It’s hard to believe that it’s been over six years since Super Smash Bros Brawl came out on the Wii. Reviewing a Smash Bros game is always a strange, exhilarating experience, because it’s a once-in-a-generation occurrence and Nintendo always finds a way to make things interesting again. Last time around Brawl impressed in terms of sheer volume of content, but even the Smash series’ creator Masahiru Sakurai felt that it fell short of the fine gameplay balance in the GameCube’s much beloved Smash game, Melee.
This is a banner year for the series as we’re getting two entries almost at the same time: Smash Bros for 3DS and Wii U. I’ve been pummeling away at the 3DS version for the past two weeks, and while Smash 3DS upholds the series’ quality, reputation and a good deal of its features, I can also tell that Smash Bros will never be the same again. For better or worse, now you can take the fight with you wherever you go.
The first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Smash Bros is the roster of playable fighters, and for the new game Sakurai has assembled the most impressive collection of mascots in the series’ history. True, there are some unfortunate omissions; Solid Snake fails to make a return, and after two games as fan favorites, the Ice Climbers have gotten the axe due to the technical limitations of the 3DS hardware. That said, in my opinion the characters we’ve gained far outweigh the no-shows.
Shulk from Xenoblade Chronicles is the most surprising addition. He’s fast and graceful, and his special moves allow him to rebalance defense, attack and mobility on the fly. His moveset also cleverly incorporates his ability to see the future, without making it cheap. I’ve never been much of a Megaman fanatic, but it’s nice to see the blue bomber make his long-requested appearance. He relies on projectile attacks, a lot like Snake did in Brawl actually, but Megaman’s speed and movement is bouncier, channeling his old 8-bit animation style.
Pac-Man made the retro fanboy inside me giddy with nostalgia. The dot-muncher is a bit stiffer to control than I expected, but his arcade-inspired attacks are strangely effective once you practice with him, especially his smash-B move, which projects a line of pellets and the Pacster proceeds to devour anything along that path. Once thing’s for sure: the bizarre Pac-Man high schooler from the Ghostly Adventures TV show is thankfully nowhere to be seen in Smash Bros. I was expecting Pac-Man to be my favorite new character, but I’m surprised to say that honor goes to Little Mac. While Megaman may have gotten Snake’s projectile focus, Little Mac picked up his hand-to-hand power. As expected the boxer is an absolute monster in close quarters, especially if his KO gauge is full, which delivers an instant kill if it connects.
Most of the holdovers from Melee and Brawl are about the same as they were on the Wii, just faster. There’s a general sense of everything being swifter and tighter than it was in Brawl, with a quicker pace to each fighter and—thank god—no random tripping and falling. Sakurai and his team have also added some fanservice-tastic new costumes for old characters and newcomers alike. Link gets his Fierce Deity appearance from Majora’s Mask, Mario can wear his striped golfing outfit from NES Open, and Zero Suit Samus can choose from her standard jumpsuit or the casual two-piece outfits from Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission.
A couple of these alternate costumes don’t necessarily change how the character plays, but they might as well serve as “clone” fighters the way Ganondorf and Falco did in Melee. For instance, Captain Olimar can become Alf from Pikmin 3, Robin from Fire Emblem Awakening and the Wii Fit Trainer both have male and female versions, and once you unlock Bowser Jr, all of his alternate costumes actually turn him into each of the seven Koopalings. The missing characters from Melee and Brawl will make some longtime fans unhappy, but Sakurai has at least provided a ton of new fighter options and a wealth of obscure callbacks to Nintendo lore.
Of course, the most interesting new fighter to join Smash Bros is the one you create. You can take any Mii you’ve assembled on the 3DS home menu and import it into Smash Bros, and then customize its move set and skill balance. This is accomplished by choosing one of three classes—close combat, swordfighter, or sharpshooter—and further enhanced with swappable tech pieces and special moves that you collect and unlock as you play the various game modes. These options may not seem like much but there are dozens, possibly over a hundred of these tech pieces to collect, so there is deep potential for tweaking and balancing here.
What’s even stranger, though, is that you can customize pre-existing characters like Link or Samus with the same tech pieces, and you can swap special moves just like with the Miis (giving Samus a slower super bomb instead of her quicker smaller ones, for example). The closest thing this reminded me of was the hats and special weapons in Team Fortress 2; every item has a buff for one stat but trades off on another so everything is always locked into a system of checks and balances. How this system will affect professional tournament play is anyone’s guess, but I’d wager that most tourneys will outright ban Miis and custom fighters.
In fact, there’s a “pro” element like that already in play in Smash 3DS. Each level has two modes: normal and “omega.” By switching a stage into omega mode, it automatically disallows Miis and custom characters and disables all items and hazards, making even the goofiest and most chaotic levels more balanced for serious play. Omega can be activated from the main vs. menu, but takes on a new element online. When you access the online mode, you are presented with two options: to play “For Fun” or “For Glory.” Playing for fun allows items and all level hazards, and doesn’t record fight stats. Playing for glory records everything and mandatorily locks all stages into omega mode. It’s basically a hard-implemented version of the infamous “no items, Fox only, Final Destination, etc.” joke.
This levels the playing field and hopefully will placate some of Smash Bros’ more vocal pro players. It also gave the stage designers cart blanche to come up with some pretty crazy new levels. Well-worn classics like Yoshi’s Island, Jungle Japes and Brinstar are joined by Wiley’s Castle, Pac-Maze and Rainbow Road. For the 3DS version there is clearly a portable focus, with a Kirby’s Dreamland stage that makes it look like you’re playing on an old green and black Game Boy, a new Pictochat level and even a stage based on Tomodachi Life. The Find Mii minigame is also represented, and there’s a level based on New Super Mario Bros. 2 that’s packed with respawning coins. My only reservation here is that some games are underrepresented; there are five Mario stages but only one each for Star Fox and Metroid, and they aren’t even new.
