Making a modern videogame today has often become synonymous with massive hype, inflated budgets and graphics that are so photo-realistic it feels like we’re being spoiled. But for a company like Nintendo, polished gameplay and style is something they’ve done better than most – and on occasion have even mastered. There’s been no better example of this than Super Smash Bros. We’ve had the 3DS version already, but eager fans wanted more after waiting nearly seven years.
Make no mistake though: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is back in full effect and in its purest form yet.
I’ve gathered my own opinions of praise and criticism as the series evolved over the years in its mission of delivering nostalgic pride in the form of punches, explosions, and Pokéballs. There’s an undeniable charm in having Nintendo’s most beloved and memorable icons crammed into one gloriously detailed foray, while on the other end it also strives to be the ultimate party favor that everybody can get into.
This is the fine line director Masahiro Sakurai has chosen to walk, and he knew the formula had to be simple and let it grow from there. The prerequisites have been throwing in the classic characters like Mario, Link, Samus, Bowser, and Donkey Kong, then introduce a dozen more newcomers and guest superstar combatants (Mega Man, Pac-Man, and Sonic the Hedgehog) for a total of 49 characters. All of which adhere to the same gameplay and controls of effective smash attacks and their own distinct styles.
Dedicated followers will quickly notice and appreciate that some questionable tweaks have been scaled back, the stages are a little less hazardous and most of the longtime cast has been balanced to feel vaguely similar to their Melee counterparts or cut entirely.
Let’s talk about some of the newer characters for a moment. Greninja is a frog Pokémon with stealth and the art of ninpō, allowing for mix-up tactics that are bound to quickly confuse opponents. Then there’s Shulk, the lightsaber-wielding protagonist of Xenoblade Chronicles. He’s yet another swordsman, but unlike Marth or Ike of Fire Emblem fame his energy blade and enhancement abilities allow him to quickly adapt to changing battle conditions. Other combatants include Little Mac from Punch-Out!!, who unflinchingly deals out devastating uppercuts, Wii Fit Trainer who uses yoga and aerobics to exercise opponents into submission, and even customizable Mii fighters.
Those are just the tamer choices; there’s also the Duck Hunt hound and duck as a playable duo complete with NES Zapper effects, and Pac-Man serves as a living homage to everything 1980’s Namco. But half of Smash Bros. is discovering each of the new characters for yourself, either by watching others practice or diving into the fray. And when you’ve got a game that casually pits all of Nintendo’s All-Stars and other cameos it just melds together for something seamless and deceptively random.
Some aspects like the Classic Mode have been revamped considerably. You’ll wager your accumulated stash of coins for more lucrative bonuses and unlockable accessories. You’ll even – if you’re bold enough – take on the sinister Master Fortress itself. This goes beyond the typical Master Hand & Crazy Hand bosses on the highest difficulties, and is not for the faint of heart. Of course, the typical All-Star and Stadium challenges are back, albeit remixed in some form or another. While the Stage Builder is more intuitive with a greater depth of control thanks to the Gamepad touchscreen and stylus for drawing platforms, it’s pretty time-intensive to learn the ins and outs but worth the effort to give it a shot at least once.
The Event Mode is also back and it’s even better with a branching variety of specific objectives. “The Big 7650,” starring Pac-Man, is a good example where you must eliminate three Olimars in a row with a Final Smash attack. It’s ridiculously easy to get hooked as you earn additional items and the chance to unlock new events. You can even have a co-partner join up and help you conquer the tougher fights.
The disjointed five-minute Smash Run found in the 3DS version is gone, along with any evident traces of the ambitious Subspace Emissary adventure mode from Brawl properly excised. Instead, we’ve got the new Smash Tour; think Mario Party, except everyone is free to roam the board with a big battle royale at the end. As you collect power-ups, trophies, and a potential roster of characters, you’ll occasionally get into a scuffle when other players cross each other’s paths on the map. If nothing else, this turn-based minigame is a great way to attract and involve your normal friends.
Because four-player scraps are far too ordinary nowadays, Nintendo has doubled the numbers, letting an insane eight players enjoy the pandemonium. Apparently screen-filling havoc and absolute chaos can be substituted for gameplay, and now I know how non-gamers probably imagine Smash Bros. to be – it’s a bit like being drunk: a lot of stuff is going on around you, you don’t know where you are, and are usually foggy on what happened afterward; but it’s acceptable because you’re doing it socially. All of it is manic and inexplicably wondrous in scale with select stages like Kirby’s Great Cave Offensive to the Big Battlefield as backdrops.
Online functionality of Smash Bros. Wii U is the real surprise because it actually works this time, and quite frankly that alone is a vast improvement compared to Brawl. The general matchmaking doesn’t stray far from the 1-on-1, team (2 vs. 2), and free-for-all choices; it’s all fairly basic with the only real differences being ranked (for Glory) and unranked (for Fun) matches. Still, despite these improvements, performance was a mixed bag. Input lag was still present and timing delays were all too common against strangers – an annoyance that’s partially remedied by private matches with friends, though even this is a hassle as personal notifications, invitations, and consistent voice chatting are still taboo for the Nintendo Network.
What I do have mixed feeling about are the controller options. Not wanting to let anything go to waste you can play this game eight different ways that includes but not limited to the Wii U Gamepad, Pro Controller, Wiimote (and all attachments), and a GameCube Controller, provided you also bought the optional USB adapter. I and a few others felt out of our comfort zones when trying out the Gamepad and a few Wiimotes first, and getting used to various button layouts isn’t fun unless you’re a new and willing participant. Oh, and if a smorgasbord of input devices wasn’t enough the Nintendo 3DS can be used like a controller when synced to the 3DS Smash Bros. game too.
Amiibo integration almost feels like an afterthought since each NFC-equipped figurine (the figurine you buy is the one you get in the game) is merely a CPU that learns and improves its fighting skills with the data you feed it. It’s a mildly clever concept but not as much than just a Skylander or Disney Infinity clone. Perhaps we’ll see them grow into something greater as compatibility expands onto other games, but for now they’re just another uncontrollable adversary with unequally beefed-up perks.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U will be many things to many people, but most will agree it’s a jewel amidst a sea of pseudo-blockbusters and soulless imitations. Here is a game layered with copious amounts of nostalgia and endless replay value that’s easy for new players to get lost in, and yet reclaims that frenzied magic the previous entry muddied up for discerning long-timers. Although it’s not a perfect experience as my brief time with the Amiibo figurines was a little disappointing, and online quality that still needs work. But after an extended period of indifference I’m finally happy with Smash Bros. again and the way it’s meant to be played, in front of a big display with a few good friends.