Un-Real Tennis part 2: the emergence of Japanese developed tennis games

To mark the end of the US Open, I present the second part of my short history of tennis video games. The first part can be found here.

Foreign coaching

In the first part of this history, I discussed how the early years of arcade and home-console gaming were dominated by ‘Pong-clones’. It’s fair to suggest that if it were not for the marketability of the simple and classic game-form, the medium defining force that is Nintendo may never have entered the industry. After acting as Japanese distributer for the Magnavox Odyssey, Nintendo’s first proper forays into home gaming, the Color TV-Game 6 and 15 (both released in 1977), were comprised entirely of Pong variants, and the success of these systems would inspire Nintendo to create a home-based platform to host ports of their arcade classics. The resultant ‘Famicom’ – short for ‘Family Computer’, renamed ‘Nintendo Entertainment System’ (or ‘NES’) in the West – would revive the dying console market and become the highest selling piece of home-entertainment hardware during the era.

TV Color Game 15

In between the Color TV-Game systems and the NES, Nintendo essentially invented the handheld gaming market with the ‘Game & Watch’ series of hardware. Unsurprisingly, one of these devices – which, being very technologically limited, tied a single piece of software to the hardware – featured a tennis game. Notably, it was the first celebrity endorsed tennis game, though it wasn’t named for a real-life player. Rather, it was the first video game appearance of a rather famous mascot: Game & Watch: Snoopy Tennis (1982) predated any of the moustachioed Nintendo mascot’s sporting endeavours by a long shot! As you can see in this video, the game involved making Snoopy move up-and-down a tree and return balls lobbed towards him by Charlie Brown and Lucy. The faithful sketch-like renderings of the characters made great use of the simple LCD, and the game was later remade into a more fully-fledged title for the Gameboy Color in 2001.

Snoopy tennis G&W

Nintendo’s first proper tennis simulation came in the form of Tennis (1984) for the NES. As far as contemporaneous titles went, it was a decent effort but no standout, though notably it did include a ‘doubles mode’. What I find far more interesting from a gaming-history point of view is that it marked the first occasion when Nintendo R&D 1 – the team responsible for the original Donkey Kong (1981), Mario Bros. (1983), and the most popular version of Tetris (1989, Gameboy) – co-created a game with second-party developer Intelligent Systems. Later, this collaboration would give the world Metroid (1986), Famicom Wars (1988, the granddaddy of the seminal Advance Wars series), WarioWare (2003), and – the jewel in Intelligent Systems’ ornate shield – Fire Emblem (1990).

NES Tennis

As such, it’s surprising that NES Tennis is often overlooked in lists of historically important tennis games. Indeed, this seems especially odd given its development was overseen by game-design god Shigeru Miyamoto, and that it featured Mario’s first appearance in a sports title (albeit as an umpire rather than a player). Despite this lack of recognition – and thanks to Nintendo’s habit of recycling and (more recently) remixing their retro content to leverage fans’ nostalgia – NES Tennis has reappeared more persistently than any tennis game bar Pong: it’s been featured as a mini-game in Animal Crossing (2001), WarioWare: Touched (2004) and NES Remix (2013), and has received rereleases on the Wii, Wii U and 3DS via the ‘Virtual Console’ (Nintendo’s proprietary emulation service).

NES Tennis Mario

Unlike its prequel, Super Tennis (1991) for the ‘Super Nintendo Entertainment System’ (‘SNES’) is still highly regarded amongst retro sports game fans, as well as being a perfect example of Nintendo’s then simple-but-effective naming practices (see also Super Mario Bros., Super Metroid, Super Zelda). In fact, it is the only dedicated tennis video game I’ve ever possessed! Along with singles and doubles modes which allowed for both competitive and cooperative multiplayer, it added a ‘World Circuit’ solo campaign that takes place across three surface types and eight tournaments, including the four Majors. The game allows the player(s) to choose from 20 caricatured versions of contemporaneous tennis stars, evenly split in terms of gender. Not only was the gameplay finely tuned – in particular the way the different surface types effected the ball’s movement – but the presentational aspects too were very impressive for the time: the game’s intro-sequence and ball tracking showed off the SNES’s graphical capabilities, whilst the sound design was the most authentic yet heard in a tennis game.

Super Tennis doubles

A few Japanese developers aside from Nintendo also began creating ‘realistic’ tennis games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Namco’s Family Tennis (1987) was the NES’s other tennis game and the fourth entry in a series of Family sports games made by the people behind Pac-Man. Though largely unremarkable in itself, it’s notable in arguably spawning the first proper tennis-game franchise, albeit in a vague manner. The first follow-up was Pro Tennis: World Court (1988), a Japanese arcade title later brought to the West as World Court Tennis (1989), a port for the TurboSteffiGrafx-16. It was essentially an enhanced version of Family Tennis, though with one quirky addition: a ‘Quest Mode’. Drawing from Japan’s favourite game genre, the RPG, this mode allows to player to customise their avatar (at the time limited to merely choosing name and gender), upgrade this character by buying better equipment, traverse a top-down world-map, and even to engage in narrative-focused boss encounters. The plot begins with the player being tasked by a ‘King of Tennis’ to defeat a different (assumedly evil) King of Tennis: this nomenclature possibly alludes to the (ridiculously popular, ridiculously written) manga-anime franchise Prince of Tennis. Notably, Prince of Tennis has spawned more tennis games than any other franchise, though as they have all been Japan-only releases – and because they’re all rather naff – I’ll refrain from discussing them further.

World Court Tennis quest mode

A sequel to World Court Tennis soon materialised in Super World Court (1992, arcade), notable for featuring the FBI’s ‘Winners Don’t Use Drugs’ slogan along with an amusing court-type in which Pac-Men act as ball boys (and also for possibly being the only ‘Super-‘ game from the era that wasn’t on the SNES). Bizarrely enough, Namco then released a direct sequel to Family Tennis for the SNES, called – wait for it – Super Family Tennis II Turbo: Championship Edition (1993). This games’ ‘Exhibition Mode’ provides the player with a high degree of customisation in terms of match-type, even allowing you to sit back and watch the AI go toe-to-toe with itself. It also included some notable court types, such as ‘beach’ and ‘Shinto shrine’. Confusingly enough, the game was known as Smash Tennis in PAL regions: Namco would recycle this ‘Smash’ prefix when they launched their next tennis game franchise on the Playstation.

Super Family Tennis beach court

That’s it for this article. In November, I’ll post the final part of this series to coincide with the Davis Cup final, detailing the rise of the franchises that would define 3D tennis games and the emergence of motion controls within the genre.

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