Nintendo’s initial marketing for the Wii featured two Japanese men, professionally dressed, knocking on an apartment door and telling the owner, “We would like to play” (or “Wii would like to play,” if you prefer, as Nintendo happened to be infatuated with puns at the time). It was an unorthodox approach to video game advertising, which is often (especially back then) aimed at children or late teens/early 20-somethings—key target demographics, seen rocking on a couch as if their Xbox controller needed the motion, reacting to a flurry of brief game clips and sounds.
But that’s not Nintendo. They’re weird and awkward, and resistant to industry-wide change. For them, eccentricity works. And Mario Tennis Ultra Smash, Nintendo’s frazzled holiday offering for the already-fading Wii U, manages to use these attributes to appeal to all comers, not just hardcore gamers.
Ultra Smash’s release coincides with the launches of 2015’s interactive titans, games like Fallout, Star Wars Battlefront, Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Halo 5. Nintendo chose to release their playful adaptation of tennis into a holiday ruckus comprised primarily of violent gunplay.
The few modern tennis games—mostly anchored by Sega’s dormant Virtua Tennis series—bloat themselves with simulated careers, the luxury of sub-games like bowling (but with tennis), and stat depth sufficient for any numbers nerd. Ultra Smash has more in common with Nintendo’s delightfully slim Tennis for the boxy gray 8-bit NES. Tennis released in 1985. In it, you played tennis. It had no frills, no special controller combinations, no character selection. Only tennis—Pong with slightly more tennis-like graphics.
Most sports games have moved past the era of simple competition. But Ultra Smash is barren tennis, online or off, doubles or singles, with a light spritzing of the Mushroom Kingdom’s peculiarities. The game’s singular stunt is a growth mushroom that can turn characters enormous. It’s little to build a game around, but that’s Nintendo.
By 2015, the “Wii would like to play” tagline has evaporated. The Wii U, with its complicated tablet controller, failed to ensnare the captivated audience who started playing games when the Wii’s simple motion controls lured them in, say the quarterly sales reports. The new line became “How U will play next.” The answer is decoded as, “Like 1985,” if Ultra Smash is the lone indicator.
And that’s fine. “Hit A to swing the racket” is a digestible instruction—moreso than the complicated controls of, say, Star Wars Battlefront. That’s a game that theoretically has massive appeal, yet in practice repels most players by asking for input from double analog sticks with independent movement, four triggers and a slew of face buttons. Battlefront is sliced into chunks of ill-explained gameplay rules, all online against other live players. It’s long-winded and not a friendly space. Tennis can be as friendly as needed.
Accessibility is often underrated, even under-appreciated. There is a reason the Wii darted into mainstream stardom, blindsiding the insular, closed off corners of the usual game marketplace. Ultra Smash has the same appeal of before, so empty and sparse, yet invigorating to someone unfamiliar with video games in general. Nintendo’s lean offering is one of the few still trying to appease new or newer players. Nintendo still sees a premium in simplicity, even if it could mean ostracizing their dedicated followers. They did it before and they’re trying it again, even if the surprising surge of original Wii adopters have mostly moved on to mobile platforms for their gaming.
To believe Nintendo is out of touch or failing to be competitive in the gaming industry is naive. Their intent—even if it has been implemented sloppily—has been to slowly elevate those unaccustomed to the norm, bring them up from behind decades’ worth of the medium’s expansion, and cautiously draw them into Nintendo’s realm. While others deal in bloated menus and complexity, Nintendo continues to strive to be welcoming.
Wii Sports Tennis and, now, Mario Tennis Ultra Smash show this guiding philosophy. Motion controls were traded for a controller. Offline play was traded for optional online. No unlocks traded for a handful. One character traded for a bunch. Cleaner, more attractive, approachable. Even if no one notices, Nintendo is still serving up the accessible volleys that people want.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door Pamela Horton Has a Deadly Best Friend in ‘Fallout 4’