Smash Bros. is a weird beast. On one hand, it’s an outsider game, part of Nintendo’s initiative to take genres they aren’t comfortable with and Nintendo-ize them. Smash Bros. is an action-platform-brawler, sure, but it’s also Nintendo’s more intuitive, easy to understand take on the fighting game genre (see also: Splatoon for shooters, Fire Emblem for RPGs, Luigi’s Mansion for point-and-click adventure games). On the other hand though, it’s the insider game, combining pretty much every Nintendo franchise that matters (and some that really, really don’t) into one fan-pandering package.
That fighting game part of the equation is really relevant these days, with the sudden surge of popularity Super Smash Bros Melee, the 2001 Gamecube incarnation of the series, has been seeing in the fighting game community. Nintendo, in response, made sure that Gamecube controllers, the Smash Bros. standard would be compatible with the WiiU game through some sort of Frankenstein's monster of a switching box. It takes up two USB ports, and I’m not really sure how. Then, they held a tournament, inviting the world’s top Smash Bros. players to show off the game in a livestreamed event in the Nokia Theatre. Nintendo is pinning all its WiiU hopes and dreams on Smash, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s consistently a multi-million seller, but unlike Mario Kart, its more popular older brother, it draws in a fairly stable crowd of Nintendo, and specifically, Smash Bros. diehards.
So, getting Super Smash Bros. for WiiU and 3DS (seriously, that's the full name) right is a Big Deal for Nintendo. Such a big deal that they’ve dedicated multiple Nintendo Directs to it, post daily updates on the games development to Miiverse, and commission original, usually super clever art every time a new character is revealed. Smash Bros. is an event game. It’s a once a generation game. But enough context, let’s talk video games.
To prepare for the demo, I played enough of Melee and Brawl to get a feel for the differences between the two games, and to remind myself exactly how they felt to move around in. I found that Melee was a lot slipperier than I remembered, while also being a very stiff game overall. Brawl, meanwhile, had a lot more traction on the ground, and moved more smoothly, but had a lot of floatiness and looseness in the air. Smash Bros. for WiiU feels tighter, in a good way though. Melee’s stiffness made hit and run tactics the order of the day giving defensive players really big opportunities, while Brawl’s floatiness made matches one long air battle, eventually culminating in a single strong ground hit for a kill. Overall, characters feel like they have less airtime now, as well as more responsive hits on the ground. The overall feel is snappier, tighter. Characters have real weight to them again, but not so much that they feel cumbersome to combo with.
For example, I got my hands on Punch Out’s Little Mac, one of the game’s newcomers. Mac is a boxer, not exactly skilled at air fighting. His jumps are low and heavy, and his off-screen recovery options either move straight up, or straight to the side, no precise recovery here. But, his ground game is unmatched. He’s lightning quick, hits like a tank, and most of his specials and smash attacks combo out of his jab attack. Mac also builds up a power meter as he takes and deals damage. Once it fills up, you get a single use, instant-KO uppercut. It comes out slow, but hitting it stops the action and zooms in on you crushing your opponents jaw with the might of a thousand elephants. It’s crazy satisfying. The rebalancing of the air and ground game still makes Mac a less viable character overall, Smash Bros. is an action-platformer after all, and what good is a platforming character who jumps like a turtle? But, more of the action takes place on the ground, and playing to your strengths (and the center of the stage) makes Mac a really solid, entertaining character to use.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Rosalina. The Mario Galaxy princess is light, and floats around pretty much like she’s right out of Brawl. Her shtick is that she has a Luma following her around, sort of like the Ice Climbers tandem system from previous games. Unlike Nana though, Rosalina is in full control of her Luma, and can use it to create devastating (and really cool looking) set ups and combos. In the time I used her, she seemed really tricky to get a hold of, but definitely showed potential for serious damage. Between the Luma and Little Mac’s power meter, it’s easy to see that Smash Bros. new direction isn’t so much about refining the engine and core feel of the game, as it has been before, but about refining the characters, and making each feel more unique.
Take a look at Mega Man. He doesn’t have his own special subsystem, but the way he operates is entirely different from the rest of the cast. His jab combo fires three pellets (and only three, just like NES sprite restrictions demand), and each of his moves are individual, distinct hits, often with charge up time, poor recovery, or slow start-up. Mega Man doesn’t combo. At all. But, just like he does in his games, he has a ton of options available to him. The (ironically sort of useless) Metal Blade can go off in any direction, the Leaf Shield lets you run right through projectiles, Hard Knuckle demolishes any enemy beneath you, Air Shooter lets you chase enemies right off top of the screen in an aerial battle. Mega Man has an option for any situation, and they hit hard. Mega Man requires you to understand the game and predict your opponents, not react, then pick the right tool for any job. No other character plays like that.
Even older characters have gotten tweaks. Pikachu’s thunder attack is no longer nearly as useful, and his “breakdancing” down-smash has a bit of a vortex applied to it, letting him suck enemies into his whirling death tail. Overall, it forces Pikachu players to play more aggressively, having to rely far less on well placed thunders to carry enemies off screen for them. Meanwhile, perennial bottom-tier bench sitter Link has a stronger downwards stab in the air, as well as far batter range on his boomerang. Maybe it’s not enough to take him out of the D-List, but he certainly feels more viable.
It all makes Smash Bros. feel much more like what I think it was intended to be. A collection of Nintendo's unique characters, each recognizable because they play just like they’re supposed to in their original games. They’re more different than they ever were before. It diversifies the gameplay in a way that Smash Bros. hasn’t tried since the very first game. Greninja plays hit and run like a melee character, Wii Fit Trainer is floatier, but hits hard and plays a strong fundamentals game. The Villager is unpredictable, much like Mr. Game and Watch, but with a heavier focus on set ups and traps. It’s the first Smash Bros. game where I feel like I really need to sit down and learn some of the characters, and that’s a really good thing. It’s making me very excited to clean up with Little Mac in Super Smash Bros for WiiU and 3DS.
Boy, it really needs a better name.
Sidebar: Smash Bros for 3DS Update-
Did you hear? Smash Bros. is also on 3DS this time around!Presumably because the WiiU isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and a 3DS version is a pretty sure sales bet for a good few million copies. But handheld fighters are never the best idea. Sure, they can function, but it often comes at a serious cost. Either the engine suffers, or the controls aren’t right, or frames get dropped. 3DS Smash Bros. is a pretty unique case in that it is literally the exact same game as it’s console big brother. Sure, it has a different set of stages and a few special modes, but it uses the same characters, the same assets (scaled down significantly for the smaller screen) and the same engine. It plays identically, smooth as silk. I’ll take the thick black outlines over dropped frames any day of the week.
The game’s big draw right now is the Smash Run mode, which lets up to four players run around a floating island dungeon for five minutes, killing various Nintendo enemies for power ups. These power ups then get applied for a set of multiplayer matches once the time limit is up. The mode is entertaining, but playing against CPUs really only hammered across the fact that Smash Bros. is built on local multiplayer. The controls work (the timing for smash attacks feels a little more lenient on the handheld), and the screen size isn’t really an issue. Online multiplayer is solid enough on 3DS, but it’ll never replace the local, punch-your-friend-in-the-shoulder-for-using-a-cheap-move multiplayer that made the series so popular. This game needs tons and tons of single player content, but I have to imagine all of that will find its way to the WiiU version anyway, considering it comes out a few months later. No matter what Smash 3DS does, it’s always going to be the inferior version, and that’s not a great place to start from.