Super Smash Bros. BrawlAnyone not living under a rock for the last ten years or so has most certainly heard of Nintendo's Smash Bros. series. It was virtually the only Gamecube game that achieved a sales figure greater than five and arguably the only sequel released on the system that was actually better than the game that came before it (perhaps with the exception of Metroid Prime, which had a distinct advantage over its predecessors thanks to having a whole extra spacial dimension to play with). While single-handedly keeping the Gamecube's head above the proverbial gaming ocean was Melee's favorite pastime, it also did quite well at being a good game, perhaps explaining the almost rabid levels of hype aimed at this latest installment: Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
The basic premise of the Smash Bros. series is to take one cutesy-wootsy character and use it to beat the living crap out of another cutesy-wootsy character pulled from Nintendo's vast library of creations. Brawl shakes this tradition up a bit by including third party characters in the form of Sonic the Hedgehog and Snake. Sonic's lifeless corpse has been continuously abused by Sega executives since about 1993 which means he's well overdue to appear in a game that isn't a steaming pile, while Hideo Kojima apparently lured Brawl's development team into the back of his van via a trail of sweeties and then refused to let them out until they shoe-horned one of gaming's most badass/murderous characters into a game primarily populated by fat, hallucinogen-munching plumbers and an assortment of other characters who could quite feasibly be nothing more than part of the aforementioned hallucination. The gamble paid off for everyone in the end, as Nintendo somehow managed to make sleeper-holding Mario a charming affair and running around as Sonic more entertaining than it has been in yonks.
Take this clusterfu- I mean take this amazing assortment of characters, slap on some scenery from the games they all appear in and let them use each other's powerups and you've basically got Smash Bros. Brawl in a nutshell. Combat revolves around only two attacking buttons, a shield button, and the ability to freely move left, right, up and down throughout combat. Yes, Smash Bros. sets itself apart from more traditional fighters by forgoing a complicated, "ten-button-combos" style of control scheme in favor of more freedom of movement. In fact, the game plays much more like a platformer with fighting elements thrown in, rather than the other way around. This would ordinarily be a bad thing for something marketed as a "fighting" game, but not so much for Smash Bros., which sets out to be as different as possible from every other game in the genre.
As proof of this, one only has to examine the core mechanics of the game to realize that Smash Bros. is like the backwards, bizarre-o world of the fighting genre. When you get hit, the number at the bottom of the screen goes up. The only way to kill someone is with a Ring Out. Fights aren't played in rounds, but instead with lives, a mechanic which means that even if someone kills you twice in a three-stock match, there is still the slight possibility that they'll become temporarily brain-dead, a life threatening situation on their part but not so bad for you because it means you might actually win. And sometimes giant fish eat you. So yeah.
While the game sets out to be a simpler, more accessible fighting game, these radical changes actually make it less user-friendly to anyone who has ever played a proper fighting game before. If you're used to only having to defend against one enemy from the front, prepare to be confused when you're suddenly thrown into an environment where a gorilla is pimp-handing you from ten feet away whilst a giant turtle coats your body in a blanket of fire. Having to defend (and move) in all directions around you means re-learning basic fighting game mechanics unless you want your backside handed to you by other more competent players. Albeit, once you have adjusted, the control scheme is simple enough to use at least decently.
The Fisher-Price style of control may seem too simple to house any degree of sophistication, but as mentioned before the much freer movement available to your character adds the extra level of strategy that the game would be utterly dull without. Brawl is unfortunately much damper than its predecessor in this instance, with movement basically being restricted to "run, hop or roll", whereas Melee offered all sorts of exploitations of the physics engine to play with. While in theory cutting out unintentional gameplay mechanics sounds like a good thing, the core Melee players basically formulated their own community around that sort of thing and are somewhat disappointed that they've been removed in Brawl. Normally getting on the nerves of your core fanbase is a poor marketing decision, but "marketing" is a word that was lost on Nintendo the moment Wii consoles became sentient creatures capable of forcing their way into people's homes and convincing them that they want to send wheelbarrows of money to Nintendo's front door. Unfortunately for the "hard core" (a phrase that attempts to categorize gamers in the same way as porn stars, an endeavor I fully support), Nintendo is actually a business that enjoys making money and will thus dumb down key franchises to please the seething masses who demand instant satisfaction the moment they start playing a game.
Even with slightly less involving combat (which is only really true if you were a hard core porn star/Melee player), the game still has plenty to boast over its little brother. More characters, more stages, more items and more modes. It basically follows the formula used by every other sequel, and that isn't really something to complain about. "More is better" is generally true, but playing Brawl after playing Melee for seven years will still feel somewhat like breathing clean and crisp country air after living in the inner-city all your life: It's still virtually the same experience - albeit a little bit better - but now there's not a McDonalds 100 feet away from you no matter where you are, so in the end you feel a bit cheated.
