The first NES game ever to reach American shores, Tennis has a remarkable pedigree for such a simple game.
Japanese title: テニス • Tennis
U.S. release date: Oct. 1985 [NES-TE]
Japanese release date: Jan. 1984 [HVC-TE]
European release date: 1986 [NES-BA]
Genre: Sports (Tennis)
Alternate versions: Vs. Tennis [Arcade, 1984]; PlayChoice-10 [Arcade, 1986]; Tennis [Game Boy, 1989] Animal Crossing [GameCube, 2002]; eCard [Game Boy Advance/eReader, 2002]; Virtual Console [Wii/3DS/Wii U, 2006/2011/2013]
Baseball may have been the oldest piece of software to debut alongside the NES in October 1985, but it wasn’t actually the first NES game to reach America. That honor belongs to Tennis. According to Nintendo’s own promotional materials, i showed up in the U.S. a year and a half before the NES.
Nintendo spent quite a lot of time developing a strategy for the U.S. launch of the NES. The Famicom had arrived in Japan right as the American console game retail market imploded under the weight of too many terrible video games, mainly for the unregulated Atari 2600. It was a mess all around, as the flood of trash games for 2600 meant that good games had a hard time standing out from the bad, which turned off consumers, which meant retailers were left with tons of unsold stock, which meant everyone lost money. Nintendo wanted to export the Famicom to America immediately, but the universal message they received from everyone stateside was, “Please don’t bother.”
Undeterred, Nintendo took the long view, experimenting with different console designs, names, and marketing strategies in order to appeal to U.S. retailers. Meanwhile, they stealthily conducted tests in the American market by putting Famicom games in front of arcade-goers. This effort took the form of the Nintendo VS. System, a series of low-cost arcade cabinets and conversion kits, which the company adapted from Data East’s revolutionary DECO system.
Arcade operators had two ways to buy into the VS. System: They could buy an inexpensive VS. System conversion kit for their existing Nintendo machines, to paste over, say, Donkey Kong 3 after it stopped earning money, or they could buy an entirely new VS. System cabinet. Either way, once they had the system’s framework in hand, they could buy interchangeable VS. boards to plug into their VS. cabinet to switch out the contents and keep the machines fresh for relatively little cost. Rather than have to buy an entirely new machine every time they wanted to refresh their lineup, VS. System owners could simply plug in a new board and add on fresh side and marquee art. This cost just a few hundred dollars—considerably less than buying an entirely new cabinet. It was a simple, clever idea, and one that came naturally: After all, the VS. System was basically just a Famicom, which itself had been designed to play interchangeable games.
In other words, a VS. System plug-in board was, in effect, a Famicom motherboard with a cartridge hardwired into it. Since the console was pretty much state-of-the-art when it debuted in 1983, it compared favorably with current arcade systems when the VS. System launched in 1984. No, it wasn’t quite as powerful as the best games the coin-op industry had to offer, but it’s easy to forget when looking back at the greats of the era that most games from most publishers were absolutely not on par with something like Xevious or Dragon’s Lair. Rather, most arcade cabinets were actually really terrible and primitive, which is why you don’t remember them.
The VS. System wasn’t top-of-the-line, but it definitely offered an above-average gaming experience. And arcade fans responded to Nintendo’s gambit favorably, making the VS. System a consistent money-maker for both operators and for Nintendo. The success of this low-cost arcade venture fueled Nintendo’s conviction to forge ahead with U.S. launch plans for the NES, regardless of the market’s collective gloom.
Tennis made perfect sense as a choice for the VS. System’s pilot program. For starters, it was one of Nintendo’s newest pieces of software: The Famicom game debuted in Japan in January 1984, just two months before the date Nintendo gives as the U.S. launch of the VS. System. Surely no one realized it at the time, but gamers privy to the rollout of the VS. System were experiencing the very cutting edge of home video games.
The other thing working in Tennis’ favor is that while the software may have been cutting edge, tennis itself also was the most mature and established video game concept in the world. For all intents and purposes, video games got their start with tennis. William Higginbotham created what many regard as the first video game ever with 1958’s Tennis for Two, a rudimentary two-player competitive game played on an oscilloscope. While barely playable (and certainly a long way from what we think of as video games) today, Tennis for Two established the entire concept of using a computer for interactive, competitive entertainment. Less than 15 years later, after being briefly distracted by a couple of space shoot-em-ups, video games took proper form when Atari created Pong, a table tennis game.
Pong became the baseline of video games throughout the ’70s—the medium quickly expanded into racing, shooting, and other sports, but it seemed like any serious publisher had a Pong clone in their catalog, somewhere. Certainly Nintendo did: Its earliest foray into home gaming took the form of a series of dedicated TV consoles called the Color TV Game.
Naturally, the first two entries in the Color TV Game series were Pong clones that initially offered six, then 15 variants of the venerable game. The Color TV Game project was led by none other than NES hardware designer Masayuki Uemura, whose experience with those early devices helped shape the direction of the NES. In other words, the entire tennis concept was built into the NES’s DNA right from the start. So it seems perfectly fitting that Americans’ first taste of the NES came in the form of Tennis.
Of course, NES Tennis looked a far sight more sophisticated than Pong. Detailed, cartoonish humans replaced the rectangular paddles; an authentic-looking court replaced Pong’s blank background. It even featured a referee overlooking the action—Mario’s very first NES cameo.
