The art of balancing simulation and simplicity has been all but lost in sports games. There’s something to be said for an experience which brings home the accessibility of arcade games and presents that same pick-up-and-play mentality on consoles. Ported straight from arcades, Virtua Tennis is just that game. It loses nothing in transition, while improving on the original experience substantially enough to make it worth checking out.
Class and professionalism are the core values that differentiate Virtua Tennis from any prior attempts at capturing the sport’s essence in video game form. Tennis is portrayed with the right brand of sophistication, without indulging in some of the more technical aspects that might prevent some people from enjoying it as a spectator sport. Those who are interested in the purer aspects of the game will also find more than enough content to chew on, ranging from the roster of the biggest names in professional tennis to the way the ball plays on the various court surfaces.
Arcade mode is lifted from the original version of Virtua Tennis. It’s carried out in a set of singles or doubles matches, played either alone, or with a friend. Consisting of a set of increasingly difficult match-ups, the game’s origins as a quarter-hungry cabinet come through in the last couple of matches, where you’ll find defensive opposition that blocks shots from the far end on their side of the net like so many rigged Pong paddles before them. An exhibition mode also makes its way into the console version, provided you’re looking either to mix up a few settings or launch into a multiplayer match. It’s also worth mentioning that the multi-player in Virtua Tennis is top-notch. Whether you’re playing co-operatively or against friends, the game’s loose controls and nearly non-existent learning curve tend to make for an even playing field regardless of a player’s initial ability.
A far deeper single-player experience is offered in World Circuit, a surprisingly lengthy tour which catalogues your chosen athlete’s rise to the top after he receives an invitation to compete in Sega’s world tennis tournament. It includes all kinds of singles and doubles match-ups and introduces a slew of great mini-games reminiscent of the challenges found in Crazy Taxi’s Crazy Box mode (both games are developed by Hitmaker). These mini-games illustrate how your racket is used to direct the ball in a number of creative scenarios. In one challenge you’ll be lobbing balls into a series of buckets, while in another you’ll be volleying against a wall, trying to flip over a number of targets within the set time limit. Everything you do in the World Circuit, win or fail, nets you a sum of money which can be used to purchase new outfits, energy supplements, new strings for your racket, contracts with doubles partners, and unlockable content for the arcade and exhibition modes. There’s a lot to see in World Circuit, which extends the replay value of this port far beyond what’s expected, perhaps even a bit further than most players will see.
The presentation values hold up on the visual end fairly well, using a sufficient overhead view, or alternatively, one that seems to be too close behind your character to see anything more than what’s directly in front of him. After each point is recorded, a replay is shown, highlighting just how far ahead of it’s time Virtua Tennis is. In replays, the ball is given a distinctive motion blur effect, giving the impression that you’re watching something more interesting than two men volleying a ball back-and-forth until one forgets to hit it. There are also a bunch of good, little details sprinkled in. Curious bystanders sit courtside, observing the action from the confines of their chairs, while the audience looks comparable to other early Dreamcast sports games (awful, but no worse than crowds in modern Madden games, somehow). The detailing of each surface is impressive, as are the character models of the athletes, whom all look roughly like horse-faced counterparts of their actual likenesses.
Virtua Tennis is an example of sports gaming done right. Not only does it reflect the simplicity of its sport through a minimal arcade-inspired control scheme, but it also makes a strong appeal to fans of tennis and newcomers alike. This experience is well-suited to the simple and self-explanatory nature of hitting a ball back and fourth over a net. The production values are high enough here that it makes the sport seem competitive and exciting, even for people who’s only interest in tennis begins and ends with Anna Kournikova.