The very first Virtua Tennis on the Sega Dreamcast was a wonderfully fun title that provided my friends and I with an insane amount of hours of enjoyment. Over the years, sequels to the original have kept to the tried and true template that started in 1999. With each and every new version, graphics changed ever so slightly, but the actual court play has remained virtually untouched. After playing Virtua Tennis 2009 for a few hours, it was clear so little had changed in ten years that I haven’t missed anything by not playing a single game in the series since 1999.
The most obvious lack of change is apparent as soon as you pick up a controller to play a match. Virtua Tennis 2009 uses a nearly identical control scheme as the original game. Face buttons determine whether you lob, slice, or hit the ball normally, while the left analog controls movement and the right analog controls shot angle. It’s simple, and allows new players to master the system in no time. Gamers who have been playing this series since its inception will find some comfort in the returning gameplay mechanics, but that comfort comes with a price. The sheer boredom of having absolutely nothing new to offer in the way of how the game of tennis is played on these next-gen consoles is almost insulting. Many of the franchise’s contemporaries have at least tried to implement some new mechanics for audiences bored with aging control styles. It seems like a natural fit to use the right analog stick to control your racket ala EA’s NHL series, but for whatever reason, Sega continues to use antiquated controls for a game that deserves better.
Virtua Tennis 2009 isn’t exactly full of gameplay options either. You can play Singles or Doubles tennis, along with a handful of mini-games like Shopping Dash (where you dodge incoming balls while trying to pick up grocery items), Block Buster (where you hit rows of blocks for points similar to Tetris), or Zoo Feeder (where you have to hit the right type of food at a particular animal), in addition to playing online, but the main mode you’ll be playing is World Tour. In World Tour, you can do all of those same things, except you do it with a created player in the hopes of becoming the number one ranked player in the world. The mini-games help improve your stats like footwork, shot power, and accuracy, while playing matches will move you up the career ladder. The character creator is bad. If you’re able to make an avatar that even vaguely resembles you or someone you know, I’m sorry because you must be one ugly son of a gun. Once you start playing, you’ll notice there are two types of rankings: amateur and professional. Both of them have 99 other players, both real and made-up. Winning one match moves you up two spots, on average. You can do the math yourself to equate how tedious a career in this game will be.
Granted, in World Tour you can take your created player online against other created people in the hopes of bettering your standings, but the online is just a disaster. I’m all for taking on real people who are real good at the game. I don’t mind getting my butt whupped as long as I learn something new. Having said that, there’s not a whole lot of enjoyment to be had online either. Lag absolutely kills any joy you might have playing a friend, and causes blood to boil when playing strangers. The ball will literally hang in the air as if it’s frozen in time just as you or your opponent are about to strike it. Then it magically jumps across court. It’s maddening. Sadly, you can’t hope to improve playing the computer. The AI isn’t terrible, but it’s easily beatable by simply hitting your shots behind the computer. The idea of “hit it where they ain’t” is nothing new, but when the computer starts taking off in the opposite direction immediately after returning a volley, there’s little to no challenge involved. The offline multiplayer is just fine, but it’s still pretty boring thanks largely to the poor presentation.
Graphics in VT09 are pretty decent. Character models, aside from the ones you create yourself, all look solid, if unspectacular. The different types of courts all look and play differently, and animations are close to perfect. There will be times the racket and the ball have collision detection issues, but it’s nothing that will take you out of the experience. Sound design is extremely lacking. Outside of the score being announced, the ball bouncing off the court/racket, and some generic hushed crowd noise, there’s nary a sound to be heard. There’s no commentary, and player grunts are laughable. Crowds don’t react to major shots. It’s almost like you’re playing tennis in a vacuum. If the game wasn’t boring you enough with its monotony, the lack of an interesting auditory experience will push you over the edge. I expect more from Sega at this point. It’s not like this game comes out every year. There’s plenty of time to record some actual true to life tennis sounds.
Virtua Tennis 2009 is a prime example of a game treading water that desperately needs an overhaul. Fans joke about the release of Madden NFL every year being nothing more than a roster update, despite the growth the gameplay of that franchise has seen. Virtua Tennis hasn’t changed one bit in ten years, and nobody seems to notice. The time for letting Sega slide on this has passed. If you’ve played one VT, you’ve played them all, and this year’s version is so unexceptional, that it doesn’t even deserve to be rented. Break out your old Dreamcast version, or track down a used copy of Virtua Tennis 3. It’ll be cheaper, and just as fun.