SEGA Superstars Tennis
Rose tinted specs off. Scores in.
Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Wii, DS
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By Adam Doree
Sumo Digital won acclaim in 2004 with its perfect conversion of OutRun2 for the Xbox, demonstrating its mighty technical competence and perfect handling of Sega IP. Since then, the company worked with Sega on a home version of Virtua Tennis 3, and also began work on a Wii-specific version of the game before the project changed direction; Sega asked Sumo to stick some Sonic characters into the game and suddenly it clicked - a tennis game with loads of popular Sega characters would be a much more worthwhile game, and could be put out on all platforms. The result is SEGA Superstars Tennis.
Sumo's conversion of OutRun to console was well received because of the original modes and challenges they developed from scratch. These additions are essential in making a home game more substantial than the quick-and-dirty arcade experience, and it's the developer's proven ability to create a nicely presented, well thought-out console game that boosts this original game. With arguably the best single back-catalogue of characters together in one game, Superstars Tennis has been designed from the ground up by Sumo, with Sega providing whatever help they needed.
The union of many of Sega's best-loved characters comes with the sort of attention to detail and fan service that really is first class. This is the kind of game that could only be made by serious Sega fans, and quite frankly I think it could only be made outside of Sega as well right now. The question is: will anyone other than Sega fans appreciate it?
As a tennis game, Superstars Tennis is obviously not a serious contender to the cup. Anyone looking for a proper tennis game is better off with Virtua Tennis 3 or Top Spin. But the thing is, this is not a tennis game. This game just uses tennis as a theme for various types of mini-games and challenges, which half the time, involve no balls and don't require any racquets. The range and success of these are what make SST a worthy gameplay experience, and the way it's dressed up in the glorious Sega image and all so wonderfully polished helps too.
The core is Superstars mode - basically a career mode full of missions. These consist of progressively harder tennis matches, special challenges and quirky tasks that allow you to unlock all the game's content. You start off with themed worlds based on a number of Sega's classic late-nineties and 2000s game series, including Sonic, Space Channel 5, Samba De Amigo, Jet Set Radio, NiGHTS and Super Monkey Ball. The bulk of non-tennis-match challenges across these worlds are based around "pacifist achievement" style avoiding things, collecting things, hitting certain things, and certain elements are replaced depending on the game - zombies from House of the Dead might replace the Tokyo police chasing you about in Jet Set Radio for example, and bananas from Monkey Ball replace rings from Sonic. So far, so obvious.
But some genuinely unique gameplay ideas have been thought up, and that's where this mode succeeds. For example, a series of challenges themed around Sega's puzzle game Puyo Pop require the player hitting the tennis ball accurately at certain colours of blob in order to strategically clear the wall, and in the Jet Set Radio world, an imaginative set of challenges where the player must associate their ball with a colour by collecting the right spray can, and then hit the ball so that it precisely lands on the corresponding parts of a large graffiti logo on the other side of the urban Neo Tokyo 'court'.
However, having come up with these ideas, it often feels like not enough is done with them and that they end too soon just when you've got the hang of it. Another problem is that certain worlds don't have any of their own themed challenges, and are there only because they're associated with a character or court that has been included in the game. Fortunately, Sumo has put the most effort into coming up with themed games that make the most sense for the type of gameplay on offer, and at least ideas are not overdone to the extent that it ends up feeling repetitive.