Regardless of level distribution, Smash fans will have plenty to collect, explore and unlock for months to come. There’s a giant trophy hoard to fill, a stadium where you can test your skill at Home Run and Bomb Blast challenges, and the customary training and Multi-Man Smash modes. Brawl’s challenge wall makes a return, but sadly collectable stickers are apparently gone. After their clever implementation in Super Mario 3D World, I was hoping stickers would become an achievement/trophy system of sorts, at least in first-party Nintendo games, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Smash 3DS has the well-established Classic and All Star single player modes that fans have come to love and expect, but there’s also a new mode exclusive to the 3DS version called Smash Run. This mode can be played solo with computer opponents or in multiplayer. It involves exploring a giant map based on the general level layout from Brawl’s Subspace Emissary adventure mode, collecting stat buffs and defeating Subspace-style enemies. After five minutes of exploring/surviving this maze level, all players are transported to an arena for a final battle. Gamers who remember Kirby’s Air Ride on the GameCube will find Smash Run reminiscent of that game’s City Trial mode, but overall Smash Run left me cold.
It’s a fun addition to be sure, but the trial maze is exactly the same every time, which could get old quickly. I know Sakurai had his reasons for omitting the Subspace Emissary from Smash 3DS, but something similar would have been nice. That mode was a lot of fun in co-op, just powering through hordes of enemies in side-scrolling levels with a friend, so I’m going to miss it in the new game.
Aside from the unfortunate loss of Subspace Emissary (or a similar adventure mode), Smash 3DS is just as feature-rich and deep as Brawl was, maybe even more so with the customization potential. But the aspect serious fans are always most concerned with is balance and stability. I’m happy to report that Smash 3DS is remarkably stable, even while maintaining production values that exceed Brawl and, at a glance, look close to the new Wii U version. I went back and played each Smash Bros game over the past couple weeks to compare, and the overall speed of the 3DS game falls somewhere between Melee’s twitchiness and Brawl’s more sluggish pace. It feels very tight and solid, my only concern being that the circle pad takes some getting used to for smash attacks. I’m eager to try the game on the New 3DS model and its C-stick, but sadly Americans will have to wait until next year for that.
In terms of presentation, Smash 3DS knocks it out of the park. Character models are noticeably less detailed than their Wii U counterparts but they still animate gorgeously, and the adjustable cel-shaded outline both helps them stand out on the 3DS’s smaller screen and smoothes out a lot of the rough edges. One feature I really appreciated was the ability to bracket any character in a flashing target reticle simply by tapping their portrait on the bottom screen. It’s easier for me to lose track of my character on the 3DS’s smaller display (I have a 3DS XL and shudder to think what it’s like on the original 3DS), so the ability to highlight my fighter was very helpful.
There are some truly gorgeous levels here—the aforementioned Game Boy and Pac-Man stages being my favorites—and practically no slowdown, unless you fiddle with the options and spawn an unrealistic quantity of Pokemon at once. Things can get pixelated and grainy on the bigger stages that zoom out from time to time, but that’s owed more to the 3DS’s screen resolution. I was worried about how the 3DS’s aging hardware would handle the chaos of Smash Bros—this wouldn’t be the first time Nintendo has sacrificed framerate for visuals—but the 3DS handles this game like a champ. I can tell it’s a strain on that old processor, though; the game runs smooth as silk when you’re playing it, but booting back to the home menu takes ages and you can’t access Miiverse while playing Smash. These issues will supposedly be addressed by the New 3DS’s beefier hardware, so I wish Nintendo was releasing the new model over here this holiday.
Fans worried about another laggy stutter-fest in the online experience can rest easy as well. Now that Nintendo has switched from the defunct Gamespy Arcade infrastructure to their own internal Nintendo Network, performance is vastly improved. I played a few online games and did experience a little slowdown, but then again this is the first few weeks since the game’s release, I was playing with Japanese gamers on the other side of the planet, and the servers are probably getting hammered mercilessly post-launch. If you run into some latency issues (or can’t connect at all), treat Smash Bros like any popular online game fresh out of the gate: give the servers time to calm down and Nintendo time to patch and stabilize their network, and things should even out in a week or two. Considering the popularity of Smash Bros, I’m amazed the online matches I played went as smoothly as they did.
As was the case with Brawl, I’m having a hard time giving a final score to Smash Bros 3DS. There’s so much to explore here that I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface; Smash Bros isn’t an MMO but there’s a similar open-ended feel to the whole affair, so delivering a “final word” so early in the game’s lifespan feels a little premature. I guess all I can really say is that Nintendo fans have waited ages for a portable Smash Bros, and we finally have just about everything we’ve asked for. It’s hard to believe we’ve been waiting four console generations for it, but now that it’s here I feel kind of spoiled.
Strangely enough, Smash Bros 3DS doesn’t feel like the ultimate party game we’ve been hoping for; the Wii U version is poised to deliver on that promise. Rather, this is the ultimate versatile party game—like Mario Kart DS before it, it’s lacking in a few areas but supremely tuned to the ones that matter most: portability, playability and pure, addictive fun factor. I foresee countless impromptu tournaments and battles, waged at camping trips, vacations, company retreats and house parties, long into the night.
You think you’re good at Smash Bros? Prove it! The battle, and the fandom, can now go wherever you do.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.View Profile