For the most part, tennis games are not very well represented in the sports genre. When they are, what we usually get are games that control horribly, and thus destroy the whole point of creating the game. Sure, there have been some bright spots for Tennis, such as the superb Super Tennis for the SNES, but in a genre filled with countless football, basketball, baseball and even fishing games, it's hard to imagine that the last great tennis game was made on the Super Nintendo. With Virtua Tennis, Sega has created what can be considered to be the best representation of a tennis game in the last 5 years.
Virtua Tennis is by no means a realistic simulation of the real game, as possesses a more arcade-like feel to it, with only the most basic of rules intact. You'll see the standard deuces and break points, but what you won't see are long-winded games that can read "6 - 1, 5 - 6, 7 - 5, 6 - 0" anytime in this game. The controls are extremely simple, perhaps even too simple. A regular shot is executed by pressing A, a lob shot by pressing B or X, and that's it. The Y button is to change your view from the normal default arcade view to a 3rd person perspective behind your player. The 3rd person view is not as good as I hoped it would be, as the camera is set too close behind your player to make it an effective mode to play it. Often times (especially in doubles), you won't be able to see the ball until it's nearly behind you, resulting in a weak return. Another problem with the 3rd person view is that there's a tremendous amount of motion blur on the ball, so it can get pretty hairy when attempting to predict when the ball is actually going to get to you. My recommendation would be to stick with the default arcade mode, since it just feels a whole lot better.
The entire presentation of the game is well done, with many details that add to the overall feel of the game. Officials and line judges that adjust themselves after each point is awarded, or the way the players fiddle with their rackets after a missed volley make this game seem a lot like a real event. Another nice touch is how the announcers speak in different languages depending on where you play. In Spain, the officials will speak in Spanish, whereas in France they will speak French.
Sega did a tremendous job with the conversion to the Dreamcast in Virtua Tennis. The graphics are for the most part crisp and colourful and are accompanied by some frightening good animation. Where in other tennis games (or any sports games for that matter) the animation for certain actions were the same, Virtua Tennis has a whole repetoire of animations for simple shots. If you arrive for a shot late, your player will hop on the lead foot and swing the racket, or if he's setting up for a hard cross court shot, you can see the tension as he swings, as if it were all in slow motion. There are even different animations for smashes, depending on where you are and how you are travelling. If you are running back for a return, your player will smash the ball backhanded, or will face the court and execute an off balance shot. In comparison to the arcade version (which ran on the NAOMI board, which has more RAM), Virtua Tennis for the Dreamcast is a bit downgraded from it's arcade cousin. The crowd is extremey low res compared to the players themselves, which is especially apparent during the cutscenes after every point. The net on the tennis court also suffers from some horrible aliasing problems, as well as the net shimmers from some ugly Moire effect.
The gameplay is where Virtua Tennis really shines above the rest of the competition. The simplistic controls offer players a satisfying game without worrying about the complexities of the sport. However, not only do you have to know where to hit the ball, but you have to make sure that you hit the ball correctly. In Virtua Tennis, preparation is just as important as execution, and the game will determine the strength of your shot depending on how prepared you are when you take your shot. If you're just getting to the ball, your shot will be much weaker than it would have been if you were standing still in front of the ball. Likewise, this also determines how well you place your shot, as a diving shot will most likely end up returning as a lob, or go horribly out of bounds. However, the game can get pretty stupid when judging what type of shot to give you. There were times in the game where I was a step away from a return and for some unknown reason my character would actually dive for the ball. In Doubles games the CPU can be pretty idiotic as well, especially during World Tour mode. Your partner will often times hog the entire court for himself in an effort to get the point. At times this can be good, since you can just play backup to your partner, but often times they leave an entire side of the court exposed for an easy point by your opponents.
There are only three modes that Sega has given us in Virtua Tennis: Arcade, Exhibition and World Tour. Arcade is basically the same game that you've played in ... the arcade. You play against 5 opponents in different opens (best of 2 games) and you are awarded prize money dependent on how well you do in each match. Exhibition is pretty straight forward as well; a one-time match against the opponent of your choosing. World Tour mode is where the meat of the game is. You compete in several Opens to collect prize money to unlock new characters, stages and playing gear. There are also several incredibly fun training events that you need to complete in order to achieve higher stats that you will need to succeed in the later (and greatly challenging) Opens.
For all the good that Virtua Tennis does, it does a lot of things wrong as well. Aside from the graphical and gameplay issues that I have mentioned already, the character selection is just a too small to satisfy most people. With 8 real life players and 8 fictional characters, the pickings are slim as to who you'd want to be when playing against your best friend. Not only do they not have some of the biggest names in tennis today (no Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi or even Patrick Rafter), but they failed to include any beautiful female players! None of my lovely female tennis players made the cut in the arcade or the console version, such as Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, and the ever beautiful Anna Kournikova. Finally, for all intents and purposes, the game isn't really that deep. Sure, the gameplay is excellent and there's great fun in some of the training modes, but what I wouldn't give for something that resembled an actual season in the tennis world.
For all intents and purposes, Sega has definitely developed what is the game to beat currently in the tennis world. Although Super Tennis still reigns supreme, Virtua Tennis gives it a good run for its money, and it provides aspiring developers something to aim for when creating the next big tennis game.
· · · Reno