For early experiments in video games, perhaps no game was easier to digitize than tennis. At its most stripped-down, tennis requires very little from a visual perspective: There’s a ball moving from one side to another, being hit with a racket, making it barely a half-step forward from Pong. There are many more aspects to the game (like players), but from the perspective of video games, it would not need much to recreate the basics. If you’re a paid Nintendo Switch Online subscriber, there’s a shockingly robust retro tennis game you can check out right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app.
The very first tennis video game, however, was created in 1958 at Brookhaven National Lab in New York (long before Pong’s release in 1972). Using cathode-rays and an oscilloscope, nuclear physicist William Higinbotham built Tennis for Two with the hopes that it would make science more interactive for the public. According to a retrospective from the Lab, “hundreds of visitors lined up for a chance to play.”
Thirty-five years later in 1993, Namco reinvented the tennis game with Smash Tennis, a charming sports simulator with joys that can still be felt today.
It arrived several years after tennis first debuted on the system, and Smash Tennis doesn’t rely on any of Nintendo’s cast of characters or any celebrity. It instead lets players pick from twelve men and eight women with first names like “Darren” and “Marina.” There’s no hint of any nationality or difference between the players, although they do exist — Darren has a particularly nasty serve.
They’re mostly differentiated through their hair: this one is blonde, this one's pink, another has a blue hat, and so on. Although these players are mostly plug-and-play, they make up for it by being extremely cute. They’ll often bounce around as they wait for a serve, and the animations as they run around the court are convincing despite low graphical fidelity. While these sprites don’t necessarily have personality, they are very active.
Controls for Smash Tennis are simple: a power shot with the A Button, a weak shot with the B Button, and a lob with the X Button. With those three moves alone, a battle both simple and complex plays out on the court. As David Foster Wallace once wrote in a New York Times feature on tennis god Roger Federer, “beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty.”
Where does that leave a recreation like Smash Tennis? Does it convey beauty?
At times, yes, Smash Tennis can be legitimately beautiful. While there are only a handful of courts to choose from, the game deserves credit for picking some unusual locales. There’s a tennis court on top of a mountain, and the screen moves slightly to let the player watch the balls fall off the edge. There’s a tennis court on a sandy beach, with fans watching on from the ocean as the waves crash all around.
There are quirks in each of these levels that give the back a richness, like a cat running around in a shrine-based court (see above), or a mountain climber trying to reach the summit. The resort level takes place in a lovely fog, which doesn’t affect gameplay but makes for a calming visual.
There are also standard grass, clay, and hard courts, which the sprites adorably walk around as they switch sides. Smash Tennis is bare-bones in terms of bonuses: There are no power hits or secret moves. Rather, outside of its fantastical courts, the game is very dedicated to recreating the straightforward reality of a tennis match. You won’t see Mario leaping 30 feet into the air to smash the ball down on Wario’s face.
Smash Tennis can also be quite challenging. I got several good volleys going back and forth, only to be forced to dive for a ball or be caught helplessly off-guard by a power shot. At times, this feels unfair: Why am I double-faulting a serve when I can’t control the ball’s speed? But mostly, the game felt like a hard-fought tennis match, one where placing the ball in a desired section of the court is of prime importance.
There’s nothing readily available about Namco’s development of Smash Tennis, but the game undoubtedly owes a large amount to a game that came out in 1991, Super Tennis. That game uses the Super Nintendo’s game-changing Mode 7 to create the illusion of 3D, and it has become a classic that’s listed at 84 on IGN’s list of Top 100 SNES games of all time. A rush of clones came out in the years afterward, some of them associated with stars like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.
Switch Online has both games — could there be a better sign of the seeming randomness with which games make it onto Switch Online than there being two tennis games and zero basketball? They both are fun to play, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. But only one has an adorable cat running around.