it will be interesting to see how those compare with this. As it stands, I would say this ranks behind Tetris and Super Mario Land as a decent 3rd place contender within the launch line-up. It has more replay value than either Alleyway or Baseball, has better control and game mechanics than the latter, and is just fun to play. Even if you’re like me, and not much of a sports (or sports game) fan, this is a solid, fun game that, given some time, might just suck you in and get you addicted to it. Recommended.