As a series, Smash Bros. was founded on the principle that fighting games could do with being a little less complex. To that end, director Masahiro Sakurai added two extra players and simplified inputs. If you want to take mechanics and design as symbolism (and I always do) it's a pretty clear statement that Smash Bros. is a game designed for anyone and everyone to play. No one should be sitting on the sidelines, because anyone can pick it up.
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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.
For those of us unable to head down to Los Angeles for E3, Nintendo provided a (significantly less smoggy) venue in Toronto to play the Wii U and 3DS demos from the E3 show floor. The games were mostly titles coming out between now and the end of the fall, but there were some notable absences in the lineup. Nintendo's roaming Best Buy demos included Mario Kart 8, which was notably absent from Nintendo's previews, but we soldiered on nonetheless. Here are Nintendo's upcoming Summer and Fall Wii U and 3DS games.
Super Mario 3D World:
that strikes me most about Super Mario 3D World isn’t so much its lack
of innovation as how good it is at hiding clever design. The Mario team has
always liked to play it coy with level design, never doing anything too huge,
instead preferring to let levels speak for themselves, without any major set
pieces. As such, the new items and mechanics in Mario 3D World do end up
feeling a little underwhelming, but that might not be the worst thing in the
The cat suit, which lets Mario and company don a fursuit (and will certainly inspire some frightening cosplay) gives them the ability to climb up walls and do pouncing attacks. The pouncing didn’t come into pay too much in the levels that were on demo, but the wall climbing definitely let players who weren’t quite up to platforming cheat their way up certain walls. Wall climbing is a little tricky, but the ability to bubble up and wait for someone to finish the area for you, like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, should appease some less skilled players.
The other new mechanic the demo showed off was the Mario series’ iconic green pipes repainted to be transparent. It feels a little disingenuous to call this a mechanic, considering it mostly seems like an aesthetic change, but it does allow for some neat little pipe mazes that will probably be explored much further in post-game worlds.
But the real nugget of great design in Mario 3D World doesn’t come from these new things, it comes from what they took from Super Mario Bros. 2 and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Having four players on screen at once in a 3D level should be overwhelming and claustrophobic, and making them all different should make it feel unbalanced, but somehow, it all clicks together perfectly.
Levels are designed with just enough space to the four players can check out different paths better suited to their abilities, and working together often led to greater rewards. It feels like a natural step from the “everyone plays the same” mentality that held back New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s multiplayer, and allows for much more dynamic interesting levels.
While 3D World hasn’t bowled me over like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 64 did, I know it’s a fun game with clever concepts tucked away in it, but every Mario game is. 3D World comes off as underwhelming, and doesn’t talk a big game, but you have to wonder where the Mario game that does is hiding.
Pikmin has been suspiciously absent from Nintendo’s releases since 2004, and this decade in the making sequel has quite a lot to prove, especially considering it’s been delayed so much. For the most part though, Pikmin 3 is an unassuming game that doesn’t seem like it recognizes that burden, it just wants to be fun.
Compared to playing the game with a wiimote and nunchuck, the control scheme on the gamepad is cumbersome and unbelievably inaccurate, which sort of betrays the fact that the game was originally designed for Wii. I found the best way to play the game was with the wiimote for aiming, and the gamepad in front of me to use as a map when I got lost. It’s kind of clunky and doesn’t really sell you on the idea of the gamepad working so well in conjunction with other devices, but the map is unnecessary, and the game is so rock solid that it doesn’t matter.
You play an astronaut sent to drain the resources of a faraway planet to bring back to his troubled home planet. In order to do this, you pluck Pikmin, tiny little flower-like creatures with different powers from the ground to do your bidding. Red Pikmin withstand fire, blue Pikmin can swim, the new rock Pikmin do more damage when thrown, etcetera. The whole thing is Nintendo’s take on the real time strategy genre, and offers a relaxing stroll through a dangerous planet littered with horrible death monsters just waiting to send your little Pikmin’s souls up to Pikmin heaven.
