It may not have the selling power of the Madden franchise, but there has always been a special place in the heart of a gamer for solid tennis games. We can trace back to the earliest of Atari classics, Racquet Attack on NES, Super Tennis on the Super NES, Virtua Tennis for Dreamcast, and now the Top Spin franchise. A huge reason for the sport's popularity in the videogame scene has to come from the simplicity of the game's fundamentals, mixed with the potential complexity of strategy that goes into the title. Tennis games have been a hit with one button, and they've been successful with far more. While the Top Spin franchise has climbed to the top of the tennis ranks for our current generation, the DS version is far too weak to hold its own in comparison to the console builds, previous tennis incarnations (on weaker systems), and other portable tennis packages.
In this case, it wasn't a poor design choice, but rather poor execution. Anyone who's played Top Spin knows the game is amazingly addictive in its simplicity, though it still offers tons of depth in the shot system. In fact, the gameplay elements of Top Spin DS are actually exactly what players will want. The four main face buttons execute different shots, while the L and R buttons are used for skill shots, requiring judgment, timing, and a ton of skill. Everything that should have made the downscale from the console version did. Why then didn't the game succeed? Simply put, it misused the hardware.
While Top Spin may have had the in-game necessities for success, the game is virtually unplayable, as it runs at amazingly low framerates, requires loading before matches, and is unpredictable in its performance. For starters, the game's fluidity is around 15 frames per second. The best way to describe gameplay would be to compare it to any average N-Gage offering. Even the thought of comparing a DS game to Nokia's cell phone system makes us want to gag, and unfortunately it is the best comparison to make. Since the game is in full 3D, it is literally pushing the hardware to the limit. Or is it? Why was Mario 64 ported over to DS by Nintendo at launch? How could Pac Man World 3, which isn't even a "good" game by our standards run at a solid framerate for the majority of the time? This isn't an issue with the DS hardware, rather it is a problem with how the game was developed.
Since the slowdown can be noticed for the majority of the in-game action, the would-be solid gameplay is completely trashed. This will be obvious to any fan of the Top Spin series, as the skill shots and general maneuverability rely completely on timing and flow. Tennis is a rhythm game, and not having that feel will take even the most dedicated players out of their element. In fact, since the skill shots are based on timing entirely, it is very hard to pull them off. It got to the point where we couldn't even look at the bar to time it, since the bar might be lagging but the actual shot isn't. The only way to hit critical shots is to have perfect timing, and this simply can't happen when frames are dropped, or when slowdown fluctuates based on what's happening on-screen. It may seem a bit critical to put so much of our evaluation on one specific fault, but it's simply because that one fault can affect the entire game. Everything from basic matches, mini-games within the career mode and full tournaments will be made or broken because of the clunky execution. It's hard to give the game a break when Virtua Tennis for GBA managed to do it right.
While the gameplay fluidity is our biggest concern, the overall presentation of Top Spin just isn't up to par. The front end interface is extremely basic, and while the game has a great in-game look, it comes at a (previously mentioned) huge price. Character customization is available in the career mode, and though it has expectedly been cut down quite a bit for the DS version, it is still a nice touch. Players can change the look of their character -- boy or girl -- and use that character for career progression, quick matches and multiplayer games. It's basic, but it's a nice touch.
During the in-game sessions, the presentation takes a hit in a few areas, however. Since the top screen is used for full 3D output, the bottom screen has little to offer players. There is no touch interface outside of the menu system, and the bottom screen is used only for score and ball speed information. This would be fine if it was the price we had to pay for great gameplay, but the lagging 3D seals the deal, making Top Spin painful.
That being said, the in-game action does have a very console look to it. The character models still suffer from being low-poly, as most 3D games on the DS tend to be, but the overall look is still pretty strong. Everything from specific character serves to hit styles were brought over from the console version, showing that future DS titles may be able to truly pull off some beautiful 3D visuals. Trying to do more than standard 2D on DS is very dangerous, and Top Spin pays the ultimate price at the chance of looking as amazing as possible. Too bad it doesn't look as good running on the hardware as it does on the back of the box.
Top Spin's audio presentation is also below par, offering only a few audio clips for the announcer and a collection of generic music tracks. Aside from that, the crowd reactions get more annoying as play continues. There are only a few different clap patterns for the spectators, and hearing them after every point gets really frustrating. When playing through the career mode I actually started sliding the volume down after every point as a force of habit. The crowd is also really predictable, only going crazy for huge turning points in the match. There isn't a judgment of whether the point was actually dramatic though, so even if a single rally goes on for minutes at a time, trading huge saves and dramatic shots, the crowd won't go crazy unless the point was game-winning or amazingly crucial. Rather than bringing life to the game, the audio is simply there.
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