Back in 2007, I reviewed Hot Shots Tennis on the PlayStation 2, and I couldn't help feeling disappointed. Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee on the PSP won my heart – it's a game that I still fool around with today – but though the PS2 version of tennis had the characters and style I knew, it lacked the same spark that made the portable rock. There was no character customization, no crazy unlockables, and none of that monumental depth you expect from a Hot Shots game, which have been a staple of the PlayStation library for more than a decade.
Clap Hanz is out to rectify its on-court reputation with Hot Shots Tennis: Get a Grip. For the most part, this PSP title does it. The controls here are easy to jump into, the horse head and grass skirts are here, and there are loyalty hearts to fill along with ranks to climb up.
This is what a Hot Shots game is supposed to feel like, although there is a bit of "eh" by the time you get really good with your racket.
New to Hot Shots? They're not-so-serious sports games that have cartoon characters, bright visuals and – best of all – simple control schemes so that people can jump in and have fun. That formula's intact in Hot Shots Tennis. Here, there's a small hit box around your character on the court, and it's up to you to press one of the PSP face buttons for lob, slice and topspin shots. Serves are as simple as hitting a given button to toss the ball up and another to send it toward your opponent.
Anyone can dive into Get a Grip and have fun, but Hot Shots also adds layers of complexity for players who want to get lost in the game. There are angles to consider, joystick moves that mean the difference between dropping the ball on the near side of the net and painting the back corner, as well as optimum striking periods that'll make music notes pop out of your character's mouth instead of the "I-swung-too-late turtle" or "I-swung-too-soon rabbit."
If it sounds a little complicated now, it won't once you get a few sets under your belt.
Gaining that experience comes from a brand new part of the Hot Shots universe: an open-world story. You're a member of the Love Tennis Club and you need to recruit the best players from around the globe for the upcoming world championships. You travel to new places, freely wander around the locale talking to and taking in matches with the locals, and eventually end up face-to-face with the tennis great you need to secure. This is RPG-lite in a lot of ways. Before you can beat the boss and get him or her on your team, you usually have to do a few tasks – beat a guy in tennis so he'll give you the key to the gym, find a lost dog, and so on. None of these tasks are taxing and they almost always involve a game of tennis to settle the problem, but they're interesting nonetheless.
Are they revolutionary? No. The setup is always the same (The boss has lost interest in tennis, help!) and there's no voice work so you're reading dialogue that pops up in boxes and sometimes breaks in awkward places, but it's a welcome change for people sick of just challenging the next person in a given area. Also, it needs to be noted that the courts themselves are awesome. You get at least one for every environment, and they're always something new – playing on a barge, a TV stage and more. They make the matches visually interesting.
Rather than have to rotate the camera on the court to find hidden items like you did in the last Hot Shots Golf game on PSP, now you find the secret goodies by breaking vases and opening lockers. You can even return to places you've beaten to find new foes that'll unlock new courts and characters such as the Helghast from the Killzone franchise and classic Hot Shots characters. Most non-boss people you play also fork over costume goodies and fans will occasionally give you stuff, but all of your hard work on the clay is rewarded with post match points you can spend in the Pro Shop on hair, clothes, accessories, and equipment.
When you beat a boss, they're added to your playable roster and you can then modify them with the items you have. Keep playing as a character, and you fill in a loyalty meter to earn perks like stat boosts and costumes slots.
Collecting, upgrading and costume experimentation are the reasons why I love the Hot Shots franchise. It's awesome to have a game as fundamentally solid as Hot Shots Tennis on the control front and then pepper it with so many collectables to go out and find/purchase. The story mode is nice and all, but what drove me through it (and will keep me coming back) is that "gotta catch 'em all" mentality that demands I have every accessory from the fox mask to the squirrel tail. Will I ever use all of this stuff? Hell no, but I'll be damned if I don't want it.
Here's the thing though: I don't have the insatiable urge to play Hot Shots Tennis like I did Hot Shots Golf. I still love Hot Shots Tennis and plan on playing long after this review is posted, but I couldn't put Hot Shots Golf on the PSP down. The issue for me is that tennis is always… tennis. From your first match on the ho-hum country club court to your first match on the ancient Shiranui Royal Tennis Field, you're playing a game on a rectangle divided by a net. Sure, sometimes there's a banana peel to dodge or a hanging obstruction to avoid, but each tennis match feels somewhat the same (excluding difficulty). In golf, the courses changed. The layouts were different – the obstacles, the twists, and the turns made me want to see what was next, to squeeze in an additional hole, and to drain the 30-foot putt.
In Hot Shots Tennis, there are a lot of different, good-looking courts, but they all have the same feel and the same method of working an opponent to the front of the net so I can drop a ball behind them. That kind of sucks some of the "OMG I have to play" out of Get a Grip. I'll play for awhile, but it doesn't feel like something crazy is around the next corner.
Still, Hot Shots does a lot right to keep you engaged. Ad-hoc multiplayer is supported for up to four players, you can join me for doubles matches in my story mode, and the game even uses the long forgotten "Game Sharing" ability on the PSP so people without the game can try it out with a friend who does.
Aside from a few technical issues – I had one match where I got stuck running into a teammate before getting the boot and a camera angle quirk here or there -- these are all welcome features. Sure, an infrastructure mode as robust as Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2 would have been nice, but I never used that game's online ability that much and this Hot Shots is really about unlocking stuff in your single-player campaign.