It's been years since I wanted to destroy a controller, but Mario Tennis Aces brought me inches from snapping the hinges of my Switch. Multiplayer battles offer a special kind of brutality, the sort of jawclenching stress that makes your soul ache for a while after a tough match. It's the good kind of burn, as though you just exercised long-dormant struggle muscles.
That brief flash of rage was inspired by the single-player campaign, which is otherwise a dead march through a cold maze. Using the game's strong core as a basis for silly sports minigames with Mario flavoring sounds like a great idea, but each level's gimmick almost always boils down to varying kinds of target practice. The RPG elements might have given some hope for a return to the handheld Camelot sports games of yesteryear, but the leveling and gear system is about as shallow as a shadow cast by an empty can of unflavored LaCroix. You'll complete it eventually if you play long enough, but you won't feel anything. Well, unless you lose, and then you'll feel agitated, frustrated and disrespected on a base level.
At no point during the Aces campaign does the game offer a "retry mission" button. In the inevitable case that you should fail, you're kicked back to the overworld where you're forced to accept Toad's condolences. To retry, you have to re-engage the mission and load the course once again, skipping the exact same dialogue you read the last time this happened.
I've been racking my brain trying to figure out what could have possibly led to this design decision, or if this was even a decision at all. Didn't they know their story mode was challenging? Hadn't they seen the quick restart buttons in Mario Kart 8, or dozens of other games over the last couple decades? Didn't they plan for someone as incompetent as me making multiple attempts on the same levels?
Many missions rely on a countdown clock that ticks down faster when Mario misses a ball or trips on an obstacle. During some encounters, especially the boss fights, it will become clear partway through that several penalties have made success impossible. Should this happen to you, there are two options: you can either quit out to the overworld or play the run to completion and inevitably be subject to Toad's conciliatory chirping once more. No matter the outcome, Mario Tennis Aces will have shredded valuable time that could have been spent getting crushed by Bowser Jr. players online.
By far the most aggravating moment for me came near the end of the game. At first I was eager to participate in a princess doubles match against the corrupt Wario and Waluigi, since Mario had been the only other playable character up to that point. Thanks to Daisy's ruthless AI, wrecking those clods was a breeze. After that, the game seamlessly shifted to a duel between Mario and the possessed Luigi. When I choked, because of course I choked, I felt an instant pang of dread in my gut. "They wouldn't make me replay that doubles match again, right?" I thought, having somehow forgotten several hours that had preceded that moment. Sure enough, getting back to that Luigi fight meant slogging through 10 minutes of that same doubles match I sleptwalk through before. This is where I almost detached the Joy-cons horizontally instead of vertically.
I honestly thought we were past this. We may take it for granted now, but the era of copious checkpoints and auto-saves has altered the foundation of many aspects of game design. Kids who grew up with unforgiving 8-bit games that mimicked the quarter-munching tendencies of arcade games are now adults with families, jobs and a distinct unwillingness to put up with the same frivolous garbage they did when they were in third grade.
Some of the best games still subscribe to the "wasted time as punishment" theory of video game challenge, even games made by Nintendo internal teams. Collecting 500 moons in Super Mario Odyssey allows access to the Darker Side of the Moon, a showstopper gauntlet that pits Mario against a series of obstacles themed after each kingdom in the game. Yet, unlike the first run on grand finale of Super Mario Galaxy 2, there are no checkpoints.
When you encounter a new obstacle on the Darker Side, boy howdy you better hope you have the reflexes to get through it or else you're doing every single thing in the level all over again. You might jump across molten lava, glide through whirlwinds and scramble over a grassy path vanishing over the red abyss, but the obstacles keep coming. Should you miscalculate one jump during the Pokio bird section, you are punished with a 15 minute corpse run back through all of the segments you have already mastered.
This relentless grind betrays the joy of Odyssey. Gathering those 500 moons took some skill, but it also took curiosity, experimentation and a will to engage with the worlds on a broader level. What does a long and arduous ordeal have to do with the moon I got for helping someone make soup with a big golden turnip? What does The Darker Side have to do with the moon I found in the Sand Kingdom, sliding beneath a wall as a 2D sprite? In both Mario Tennis Aces and Super Mario Odyssey, punishing failure with wasted time adds nothing to the experience but disrespect for the person trying to get their leisure hour on.
Some games do use death and delay as discipline and still come out alright, but that's because they're built around the thrill of risk in the first place.
Cuphead's many boss fights each have escalating forms, all of which are unpredictable and take time and study to defeat. It can be frustrating when a laser attack you've never seen before takes up half the screen and vaporizes you, but this is a game about learning by dying. Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Cuphead's painful loop is the length of the levels -- once you've mastered the encounter, defeating a boss will only take a couple of minutes. Doling out its cruel lessons in such short bursts allows the player to spend their time growing and improving instead of stewing over their mistakes during downtime.
The only time Cuphead breaks its shortness rule is for the battle with King Dice, where the time-consuming onslaught acts as a natural culmination of what's come before. It's still irritating to get sent all the way back to the beginning, but at least you can smell Cuphead's charming brand of bullshit coming.
The next time I'm faced with a game as contemptuous towards my precious free minutes as Mario Tennis Aces' campaign, I'm just going to drop it and find something else to do (or if we're honest, something else to play). Am I old, cranky and out of touch? Kind of, yes and definitely. Yet even more antiquated is the idea of buying a game that wastes your time on purpose.