Posted on May 10, 2011 AT 08:28pm
Like an aging Andre Agassi
You can draw several parallels between Sega’s Virtua Tennis and Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer. Both hit it big around the turn of the 21st century—VT on the Dreamcast and PES on the PlayStation 2. In fact, you could make the argument that, outside of Madden, these were the definitive sports-gaming franchises of that era.
What went wrong, then? Well, these are two more examples of Japanese development’s undeniably painful transition to the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 epoch. Western designers made largely successful transitions, while Japanese developers—with a few high-profile exceptions—did not. Both franchises also faced increasingly stiff competition from Western developers—PES with EA’s FIFA and VT with 2K’s Top Spin.
So, while the core gameplay remains relatively solid in Virtua Tennis 4—the simple, intuitive arcade-style action’s especially rewarding during pulse-pounding tiebreakers—outdated design decisions and underwhelming “innovations” drag down the overall experience.
Perhaps no VT4 addition illustrates this problem more than the Super Shot, the main gameplay shake-up to the VT formula. Hit enough successful shots based on your particular skillset, and a meter fills up that lets you unleash a “game-changing” Super Shot. The game sells this technique as a momentum-shifting ace in the hole, but when playing as Roger Federer—widely considered the most talented tennis player on earth—my lesser-skilled opponents easily and consistently returned most of my Super Shots. Plenty of problems pop up off the court as well: Madame Tussauds–esque character models, grating background music that would feel at home in a Japanese convenience store, a severe lack of announcers and atmosphere, inscrutable tutorials, and a clunky, confusing Dreamcast-era interface.
VT4 does do a decent job of implementing PlayStation Move support, though. And for those of us who have problems walking and chewing gum at the same time, you don’t have to worry about running back and forth across the court—simply focus on returning your opponent’s serves and shots, as the game chases down shots automatically. VT4 inexplicably offers Move only for exhibitions and a couple of inane party games, however—helping Roger Federer protect a trove of priceless Egyptian artifacts from a horde of onrushing mummies is a lot more entertaining in theory than in practice.
VT4 reminds me of an aging, broken-down Andre Agassi making his final run at the 2006 U.S. Open. Some of that old flash that made us fall in love is still there, but it’s clear that his reign’s been usurped by younger, more well-rounded opponents. Just like with Agassi, image is now everything to VT—and it’s clear that the series survives mostly on the image of Dreamcast nostalgia.
SUMMARY: Sega’s dated tennis franchise doesn’t offer the same flair and panache of the Dreamcast era, but it still brings simple, intuitive arcade-style action.
- THE GOOD: Still an enjoyable, arcadey take on tennis after all these years
- THE BAD: Dated, Dreamcast-era design philosophy
- THE UGLY: Roger Federer’s ghastly Virtua Tennis mug scares small children
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