Hey, Smash Bros. Dojo? I need a word with you.
Though you represent one of the industry's most brilliant marketing tactics I've ever seen, I must confess that I'm a wee bit irate with you. You've made my job difficult. I have to review this friggin' game and the hype has hit critical mass.
As such, I expect upon publication of said review to either be beaten senseless with rocks and sticks, or tied to a tree and set on fire. Oh, not because I think the game is bad, mind -- it just comes with the territory when buzz hits a certain mark. So if you could, tell my family I said I'm sorry, and pat Anthony Burch on the ass and tell him I said "thanks for the good times". It's the least you can do, seeing as how you've led me to a meager, pathetic, and early death.
Yeah. Thanks a friggin' lot. Hit the jump for my review of the Wii's biggest, most monolithic offering yet -- but be forewarned, the review, like the game, is a bit dense.
[This review may contain the occasional mention of secret characters, stages or other unlockables that may infuriate the spoiler-sensitive.]
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
If you'll forgive a little something, here's a favorite quote of mine from the late Douglas Adams, edited for content:
[Super Smash Bros. Brawl] is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to [Super Smash Bros. Brawl].
Oddly enough, the most marvelous achievement inherent to Brawl is, quaintly, what makes this review such a pain in the ass to write. The game is swollen with content, bloated by the sheer amount of stuff that Masahiro Sakurai and the gang have packed inside. Sitting down to write a review of a game like Super Smash Bros. Brawl, it's hard to find a solid place to start. But since I've already spouted a paragraph pinning down just how massive it is, let's start with that.
Brawl is Nintendo's love letter to itself, along with everyone who ever picked up a controller and embraced any number of its franchises. It's a vibrant compendium-in-motion, a playable encyclopedia from which you can draw a wealth of knowledge of the company's history. Over 25 years of history, represented in a single game -- a point worth overstating, if only because Nintendo's really the only company on the planet who could get away with it.
There's something compelling about these characters. Matters of playability and function aside, I'd be hard pressed to conjure the name of any other studio whose previous works could be mashed together, made to fight and sell a jillion copies. The combination of memorable characters, boatloads of fanservice, and simple -- as well as deceptively deep -- play mechanics are what made the Smash series what it is today, and Brawl does little to differentiate itself from its forebears. Except, of course, to just add more.
In essence, that is what Brawl is. Imagine Melee, multiply it twice or thrice, gussy up the graphics and smooth out rough edges. Similar to the way in which Super Mario Galaxy was a refinement of the 3D platforming genre, so to is Brawl for the party game... fighter... thing. The basic formula originally explored on the Nintendo 64 is examined further, extrapolated, and above all, refined. How you feel about previous Smash titles will directly affect how you feel about the following sentence: the core gameplay remains fundamentally the same.
For gamers unfamiliar with the Smash Bros. series, the core gameplay is rooted in multiplayer battles for up to four players, taking control of various franchise characters and beating the tar out of one another with fists, feet, weapons and items across a variety of familiar landscapes. Its simple control scheme—which utilizes basic motions and button-presses rather than the complex combos and special moves of many other fighters—is faithfully recreated in this latest installment of the series. And it's still ridiculously fun.
While Sakurai's team has tweaked, rebalanced and shuffled some elements of play, at the end of the day, what you've come to expect from Smash Bros. and Melee, you'll find in Brawl. In an era in which everyone and their grandmother -- yeah, and me too -- cry angrily for innovation, Brawl is a sequel which is above all directly informed by its predecessors. No shoehorned Wii remote waggling, no new HUD elements or power meters.
But where the "new" of Brawl really shines is in the roster—not just in terms of new characters, but also in terms of updates to familiar faces. Speaking in broad terms, Nintendo has put in a great deal of work toward further differentiating the roster, particularly in regards to returning characters. One of my issues with Melee was the way in which many of the game's unlockable characters were mere clones of default fighters; a visual swap here, a stat fix there, and voila, Dr. Mario. But those clones that have made the cut have been made quite distinct from their counterparts in Brawl.
I could spend all day drilling down the specifics, but let me give you one example: Toon Link, a revised appearance of Melee's Young Link designed with the hero's Wind Waker incarnation in mind, actually plays quite differently than his elder counterpart. Sure, he's still faster and more nimble, but many of his attacks function in fundamentally different ways.
And while Brawl showcases many fleshed-out returning characters, the newbies don't disappoint, either. Again, I'd be here for quite a long time if I addressed each character individually, but what's remarkable about Brawl's roster is that there's very, very little in terms of wasted space. Each character features a distinct style of play -- not just "heavy", "fast", and the gradiants between the two. Wario is beefy, but curiously agile; Solid Snake's explosives bring a new element of strategically-timed attacks; Captain Olimar's Pikmin attacks are utterly bizarre while also absolutely devastating in capable hands. A few exceptions aside (are three Fox-like characters truly necessary?), you'll get an insane amount of milage out of Brawl's roster.
