Now we wait for Garfield
I feel somewhat sorry for Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. Following its big reveal over the summer, it had several solid weeks of anticipation and hype-building as the world got a glimpse of a platform fighter that looked legitimately good, featuring characters from some of the shows most of us grew up with. People were genuinely excited about it. And then, on the day it released, Nintendo decided to do its final Super Smash Bros. Ultimate song and dance and reveal Kingdom Hearts’ Sora as the last DLC character for the game. Following that, there was nary a peep about All-Star Brawl on social media.
This is a shame because, despite all the odds, it’s actually a pretty good fighter.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl (PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: Ludosity, Fair Play Labs
Publisher: GameMill Entertainment
Released: October 5, 2021
In a way, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl defies the odds. Here is a licensed game, published by GameMill Entertainment, that’s of the platform fighter genre, which has seen many titles come and go over the past two decades. Everyone wants a piece of the Smash Bros. pie, but very few have had the discipline and tenacity to actually warrant a slice. With any other developer, this might have been just another forgettable GameMill title your grandmum buys you for the holidays. But with Slap City developer Ludosity at the helm, assisted by Fair Play Labs, it’s worth paying attention to.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl brings together 20 characters from about 30 years of Nickelodeon history to fight it out on battlefields inspired by their respective shows. It’s a dream come true for a certain subset of fans who finally get to see Ren & Stimpy duke it out with Reptar, Sandy Cheeks, and whoever the hell Lincoln Loud is. As is the norm for the genre, the goal isn’t to whittle down your opponent’s health bar but rather to do enough damage so that you can blast them off the screen.
The actual fighting mechanics here are very easy to learn. Each character has weak, strong, and special attacks that vary depending on if you’re pressing up or down — jumping is mapped to the X button, as it should be — as well as if you are running, jumping, or standing still. In total, every character has about 17 different attack inputs, as well as block, taunt, grab, and air dash capabilities. One big difference from Smash is you aren’t guaranteed an easy combo with your general weak attack. Some characters, like Sandy, do have a short combo if you keep pressing the button. Others, like Patrick and Danny Phantom, do not.
I learned that the hard way, immediately playing through the arcade mode on its second-highest difficulty thinking I would just dominate this game with my 20+ years of Smash experience. That wasn’t the case as I really had to get in there and study these characters. I found ones I like (April O’Neil, Helga Pataki, Sandy Cheeks) and some I just haven’t been able to mesh with yet (Danny Phantom, Zim). With 20 available characters, most players should be able to find one that matches their play style. If you like ‘em strong and slow, Reptar is a fine choice. If you prefer ’em lean and limber, Aang is your man. Or, if you just want to be cheap like most of the people I fought online, pick Catdog.
If you really get into the fighting and want to take your skills to the next level, there are options at your disposal to get you there. While there isn’t a good tutorial to show you each character’s move set outside of a scrollable list, you can go into the training mode here and see the attacks in action frame by frame. You can even turn on the hitbox indicator to show you the reach and scale of each attack. If Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is to be an esport-worthy platform fighter, having a feature like that will help get it there.
In fact, I can’t shake the feeling that All-Star Brawl is aiming to be some sort of Melee alternative, something that can be played at Evo without broken controllers or the fear of Nintendo sending in the lawyers to shut it down. And I think that’s an admirable goal if that’s the case here. But in aiming for the more competitive side of the platform fighter community, All-Star Brawl has left the more casual, party-game scene behind.
Don’t forget, no matter what Smash is today, it was a party game back on the Nintendo 64. It was the fighting version of Mario Kart. While I know there is the stereotype that Smash players are all “No items, Fox only, Final Destination,” every time I have people over to play, we’re turning on all items and playing on the most ridiculously large stages available. It’s just how we roll.
All-Star Brawl has a few large stages and you can play with up to three other people locally, but that’s the extent that it reaches in terms of being a party game. There are no items or weapons here, the collectibles you get are lousy, and even the single-player arcade mode limits you to 1v1 fights. There are no special battles against a giant Nigel Thornberry or metal Powdered Toast Man or anything of the sort that would add some variety to the package. There are also no additional single-player challenges here, so fighting is really all you’re going to be doing. You can play the sports mode, where you compete against other players to hit or throw a ball through a goal, but you probably won’t after the first few times.
With such a good fighting system in place, it’s shame that everything around it is holding the game back from its true potential. And that’s something that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is still a game funded by GameMill Entertainment. There are going to be some corners cut, like with the lack of voice acting, something that didn’t become a problem for me until the game insisted on having the characters chat before each fight. Some of the other omissions are quite questionable. For instance, there are no alternate colors for when more than one person picks the same character. All you have is the icon above the opponent’s head that you’re expected to keep track of.
I also have to question the hitboxes for some of these characters. As I discovered right out the gate, some fighters like April O’Neil and Patrick can hit people with their basic weak attack even when striking in the opposite direction. I know there are some characters with moves that are supposed to hit to their left and right, but I don’t think a forward jab should hit somebody behind you just because your foot steps back.
While I hope that can get worked out with updates, one place where I’m very satisfied with All-Star Brawl is with the stage selection. There are 20 stages in total, one for each character, and a few of them are deep cuts. Seeing Showdown at Teeter Totter Gulch make the list for Reptar was an absolute delight for this lifelong Rugrats fan. I even love the layout of Powdered Toast Trouble with its frying pan stage hazard and milk bowl deaths. Some of the stage layouts are straight rips from what you can find in Smash Ultimate, but I think the developers did a fine job forging their own path for most of them.
Except for Space Madness. That one’s just awful.
If there is one area where All-Star Brawl stands head and shoulders above Smash Ultimate, it’s in its online play. Admittedly, there isn’t much here in terms of options. You have a quick play mode, ranked mode, and a custom lobby system that I still haven’t been able to find anyone in. Both quick play and ranked are 1v1, and in ranked mode, you can only choose from the four stages that are most “Smash-like” in their design. That latter point may be disappointing, but it’s negligible when the online play is this good.
Even with a wireless connection to my router — which, remember, is the only option for people playing this on a Switch Lite — I’d wager about 85% of my online matches were incredibly smooth and responsive. Yes, I did have some sputtering sessions when playing against people with awful connections, but overall, All-Star Brawl’s online works better than anything I’ve ever experienced with the Smash series.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is obviously in no position to take the platform fighter throne right now, but I think the teams at Ludosity and Fair Play Labs have created a very good blueprint for what could be a very great franchise. If Super Smash Bros. is a celebration of all things Nintendo, I don’t see why an All-Star Brawl 2 couldn’t be a celebration of all things Nickelodeon. I think it’s possible with the right amount of time and money, and I hope this game is successful enough to convince GameMill to invest in a sequel that could be truly spectacular.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]