In 1999, Nintendo turned heads with the release of Super Smash Bros. for the N64, a game that ingeniously placed famous characters from the Nintendo universe against one another in a fighting game that specialized in four person multiplayer mayhem. After the launch of the Gamecube, the sequel (dubbed "Super Smash Bros. Melee") boasted improved graphics, more mayhem, and an overall beefier package that lasted fans for years. Now with Super Smash Bros. Brawl the development team at Sora has delivered a Wii iteration that keeps the gameplay fun and addictive while offering a nearly endless array of content and options to keep the multiplayer shenanigans lasting at least another five years. Almost every aspect has been upgraded - a longer adventure mode, an expanded roster, and multiplayer that has been taken to the online arena for the first time.
The first thing you will notice about Brawl is just how clean the graphics are. Despite essentially being only a slight visual upgrade from Melee, it manages to be one of the best looking Wii games to date thanks to 16:9 widescreen presentation and a crisp 480p resolution. Everything from the menus to the end credits are well detailed and shine with a slick coat of polish. In-game, the framerate is rock solid at a steady 60 frames per second. All 35 available characters are well detailed and animated from the realistic looking Snake to the monotone Mr. Game & Watch. Due to the wide pool of IPs the game pulls its characters and stages from, there are a lot of different art styles present, but somehow they manage to come together to give the game its own unique and pleasing art direction.
Impressive sound design makes Brawl just as pleasing to the ears as it is to the eyes. The various sound effects and musical selections are executed expertly. Whether it’s the sound a bat makes when it smashes into Princess Peach’s face or the cackling of the flame produced by Charizard, it comes through the speakers clearly. The Wiimote speakers are also utilized quite effectively to communicate the sophistication of the audio. It's a nice touch, though it sometimes comes through quite tinny. The game plays as if an audience is observing the fray and they make their feelings known via chants, gasps, and applause depending on how the match plays out. There is a lot of music to be found in Brawl. Musical cues taken from Warioware to Fire Emblem and every Nintendo IP in between contribute to a delicately constructed soundtrack that embodies the spirit of each title. On top of that, Brawl features an original orchestral score by Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu to accompany the epic battles on screen, and it is one of the best to come along in recent memory.
Presentation obviously received plenty of attention throughout development of this title, but one technical oversight keeps it from receiving top accolades - inconsistent load times. For the most part, they are a reasonable length, but on occasion the wait to enter a fight can last up to 20 seconds. Once or twice I've had to wait as long as a full minute, and the Wii disc drive is noticeably louder when playing this game than others. The load times vary depending on the game mode and whether you've chosen one of the default stages or a custom one made in the level editor.
The sharp control that has been a series hallmark has been kept intact in the move to Wii. Instead of shoehorning unnecessary motion controls, many different configurations are available. Whether you want to use the Wiimote by itself or paired with a nunchuk, a Classic or Gamecube controller, you can’t go wrong, especially as you can remap any action to a button of your choice. Motion controls for Smash attacks are available, though they are not recommended. Despite the detailed configuration customizability, the default controls are intuitive, comfortable for the entire roster, and pick up and play friendly.
For those unfamiliar with the gameplay of the franchise, here is a quick explanation. Two to four combatants compete on two-dimensional stages. Instead of having health bars like conventional fighters, characters have percentage meters that begin at zero and get higher as they take damage. The higher the percentage, the more susceptible the character is to being knocked off the screen. The last player standing or the player with the most points is declared the winner at the end of the bout.
In relation to Melee, the core game remains relatively unchanged. As with many fighting game sequels, the balance between characters has been tightened, making for fairer fights. Powered by the Havoc physics engine, the sense of gravity and weight has been improved alongside a minor reduction in character speed. The game is still relentlessly addictive and you will be hard pressed to find an excuse to put down the controller, especially when you have a party of friends playing with you. As a sequel, Brawl doesn’t "refine" the gameplay so much as it augments it with new items and mechanics including the Golden Hammer, Team Healer, and Dragoon, which requires three separate parts to be combined in order to produce a one hit KO weapon. The items fall at random intervals and have the ability to completely alter the course of a battle. One of the biggest gameplay changes is the addition of Assist Trophies. These crafty items randomly spawn characters not found on the roster but are put to good use providing their own unique brand of assistance or disorder. Characters from Advance Wars, Nintendogs, and even Sim City make an appearance via Assist Trophies. It all makes for an arcadey experience that thankfully doesn’t take itself seriously enough to become inaccessible.
Those looking for a more intense and pure competitive experience can rest assured that Brawl can satisfy that hunger. Hardcore players can remove all items and play on the most unobtrusive stages in order to pit their true skills to the test. There are plenty of techniques such as blocking, grappling, rolling, and mid-air recoveries to master. Don’t be fooled, though - while there is a certain amount of underlying depth, it somewhat pales in comparison to other fighters on the market. Luckily, the roster of fighters is varied enough to allow you to selectively master play styles that you find the most compelling.
And what a large roster it is. 35 characters, from Mario's Mushroom Kingdom to the triumphant return of Pit from the NES classic Kid Icarus, all show up to duke it out. Most of the cast from Melee return with some exceptions. Anyone who misses Mewtwo, Roy, or Pichu can take solace in that they are replaced with new characters that are much more compelling. Some of them are available from the get go like King Dedede, while others, such as the series' first third-party characters, Sonic and Solid Snake, have to be unlocked. Every character has their own basic and Smash attacks (used for knocking opponents off the screen) and the new highly stylized Final Smash attacks. Final Smash makes its way into the fray in the form of Smash Balls which must be cracked open with physical attacks. Once a Smash Ball appears, expect all combatants to immediately set their sights upon it. The victor is rewarded with the ability to pull off their super-powered Final Smash attack. The moves themselves range from fantastically epic (a la Link’s Triforce Slash) to wickedly absurd (like Wario’s alter ego, Wario-Man). Like the characters themselves, the final smashes are beautifully animated. Some characters play similarly, like Mario and Luigi or Link and Toon Link, but these are no longer clones because similar-looking moves deal damage and throwback differently. It's little touches like these that make playing each character a somewhat unique experience.
