The act of hitting a ball back and forth is one of the oldest and most underappreciated tropes in all of videogames. Everything from Pong to Arkanoid to Mario Tennis have made the simple act of receiving and hitting a ball a lot more fun than it ever would seem in theory. This phenomenon hit me on Sega Dreamcast when the original Virtua Tennis was released. I had previously enjoyed Mario Tennis on the Gameboy but the idea of playing a tennis game was silly. Virtua Tennis kept getting such glowing reviews from the press, and from friends, that I finally broke down and bought it. And I’m glad I did, it ended up being one of the most fun games on the platform.
Fast forward a bit over a decade and we all know that tennis games are fun and there are more choices than ever, with EA trying to enter the fray with Grand Slam Tennis, and 2k’s Top Spin Series. And while these are fine games, they both go the more traditional sports game route and try to be more of a tennis sim, both on and off the court. Meanwhile, Virtua Tennis 4 is obviously created by a team on a heavy dose of hallucinogenics. The game is all the better for it.
Virtua Tennis 4 is part board game, part RPG, part crazy mini game collection and part tennis sim. The actual tennis is very solid, the player, ball, and swing physics are all consistent and do what you want, and for the most part plays like a realistic game of tennis. There are a few additions which detract from the realism, like the ability to build up a super shot and players that can recover from dives onto a hard court pretty quickly, but these things are added in the name of fun and balance and only add to the experience. The graphics are incredibly crisp; it is probably the cleanest looking game on the system (running at a very smooth 60 fps). The tennis sim alone is a pretty good reason to play this game.
But the action on the court is just a small part of the weird puzzle that is Virtua Tennis 4. There are a bunch of modes, ranging from exhibitions, tournaments, mini-games, strange vita-specific “apps” (like one where you can take a picture and put a player model of a tennis player into it), a wonderfully lag free online mode, and the lengthy and fantastic career mode. The amount of content you get is pretty staggering and quite deep for a game where the point is to hit a ball back and forth over a net.
The career mode is where everything comes together. You are presented with a map of a region and a bunch of events in a series of branching paths that all lead to the major tournament at the end of that region. Along the way you will complete mini bizarre games to raise attributes, you will stop and do press junkets to raise your popularity (thankfully just a 5 second text screen, no mini-game related to this like the awful press conferences in the NBA 2K series). You will play exhibition matches, smaller tournaments, and random uploaded tennis players from around the world.
You move about the map by using cards that give you a set number of moves. So you may have a card to move two spaces and a card to move three spaces, for instance. Two spaces away is a spa to recharge your stamina, but three spaces away is a tournament that you will likely miss if you stop a spot short and don’t get a 1-space move on your next turn. Decisions have to be made, and though this may sound weird and convoluted, it’s really a quick and easy system and means that everyone’s voyage through career mode will play out differently. In fact Sega seems to know this as they give you something absurd like 10 slots for created players.
The matches are short, something that will likely bother tennis purists but the rest of us can rejoice about. Each match is a best of 3. Games. Not sets. So you are in and out of a match in 3 minutes, and done with a tournament in 10 to 15 minutes. You don’t get sick of the gameplay because it gives you just enough, but doesn’t wear out its welcome and quickly moves you on to the next event. To me it seems like Sega knows that the actual act of playing a 5 set multi hour tournament would suck all of the fun out of the game, and fun seems to be their focus over realism.
In trying to come up with some negatives about the game I am pretty much drawing a blank. The biggest drawback I can think of is that it’s still only tennis. Even though I am always happy when I turn it on, and I’m always charmed by how absolutely weird it gets, at the end of the day it’s just tennis. Most of the time when I turn on my Vita I don’t think to myself “Gee, I’d love to play some tennis!” More often it’s something like “I always have fun playing VT4 I should play that right now even though I’m not exactly in the mood.” And even with all of the weird minigames and the board game and RPG aspects it does get to feel a bit same-y after a few regions. But even though the game doesn’t inspire me with the same level of hype as say, Wipeout 2048, it’s always a lot of fun. Just like its been since the beginning of (videogame) time.