Despite my growing dissatisfaction with Nintendo and a few of the things they are doing, I was obligated to pick up their long-promised killer app, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Longtime players of the series can relax; Brawl is every bit the hardcore game you’ve been waiting for, so if you’re holding out, let me assure you that you should go buy it right now. Brawl is a far cry from the casual shallowness of Wii Play and Brain Age, even if Brawl does contain clever references to games like them. The amount of content is staggering, and even though I’ve only scratched the surface, I can see that Brawl is a monumental tribute to decades of Nintendo history.
I’ll try to start this review off on a positive note—I don’t want fans to have a bad first impression simply because Brawl’s glow has worn off for me. Rest assured that Masahiro Sakurai and his team has made Brawl a more than worthy successor to Melee and the original Smash Bros. Each mode from the previous titles has been expanded upon and improved, from the standard battle mode to the tournaments and events.
Free for all mode, appropriately renamed Brawl, will be the most familiar to veteran players. You select a character, choose computer opponents or enlist some friends, and then bash each other senseless in the arena of your choice. A veritable cornucopia of Nintendo-themed items randomly fall from the sky, allowing any number of creative ways to damage your opponents. As always, the aim is to knock your enemies off the stage, by sending them hurtling into the side of the screen, rocketing up into the sky, or by preventing them from returning, causing them to plummet to their demise. By hitting your enemies you raise their damage meter, making them easier to throw around and thus more susceptible to a KO.
This gameplay formula is literally sacred to Smash fans and thus has been left untouched—there are no changes, only additions. The first and most obvious is control. Brawl lets you use a single Wii remote, a remote-Nunchuk combo, the Classic controller or the venerable GameCube pad. I played around with all of these, and while each has its appeals for different people, I stuck with the GameCube pad. After nearly seven years of Melee on that controller, I just didn’t feel like changing. For gamers who like to experiment with controls, Brawl has the option to assign any feature to any button on any of the four controllers. I’m happy with the old GameCube layout, but with so many control choices, I’m sure there will be plenty of eccentric configurations out there.
Brawl contains even more configurable options to make your battles both epic and esoteric, an impressive feat since Melee was already highly customizable. You can now play battles in low gravity, invisible, with speed-enhancing bunny ears, coated in metal and several other options. You can even combine all of these extras for some really strange brawls.
Brawl has the best selection of arenas in the series, with an emphasis on clever design and balance. There are a few novelty stages that aren’t all that fun to play in, but they are outnumbered by greats like Frigate Orpheon, The Halberd, and The Bridge of Eldin. The Norfair stage continues the series’ clever and sadistic use of lava, and with Castle Siege and Skyworld we get more experimentation with destructible levels. The hit-or-miss levels are usually new inclusions for the sake of referencing Nintendo lore—the Mario Kart stage is fun, but the Pikmin one is just plain annoying.
Some old friends are revisited in Brawl, with a healthy selection of Melee stages and an update to the two tournament favorites: Battlefield and the legendary Final Destination. Brawl has a total of 41 stages, 31 of them new, and while this is a sumptuous amount, I was a bit disappointed that there aren’t any old N64 levels. Sure, there are already several Kirby-themed stages, but nothing beats the elegance and balance of the original Dreamland, and as a Metroid fan I was hoping that Brinstar might return.
For creative gamers, Brawl has a simplistic stage creator that lets you assemble levels out of predetermined pieces. There isn’t a whole lot of component variety, but you can throw in some neat obstacles and hazards, and set your stage to whatever music you desire. As a bonus, you can share your custom stages with friends over Wiiconnect24. I’ve already seen a few pretty clever stages, so the potential for artistic flair is definitely there.
In terms of characters, Brawl is probably the most creative entry in the Smash series, although whether that’s good or bad depends on how much of a purist you are. Brawl retains many of the old standbys from Melee and all of the characters from the original, but many have been tweaked for balance and some of the brand new characters blur the series’ conventions a little.
