Review: Sega Superstar Tennis (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Sega Superstar Tennis
Genre: Sports
Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 03/18/08

Generally speaking, Sega Superstar Tennis certainly seemed like a good idea in the beginning. Think about it: Sega is well known for their generally stellar Virtua Tennis series of games, they have a HUGE lineup of mascots to stick into a Sega themed novelty game, and it’d be a fantastic way to bring old and new together in a way that could revitalize some older franchises by mixing them up with some new ones. All indications pointed to the game being a can’t miss prospect, and a fantastic triumph for Sega at that.

And then two things occur to you:

1.) Virtua Tennis is not the same thing as Mario Tennis; VT is generally much more realistic and simulation oriented and generally does not cater well to casual play, whereas Mario Tennis is as casual as it gets, which is why it has something of a broader appeal. This becomes a problem when you realize that if SST plays like VT, well, that’s going to be something of a conflict of interest.


2.) People get into flame wars over who should be in crossover games all the time, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go poke around in a forum that’s discussing Super Smash Brothers Brawl and see how many people are flipping about how there are too many Pokemon in the game and HOW DARE THEY not include the Unicycle from Uniracers as a playable character and you’ll understand what I mean. Thus, no matter WHO Sega sticks into the game, no one’s going to be happy with the results.

And, well, let’s say you’re not so enthusiastic anymore. But hey, it’s still Sega, it’s still Tennis, and it should certainly still be enjoyable to a certain extent. Even if it isn’t a triumph of the human spirit, it should still certainly be enjoyable, and that’s all that counts, yes?

Well, close enough.

SST on the 360 offers you four gameplay modes to goof around with. There’s your standard game of tennis, which allows for singles and doubles play, either in one match or in tournaments, against the CPU or local friends, which is what it is. You’re also offered the option of goofing around with various mini-games that use the tennis concept but aren’t exactly tennis per say, like killing zombies and playing Puyo Pop and such, which is a toss-up; some of the games are fantastic (The Virtua Cop and Puyo Pop games) and others are abysmal (I’m looking at YOU Sonic). There’s also Superstars Mode, which acts as something of a challenge mode that you can use to unlock everything in the game; essentially, you’re given a bunch of themed worlds, and you have to complete various tasks within them, which could be anything from playing mini-games to dodging things to playing actual tennis matches, all to unlock more challenges/stages/soundtracks/characters/whatever. There’s also Xbox Live play for those of you who want to play online against friends or strangers, and this offers the modes you’d expect, IE, everything from the above-noted normal Tennis is available online in Ranked and Player matches. You can also simply watch matches through the TV mode, if you’d rather. Generally speaking, there’s enough to do in the game that one can find enjoyment in the product overall, and there are a sufficient amount of game modes to choose from and games which are tennis-but-not-tennis that don’t suck to goof around with. It’s not bursting with depth per say, mind you, but there’s certainly enough to derive joy from by and large, and it’s not exactly like there could be a whole ton of things to do with it that aren’t tennis.

Visually, SST looks like a high-res PS2 game. The characters and stages are bright and colorful, yes, and the character models animate well, but nothing looks like it’s pushing the processing power of the system by any significant amount. The game is cute, which is certainly all it needs to be, but it’s not visually stunning in any significant way. Also, while most of the characters look correct and accurate, more than a few look odd in SST, most notably the JSR characters Beat and Gum (who presumably look weird because their game was cel-shaded, and this is not), Gillius Thunderhead (who looks like he’s been scarfing the doughnuts) and Alex Kidd (who looks like someone tried to draw him circa his appearance in Lost Star and COMPLETELY had no idea of the scale involved; as a hint, Alex’s head, while big, is not more than double the size of his own body).

Aurally, well, the music is really a matter of perspective; if you are a life-long Sega fan, hearing remixes and original mixes of old Space Harrier, Sonic, Outrun, Space Channel 5 and Jet Set Radio tracks will most likely bring out your inner squealing fanperson, but if not, it’ll merely sound like cute music. Seeing as how I’ve been a Sega fan since the days of the SMS, well, I thought the music was fantastic and well thought out (especially the part where, in an Outrun stage, when reviewing the results of a match you are greeted by the track review music… which was just an awesome touch), so there you go. The sound effects really aren’t expected to be much (oh boy, it’s the sound of a tennis ball hitting asphalt, how wonderfully represented), but they do their job well. And the voice acting, well… it’s generally acceptable enough. Several of the voice actors are generally decent at their job, like those portraying Sonic, Shadow, Nights (yes, Nights; I don’t have a problem with the voice actor for the character because frankly, I didn’t hate the second game) and the JSR and SC5 characters. Some of the character voices can be annoying at times, yes, but by and large the voices are generally okay and in a couple of cases the characters make little comments here and there to establish their heritage just for the sake of being cute, so overall it’s really decent enough.

