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Platforms: Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo DS - Wii and 360 versions reviewed.
Here's a recipe that has served Nintendo well in the past: take a popular video game character (e.g. Mario) and an equally popular sport (e.g. footie, tennis or golf), throw in a bunch of buddies (e.g. Bowser, Luigi, Yoshi and the rest) add special powers and serve it up to an adoring public. Even if the final dish has been less than amazing at times, you can still see why it strikes a chord with the family market. Sega Superstars Tennis, however, is a different kettle of fish. While the premise is basically the same, the fact that it comes from the same team that bought us last year's Virtua Tennis 3 - currently the best tennis game on any system - instantly raises expectations. What's more, it's a game designed with not just kids but long-term Sega fans in mind, pulling in settings and characters from popular Sega titles of the Mega Drive and Dreamcast eras, and combining it all in one (hopefully) irresistible package.
All the same, Sega Superstars Tennis is less of a repackaging of VT3 than you might expect. Out goes the career mode, in comes a compendium of mini-games and tournaments based on Sonic, Super Monkey Ball, Samba de Amigo, House of the Dead, Jet Set Radio, Space Channel 5 and many more. Each world gives you a series of missions - either a mini-game to complete or a match or tournament to win - and by running through these you unlock new missions, new music, new characters and, finally, new worlds. It's a simple structure, packed with rewards and giving you new challenges as you play.
As always, the mini-games themselves are a mixed bunch. Whacking balls at zombies in the House of the Dead world is fun, particularly once the game throws in power-up balls that explode on impact or split into three when hit (don't worry, mums and dads, as the gore level is kept to an absolute minimum). Hitting balls through gates in the Super Monkey Ball world is rather less enjoyable, though I've yet to come across any mini-game that I'd really describe as tedious or totally broken. The highlight is probably the Virtua Cop section, as you blast away targets using a racket and ball, not a shotgun, but overall the standard is reasonably high.
The actual tennis, meanwhile, is roughly what you'd expect from the guys behind Virtua Tennis 3. The basic controls are extremely easy to pick up but it takes a while before you really get a feel for the different shots and angles, and simply hanging on the backline is a surefire way to lose once you progress beyond the most basic level tournaments. The biggest change from Virtua Tennis 3 is that the characters have very clearly defined strengths and weaknesses (Sonic's is speed, but Amigo has a bit more power) and that each has his or her own special move. Through good play you can charge up the star underneath your player's feet then, once you've maxed it out, unleash a temporary power-up that has you hitting the ball in weird or unpredictable patterns.