I have seen video games sold on the merit of their graphics alone. I have seen video games sold on the merit of their novel control scheme alone. I have even seen video games sold on the merit of their replayability. The one significant review criteria I have never seen a game championed for is balance. This fascinates me. Thinking back on the truly great games of the ages, the game worth playing several hardware generations after release, is it not balance that makes them worthy of continued affection? Balance can make up for many sins, but a game cannot stand on balance alone.
Why this sudden obsession with balance? Virtua Tennis 4 forces me to. Virtua Tennis 4 is not a pretty game by any standard, even the low standards of the Nintendo Wii. The music, such as it is, has little appeal in its repetition and blandness. No, there is a deeper, more difficult to articulate reason that Virtua Tennis 4 is such an entrancing game. A scan of the review criteria we here at Diehard GameFAN use reveals that one category describes Virtua Tennis 4‘s greatest attribute: Balance. What a nebulous and ethereal quality to appraise!
There came a moment in my Virtua Tennis 4 playthrough that made me keenly aware that this was not going to be a simple game to surmise. I was sitting on the floor, having poured four and a half hours into the World Tour career of my Cuban tennis star, Tony Montana. Tony had played singles and doubles matches across four continents, built a fan base, and developed into an aggressive net crasher. He had failed to qualify for a tournament in England, so Tony was entered into the Qualifying tournament. Controlling Tony, I won my way into the main tournament by beating a pair of fictional players. Tony had arrived.
The first two games were tight, but Tony Montana’s aggressive play had won the day. All that remained was one player. The bad news was that the one player remaining was Roger Federer. The worse news was that the prior four games had sapped Tony’s stamina to the point that his ankle was injured going into the finals. Playing the best player in the world, ostensibly on one leg, is never easy. Doing so on grass is even harder. Unbridled aggression is an exploitable weakness on grass. Here, in a sports game, was the most engaging story I had encountered in a video game in some time. The kicker being that this story was caused by gameplay, not dictating it.
The match itself was one I will not soon forget. Tony had the serve, but the combination of Roger’s rocket return and Tony’s bad wheel meant that the Russian took an early lead. This was the story of the game: Tony played as aggressive as his body allowed and Roger played defensively. Sadly, Federer took it in 3 sets, but Tony Montana fought hard. I was left exhausted and emotionally spent, my thumbs beaten red by the unforgiving Wii controller. Even in defeat, I felt victorious.
This moment, this World Wide of Sports Agony of Defeat moment, this is what I have wanted from a sports game as long as I have played video games. For the first time in a long time, a video game made me feel a real, honest human emotion. This is moment is why I play video games. This moment is transcendent. Is that enough?
Virtua Tennis 4 has plenty of stuff to do. The aforementioned World Tour is the biggest attraction, an RPG style career mode that is as strong as the similar Road to the Show mode in Sony’s great MLB: The Show series. This is strong praise, and I do not hand it out lightly. World Tour is so much fun, so well constructed; it is easy to envision playing it repeatedly. After designing a tennis player with the fairly robust creation wizard, your avatar is plopped down on map of the world. The map is littered with objectives, be it training exercises in the form of minigames, charity appearances, hotels to rest in, one off games, or mini-tournaments. The minigames are how you advance your character’s statistics, earn money, and move up the rankings. One off games and tournaments pay out money and move you up the rankings. Charity events cost money, but they increase your rank, as well. Hotels let you rest, which recharges your stamina meter and prevents injuries.
This all sounds pretty standard, but it never feels rote. The number of moves you have on a given turn is random, so some times you can choose what you are doing. Other times, you are stuck with a drill you may not want to do. Every time I felt overpowered in a match, I found myself running into stiffer competition in the next tournament. Nothing ever comes easy, but I was never bored either. This is the balance I have been raving about.
The money earned on tour can be used to learn new play styles, which drastically change your strategy. The play style you choose determines how your power meter fills, so picking a style that matches your own preferred style is paramount. The other use for money is to buy fresh gear to wear. Looking good mean feeling good and feeling good means playing good, so spend that cash and buy something nice for yourself. The clothing options are plentiful and it is not too hard to make your player look cool.
There are the other standard modes, you know, Exhibition and Arcade and Tournament mode, only multi-player. Honestly, this stuff is of limited appeal to me, next to the draw of World Tour. I’m sure there is someone out there who prefers the more clear cut and simplified Arcade mode, but I don’t see the point.
Graphics were a big draw for the first Virtua Tennis and looking good has always been a calling card of the series. This continues with Virtua Tennis 4, more or less. Truth is, the Wii is simply not up to snuff for this generation. This game looks about as good as possible and sometimes it dazzles, like the beautiful grass court, but it is mostly workmanlike. The real life players look very good, though not what I would call photorealistic. The fictional players are not nearly so attractive. My World Tour player Tony looked… off. When in motion, some of the animations are nice, like the victory celebrations. The good will this generates goes right out the window when a Power Shot goes off and the awkwardness kills the mood.
If I was kind, I would ignore the music. I am not a kind man. All of the incidental music in the game is super bland, magically mediocre. There is not a single memorable tune in the whole game, just a musical brick of Velveeta cheese. The sound effects are stupendous and really made my basement sound like a clay tennis court.
Tennis is not one of the top four sports in America or anything, but I cannot imagine someone not having heard of Federer or the Williams sisters. There is still a shine to the game of tennis and it has always translated well to video games, all the way back to Pong.
The strangest thing about Virtua Tennis 4 is the control scheme. When I first picked it up, I was expecting to grow tired of flailing around in front of my TV. Every Wii owner already has a tennis game, why would I need another? Thing is, this is not a motion controlled game. Yeah, you can use the Wii MotionPlus in Exhibition mode, but for the rest of the game the Wii Remote is held perpendicular, like a game pad. The 1 and 2 buttons get most of the play, with the A and B buttons holding the less used shots. That’s it. If I have one issue, it is the lack of support for the Classic controller. The dang thing would have been perfect.
Graphics: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Virtua Tennis 4 should not be this good. This is a multi-console sports game from a company that has lost most of its luster. This is a sport with little media coverage. This is a Wii game without motion controls. All of that being said, Virtua Tennis 4 is as addictive, entrancing, and playable a Wii game as I have played. This game sneaks up on you and makes you love it. My thumbs twitch just thinking of it – I don’t know if there is anything more I can say than that.