In Sega Superstars Tennis, Sumo Digital, the team behind last year's excellent Virtua Tennis 3, lends its skills to creating a tennis title that's fun for both young gamers and longtime fans of Sega's many franchises. It's in the same vein as Sega Soccer Slam and Nintendo's myriad Mario Sports titles. The game's out in two weeks and we have a not-quite reviewable build of it; so far it feels like a blend of VT3 PSP's madcap mini-games and a refined gameplay system that should make the experience easier for casual players and Wii vets alike.
This being a tennis game, plot takes a backseat to everything else. SST's roster consists of sixteen characters, half of which must be unlocked. Whether it's Sonic, AiAi or NiGHTS, there are quite a few familiar faces drawn from various famous Sega franchises for you to face down on the court. As you go through the game, you can unlock more hidden players, like AiAi's fellow simian Meemee, Pudding of Space Channel 5 fame, Gum from Jet Set Radio Future, or (retro gamers, hold your breath) Alex Kidd.
The meat of SST lies within Superstars mode. In this section, you can play challenges from across the spectrum of Sega titles, from the eerie Curien Mansion from the House of the Dead games to the interstellar hubs of Space Channel 5. Each stage has a series of challenges that are unlocked in a linear fashion. For example, if you beat Amigo in a singles bout on the Samba De Amigo stage, it opens up his doubles tournaments.
Another fun section of SST is the mini-games. The mini-games, like VT3 PSP, take the basic tennis mechanics and apply them to themed games. The Curien Mansion survival game, for example, pits would-be Federers against cascades of zombies. Gargoyles on the sidelines shoot out tennis balls, which players can use to knock over hordes of undead. The action gets faster and more intense with each level, and eventually, it's less about making it through the entire game as much as it's about nailing the highest score before taking three hits from the zombies.
Each mini-game is largely rooted in the universe of their respective game. Sonic's mini-game, for example, is a speed and footwork exercise, but it's presented as a ring-collecting game. Fans of Sonic, past and present, will find the format quite recognizable and easy to pick up. Beat's stage is a Jet Set Radio Future-themed section in which you pick up cans of spray paint, then hit a section of blank graffiti with a tennis ball to cover it.
SST does a fine job of capturing the feel and motif of classic Sega titles. Sonic's jungle-themed court crams a great deal of the original game's first stage into the background. Ulala's Space Channel 5 stage looks as though it's the after-party for her dancing escapades.
The Wii game, compared to the likes of the PlayStation and 360 versions, has unique advantages and problems. The control schemes are fairly versatile; you can play with just a Remote turned sideways, a Remote plus nunchuk combination, or a Remote with motion controls. The problem is that motion controls don't feel quite right. Unlike in Wii Sports, there's not much variation in swings, whether you make a hard gesture with the Remote or a soft one. It seems like only when you swing is important. Perhaps the level of motion control has been tweaked since the build that we played, but if this is how the final product plays, we'd recommend the sideways Remote method. Also, there's no online multiplayer in this version.
The mini-games are all fairly fun, although from our time spent with Sega Superstars Tennis, it looks like the single-player experience is going to run a bit short. There are a variety of things to do and play, but it's questionable whether or not this game will have much substance to it beyond a few fun hours of play, especially on PS2. On the other hand, there's some great online integration in the HD versions that could give it more legs. Either way, it looks like a fun and accessible variation on the Virtua Tennis 3 engine that could provide lots of fun for families and young gamers.