Now, if you’ve played a tennis game, oh, ever, you probably have a fair idea of how SST plays, but if not, here’s the breakdown: you have two buttons that are used to do pretty much everything, as one does low power shots, the other high power shots, and pressing them in succession (IE high-low or low-high) will generate either a lob (high arcing shot) or a drop shot (low arcing shot). The left stick moves you around your side of the court, and when you’ve committed to a shot, can be used to aim where you want the shot to go. It’s all pretty standard as tennis games go, so those who have played a tennis game before will be right at home here, though those who’ve been playing these sorts of games for a while will note that the game feels quite similar to the aforementioned Virtua Tennis series.

SST does manage to distance itself, conceptually, from the VT series in two ways. The first, obviously, is by the inclusion of various Sega characters from all over Sega’s history. The variety of characters is, generally speaking, decent; it’s expected, for instance, that five of the sixteen characters (eight to start with, eight more are unlockable) will be Sonic the Hedgehog characters; Sonic is Sega’s money franchise, so of course his group will be heavily represented here. But a lot of Sega’s other, not as well received franchises have characters representing them, from Super Monkey Ball to Jet Set Radio and even some old-school fan favorites in Gillius Thunderhead and Alex Kidd made the roster. Honestly, the roster probably wasn’t going to please everyone, and if you were hoping to see Billy Hatcher, Alis Landale, Shadow Yamoto, Hostuma Joe Musashi, Ristar, Opa-Opa, Knuckles (yes, Knuckles, and no, I have no idea why, either) or Sketch Turner (though I can’t imagine anyone could have possibly been waiting for that), you’ll be sorely disappointed here. Still, even beyond the character selection, more than a few games are represented in the playable stages as well, including Space Harrier, Virtua Cop, House of the Dead, and Outrun, so old-school Sega purists will get their fair share of nostalgia out of this.

The second way that SST tries to make itself into a whole new experience is by way of the Superstar shots, which should be instantly familiar to Mario Tennis fans. As you play, a star below your character fills up, and when it fills completely, you can unleash a powerful shot that can confuse or disrupt your opponent in some way. The concept is novel enough, but it doesn’t really work as one would want; hitting with the Superstar shots isn’t guaranteed (as it tended to be in Mario Tennis) which can often lead to frustration when trying to use them, and frankly, they’re practically useless against the CPU. In online versus matches they have their uses, but thankfully you can also turn them off if you’re just looking to play some tennis without any of these shots disrupting your game.

As noted above, Superstar mode changes things up a bit as well, by essentially putting you up against various tennis-themed mini-games that range in enjoyability while, surprisingly enough, indirectly teaching you how to work with the game. You will see all sorts of novelty themed stages through the course of this mode, each with its own games associated with it. In the Jet Set Radio mode, you’ll have to lob shots over the net to make graffiti tags while dodging the Rokkaku police; in the Chu Chu Rocket stage, you’re tasked to, well, play Chu Chu Rocket, only by directing the mice by hitting the arrows with tennis balls; in the Sonic stages you dodge robot attacks while collecting rings… you get the point. Many of these mini-games, aside from helping you learn how to aim your shots and how to move around the court, are just fun in general (Virtua Cop, Chu Chu Rocket, Puyo Pop, and Space Harrier come to mind), so it’s kind of a shame that you have to break these games up with normal tennis matches from time to time, though these are often used to unlock characters and stages and such for normal play.

Online play is certainly a welcome addition to SST, considering that this is something of a rarity in Sega titles (though this is becoming more and more prevalent), and as noted, you’re offered the same various tennis matchups you have available to you in normal gameplay. Online gameplay is generally stable enough, though there are some lag issues where one will see the ball pass ones opponent (or even ones self), only to see the character hit it after all, which is… strange. Also, sadly, it’s hard to find someone to play online with, as no one seems to be doing this thing at the moment, which is sad, but not really surprising.

