Smash Bros. for Wii U is easily my favourite game in the series, hands down. There was a moment when I was playing with friends, after six players were whittled down to two fighters with one life each We were an entire minute away from each other on Palutena’s Temple, this massive, almost over designed beast of a stage, so big it’s often hard to see yourself on it. We drew closer to each other, me flinging arrows from Pit’s bow, him dashing between floating platforms with Ike’s quick draw attack, until we met up on opposite ends of the bridge that connects the stage’s two halves. Our two anime champions stood off, both of us waiting for the other to make his move. My palms were sweating. I don’t know what he was planning, but I was expecting another quick draw, which I would counter with a deadly dashing uppercut, then follow him up into the air for an easy kill. Unless he countered, in which case I’d get flung a short distance and use my guardian orbitars to block a follow up hit. Then we’d be back to the anime Mexican standoff.
And then a bob-omb fell from the sky and flung Pit so hard he just went splat against the screen.
That’s not a particularly unique moment to Smash Wii U. Though the stage, character properties and six player battle preceding the standoff are all new to the series, that general philosophy of unpredictable chaos in the middle of a more serious match is Smash Bros. standard. Smash is designed around a philosophy of accessibility and approachability with simple controls and a balance between luck and skill that keeps matches exciting for neophyte fighters and Smash veterans. Smash Bros. for Wii U holds up that philosophy. In fact, on the surface if offers about as much as you’d expect from a sequel. It’s not as huge a leap as Brawl was from Melee, but it’s a significant enough expansion, with more stages, more characters, more modes, more trophies, more music. In addition to being a fighting game for the masses, Smash has always strived be something of a living Nintendo archive. This new game doesn’t build a new wing on to the museum so much as it demolishes the old one and builds the Smithsonian on top of it. There are references to Style Savvy: Trendsetters, Pilotwings, and Dillon’s Rolling Western on one stage. The Pac-Man stage has music from Libble Rabble, Toru Iawatani’s forgotten follow up to his maze-game classic.
But the last entry, 2007’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, was also an impressive museum. It was also a leap in content. It also had that core philosophy. In fact, Brawl was grand and spectacular on a very personal level for me. I was the jerk who had to give a lecture on what game every assist trophy was from and explain the details of every single tiny reference. I’ve grown out of that attitude a little bit, but it was it meant a lot to have a game justify my years of playing old Nintendo games by putting them all front and centre in a big budget games I was meant to play with my friends. I still do that, by the way, in case you didn’t notice the spiel on Libble Rabble up there. But, Brawl never captivated me the way this game is. Obviously this game is bigger, and more content equals a better multiplayer experience, but there’s something more fun here. Smash for Wii U has hit upon the other core philosophy of the Smash Bros. series: everything is more fun with friends.
Brawl is a great game, but its multiplayer never felt focused. There was the core versus mode, and a multiplayer feature tacked on to its Subspace Emissary story mode, but that was about it. Smash Bros. for 3DS was even worse off, with no true local multiplayer option to speak of. Smash Wii U stuffs local multiplayer into every mode in the game but one- the randomly generated Special Orders challenge mode. The new Smash Tour mode recasts chaotic brawls as a chaotic board game, taking more than a little inspiration from Mario Party, but replaces the inane minigames with various special condition matches. Playing it gives that same unpredictable, sweaty-palmed joy that playing a regular match does. The game board shifts with new items to collect and hazards to avoid every turn, players win and lose their fighters at a rapid pace, and everyone takes their turn all at once. Smash Bros. is occasionally about divining the order amidst the chaotic death whorl all around you, and if Smash Tour were a physical board game, it would be an impressive adaptation of that very feeling. As it stands, it’s a fascinating recontextualization of a fighting game that manages to replicate the exact feel of playing the real thing. It’ll never replace the core versus mode, but it’s a great sorbet- a palate cleanser before or after a multiplayer session.
A ton of the new stages also attempt to nudge the game in a more local-multiplayer oriented direction. Palutena’s Temple is one of the new massive stages, along with the Kirby-themed Great Cave offensive. In 8-player matches, these stages offer enough room for everyone to fight separately, which is great, but the fact that they’re so enormous makes it impossible to actually see anything that’s going on. My poor eyes couldn’t keep up with my minuscule character, even when I was playing on a friend’s massive TV. Other, smaller, stages though do a much better job of pushing people together. The new Pilotwings stage has its planes shift and tilt their wingspan to slide fighters in various directions, and my personal favourite new stage, the stained-glass themed Kalos Pokemon League, is a small, flat platform that changes every minute or so with hazards that refocus the fight into the centre of the arena. At one point, the arena turns into a basin that sucks players down into a centre drain, turning the fight into a mad dash not to get flushed while players try to find the best way to dunk their opponents into the drain. Unfortunately, a lot of the really great stages are too small to be offered in the new eight-player mode, which favours large stages with plenty of footing. Otherwise though, eight player mode nails that chaotic energy and sheer joy that comes with a good game of Smash Bros.. Items and fighters are everywhere, all screwing around in the middle of a hurricane of smash attacks and launch trails.
