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TVG plays a few sets with Sonic, NiGHTS, Samba, and more SEGA brands in Sumo Digital's upcoming title...
It's fair to say that the relationship between SEGA and Sumo Digital is a strong one, with the Sheffield-based studio putting the finishing touches to their fifth title for the publisher. Due out in time for Easter weekend, SEGA Superstars Tennis takes Sumo's experience with the racquet sport through Virtua Tennis, and introduces sixteen well-known characters from the length and breadth of SEGA's back-catalogue along the way. Heading to five platforms including Xbox 360, Wii, and Nintendo DS, the game came about from the Virtua Tennis 3 team's informal experiments with turning the likes of Roger Federer into giant-headed mutants on the tennis court. It just so happened that SEGA of America and Europe were knocking on Sumo's door looking for the Foundation 9 subsidiary's next project.
TVG dug out the Wimbledon whites a few months early and trotted down to West London to knock a few balls around court...
Tennis, Live On Space Channel 5.
Sumo acknowledges that the mould of taking various characters from different brands has been done in the past, most recently by Nintendo with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, currently devastating the Japanese charts like Godzilla in a bad mood. However, the studio (and SEGA for that matter) aren't trying to follow the same trail that's been blazed by the 'Big N' through Brawl or Mario Strikers Charged.
So why pick Sumo Digital, SEGA? Well, aside from their prior extensive experience with creating tennis games in recent years, SEGA also felt that to bring a balanced playing field all of their brands, an outside source had to be used. SEGA Europe producer Warren Leigh explained to TVG how that if Sonic Team had been charged with developing 'Superstars' then it would inevitably have a bias towards the SEGA mascot, with the same unbalanced leanings if the game had been given to any of the other internal studios...so it seems like gamers have lost out on The Creative Assembly's 'Tennis: Total War'. Step forward Sumo, which at the time was working hard on bringing the third Virtua Tennis title.
The chosen franchises have come from across the SEGA spectrum, from modern classics like Super Monkey Ball, through to Samba de Amigo, Sonic, and classics such as Afterburner, and Master System icon Alex Kidd (and yes, it is VERY strange to see the long-omitted character make a return in 3D). Eight are available from the off, with the other half of the roster unlockable as the game progresses. There are naturally several franchises from the Japanese publisher that haven't made it onto the final line-up of characters or environments, including the likes of REZ, Virtua Fighter, Panzer Dragoon, and Shenmue. That said, since the code for online play on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 has been added, future downloadable content functionality is a possibility; not that SEGA or SUMO are thinking about that...just yet.
What Sumo has included however, are locations such as Green Hill Zone - classic Sonic music included - together with the first stage of NiGHTS: Journey into Dreams, and a rather Californian-looking beach taken from OutRun. There are plenty of references to SEGA franchises young and old, which certainly expands the targeted sets of gamers from young and old, casual to hardcore.
Sonic & The Secret Swingers (Of Racquets, That Is).
Our hands on time was based on the Wii edition, which marks the first title for Nintendo's white box of tricks to come from the Sheffield studio. Whilst lacking in both the online multiplayer functionality of both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 editions of the game, not to mention some of the visual extras that have been added to the heftier consoles, Superstars Tennis on Wii does have one very important - if expected - feature: motion control.
Three different control systems are at work in the game, opening up the potential audience from the newly installed casual gaming 'elite' through to run-of-the-mill gamers. One, called Standard follows the same method as Wii Sports, moving the character and giving players the key responsibility of whacking the ball as hard as humanly possible. Perfect for youngsters and oldies alike, the system at least tries to level the playing field when faced with some of the gaming hardcore that will inevitably used the 'Nunchuk' system.
This second system puts the positioning of the character under the direct control of the player, who also has to swing the racquet. The third, which on Wii is admittedly the most underwhelming, uses the Wii-remote by itself but as a standard gamepad - and not making use of the accelerometers. Pointless perhaps given the ingenuity from Nintendo in the first place to create the technology, and the solid performance that the other control systems enjoy thanks to the team at Sumo, but it's there and will no doubt be used by some quarters of the Wii-owning gaming community. Of course, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 2 gamers will have to use the analogue sticks in their respective gamepads - but let's continue to stick with the Wii version for just a little bit longer.
The natural motion of swinging the tennis racquet will of course be close to instinctive for most Wii gamers thanks not only to Wii Sports, but Rockstar Games' Table Tennis. Like the latter, the additional control over the characters is something of a necessary feature if Superstars Tennis is to appeal not onto casual gamers, but to the hardcore too. Added shots such as drop shots and lobs are also executable according to various button presses held during a shot, together with the game's trademark 'Superstars Shot'. Wildly over-the-top in style, these shots are built up as the ball is returned through the course of the game, with a star-shaped icon on the feet of every character filling up along the way. Once filled, gamers can activate the Superstars Shot to take character-specific special returns to 'crazy ball' shots that can send the opposition diving for the ball in one direction before it changes its mind mid-trajectory. Not a guaranteed match-winner every time, it's a nonetheless powerful - and fun - weapon to have stored away for the right moment.
As with Virtua Tennis, Superstars Tennis also includes a wide and varied selection of mini-games that allow players to hone their racquet and ball skills. Set in environments based on the SEGA franchises, the mini-games have been created with original fonts, loading screen, and HUD in tow. The gameplay has also been dressed up to closer resemble the sort of experience played out by their source titles. For instance, surviving hordes of zombies chasing after you around court for a set time, or 'shooting' at target cutouts in the Virtua Squad levels. Some may not have much to do with tennis, the latter example one case in point, but they strengthen the use of the various brands in the game here, and reinforces the undying connection between Superstars Tennis and SEGA's established tennis franchise.
Both of SEGA's light gun franchises, House of the Dead and Virtua Cop, make an appearance in Superstars though they've undergone something of a name change thanks to the German ratings board. Explaining that both titles were denied classification by the USK, the game's Sumo producer Steve Lycett nonetheless revealed that both franchises would make it into the final release - even in Germany. As banned games cannot be referenced in other titles, Sumo has renamed the two franchises, with House of the Dead becoming 'Curien Mansion' (paying homage to the original site of horror back in 1996) and Virtua Cop become Virtua Squad. Thankfully as it's been known as Virtua Squad in North America there'd always been an easy alternative at Sumo's fingertips.
The Nintendo DS version of Superstars Tennis continues to follow Sumo's own philosophy of never leaving a console behind - aside from the surprising omission of the PSP from the line up - and will include all of the characters and game modes that the home console editions include. Coupled with the rather nifty use of pre-rendered backgrounds on the handheld's trademark two screens, the game is also holding its own on the visuals. Optional control systems are also here, one based on the buttons whilst the styles setup is targeted towards the DS' own casual base. The DS version also features four-player multiplayer over single-card or multi-card sharing.
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