For all of the good in the game, SST has a few rather severe problems to it that make it hard to recommend on the whole. The single most problematic of these is that the game, honestly, feels like a rush-job. There are sixteen selectable characters to play with, which feels fairly meager, especially since a lot of the characters really just play like each other and feel like palette swaps. The game pays lip service to a whole bunch of Sega’s past franchises, as well, but a lot of this is exactly that; “Golden Axe” is set in a House of the Dead stage, “Puyo Pop” is set in the Nights world, and Alex Kidd takes place in the Outrun stage… and while Space Harrier claims to take place in “the Fantasy Zone”, it looks more like something from Sonic the Hedgehog than anything from Space Harrier. I mean, yeah, fine, Sonic needed two stages because he’s hella awesome, I get that, but you couldn’t render a Turtle Village or a Miracle World stage? Right. There just simply is not enough to the game overall; the mini-games are cute, yes, but many are interchangeable with one another and there’s only so long dodging around a court remains entertaining. Had the game, say, come out at $30 or $40, it would be perhaps a bit more understandable, but as a $50 game it’s a bit difficult to rationalize.

This is the biggest problem, but it is by no means the only one. As noted, many of the mini-games are fantastic, but many others are, well, lame. The Jet Set Radio games are… okay, I suppose, but the Sonic mini-games are boring and unnecessary, and the House of the Dead games, while cute, wear on you fast. Balance is also something of a consideration here on two levels. Mini-games in Superstars mode are inconsistently difficult, with some being killer easy and others being a pain in the butt, which would be fine except that there is no rhyme or reason to the order of these missions, meaning one mission can hold you up indefinitely, only for you to smoke the next five in a row in any given world. The other balance issue amounts to inconsistent computer AI; sometimes you will shut out the computer (this happens often, in fact), only to have one opponent give you trouble, which would be understandable if, say, a tournament was building up this way (with the opponents building progressively in difficulty as you go), but when the first opponent in the tournament is the most challenging of the lot, well, that’s… confusing.

I think the problems that permeate the game can be summed up simply by pointing at Alex Kidd. His game world is an Outrun stage instead of anything that could be considered “his”. His character model looks bizarre, like someone decided to take the head design of the Enchanted Castle version of the character and stick it on the Miracle World body, with bizarre results. His voice actor is vaguely annoying at the best of times, and his comments, while fan-oriented, are peppered with comments like “I found the Miracle Ball”, which really only makes sense to people who have played Alex Kidd and the Lost Star, and believe me, none of us who have played it want to be reminded of it, seeing as how it’s the worst AK game not named Hi-Tech World. But perhaps most annoyingly of all is that actually unlocking the character involves playing against the character, and Alex Kidd represents a drastic jump in difficulty in comparison to the two opponents in the tournament prior to him, let alone any other match in the game. It’s not that he is difficult that is a problem; it is that the gap in difficulty between the character prior and AK himself is the Snake River Canyon of difficulty gaps. You will spend some time on him if you’re not a tennis fan, simply by the virtue that he’s just more difficult than anything you’re exposed to prior. This is something of a problem purely because it’s a pacing issue; gradually increasing challenge is fine, but dramatic ramping up of challenge in odd locations, not so much.

In the end, the big question that comes up is “who is this meant to appeal to?”, and the answer is “I have no idea”. The game seems most like it would appeal to kids interested in Sonic, Nights and the Monkey Ball characters… or hardcore Sega fans. The former will most likely not have the patience to do what the game asks of them to unlock things, because the mini-games become tedious after a while and the core game, while entertaining, isn’t really anything spectacular. The latter will most likely be annoyed that, of the entire roster of characters, only two of them who aren’t Sonic and friends are from anything before the existence of the Saturn, and many of the worlds named aren’t actually represented. It’s really not that the game is bad or unenjoyable so much as it’s simply not anything exciting, original or special. As a first attempt it’s certainly acceptable, but it’s not really worth the price asked for of it, and it’s really nothing but, well, tennis with Sega characters.

The Scores:
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: POOR
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:

Sega Superstar Tennis ends up being like the love child of Mario Tennis and Virtua Tennis, only it’s not as novel and thematically interesting as the former and not as in-depth as the latter. It’s an okay first try, but Sega fans will probably be left wondering why so much of the history of their favorite company seems to have been left on the cutting room floor, casual gamers will find the game to be more trouble than its worth, and tennis fans will find the final product limited and small in comparison to similar titles. It’s worth a rental, but not much else.



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