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Virtua Tennis (DC) Review

Background Info


Throughout the years there have been several tennis games released for various platforms. Unfortunately, you can count the number of good tennis games on one hand. While I did have a passing interest in the sport when I was younger, I was not terribly interested in the tennis video games available at the time. I guess the idea of playing what amounted to little more than Pong with sprites did not appeal to me. Like most other sports games, however, tennis eventually made the jump to polygons, beginning on the 32-bit Saturn and PlayStation consoles. Fast forward to July 2000 and tennis arrives on the 128-bit Dreamcast courtesy of Sega's awesome Virtua Tennis: an arcade port that one-ups its arcade counterpart and delivers fast-paced tennis action for all to enjoy!

Presentation/Graphics : 96
I don't know if Keanu Reeves is a gamer, but if he is, he would probably say, "Whoa, these are some most excellent graphics...dude!" Okay, I admit that was a cheesy way to start the opening paragraph for this section of the review, but the spectacular visuals in Virtua Tennis have fried my brain -- they are that good! Whether or not you consider yourself a "graphic tart" doesn't matter because Virtua Tennis's graphics will suck you into each match, regardless of your stance on graphics.

The eight male tennis stars in Virtua Tennis carry an exquisite amount of detail, right down to the tiny logos on their shirts and muscle separation in their quadriceps. Eight fictitious characters -- all of which must be purchased in World Circuit mode -- are also included and look just as good, if not better, than the pros. Sadly, though, no female characters are available to help balance out the all-male, testosterone-filled lineup. All the tennis players in the game show off their slick motion-captured moves with nary a hint of slowdown. During matches, players will dive for the ball, perform spectacular moves, celebrate victories, and show disappointment over losses with remarkable emotion. Other than some characters' scary mugs and strange-looking teeth, I would argue that the smooth, highly detailed polygon models in Virtua Tennis are some of the best on Dreamcast. Believe me, after one game of Virtua Tennis, you will never want to see another sprite-based tennis character for as long as you live!

Obviously you cannot have such great-looking tennis players without some decent-looking courts and stadiums, right? Luckily, the crisp courts and spectator-filled stadiums look just as amazing as the players. Court surfaces range from hard clay, complete with obligatory dust effects, to grass that displays worn patches. In addition, clear banner advertisements from big-name companies/sponsors, such as IBM, and an active scoreboard help give the courts a very realistic look. During matches, line judges carefully monitor activity, while ball boys (and girls) watch in anticipation before scooping up any tennis balls that go astray. And what would a tennis match be without spectators? They, too, are keen on the on-court happenings, applauding great plays and keeping close watch on every match. Unfortunately, this is one area, visually, where the game stumbles a bit. Much like other games that feature virtual spectators, the crowd in Virtua Tennis is not the most visually appealing aspect of the game. Still, during some replays, and at points in the intro and ending movie, the ugly sprite-based crowd is replaced by a better-looking polygon one.

Virtua Tennis also incorporates many unique graphical effects, including motion blur during replays and real-time lighting & shading, to name a few. One neat effect is the way cloud cover is simulated while playing outdoors. At points during an outdoor match, the court slowly darkens -- very realistically, I might add -- as cloud cover moves from one end to the other. Heck, if that's not realism, I don't know what is! Of course, the replays are fabulous as well, making heavy use of the motion blur effect to add even more panache. The only fault I have with the replays is their length; the short replays do not always do a good job of capturing the essence of each play.

Virtua Tennis features two views: a standard top-down view and a close-up view that positions the camera almost directly behind your player's back. These two views, toggled with the Y button, do a great job of highlighting the terrific graphics while simultaneously providing functionality. Admittedly, the behind-the-back view is much nicer to look at than it is to play due to its restricted viewing area.

Presentation/Audio : 94
Backing up the fantastic graphical presentation are some very high-quality sound effects. Everything from tennis ball bounces and racket sounds to the tennis players' heavy grunts are duplicated to near perfection. Furthermore, Virtua Tennis features a French announcer (during French tournaments) who makes all his calls in French for some worldly flavor. While the players do not utter a word, you will usually hear a different announcer depending on where the match takes place. Another cool effect is the way the crowd reacts to plays. Expect to hear lots of oohs & ahs from the crowd, as well as boos and cheers, all of which perfectly reflect the status of the match.

The music, a mix of poppy guitar riffs and upbeat grooves, sounds like it came straight from a 90210 least this is what my sources tell me, as I have never managed to watch a complete episode of that show. This is not to say the music is bad, but much like 90210, it eventually got on my nerves. Nevertheless, I preferred to play with the music turned on because things were a little too quiet without it -- although the sound effects are very effective on their own and make for a more realistic experience when unaccompanied by music. Whatever your feelings are about the music and sound effects, you can adjust them in the options menu to suit your taste.