While incredibly simplistic by current standards, Nintendo’s Tennis captures the basics of the sport quite effectively. It features several different play modes and multiple difficulty settings, which alter the speed of the game and the effectiveness of the artificial intelligence. At maximum difficulty, the computer opponent turns a devilish red and basically annihilates human players before they can even blink.
You’re not just limited to AI opponents, though; in addition to solo play, you can team up for a doubles match against the computer. In 1984, Nintendo’s Tennis definitely represented the state of the art in computer tennis games. There actually weren’t all that many tennis games on the market at the time—perhaps due to Pong fatigue—and each new release represented a small improvement over the fundamental Pong concept.
1980’s Tennis for Intellivision took the basic Pong concept and retained the left/right court orientation, while adding some rudimentary graphics and a few mechanical enhancements. The ball obeyed simple physics, including the possibility of a net, players could move forward and backward in addition to up and down. Not long after, Activision’s Tennis for Atari 2600 took the next step by rotating the court 90 degrees, using a forced perspective changed the orientation of the action considerably. Activision’s design applied a simple 3D perspective to the court, so that its boundaries converged to a distant vanishing point and the “front” court—the one used by player one—appeared larger than the “back” court.
Two years later, in 1983, the genre received a massive boost with Data East’s arcade title Super Doubles Tennis. It’s Super Doubles Tennis from which Nintendo presumably took its inspiration for NES Tennis, as the two games are almost suspiciously similar. Super Doubles Tennis also debuted on DECO cassette, which means there was a double-lift in play. Data East’s tennis interpretation tilted the visual perspective even further, making the forecourt much larger for players. It also attempted to add some rudimentary perspective to the rest of the visuals, making the players’ characters larger than the competitors in the back court. Finally, the ball itself changes size to reflect its motion and location relative to the player. As it rises or comes into the foreground, it grows; as it touches the court or moves into the back of the playing space, it appears smaller.
To be honest, Nintendo’s Tennis does very little to add to Data East’s game. Not only does it borrow every visual trick wholesale, it even shamelessly sticks the line judge in the same place. What Tennis does offer over Super Doubles Tennis, however, is refinement. Data East may have come up with an appealing, convincing visual presentation, but Nintendo perfected it. Tennis features vastly more attractive characters than Super Doubles. Not as in “sexually attractive”—rather, that they’re rendered in a more pleasant-looking art style. The same cartoonish vibe that characterized Baseball shows up here, and it brings with it the same wonderful level of detail.
The player characters are nicely drawn and smoothly animated, scrambling fluidly around the court and swatting at the ball with graceful swings. The visual perspective on both fore- and back courts as well as players looks a whole lot more convincing as well; you no longer appear to control a pair of NBA all-stars against a couple of fat children. The forward players and their opponents appear to be more in proportion to one another here.
More importantly, the ball animates much more convincingly than in Super Doubles. The ball moves back and forth over the net authentically, and as it bounces between rackets it appears to grow and shrink in a more visually correct manner. It’s a subtle difference, but there’s a greater sense of realism and consistency to Nintendo’s animations that actually affects how the game plays (even more so than the similar animation in Baseball), making it more playable and fun.
Tennis closely follows the rules of the game, up to and including the inclusion of full three-match play. A full one-on-one session of Tennis can take the better part of an hour, which definitely sets the game apart from its arcade forebears, which were designed for quick quarter drops. Of course, the adjustable difficulty settings can affect game speed, as the greater the challenge level the more quickly the players and ball—and thus the action—move. On the easiest setting, a seasoned player can make short work of the CPU over a leisurely hour, while the higher difficulty levels will test your skills more vigorously in a much briefer time frame.
Play the game at a difficulty level on par with your actually skills and you’ll find Tennis does a nice job of giving you a difficult but not impossible game. As with Baseball, the AI is neither moronic nor unreasonably skilled; the computer will occasionally appear to flub a return on purpose, but that’s probably just the game’s way of making up for the fact that the computer has some subtle, invisible advantages. For one thing, despite all the graphical embellishments, it can still be difficult to judge your precise relationship to the ball—a problem the CPU never has to deal with. You also seem to have very little control over where the ball goes; it tends to veer in the same direction no matter how you approach it, meaning a sustained volley inevitably ends with you hitting it out of bounds as you creep along ever closer to the penalty line.
The other significant flaw in Tennis is that the visual perspective essentially makes one-on-one play impossible. Because the back court is so much smaller than the foreground, a player stuck back there would be at a massive disadvantage, with much less space and pixel information to work with. So Tennis simply removes the head-to-head option altogether; the two-player mode for Tennis consists of doubles only. It’s an unfortunate compromise, but one made in exchange for great visual presentation—and if indeed this game was patterned after Super Doubles Tennis (as it appears to have been), it was a conscious and established design choice.
While tennis video adaptations have come a long way in terms of presentation over the past 30 years, NES Tennis holds up well—there is, after all, only so much you can do with a real-world sport whose basic format is simple enough that it could be distilled down to serve as the topic of the world’s first video game.
In fact, Nintendo’s latest follow-up to Tennis—Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash—arrived recently on Wii U and used the same general format as the NES game. While it included plenty of new features, most of those were novelty modes, weird court layouts, or special challenges. As far as the basic sport goes, though, Tennis pretty well nailed it way back in 1984… even without amiibo support. It introduced America to the NES in fine style, and in the process taught a lot of very confused children about how the rules of the game work.