I was somewhat surprised by how similar the characters played when I jumped into my first couple of matches. Link and Samus are just a bit slower and heavier, Kirby kicks ass again after a rather weak showing in Melee, and Mario is just as balanced as he’s ever been. After more extensive play, I noticed that a few of the characters have been scaled so they play nice with the newcomers—Peach, for instance, doesn’t jump nearly as high as she used to. Small balancing issues aside, Brawl’s gameplay fits like Mario’s cartoony white glove, and is so much like Melee that some gamers might complain that the developers didn’t change enough. Spend some time with the new characters though, and you’ll see that they shake things up.
Pit of obscure Kid Icarus fame finally returns to a Nintendo console. His moveset and special attacks are similar to other blade-wielding characters, but his aerial abilities make him unique and capable of standing off against Link or Marth. King Dedede is an appropriately goofy counterpart to Bowser, and Wario’s crude, awkward attacks and prancing animations make him the latest oddball. Meanwhile, Captain Olimar and his Pikmin brigade are the new Jigglypuff—strange and awkward to control, but fiendishly effective for players who put in the time to master him.
The real newcomer stars are of course Sonic and Solid Snake, both of which are probably the most “different” of the new characters. Snake’s play style was kind of disorienting at first; he’s decent in hand to hand combat, but is far more effective at setting traps and using projectiles. Sonic is the fastest of the characters but as a result is difficult to control, and his attacks don’t hit as hard as the heavier players. Both character’s signature stage, Shadow Moses Island and Green Hill Zone, also bring some new things to Smash Bros.
Of course, the one element that updates all of the characters (and is simultaneously the most notable new item) is the Smash Ball. This little trinket will float onto the stage at random, and at that moment the brawl will descent into abject chaos. Everyone scrambles to beat the crap out of the glowing sphere and unleash their Final Smash, a Hadouken limit breaker unique to each character. Several of these are quite creative—Luigi’s acid trip dance, Bowser’s transformation into Giga Bowser, and Samus shedding her armor to reveal her weaker but more agile Zero Suit from Metroid Zero Mission. Others, like Sonic’s, are just plain cheap and imbalanced, while some are cloned just like the characters; Fox, Falco and Wolf all jump into a Landmaster tank. I found the Smash Ball to be a welcome addition that made Brawl stand out, but the gratuity of some Final Smashes can make a battle instantly lopsided.
On the whole Brawl has the best set of characters in the series, even if there are some glaring omissions (Mega Man, and I still think the Harvest Moon farmer would be terribly ironic). Even if there are a few clones and throwaways, Brawl wins by sheer numbers: 35 characters in all. With characters, items and stages combined, Brawl at least qualifies as a massive expansion pack for Melee. There are two additions—adventure mode and online play—that justify Brawl as a full sequel.
Brawl’s healthy array of solo modes, from the classic sequence of fights to the stadium contests, is all playable in co-op. The biggest addition is The Subspace Emissary, a story-drivel adventure through mismatched Nintendo history, which has characters like Samus and Pikachu teaming up against an encroaching foe. Alone or with a friend, you travel the lands of each major Nintendo franchise, battling trademark villains and platforming your way to the final conflict.
The story is flimsy and pure Nintendo fanservice, cramming in more references to past games that previously thought possible, but it still manages to be charming and entertaining. The gameplay is similar to adventure mode from Melee; repetitive platforming broken up by boss fights, but this time there are CG cutscenes that blend Nintendo lore like a comical fanfic. Playing TSSE reminded me of Halo 3. It got stale and frustrating quickly when I was going it alone, but when played with a friend, it was somehow instantly fun. I can’t really explain how that works, maybe battles are just more epic with two people, or the cutscenes are funnier when there’s someone else to laugh with you. The story lasts a good 6 to 8 hours so make sure you have a buddy handy, and a Nintendo-savvy one at that—TSSE is definitely for people who have been playing Nintendo games for years.