But it's not just the characters that will see Brawl through to a ridiculously lengthy shelf-life. A huge variety of stages featuring a wide array of familiar, uniquely Nintendo settings -- including an Electroplankton stage, which is probably my favorite of all -- bring an element of unpredictability to every round. While the game features the basic and otherwise barebones stages like Battlefield, Final Destination and others, those maps which feature "gimmicks" -- a lava-proof escape pod in Norfair or microgame-esque tasks in the WarioWare stage, as examples -- serve well to shake up gameplay.
In terms of content, Brawl is almost overwhelming in what it offers. Sporting 37 characters in all, Brawl provides an utterly insane amount of variant play built upon the basic four-player multiplayer fighting gameplay. The game offers new modes, new items, and new ways to tweak rounds. Event Mode (now with a co-op counterpart!), Target Mode, All-Star and Classic single-player modes all make returns. But what's likely to make the biggest splash is the Subspace Emissary campaign, which might not live up to expectations.
Clocking in at a sturdy six-to-seven hours, the single-player Subspace Emissary campaign features a loosely-constructed story of Brawl's various heroes teaming up under bizarre circumstances to battle an omnidimensional evil. Penned by Final Fantasy scenario writer Kazushige Nojima, Emissary contains some truly stellar CG sequences showcasing our favorite heroes' epic struggle against these otherworldly creatures. And while the enemies are well-designed and varied, Emissary suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.
The notion of Smash-style gameplay in a side-scrolling, beat-'em-up sort of framework was initially explored in Melee's Adventure mode. But Emissary takes it thirty or forty steps further, crafting a massive campaign out of that basic experience. Unfortunately, Brawl's engine and control scheme seem somehow ill-suited for the sort of gameplay that Emissary shoots for; the camera is too close to get a sense of what's around you, and battling wave after wave of enemies on a shifting plane leads to a lot of problems.
Though the story is enjoyable, Emissary tends to drag after a little while, and commits the sin of asking the player to essentially repeat the entirety of the campaign in the game's final level, a giant maze pieced together with elements from the various levels in the campaign, populated with every character and every boss, all of whom must be conquered before the campaign can be completed. Sort of like the Mega Man gauntlet cranked to eleven, deep fried and dunked in glitter. My final half-hour with Emissary bordered on infuriating, but hey -- at least I unlocked Sonic by the game's end.
Simply put, the fun of Smash fails to shine through a poorly slapped-together single-player campaign. Emissary is definitely worth a play through for the cinematics, but once will likely be enough for many gamers.
Fortunately, Emissary accounts for a ridiculously small chunk of the total Brawl experience, and is otherwise a diversion to the multiplayer-centric bouts upon which the game is built. Power players and die-hard configuration junkies will lose their minds with the level editor, which contrary to my suspicions is actually extremely robust. Creative players will be spending a lot of time in Brawl's answer to Halo 3's Forge, crafting the perfect arena in which to waste opponents.
Online play is also a welcome addition, though performance can be a little hit or miss. As always, the inclusion of an online component on the Wii hardware takes a big hit thanks to Nintendo's ridiculous clinging onto the fundamentally busted Wii friend code system, making getting in touch with friends for a round or two more than a hassle. But with a game like Brawl, half of the experience is being with the people you're playing against, whooping and hollering and shouting profanities. But again, having that option of online play is definitely a good thing.
In terms of technical achievement, Brawl is an astoundingly pretty game, though probably not the finest example of the Wii hardware's graphical capabilities as showcased in Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy. But where Brawl's visuals really take off is the ways in which the game's art direction both faithfully recreates and tastefully updates the franchises that it draws upon. Characters are keenly animated -- Wario's comic frame-jumping step comes to mind -- and vibrantly stylized.
Beyond the simple utility of being, y'know, a place to fight, the stages offer a similar brand of eye candy. The Shadow Moses stage, which was developed in part by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, is a breathtaking recreation of an environment many of us are very familiar with. Throwbacks to older games, like the Yoshi's Island stage, are composed with color and form that reflects the art design of the original title. It's an outstanding effort that goes above and beyond what was seen in Brawl's predecessors.
Similarly, Brawl's absolutely massive music selection offers enough tunage to keep your ears occupied for quite awhile. Clocking in at over a three hundred tracks, Brawl's soundtrack is the kind of aural fanservice that simply doesn't quit, and each stage has enough variation in sound to ensure that you won't be getting sick of a stage just because of some grating theme for quite some time.
I apologize if I've glossed over elements or features in the game, but trust me when I say that there's a shitload of stuff in this game, and pointing out each and every element of Super Smash Bros. Brawl that serves to further extend the possibilities of gameplay would take a bit more text than I'm sure you're willing to read. With so much to do, unlock, and explore, Brawl will keep players occupied for quite some time -- and beyond that, avid players will continue exploring the deepest depths of the game's mechanics for a long time, as we've seen with Melee. An insane amount of content surrounding what is, at the end of the day, a ridiculously simple and utterly fun scheme of gameplay.
In Brawl, Nintendo has handily produced one of the most compelling, rich and densely-packed experiences available on any console. A must-buy for Wii owners and a compelling lure for those who have yet to adopt the system, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is one of Nintendo's finest efforts yet.
THE VERDICT - Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Reviewed by Aaron Linde