Let's now talk about the Subspace Emissary. The Subspace Emissary ("SSE", from now on) is longer than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, makes about half as much sense and is at least twice as mind-numbingly boring. I mentioned at the start of this review that the game plays like a platformer with fighting elements rather than a fighting game with platformer elements. While this may be true, it turns out the game takes its platformer elements from an absolutely horrid platforming game, because this simply doesn't work. Running and jumping around relatively same-y environments fighting identical stock enemies for TEN HOURS is not my idea of a honking good time. The game even has the nerve to pull the old "the final level is actually parts of all the previous levels cobbled together" trick, the sheer size of this maze only serving to remind me how unexciting the previous eight hours of my life have been. And I'm not kidding with that implication that the final level takes 1/5th of the total gameplay time, because it really does. You're launched smack-bang into a gradually expanding web of interconnected rooms with virtually no instruction on whatever the hell it is you are supposed to be doing. I assumed that like every single level that had come before it, I was meant to keep heading right until I got to the final door. This fairly logical assumption was quickly proven incorrect when it turned out the layout of this level is a goddamn circle. The idea is that you have to fight the shadow versions of each character in the game to open the final door. You don't actually get any clues as to where to find these shadows until you've done a lap of the whole maze, something you're expected to do completely blind. If I wanted to list all the flaws of the SSE I could save myself a great deal of time by pointing at the final level and saying "Pretty much that", because its a shining example of virtually everything that has been wrong with platforming games since the dawn of time.
I'm not going to spend any time criticizing the game for its character roster, partly because if I see someone ask for Geno in Brawl one more time I'm going to have to build my own time-machine and wipe out both Super Mario RPG as well as said person's parents, but also because I'm quite happy with what we got. Sure, it would've been nice if Metroid got more representation outside of "Metal Suit Samus" and "Look at that Rack" Samus, and I don't see why Earthbound deserved two virtually identical characters (neither of which use moves they actually got in their original games, which begs the question of why they were included in the first place), but we got Sonic the freaking Hedgehog and I can finally take control of Charizard and stomp some heads, so I'm not exactly upset. However, one thing in particular I don't like is how a good portion of the cast feels relatively similar. Fox, Falco and newcomer Wolf all have variations of roughly the same moveset. They all play differently enough in the end, but its like they just tweaked the same character to fit three different "styles" of gameplay and left it at that. It's even worse in a case such as Link and Toon Link, where Toon Link so completely outclasses his older counterpart that he may as well not even exist. Its a shame how unoriginal the game is in these aspects because a properly diverse cast would have improved the quality of the roster tenfold.
I haven't mentioned the online mode simply because I've been avoiding it, the same way I imagine parents avoid telling their children that they're adopted. A game that adheres to high production values across the board should simply not have such a terrible online system. Ignoring for a moment the whole Friend Code debacle, once you actually get online and start playing you'll quickly realize that entering your friend's 12-digit code almost wasn't worth it. Online is slow, to the point where getting into a match begins to feel more like a chore than it does gaming. It's almost as if Nintendo totally weren't expecting the most hotly-anticipated game of 2008 to have more than a couple of people trying to get online at once. Heaven forbid you try the "With Anyone" mode, a mode that would move along faster if it were being pushed by a glacier and doesn't have any actual reward for enduring it other than perhaps a delightful ERROR YOU HAVE BEEN DISCONNECTED screen. While win/loss records aren't kept in either the "With Friends" or "With Anyone" modes, this is a particular problem in "With Anyone" because without it there is - literally - no apparent reason for it to be worth trying more than once. The level of battle customization is virtually zilch compared to every other mode in the game, you've got no control over the number of opponents you want to face and the countdown to the start of the match is set up in such a way that the moment anyone new joins, the timer is reset regardless of whether they stick around or not. The timer counts down from 70, and on more than one occasion I've had it reset on me three or four times by people who join my group and then immediately drop out again. This resulted in me and my one faithful companion waiting five whole minutes for the match to start. Needless to say, I haven't played that mode since.
When all is said and done, I do actually like Smash Bros. Brawl. The large list of characters, stages and items keep things fresh and interesting for a good long while, and as with any fighting game, the multiplayer mode will remain entertaining for as long as you have friends. As a standalone game, Brawl really is something spectacular. Of course, Brawl isn't a standalone game; It's part of the Smash Bros. series and thus should be regarded as such. In which case I have to break the unfortunate news that the larger list of features doesn't compensate for the gameplay nuances that have been taken out from Melee. Brawl is a much simpler game and if you went deep into Melee's depths this fact will become instantly apparent. The new characters act as a smokescreen to the fact that this game is significantly less in terms of gameplay than what came before it.
If you take Brawl for what it is on the surface - a frantic, "party" fighting game that will keep you and your friends entertained until one of you discovers how ball-bustingly good Meta Knight is and thereby alienates everyone else - then it is well worth the purchase. If you're looking for something with a little more depth, then buying Brawl is the equivalent of diving head first into a kiddie pool; It wont take long for you to reach the bottom.