Let's all just face it: Virtua Tennis is a franchise that is going to exist forever. Its existence will be a constant for some years to come – right up until Sega's unforeseen dying day. There won't be a console on the market for the next 300 years that won't get the opportunity to relish in at least one instalment of the stalwart arcade series. Every future review from every future outlet for every future Virtua Tennis game will also, with all likelihood, read much like this very review is going to now. Racquets shall be swung, balls will be hit... and the story goes on this way.
But I don't want to rob Virtua Tennis 4 of any of its earned due, because just as there will always be a new iteration of Virtua Tennis in perpetuity until the end of days, you can always make at least a half-guarantee that each and every one of them will be pretty good at the very least. Although, when it comes right down to it, this same duality is also the series' biggest downfall. Racquets shall indeed be swung, but didn't we all do this ten years ago?
So yes, if the message wasn't already clear enough, the point being conveyed here is that Virtua Tennis 4 plays and feels like a game with the Virtua Tennis name on it. As ever, the game is a light-hearted affair with all the requisite hand holding needed to keep things accessible to even the most redundant of pad-fumblers. For me and like-minded friends and family, the Virtua Tennis venture is typically quite sedate: we play a few singles matches, a few doubles after that, maybe a mini-game or two, and then the experience is mostly over until the next one inevitably bumbles into sight.
Over a decade later and not much has changed. Sure, the most recent iterations are far more fully-featured than their older siblings, but Virtua Tennis 4 is just another reminder this is a series that is never really going to evolve into anything more than a slightly-upgraded mirror version of itself circa 1999. The ability to play with other swingers online is definitely a ton of fun (especially with your own player-created avatars), but it's also a totally expected bullet point to have on the back of the box and isn't entirely mind-blowing as a result.
The tragically bad Kinect and Move functionality is certainly no saving grace either. Playing with the Move is the least abhorrent of the two, merely because the physicality of faux virtual tennis is arguably better suited to actually holding a physical item in your hands. With Kinect, the first-person view-point is nothing but incredibly disorientating as the experience promptly benefits the player to devolve any real concentrated effort into simply wailing around the room like a drug-fevered lunatic. It's kind of depressing to think that the pack-in game that came with the Wii in 2006 executed motion-enabled tennis with greater aplomb than an actual tennis game with better technology to its advantage in 2011, but then maybe it's just depressing that such gestured tomfoolery is still considered relevant five years later regardless.
Virtua Tennis 4 also comes bundled with another expectation firmly met with the World Tour mode. Delving into this mode used to be a pleasure when the yearning for a more expansive Virtua Tennis career came to life. This was, of course, after the local competition had either been beaten into submission or withered away due to disinterest. Certainly, World Tour is where most of the game's meat is to be found. As your created player dots around the globe in search of exhibition matches and extravagantly Japanese mini-games to upgrade their attributes and acquire new gear – a staple of the Virtua Tennis games – you'll eventually advance into tournaments that get progressively harder with each match. The general structure of the World Tour mode is only marginally different this time around, but the basic idea is still largely the same, as is its execution.
Engaging in the aforementioned mini-games is the primary method to building up your player's attributes, which are as enjoyable as they are abstract and kooky in their presentation. This is where the path diverges from the template in the most noticeable manner and pushes your buttons by testing for almost every technique the game has to offer. There's nothing revolutionary about these mini-games but they are nevertheless challenging in a way that rewards skilled play alongside the odd moment of luck.
Probably the most interesting addition to Virtua Tennis 4 is the 'Super Shot' – something of a power play in the vein of a stripped-down super attack from a fighting game. A meter at the top of screen will build as successive shots are connected. When the meter fills to its brim, the ability to unleash a player-specific Super Shot becomes available, essentially acting as a means to an advantageous end if used at the right time. These shots are not unstoppable but can change the tide of a match without warning if the recipient fails to keep up the pace on the other end. Super Shots are also given some cinematic treatment with a brief slow-motion flourish that accompanies the over-whelming smugness of barely winning a tightly-scored match at the last minute. It's a somewhat basic but balanced system that works well in tandem with the typical tennis action, existing naturally on the periphery during regular play.
Visually, Virtua Tennis 4 is a nice looking game. Dense lighting effects cast shadows against the spread of the court with enough visual fidelity to properly represent the look and feel of an idyllic tennis playing environment; and the host of real-world players look suitably expressive at the appropriate highs and lows of a heated match. When players sweat, however, their appearance gives off the immediate impression that they were potentially dipped into vats of thick, greasy oil prior to stepping onto the grass. It's definitely an odd sight to behold that doesn't quite match up to the game's otherwise convincing portrayal of realistic-looking tennis play. The overtly cheesy guitar work that punctuates every single every match is also still a key component to keeping up appearances – its jubilant nature is still perfect for the occasion and is one aspect of the series that should never be left behind.
Whether you played a Virtua Tennis game ten months or ten years ago, you already know exactly how it plays and controls – the core of its systems have still yet to change in any drastic or meaningful way. The advent of motion controls also do nothing to enlighten the experience at large and only make their inclusion seem rushed for the sake of fooling the motion-happy masses. But even when it stands still, no Virtua Tennis game could ever be considered 'bad' by the standards of its revered arcade heritage. Ironically, however, it's that same repeated notion that is doomed to encapsulate the series' arcade-born motif into the same old rut for many more years. Even when equipped with all the bells and whistles that define the series as a poster-boy for accessible arcade fun, Virtua Tennis 4 is truly a game that just 'is'.