Power Smash (パワースマッシュ)
Power Smash or rather Virtua Tennis, as it is more commonly known in the West, is a game that should have, and would ideally been a game to be used at the forefront of the Dreamcast’s promotion. It was the only game except Soul Calibur to attract my non-gaming friends to Sega's system, and it was nothing short of criminal that it failed to make a summer launch in the UK to coincide with the hugely popular Wimbledon tennis tournament (the tournament is held in July and the game was insanely released in August missing out on all the hype and potential purchases from tennis fans). So, what was so great about the game?
One of the few occasions I actually prefer the PAL cover
Upon playing the game today its obvious that the game’s highlight is its accessibility. As a result of its arcade heritage, there are only two control buttons (regular shot & lob shot) which gives the game an incredible pickup and play quality. And yet, a tap on the analogue stick as you take your shot implements a ton of variables into the shot such top spin, slice, drop and swerve shots. It’s such an intuitive and responsive control scheme that allows you to control the tennis action wonderfully and although, it's easy to learn, it's far from easy to master. You will find yourself cursing at the AI on many occasion, but the control feels so perfect that you never feel cheated.
You can play as one of eight star players, well they were stars the came out, and each player is beautifully recreated to match their real life counterparts and names like Jim Courier, Cedric Pioline, Tim Henman, Tommy Haas, Mark Phillippoussis, Carlos Moya, Thomas Johansson, and Yevgeny Kafelnikov will seem quite nostalgic to older players. As you would expect, the pros in the game not only bare each athlete's physical likeness, but also each their real life skill attributes.
Even today, the graphics remain impressive but it is hard to convey to modern games just how mind-blowing they were at the time. Simply, this was the game you wanted to show off to your pals. Players looked eerily real, and moved with a grace and fluidity which had never been seen in a sports title before and it really felt like watching a real life game. There are also a ton of details which may go unoticed to the casual player. Details such as marks and scuffs made when running or dust kicked up on the clay courts gave a level of realism and immersion missing from tennis games of the time. A special mention must go to the framerate which keeps chugging at 60hz. No mean feat in 2000, especially as most console games these days do not achieve anywhere near that level.
The animation remains impressive
Apart from the standard grunting sounds effects made by the players, and that satisfying “pop” sound of the racket connecting with the ball the audio for the most part is standard Sega arcade trash. As we well know, Sega is in love with tawdry 80's metal guitar riffs and Virtua Tennis is full of them.
In addition to the standard Arcade mode, you can customize your own exhibition game or take on the world in the "World Circuit". The World Circuit is something of a quest mode. You pick a player and advance through singles and doubles matches, gaining cash along the way which can in turn be used to purchase new playable characters, new stages and sporty new outfits. There are also a bunch of training stages that help you hone your skills. These odd levels come from the same school of thought as the Crazy Box games in Crazy Taxi and include challenges such as, "Pin Crasher" (serve to knock down bowling pins), "Drum Shooter" (hit the tennis balls into big cans), and "Bull's Eye" (hit balls at a big target).
After a while, you may tire of playing the computer but luckily, Virtua Tennis shines as a multiplayer game. Challenge a friend to a singles or doubles match, or take on the computer together, and losing become that much more intense. It was certainly the case that losing a tense doubles match because of my partner led to one or two heated moments but aside from a few broken controllers, it was all in good fun. The game also supports up to 4 players and a special mention must go to the online segment of the game that while was missing from the European version must have been such a thrill for US and Japanese gamers back in the day.
There it is, Virtua Tennis. A tennis game that despite numerous sequels has really never been bettered. While the graphics might have been improved, and the lineup expanded with female players, the core gameplay remains faithful to that of the Sega Dreamcast original released in 2000. Simply, Virtua Tennis is a low cost game that all Sega fans should be persuaded to have in their collection and sadly, another reminder of the potential of the console and the enjoyment that Sega could create given the right vision.