On the complete other side of the baffling design choice spectrum, amiibo don’t work outside the core smash mode. Smash Wii U is ostensibly the flagship launch game for Nintendo’s excitingly clunky physical DLC experiment, and the support is hilariously, and often frustratingly lacking. Putting an amiibo in Smash lets you level them up in battles to use as a sparring partner. This is about as unimpressive as it sounds. If you somehow lack any human friends to play Smash Bros. with, or a wi-fi connection with which to play with other people’s human friends, then Nintendo will sell you a plastic robot friend for $12. However, I’m pretty sure most everybody who owns a Wii U has at least one of those two things. You would think then that amiibo would work in the co-op modes that don’t support online play, but of course, they don’t. All the formerly single-player-only modes that now feature co-op don’t support amiibo, meaning that amiibo will never be your Smash bro, only your Smash enemy. It’s frustrating, silly, and shows off how altogether pointless amiibo are.
It also highlights just how much multiplayer content there is in the game. Just as the amount of modes amiibo don’t work in is staggering, the amount of modes you can play with friends is equally impressive. You can take your cooperative game online, for no reason other than you should be able to. You can play multiplayer home run contests, because it’s inexplicably fun to be on pins and needles as you pray your friends can’t hit that sandbag further than you. It’s really, really, really fucking fun to fling away hundreds of miis, all looking like the ones of your friends and family you have saved to your console, with a friend next to you, laughing as you punch your own mii so hard they send four others careening off stage.If you took each mode on its own, it’d be nothing, but all together, they paint a picture of a game dedicated to preserving the best parts of playing with your friends. Local multiplayer oozes into every single facet of the game to the point where it feels like a trilobite of multiplayer game design. In an era of increased focus on online modes at the expense of couch versus and co-op, Smash for Wii U shouldn’t exist in the AAA space, and yet, here it is.
This review was originally published without any info on the online modes, as online play wasn't patched into the game until the day of release. Online works perfectly fine, far better than the 3DS version, but there is a caveat. The netcode is absolute trash if the player hosting has a bad connection. I played about 30-40 matches, and had three matches with noticeable lag, all from when I was hosting (I have an awful connection where my Wii U is set up). This means that one-on-one matches have a higher chance of being laggy, as there are fewer potential high-quality hosts in each match. Essentially this boils down to "online is more likely to be crummy if you have a bad connection", which is true of any game. My lag-free matches weren't necessarily frame perfect, but they were close enough that I didn't notice any problems. Hyper-competitive players may want to use a wired connection to guarantee the least amount of lag, but as with any online fighter, you're going to be dropping a frame or two. It's great for casual play, but maybe less-than-ideal for tournament Smashers.
I once heard someone say that even the worst game is fun with multiplayer, and I agree with that to a certain degree. Playing with a friend can make terrible things bearable. But I think there’s an unspoken addendum to that statement- that the very best games become something greater with multiplayer, in a way that’s almost inexplicable. Smash Bros. for Wii U is the best designed game in the series. Forget all the extra modes, music and stages for a second, characters have been rebalanced and diversified in ways that not only makes them all feel unique from each other (save from the three new clone characters), but also makes them feel truer to the games they came from. The overall systems have been tweaked to give all players a more even playing field (no wavedashing, but also no random tripping), and everyone has just a little more weight to them, meaning you can’t just mash your way out of a combo. There are less spammable safe attacks overall, and as far as I can tell, there isn’t a Meta Knight-esque top tier character that dominates in both casual and competitive play. It’s a carefully detailed and designed game, but in those milliseconds between attacks, in the seconds that feel like hours as your palms sweat, in the ridiculous moments when you get flung between a giant sword, a fire-breathing Yoshi, and a bob-omb, all while your friends laugh at your misfortune, none of that craftsmanship matters.
Smash Bros. for Wii U is the best party game out there. It wants you to interact with friends, and finds ways to encourage you to do that, but never forces you down that road. It’s brilliantly designed in ways we’ll probably never notice. It’s a game made by people who care way too much, about their own game, about making sure everyone can play and about making sure everyone does. It’s a game I can’t wait to play with my friends again and again, and that’s something worth celebrating together.