The mode that really got me was the new competitive Bingo Battle mode. Pikmin 2 had some co-op functionality, but it was nowhere near as fun as this. Each player receives a bingo card of items they need to pick up, and the first to fill a row wins. Naturally, this means you both race for items, but players start messing with each other by stealing items from out of their Pikmin’s hands, or sniping an item they don’t need because they see their opponent needed it to win. Pikmin 2’s competitive multiplayer boiled down to a pretty basic and kind of boring capture the flag mode, but Bingo Battle’s balance of scavenger hunting and screwing with opponents made it one of the more interesting multiplayer experiences I’ve had in a while.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD:
Wind Waker HD is exactly what it says on the tin, an HD remake of the first Gamecube entry in the Zelda series. It’s very pretty, with a new, slightly more shaded art style that brings to mind studio Ghibli movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, but is still rooted in the original game’s highly controversial cel-shaded style. It’s the same cartoony game, and from what Nintendo has been showing, it’s literally that. The mostly unused Tingle Tuner Game Boy Advance minigame has been replaced with a message in a bottle system that connects the game to Miiverse, the Wii U’s social network, and Nintendo has gone on record saying that the two dungeons cut from Wind Waker will not be restored for the HD remake. It’s a classic, and one of my favourite Zelda games ever, but Wind Waker HD isn’t really blowing my mind yet, and it might not need to, but itdefinitely won't be doing it anytime soon.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze:
Retro’s sequel to their 2010 Donkey Kong Country revival is, not shockingly, an almost identical game. I was never a huge DKC fan, but one of the reasons I dropped out of that franchise pretty quick was the almost indistinguishable sequels. The flat, point-A to point-B level design was fixed for the 2010 reboot, but seeing a game that’s almost identical to its predecessor, three years after it came out, is a bit disheartening.
The game is solid, built on the same engine with sharp controls and great graphics, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before, gathered these same bananas, beat up these same barrels. Maybe by distaste for the Country series in general is colouring my enjoyment of the game, but I did have a bit of fun while playing it, it just felt hollow. With this game coming out so close to the 3DS port of the original game, I can only hope Retro and Nintendo start showing off some unique stuff, because even the promise of Dixie Kong and her Tails-like helicopter ponytail isn’t really giving me much hope for this reboot’s chances of not falling into the trap that pushed DKC 2 and 3 into irrelevance.
Wii Party U:
Wii Party U holds an interesting place in the Wii U’s line up. It’s the third first party minigame collection for the console in less than a year, and one really has to wonder if that means Nintendo doesn’t have any ideas for full games that use the gamepad in interesting ways, but can think of all kind of neat, 5-15 minute applications for the device.
The game’s regular multiplayer mode plays a lot like Mario Party, with four players rolling virtual dice to move spaces on a board, playing minigames between turns. The minigames themselves though are a little different from the standard Mario Party fare. The minigames Nintendo was showing off in this demo were slightly more akin to parlour games; icebreaker type stuff. I got to play a take on the iOS hit Draw Something, where every player was given 15 seconds to draw, with one player given a slightly different prompt from the rest. The drawings went up on the TV and players had to vote on which they thought was the different prompt.
Another game I saw being played involved one player getting a prompt from the gamepad to make a specific face. For example, “Make a face as if you just told a really funny joke.” The player makes the face, the gamepad takes a picture, and the other players vote between four options as to what the face was. With more than 80 games in the collection, there are probably more than a few traditional, Mario Party-style minigames, but the focus on these games that could be played without a gamepad but are slightly enhanced by the technology is telling.
The games were fun, and I can see them being a hit at parties, but maybe only once or twice. Like most icebreaker games, once everyone’s comfortable around each other, they really don’t serve much of a purpose beyond giving everyone something to do, which might be achieved better by a game like Nintendo Land, which everyone with a Wii U already has.
The Wonderful 101:
The Wonderful 101 is far and away the most interesting Nintendo has up their sleeve for Wii U. The new Platinum Games title takes cues from Pikmin, Viewtiful Joe, classic superhero serials and Japanese super sentai aesthetics and mixes them all into one frenetic, frantic action game mess.
You play as a group of superheroes (the titular 101, natch), with the ability to combine together and morph into various forms. The demo started off with the ability to change into a giant fist, a sword, a whip, a pistol, and a hand glider. To change forms, you draw the shape of your transformation on the gamepad’s touch screen, or with the right analog stick. For example, to change into a sword, you draw a straight line. Depending on how long the line you draw is, the longer your sword gets, but there are only so many heroes you can use to make the weapon. It creates a really interesting risk/reward balance between looking down to draw on the touch screen and looking up at the TV screen to avoid attacks from enemies. Drawing with the right stick negates a bit of the danger of looking down to draw, but is less accurate than drawing with the touch screen, and you’re more likely to mess up what you meant to draw. There’s no perfect way to play, and it keeps the pace of the game frantic and exciting, which is part of what makes the game impossible to understand from trailers.
