Smash court tennis first caught my eye on the Snes as it was very, very addictive and although not by many others I preferred it to that of Pete Sampras Tennis. The game then made a welcome transition to the PS1 where it had two outings, both critically acclaimed, being two of the highest scoring games in certain big name mags. So I for one was quite pleased when I saw the release date of this PS2 version plastered around my local game store. This time around though the game has had a big change and has looked to follow in the steps of Virtua Tennis. It has come away from its cartoon style roots and the stick men of old are gone in favour of realistic player likenesses, but has it still got the familiar addictive gameplay so many of us loved?
Has it departed from what we’ve all grown to love? Not really at all, it still feels like a Smash Court Tennis game. On the surface It seems like simplified tennis with three main buttons, being hit it hard, slice it or lob it. From these you can perform either hard returns or drop shots by my pushing forward and pulling back on the analog stick. It’s perfect, as it is easy for a complete novice to pick up and play but is a skill to master as SCT can provide some quality brain teasing tennis. Working out where your opponent will hit the ball, his stance and where to return is a challenge, but the real challenge lies against your mates.
There are two main modes; the first is the pro tournament mode which takes you through all four tournaments including your favourites like Wimbledon. This time though there’s something more to aim for rather than a virtual silver plate. Every match won gives you points which can be spent on trophy items. These items range from player manuals and camera views to Tekken and Namco arcade music. Some of them may seem a little pointless, but having many things to unlock always makes for a greater challenge and more fun. To help you gain even more points, in every match you are given a challenge, which could be something like hitting two points with a ground stroke or hitting four points with a volley against your opponent. Sometimes trying to get the required number of these shots into a game can hinder your efforts at winning the match, so yet again there’s something else to master and this propels you to become a more mastered player able to win a match with any style and variety.
Unfortunately this mode can become tedious and frustrating as you progress to the harder areas. In the final of one of the tournaments I was stuck for ages and found it impossible to beat my opponent. If I started off well winning the first few games it felt like the computer was against me and my opponent would just play even better and pull it back seemingly effortlessly. The main reason I was loosing is because the computer seemed to step up its variety and whereas before predicting it was fairly simple, as I progressed I didn’t know which side he/she was going to hit it. It became more of a penalties style scenario and I just had to guess which side he might go for because if I waited I couldn’t reach it in time. Even when being in the middle of the court it’s still hard to reach the ball once your opponent has struck it hard. Usually waiting until your opponent has pulled back the racket then running to the side furthest away does the trick but this isn’t always the case because the computer certainly isn’t stupid. This is some damn good AI on show here, but as I said it can be a little frustrating. This however makes for a more rewarding feeling when you win and a longer game. If you’re really rubbish though you might just get to annoyed and leave it alone.
The only way to beat the computer’s quality AI is to play a varied game of tennis being careful never to give the opponent an easy shot to return. Making him move from side to side isn’t enough and using the drop shots and lobs is essential depending on your opponent’s style of play. Some players are better playing at the net using volleys whereas others like to play from the base line and you have to adapt your style to suit you player and your opponent’s. Services are very hard to master and are very important as when you are serving it is easy to get caught in the penalty style situation as described above. The analog stick needs to be flexed at the right pressure and at the right time and the ball also needs to be struck with timing. Timing is the key if you want to hit a hard serve that’s hard to return. Being quite tough aces are hard to come by.
Another factor that affects your play is the new court physics, which I have to say, are very impressive. Depending on whether you’re on grass or clay the ball will bounce differently and travel slower/faster off the ground.
If you get bored of being technical with your tennis, the fun really lies within the multiplayer arcade mode. As before with any other tennis game having four player doubles is fast, frantic and fun. Playing with others, that are of your ability, makes for a more enjoyable game than in the single player mode.
As I said, the stick men and cartoon influenced graphics and animation of old is gone. There’re no courts in the streets of New York or waitresses to knock down with your balls here. Now SCT has gone for realism with proper courts modelled on real arenas and real player likenesses, obviously because of a more extensive licence than before backed up with the power of the PS2. Several of the worlds best tennis players are there such as Pete Sampras and Martina Hingis and some not so good ones such as Anna K…
They’re all recognisable but they’re not the best player likenesses I’ve ever seen. The staff around the court all use the graphics engine as opposed to being pre-rendered which might have been the choice for other companies, so everyone on camera moves realistically, like those guys at the back that just stand there who move out of the way of the ball. They only have one animation though, but still.
The detail on the players is fairly small with the clothing being generally plain and some minor details like some more creases and markings on the trainers would have made a nice difference. Otherwise the detail on the rackets and courts is marvellous, your player leaves footprints on clay courts and dust will fly up as he runs, so it’s all as good as can be really, I mean who detailed can a tennis game get without having the players drinks Robinsons and Cliff Richard singing?
The visual effects are still there, such as the old yellow and blue trails coming from the ball depending on the strength and type of shot you hit and when you hit a perfect return a NICE will appear next to your player. To help you perform stronger shots and smashes if a player performs a lob a target will appear on the court where it will land and when you move your player over it, it will turn green showing you can perform a smash. The menu screens just shout arcade at me and are very functional, colourful and good looking.
When you are able to master the game absolutely thrashing your opponents with a variety of shots playing constructive tennis is extremely fun and very rewarding. In multi-player there is no end to the fun you can have, but it’s a shame that you can’t embarrass your opponent anymore by hitting him in the face.
Sometimes as I said, the game can be frustrating, frustrating to the point where you get so annoyed you enjoyment is all but fizzled out by rage.
Smash Court Tennis Pro Tournament is a great tennis game that does the SCT name justice and the introduction of more realistic physics, play and graphics is very welcome. The game can keep you occupied for a very long time and once you know all the tricks you won’t hesitate to come back for more. However if you own a DC and Virtua Tennis 2 this is probably a pointless purchase, but VT2 is the only other tennis game that has a fighting chance against this beast.