Retro spotlight: World Court Tennis

Tennis, but make it role-playing.

This column is “Retro spotlight,” which exists mostly so I can write about whatever game I feel like even if it doesn’t fit into one of the other topics you find in this newsletter. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

Sometimes, you go back and play retro sports games, and they’re more curiosity than anything. Sometimes the arcade-y action hits just right, especially in this present-day world where simulation rules the realm of sports video games, but often, there are some rudimentary systems that are difficult to go back to considering the quality of life changes that have become pretty basic and standard over the last few decades.

Tennis games can certainly feel like this. While reading about the development history of Snoopy Tennis on the Game Boy Color just last month, I was nodding along with this quote from one of the game’s two developers about how some tennis games of a certain era tended to feel when played:

Tennis is not like badminton where you can just easily whack the ball back and forth. It’s very difficult to pick up. If you don’t know how to hit the ball correctly, you’re either going to send in into orbit or into the net. Having played most of the tennis games at the time, there were a few like Super Tennis on SNES and Tennis on the classic Game Boy that had elements I liked from the real sport, but many others were basically just Pong with rackets.

While I don’t respect the shot at the glorious game of badminton — it’s an Olympic sport, and you can see why when Olympians play it with speed and finesse — I do agree that quality tennis video games were nowhere near as ubiquitous as, say, baseball video games, and part of that is because they just didn’t necessarily feel like tennis when you played them.

Namco’s World Court Tennis, thankfully, didn’t have this problem. Like the aforementioned Super Tennis, there was nuance to the play, with a variety of shot types and the ability to hit the ball harder or softer. It wasn’t quite as pronounced as, say, Mario Tennis on the Game Boy Color in these respects, but considering the console version of the game released in 1989 for the Turbografx-16, 12 years before Camelot would kick off the Mario Tennis franchise, what World Court does have feels plenty impressive.

World Court Tennis — known as Pro Tennis: World Court in its original arcade form — is pretty standard in plenty of ways, though packed with options: there’s single or multiplayer tennis action with a few different courts to choose from (hard surface, clay surface, grass surface), the option to play just one set or three, and you can choose from between 20 different characters as well. Where the game stands out, and what drew me to a tennis game from over 30 years ago in the first place, is that it has a Quest mode. In this, you are petitioned by the Good King of Tennis — who lives in Chicago, for some reason — to face off against the Evil King of Tennis, whose minions have taken over the world’s tennis courts and won’t let anyone else use them. You’re not a knight in the service of the king or anything. Just someone who plays tennis, and will now do it as an act of war.

So, you start your journey in Chicago, and then walk your way right over to Paris — there wasn’t really any attempt to adhere to a true reflection of geography or anything, just go with it — where the citizens will tell you that there is a court to your west in need of liberation. There you’ll find a tough opponent, one much faster than anyone you’ve played to that point, but if you defeat them, you’ll win a pearl. There are six courts to liberate through tennis matches, before you can go and defeat the Evil Tennis King and make the world’s tennis courts for the people once more.

It sounds ridiculous, and it is. You’ll visit these various towns on your journey, and in between, random tennis players will challenge you to short matches. Win, and you earn some cash, which can be used to buy equipment upgrades that improve your tennis game. Lose, and you get sent back to Chicago, where the king will tell you that you need to train harder, but will also give you some cash to help you out, the amount of which is based on how long you went without losing. Luckily, you can warp to any other city you’ve been to after losing and collecting your pity dollars from the king, so you aren’t constantly stuck facing off against early game chumps or retracting your footsteps.

The equipment upgrades are no joke. World Court Tennis’ Quest mode isn’t actually all that much fun at first. Sure, it’s ridiculous and funny to be playing a game like this for a bit, but the tennis itself isn’t any good: you’re very slow, you do not hit very hard, and the random “battles” can pile up since no one is intimidated by you and your pathetic starting gear. Don’t give up, however: once you’ve saved up the cash to buy the first round of upgraded gear, though — a better racket for harder hits, better shoes for faster movement, and a fancier shirt that will force low-level opponents to leave you alone when you say to — everything feels different. The game feels more responsive, the matches themselves quicker and better-paced, and most importantly, winning a match against one of the defenders of the courts doesn’t feel like an impossibility or an accident any longer.

You’ll travel the world, upgrading your equipment through cash won at random “battles,” and eventually free all of the world’s courts. Don’t feel like you need to fully upgrade your equipment, however: there’s a real feel to this whole thing, like with a racing game or a a shoot-em-up with speed upgrades, where you want the balance to be just right so you can handle what you’re doing, and do what you intend to do each time you run or swing your racket. Once you’ve defeated the various minions and settled your gear, it will be time to cross the sea, using an inner tube given to you by an NPC, just like you expected from a tennis video game. After your trip across the water, you’ll come face-to-face with the Evil King of Tennis, who is no slouch. I haven’t defeated him yet, but maybe I’ll get there eventually. World Court Tennis has been surprising fun even without me being able to say I’ve completed it all the way through, though.

The overworld sprites might look very mid-to-late-80s and small, but in the actual game of tennis, they’ve got some size and detail to them. You can clearly see the ball at all times, and the shadow it leaves is often helpful for setting up any kind of smash return you hope to pull off. This is obviously necessary for a game you’re playing on a television screen, especially if you aren’t right on top of it, but “necessary” doesn’t always mean the tech of the day was able to comply. And living rooms are arranged a lot differently in 2021 than they were in 1989, too.

My only real complaint about the way the game looks and plays is that it can be sometimes difficult to know just what is going to result in a fault when you’re serving: I had a hard time finding any consistency in the process, as sometimes repeating the same directional presses would result in a different serve. It’s possible part of this was the constant switching of court types and my brain not adjusting to that quickly enough, but it would sometimes happen within the same match itself, too, so maybe not! Other than that, though, once I did upgrade from my basic gear in the Quest mode, I always felt like the ball and my character were doing what I wanted them to, and that’s no small thing, especially when the arcade original had a joystick for movement shot power, while the Turbografx-16 port has a directional pad to work with. Namco nailed the transition from one to the other, as far as I can tell.

I don’t know who at Namco decided that their tennis game needed to also be a role-playing game, but I do wish it had encouraged more developers to make similar decisions. Modern games like Golf Story make themselves about more than just the sport in question while still staying true to said sport, but releases like that tend to be few and far between. Even Mario Tennis and Mario Golf, which started out as a mix of arcade gameplay with role-playing experiences, don’t really go down that road anymore, even though everyone hopes the next Mario sports game will be the one that returns to those glory days.

Even if we don’t get any new games in this vein, though, there are the old ones like World Court Tennis to familiarize yourself with. Don’t be put off by how the tennis in Quest mode feels early on: you’re just in the barely-strong-enough to defeat a Slime portion of the RPG experience, at that point. Once you’ve fought some “battles” and can afford gear, the adventure can really begin.

And again, that adventure involves tennis. A tennis role-playing adventure. I’ve played the thing and it still makes me laugh, just conceptually. Sadly, World Court Tennis is not something that was made available on the Wii U Virtual Console, nor is it included in the Turbografx-16 Mini. So you’re going to have to emulate this one if you want to give it a shot and defeat the Evil King of Tennis.

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