Since its arcade debut in 1999, the Virtua Tennis series has been the go-to game for an experience with the wackier side of tennis. The series has been defined by its inclusion of power shots and crazy training minigames while retaining the more solid mechanics found in other, more simulation-esque tennis games. Virtua Tennis 4 strikes that same balance of simulated absurdity.
Even on the Wii, SEGA’s Virtua Tennis 4 definitely doesn’t skimp on the features. Arcade, Exhibition, Practice, Party, Motion Play, and Online Modes offer plenty of action to keep you on the court, but the meat lies in the World Tour mode. You’ll go through what we’ll call a passable character creation sequence. Options seem pretty sparse, and it can be hard to see any real difference between each alteration. In the end, I think my character ended up looking like me… if I happened to be a generic polygonal brunette man with glasses and shorts that are just a bit too short (or too long, I suppose). Yeah, that sounds about right.
Upon completing your digital counterpart, you’ll be placed on a map of sorts. This is the central hub for the entire goings on of the Virtual Tennis world. You’ve got what amounts to a deck of cards that dictates your movement options. At any given point, you’ll have a set of three cards with a number from one to four which indicates your move choices for that day. There’s a fair bit of strategy involved here as, if you pass a spot, there’s no going back any time soon. Events, training, publicity opportunities, and resorts are all given tokens on the map that you can only reach if you posses a card with the correct number of spaces, similar to a board game. Events, training, and publicity drain your Condition gauge, while resorts and hotels refill it. You’ll need to be at peak condition when tournaments come around otherwise you’ll end up messing up your ankle and being ravaged by Raphael Nadal in the final round (true story).
Over the course of your World Tour, you’ll have a set number of days to travel to each major tournament. The scheduling and qualification for the major tournaments was a bit surprising in some ways. You’re given a set number of days to reach the tournament, as well as a required level of fame to participate. I found that you’ve got a ton of time to get there and not enough opportunity for fame. Stopping for publicity and winning singles/doubles matches along the way add to your rating. Unlike the scheduling, however, there are moments where I felt that it wasn’t possible to achieve the level of fame required to participate. The final tournament in each Season of the tour (there are 4, by the way) will drop you into a “loser's bracket”, so to speak, in the event that you failed to qualify. You’ll still have a chance at the finals, but it’s a lot tougher. Every match lowers your condition meter so by the end of the tournament you’ll end up in pretty bad shape.
You’ll be participating in an array of diverse training minigames to build up your character. Things like Wall Matches where you hit switches to block your opponent's shot, Wind Matches where you have to maintain a volley with ridiculously high winds, or my personal favorite where you have to collect just hatched baby chicks and shield them from incoming tennis balls. Yeah, it’s pretty special. You’ll increase your character's proficiency in a handful of areas as you progress through your World Tour: Stroke, Defense, Tactical, Net-play, and Condition. As you increase these skills, you’ll gain access to new play styles that can be purchased and trained in. The benefits of each play style each differ slightly but it all boils down to the same thing. Your place style will determine your power shot and what you have to do to power it up. My style of choice for the majority of my time was Hard Hitter. My focus was on charging shots to force my opponent behind the base line. Each charged shot poured in to my power shot. There’s little more satisfying than using charged shots to keep distance, finally letting your net-play focused foe get in close, then unleashing your power shot when they least expect it.
When I first got a hold of my copy of Virtua Tennis 4, I was pretty excited to see the “Compatible With Wii Motion Plus” emblem emblazoned on the bottom. Motion Plus launched without causing much of a stir and, as a die-hard Wii hopeful, I’ve been looking for a game that shows just how engrossing motion gaming can be (by the way, I’m still looking). Needless to say, I was a bit disheartened to find that the only motion control to be found in the entire game is in the “Motion Play” mode. Motion Play switches to a first person camera and only asks that you swing the racket at the appropriate time. To be blunt: it’s not fun. Much like MLB 11: The Show’s Move support, Motion Play is just a tacked-on feature which enables them to put the Motion Plus emblem on the box. This, I must say, is the biggest disappointment. “Tennis has never been better with Wii motion plus," sure.
As for the rest of the game, you’ll be playing with the Wiimote on its side. The 1 and 2 buttons are your two shot types, and the D-Pad moves your character. Despite my initial displeasure with this layout, it’s actually pretty solid. In some ways, it reminded me of Mario Tennis on the N64, only there are no thrills, just basic, classic tennis control. So despite the fact that I was irreparably let down by this it was probably a good decision.
The multiplayer in Virtua Tennis 4’s Wii iteration could conservatively be considered a ghost town. While you wait for the game’s matchmaking to do its job, you’ll be tasked with playing through the arcade mode. With a few hours spent playing against the AI, I successfully connected with one player. The online’s state of complete desertion isn’t the fault of the developers, of course, but it’s an issue nonetheless. The one set that I did manage to play was fairly smooth and provided a much greater challenge than the game’s AI provides.
Judging the game’s visuals comes with a bit of a stigma: it’s a Wii game. I hate it, but every statement regarding Virtua Tennis 4’s graphical fidelity must be qualified with 'for a Wii game'. That being said, it is one of the better looking Wii games I’ve seen. Character models contain a good deal of detail and the courts you’ll be playing on look quite nice. Beyond just looking good, however, the game is smooth as silk. I haven’t encountered any glitches, freezes, tearing, or graphical hiccups of any kind.
There’s a lot of game here; the single player modes alone are ripe for replay. The way the World Tour is structured, you’ll finish up your first run through and want to jump right back in and do it again and, once you get adjusted to the higher difficulty levels, Arcade mode can be just as rewarding. More of that same satisfying gameplay can be found online, but only if you’re fortunate enough to find a match or have friends. It’s nice to see a multiplatform title perform well on the Wii. Too often, they’re shoved out the door and dismissed as “the requisite Wii version.” SEGA seems to have put a good deal of work into making sure the Wii version of Virtua Tennis 4 could stand up alongside its HD brethren and, for the most part, they’ve succeeded.