Brawl’s dedicated adventure mode was revealed relatively close to its release, but the real thing fans have been waiting for is Smash Bros. online. With Brawl, you get just that, but with the arbitrary limitations that Nintendo imposes and a few technical difficulties that just shouldn’t be there.
First things first: yes, you need to use friend codes to play with buddies. We all knew it was coming, and we all hate it but there’s no use complaining about it now. On the bright side, most of the options available in regular Brawl mode are included in online play. Free for all and team battles are there, with all of the standard rules that apply, such as stock or timed matches, handicaps, and item frequency. Unfortunately, the crazy options like metal or fire breath aren’t included, and the only solo mode playable online is the home run contest. That said, an online Brawl with friends is decently fleshed out and doesn’t feel to constrictive. Play with anyone, however, and your options are severely limited.
Anonymous battles have a set list of parameters: 2 minutes long, 4 players in free for all or in teams, no special options or rules. No communication or names either. Compared to the friends mode, it feels incredibly stripped down and bare, almost like an afterthought. You can’t even add rivals or new friends like in Metroid Prime Hunters. You can spectate on one of these woefully homogenous matches and even bet coins on who wins, but there’s no telling whether you’ll witness an epic battle between pros or a boring noob-fest.
I’d be able to stomach these expected disappointments (Nintendo’s online options suck consistently) if not for the persistent lag. I held off on this review for a while, hoping that Nintendo could clean up its servers and make matches run smoother, but nearly two months out and online play is still slow and stuttery. I played with anonymous people from across the globe and friends not five miles from my house, but the lag was the same. My character would act a few fractions of a second after I pressed a button which needless to say made battles a real headache of timing and prediction. In a game like Smash Bros, where split-second action is the difference between life and death, lag is simply inexcusable.
Thankfully, Brawl has a lot more going for it, and its extras almost make up for the disappointing online modes. The presentation values are fantastic, not in an overwhelming way but by virtue of quantity. Visually, Brawl looks like a somewhat prettier Melee, but the speed and fluidity and sheer amount of action push Brawl past its predecessor in volume of unabashed mayhem. The Final Smashes alone are worth the price of admission. The characters and stages all have a level of graphical perfection rarely seen in a fighting game. Some of them might be clones, but none of the players are disposable in terms of graphics and the love that went into making them move and fight.
Brawl’s audio portion can only be described as extensive. The sound effects have been tweaked and added to, with new voice clips for many of the characters, but the real star of the show is the soundtrack. Nintendo assembled a team of legendary game composers the likes of which has never been seen before, to write Brawl’s genre spanning musical score. The soundtrack is comprised of a whopping 285 pieces, some of them original recordings from the games, but many orchestral remixes and updates. Every character and franchise is richly represented with a selection of tunes, with a large helping of one-offs, obscure melodies and a couple musical references that will be unfamiliar to all but the most diehard Nintendo loyalist.
The game’s bonus content mirrors its soundtrack in depth and completeness. Stickers, trophies, Virtual Console demos and trivia plot a comprehensive timeline of Nintendo history, dating back farther than the NES.
And when it comes down to it, nostalgia taken to ridiculous proportions is the whole purpose of the series. Smash Brothers Brawl is gaming fanservice incarnate. The stunted online modes are a huge disappointment when they should have been groundbreaking, but Brawl makes up for it. There is so much Brawl has to offer—you can play this game for hours, jumping from mode to mode and still not get bored. Brawl doesn’t change much; it is essentially a massive update of Melee, and I’m a little sad that it doesn’t do much to validate the Wii’s unique controller. Still, Brawl succeeds in doing what the series is known for: hitting all the right spots for a Nintendo fan.
Despite having an online mode that disappoints in nearly every respect, Smash Bros Brawl gets everything else right. The characters, stages, music and extras are extensive, and the quality of the experience is unrivaled. Nintendo fans, you’ll be playing this one for a very long time.