Interface/Options : 95
Like most of Sega's arcade ports, you will find a standard Arcade mode along with some cool extras. The full list of modes includes Arcade, Exhibition, and World Circuit.

Arcade mode, a one- to four-player experience, allows you to select one of eight pro tennis players (or any of the eight fictitious characters you have purchased in World Circuit mode) for a progressive five-stage World Tournament comprised of singles or doubles matches. To customize your arcade experience, you can set match length, adjust difficulty, and toggle deuce on/off in the options menu.

Exhibition mode, on the other hand, gives you complete control over which opponent you will face and on which court/location you will play, including any of the courts you have purchased in World Circuit mode. This mode also allows you to play a singles or doubles match with selectable match length, difficulty, and deuce. And like the Arcade mode, it supports up to four players for a multi-player blast.

The one-player, quest-like World Circuit mode features a series of wacky training exercises and competitive matches that increase in difficulty and award players with experience/prize money upon completion. You can use this money to purchase the following: eight additional fictitious characters; extra courts for use in Exhibition mode; a partner for doubles matches that take place during World Circuit mode; additional outfits for use in every mode; recovery drinks to rebuild strength in World Circuit mode; and new strings for your racket, which is also exclusive to World Circuit mode.

If you are looking for some VMU fun, Virtua Tennis has got you covered. Beyond the fact that Virtua Tennis only requires two blocks of space to save a game, the VMU dubs as a miniature screen on which to view gameplay. Yup, that's right, the VMU displays a mini-representation of the action that takes place on your television screen. In other words, it is completely possible to play Virtua Tennis while looking down at your controller, which is a great little touch. (Hey, if you ever grow tired of Virtua Tennis's high-res eye candy, it is nice to know the good ol' VMU will hook you up with some tiny black-dot action.) Oh, and the VMU also displays the score after each match point, but this certainly pales in comparison with the aforementioned feature. Regarding control setup, you do not have the option of reconfiguring the control layout. Then again, you won't need to, since there are only two main buttons (shot and lob) used during gameplay.

Gameplay : 95
With its simple two-button interface, smooth analog control, and easy-to-learn maneuvers that are difficult to master, Virtua Tennis's gameplay will appeal to everyone. The real game of tennis requires skill, strategy, great hand-eye coordination, speed, and explosiveness. Well, guess what: so does Virtua Tennis, and all the rules of tennis apply. Sure, you can cream the computer during a match set at 'easy' while playing in Arcade or Exhibition mode; however, as you up the difficulty for these modes, or progress through the World Circuit mode, things become much tougher. In fact, you must carefully study and learn each character's style of playing and adapt to it. This is especially true when advancing through the levels of the World Circuit mode and facing tougher opponents. And while you will not go head-to-head with the likes of Agassi or Sampras, the following eight professional tennis players serve up some fierce competition: Carlos Moya, Tim Henman, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Haas, Cedric Pioline, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Jim Courier, and Mark Philippoussis. Have no fear, though, as the training levels during World Circuit mode -- which include, among other things, tennis-bowling and "smash" exercises -- will make a strong tennis player out of you yet.

In a nutshell, gameplay involves positioning your character close to the ball and hitting a shot (A) or a lob (B or X) button with a D-pad or analog press to achieve different shots. Usually, the computer will automatically align your player for a powerful 'smash'; other times you must hustle into position yourself. When it comes time to serve, you can press the A button for a regular serve, or the B or X button for a flat serve. You can have further control and precision over your serves by pressing the D-pad or analog stick in a particular direction while serving the ball. Make sure to keep an eye on the 'serve meter' before you serve, because it will dictate the power of your serve and flash red at its most powerful point.

Both the computer-controlled opponents and partners for doubles matches display realistic AI. Surprisingly, most of my computer-controlled partners for the doubles matches were more reliable than my friends. Often, however, my computerized partner would engage in a tedious "back-'n'-forth" match with one of my computer opponents during a heated doubles match. This definitely slows down the pace a bit, but is forgivable because the computer does a tremendous job of watching your back during the match.

Replay Value : 96
While the single-player experience (namely the World Circuit mode) does eventually overstay its welcome, I won't deny Virtua Tennis of its addictiveness. I can't quite put my finger on it, but, much like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Virtua Tennis keeps you coming back for more. Perhaps the real replay booster is the multi-player game in the Arcade and Exhibition modes, allowing you and three friends to compete side by side. Simply put, there is nothing quite like a slamfest among friends...especially if there is a little money on the table. ;-)

Overall : 96
If you are looking for the best tennis game currently available, Virtua Tennis wins by default; it is the only recently released tennis game on the least until Mario Tennis arrives in late August. However, if you are simply looking for another great-looking/great-playing game to add to your Dreamcast collection, Virtua Tennis is still the game for you. Make no mistake about it, Virtua Tennis delivers a very satisfying gameplay experience, which no video game fan should miss.

By: Cliff O'Neill 7/25/00

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