Nintendo is not simply some monolithic entity when it comes to the actual creation of games. There is no slab-like “Nintendo” object that stamps out games on an assembly line. (Also, no: Shigeru Miyamoto doesn’t single-handedly invent every idea to issue forth from the company’s walls.) Through the years, Nintendo’s innards have shuffled around, with teams and larger divisions alike shuffling back and forth, dividing, merging, and reconfiguring themselves to best take on the challenges of game design.
Knowing this, I think, is important to getting a better sense of the oddly generic games that emerged in both the early days of the Famicom and the Game Boy alike. You know, all those crisp, functional, simple sports games whose titles consisted of the name of the sport contained within: Baseball, Golf, Tennis, Volleyball, Ice Hockey, etc. There was no single “Nintendo” responsible for those games, despite their similarities of aesthetics and scope. They were developed by different internal and second-party studios, often in conjunction – as with most of the Game Boy’s launch-day release, which represented joint collaboration between Intelligent Systems and R&D1.
By most accounts, “Intelligent Systems” originally just meant a single man: Tohru Narahiro, a skilled programmer who frequently did the nuts-and-bolts work for R&D1’s games. You may know Narahiro’s name from Metroid; some speculate the famous “NARPAS SWORD” code was created as his personal debugging tool as he programmed the NES adaptation of the game (NAR PASSWORD, or “Narahiro’s password”). R&D1 would come up with the cool ideas, and he’d give them flesh and form, so to speak. Eventually, Intelligent Systems became its own legitimate entity complete with its own designers and artists; these days, it plays such a key role internally at Nintendo that the division was recently given its own fancy building.
Around the Game Boy’s launch, however, Intelligent Systems was still bulking up, having only just created its first truly Intelligent Systems-ish game a year prior (Famicom Wars, precursor to Advance Wars). This transitional state probably accounts for why some of the system’s launch titles were co-developed by R&D1 and Intelligent Systems while others were built entirely by R&D1 (or, if not by R&D1 alone, then perhaps designed in collaboration with an uncredited external studio. Ah, the ambiguity and uncertainty of gaming’s olden days, when no one felt the need to credit people for their hard work).
In any case, Game Boy Tennis turned out to be one of the games that R&D1 made without Intelligent Systems – which, perhaps, is why it didn’t quite make Game Boy’s Japanese launch date, arriving instead about five weeks later. This could also explain why, even though it clearly was designed atop the framework of NES Tennis, it feels much less like its dusty old predecessor than Baseball did.
Intelligent Systems helped create NES Tennis, but they didn’t work on the Game Boy version. But going by their website, Narahiro had nothing to do with NES Baseball, yet Intelligent Systems collaborated on that remake for Game Boy. So the dated feel of Baseball is not simply a matter of Intelligent Systems dredging up its old code or something. But the fact remains that Game Boy Baseball, like all the other early Game Boy launch titles co-developed by Intelligent Systems, felt stodgy and conservative; whereas Tennis, evidently an R&D1 solo joint, feels much more contemporary to 1989.
Tennis quite likely changed out of necessity. The NES game included a doubles mode, which seemingly would have been too demanding for Game Boy (or at least for programmers to handle in its early days, when they were still learning the ins and outs of the hardware). The system suffered from several limitations, and having four moving characters on the screen at once may have been beyond the system’s capabilities there at the start. Considering the conservative design of the launch-day titles – even Mario Land featured such tiny sprites – doubles mode probably had to be dropped for reasons of practicality.
Thankfully, the designers made up for it by putting the Link Cable to use. While two players couldn’t cooperate, they could compete – and unlike other video game renditions of tennis, both could enjoy a behind-the-court viewpoint, since each player had his own individual screen rather than sharing a single perspective.
Tennis made up for the loss of cooperative play in other ways, too. Without question, it’s the smoothest, most artful game we’ve seen to date. The characters are appealingly round and animate nicely; the action moves quickly, and the ball moves and scales smoothly as you swat it back and forth. Even Mario, putting in his obligatory cameo, looks much nicer than he did on NES.
Of course, the usual caveats apply. The head-to-head mode remained a lot of fun even when I played it a few years ago, but as with Baseball, the computer is a monster. Expect no quarter, even on easiest difficulty. It has an uncanny knack for always serving perfectly, always being where you hit the ball, and always demonstrating incredible control over its serves and volleys that far exceed the bounds of mere mortal flesh.
But oh well. That’s sports games for you: The computer is either idiotically easy or infuriatingly competent. Despite the inherent foibles of its genre, Tennis serves up a – no, sorry. I can’t do it. Despite the inherent foibles of its genre, Tennis delivers a quality sports experience and surpasses its source material on some levels even as it slips behind in others. Portable gaming is about mitigating compromise, and Tennis demonstrates R&D1’s keen eye for knowing where to make those concessions to necessity.
Unlike the Game Boy’s launch titles, it feels like something more substantial than a mere NES port… and more visually ambitious than a glorified Game & Watch, too. I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to revisit Baseball in this day and age… but Tennis? Color limitations aside, it holds up quite nicely, thanks. But don’t think too badly of Intelligent Systems – they may not have impressed with Game Boy’s early action-y type games, but by 1989, they were already well on their way to securing their niche as the only people at Nintendo to give a wet slap about RPGs.
Japanese title: Tennis • テニス
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Release date: 5.29.1989 [JP] | 8.1989* [US] | 9.28.1990 [EU]
Genre: Sports (tennis)
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: Tennis [NES, 1984]
Next in series: Top Rank Tennis [Nintendo, 1993]
Similar titles: Jimmy Connors Tennis [Ubisoft, 1993], All-Star Tennis 2000 [Ubisoft, Game Boy Color, 2000]
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a specific date news story, and articles on the system cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”
Tennis packaging [U.S.]
Tennis box front [U.S.]
Tennis box back [U.S.]
Tennis packaging contents [U.S.]
Tennis cartridge [U.S.]
Tennis manual [U.S.]
Tennis epilepsy warning insert [U.S.] (note 1993 copyright; not original issue)
Tennis | Japanese packaging
Tennis | Japanese complete contents
Tennis | Japanese box front
Tennis | Japanese box back
Tennis | Japanese cartridge
Tennis | Japanese manual