What really struck me about the game were the small details. As you run through a level you collect new heroes, and some have special cutaways that give you some data on their secret identity. The TV screen shows their name, secret identity, place of origin, super power, and some other details, while the gamepad screen shows their superhero ID along with their personal logo. It’s a cute little touch that really adds to the charming, pulpy atmosphere of The Wonderful 101, and I really can’t wait to see more of stuff like that.
Also, one of the heroes I collected had a toilet bowl for a head, which basically makes it the best game I’ve ever played.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds:
A common complaint against Nintendo recently has been that they rely too strongly on their old franchises and don’t innovate on those original concepts. I bring this up because Link Between World’s overworld (at least the tiny fraction of it that Nintendo allowed me to explore during the demo) is an almost pixel-perfect recreation of the overworld from 1991’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
The fact that the demo only let me explore a few screens of the map before hitting a wall of unbreakable rocks bodes well for the rest of the world being significantly different, and the whole “between worlds” thing in the subtitle all but confirms that there will be some other worlds Link will be exploring. But even with the brand new dungeon the demo let me explore, I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen and done all of this before.
The dungeon was focused on Link to the Past’s standard coloured block puzzles, where hitting a switch would raise one colour of blocks and lower another. The new magic bar subweapon system makes it impossible to get yourself stuck on these puzzles like you could in the original game. All subweapons draw from a purple bar in the corner of the screen. Charging an arrow or hammer strike will use more magic, but create a more powerful attack, and the bar slowly recharges over time. It’s an elegant system, and makes the game fast and fluid. But even with the added speed and surprisingly intuitive and fun merge mechanic -where Link flattens himself onto a wall and walks along as a 2D structure- I can’t help but feel like I’ve been to this Hyrule before. Hopefully we’ll see some more interesting, unique environments from this game soon.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team:
What you might not glean from Mario and Luigi Dream Team’s trailers is that the characters are drawn in 2D. What you probably will glean is that this game is very, very weird, even by the standards of the off-the-wall wackiness of the Mario and Luigi series.
When in the “real” world, Mario and Luigi explore Pi’illo island just like they did the Mushroom Kingdom in previous games. The overworld is top-down, with each brother being controlled with either the A or B buttons, with various abilities remapped to the buttons when the R button is pressed. In battle, the game is a turn-based RPG with actions commands, similar to the Paper Mario games. For example, hitting A after a jump allows Mario and Luigi to jump in the air again and bop the opponent one more time. The game also maintains the series traditional Bros. moves, special attacks that have the brothers Mario working in tandem to kick shells, toss fireballs, and surf on each other to deliver powerful finishing blows.
However, in a feature new to Dream Team, Mario can step into the dreams of his long-suffering younger brother, and experience some of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen in a Nintendo game. The dream world is a side scrolling environment, similar to Mario and Luigi’s levels in the previous game in the series, Bowser’s Inside Story. When in Luigi’s dreams, players use the touch screen to mess with Luigi, causing him to do….things in his dreams. For example, pulling on Luigi’s moustache causes him to possess vines in the dream world, which Mario can then use to swing across chasms. Like I said: weird.
In dream world battles, Luigi merges into Mario, and gives him access to thousands of Luigi clones that copy his moves. Jumping on enemies with Mario causes dozens of Luigis to fall down on them as well. The bros. moves are in turn replaced by Luiginary attacks, where Mario does things like crowd surf on hundreds of Luigis as he tries to stack them up in a perfect pile by ordering them to jump at once onto another army of Luigis before ordering them to all fall down on the opponent in a torrent of green. Additionally, when dodging attacks in dream battles, Mario can move up and down and turn left or right, adding some appreciated depth to combat.
In another substitution from Bowser’s Inside Story, the Luigi clones can also merge together in a Godzilla-sized Luigi to giant boss battles that play very similarly to the giant Bowser fights from the previous game.
All this, combined with the dreamy, muted colour palette and the strange cross between 2D characters and 3D environments, this is almost certainly the most surreal thing Nintendo has put out in America. The year of Luigi is turning out to be a strange one indeed.