Unique is the only word that adequately describes the stages found in Brawl. The stages build upon the strength of those found in past games in the series and are adapted from the latest iterations of recent Nintendo entries. Levels based on Super Mario Sunshine, The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, and Mario Kart Wii stay true to the source material while being adequate venues for the 2D combat. Appropriate musical tracks accompany these stages, adding to the atmosphere. Some stages provide a crash course in creative over the top-level design. Every playing field with one exception is interactive and affects the gameplay by attacking (or assisting) players and altering the environment at random. Warioware Inc., Pictochat, and Spear Pillar stages are prime examples of this. The backgrounds feature crisply animated art that breathes life into each level. Stages that transition to different scenes mid battle do so seamlessly without interrupting the flow of the gameplay. You unlock more stages the more you play, including old favorites that make their way from Melee. There is also the option to create your own arenas via the Stage Builder. Sadly, the depth of available options is underwhelming. There are only a few backgrounds to choose from and no in game assets made their way in this mode, which hinders creativity. The interface is intuitive. A nice touch is that you can submit your creations to Nintendo, who select one level each day to deliver to the world daily via Nintendo Wifi Connection, as well as to friends you've exchanged Friend Codes with (although you can't play created levels online).
Along with the new level creator mode comes a beefed up single player experience dubbed "The Subspace Emissary". It builds upon the adventure mode found in Melee with mixed results. This is a full on adventure that spans several locations and can take up to ten hours to complete. The story is told through high quality FMVs that are completely devoid of dialogue and involve the entire roster of characters. The paper-thin plot involves the villainous characters turning everyone into statues, which forces various characters to team up in order to save the day. The enemies are all original here for a Nintendo title but are fairly reminiscent of the heartless found in the Kingdom Hearts RPG series, understandable seeing as both games were penned by the same person. The plot obviously does not matter, as it's clearly there to provide an epic crossover story for Nintendo fans, and you will lose sight of it quite easily if you do not pay attention.
What the Subspace Emissary boils down to is a fighting game forced to be a 2D platformer. The controls feel looser, and the level design is hackneyed and dull, unlike the fighting stages. Combat does not take a hit in this mode, but most of the enemies are not fun to fight, so you will likely flee on ahead to the end of the level disregarding them all. The mode also features boss battles that break up the monotony, though they are fairly lifeless and uninteresting. The game is broken up into chapters which allow you to choose from a different group of characters, not that it really matters who you choose since characters don’t really interact at all outside of the cut scenes. I am not a fan of quick time events but this time they seemed appropriate. A team-up between Pikachu and Samus begs for some epic team-up attacks, but there are be none to be found. A nice touch is that you and one friend can team up to conquer this mode locally in coop mode to make for a more enjoyable experience. Another disappointment is that the last third of the adventure forces you to play your way through slightly altered but still dull versions of earlier levels. On the positive side, you will collect a ton of unlockables along the way and the mode serves as a speedy way to unlock all the characters. For completionists, there are plenty of hidden areas to traverse in order to attain that 100% completion you desperately seek.
On the single player side of things, Brawl holds up well. The Classic mode takes one character on a standard arcade mode of eight bouts against random characters, and is still fun to play through and provides an appropriate challenge depending on the selected difficulty level. It's basic fun, and it provides an alternative way to unlock some characters rather than completing The Subspace Emissary. You can also set up custom Brawls with computer-controlled opponents who provide decent fun and challenge should you want to hone your skills alone. A training mode is also available should you want to improve that way.
Multiplayer is, as always, the main attraction. The more contestants, the more fun and thanks to the Rotation and Tourney modes, larger parties are easier to handle. Two players can also tackle the Boss Mode together, a straightforward gauntlet through the bosses found in the adventure mode. For the first time, the multiplayer arena is brought to the internet, which works as advertised but sadly its not all it could have been. Multiple participants can connect from the same console and play others across the world. The game fails to foster a sense of community online by not displaying the names of random opponents and the absence of leaderboards. The game plays fine during online bouts and lag depends on the physical distance between the consoles and the strength of the internet connections. Playing with friends over the internet is more fun and provides more options, though the cumbersome Friend Codes system is still in place. You can watch replays of others' battles, and you can compete in Home Run Contests with registered friends. That’s all there is to say about the online offerings found in Brawl which is somewhat disappointing because as a first party title it had the ability to be more refined similar to fellow Nintendo release Mario Kart Wii.
The barebones online would have been a bigger disappointment if the offline content wasn’t so much fun, or if there was less of it to enjoy. Event mode gives you special mission-like tasks which are a nice distraction, as are the Stadium and Special Brawl modes. The game is like an electronic textbook on the history of Nintendo by providing a history of software released across all the major Nintendo platforms and providing a select group of demos of older games all of which are available on the Virtual Console. The demos only last about five minutes, an inadequate amount of time to judge the quality of the retro masterpieces, but they take so long to load up that it begs the question why they even bothered. There are literally tons of collectible stickers, trophies, and even musical tracks to be found which all throwback to games of old. A nice addition is the large amount of challenges available, providing select information on how to unlock everything from trophies to more parts for the stage builder.
There is a lot more that can be said about Super Smash Bros. Brawl, such as the screenshot that lets you take a picture of the action from any angle at any time, but most of that is superfluous because at surface level it’s an excellent Wii game with equal appeal for casual players as well as long time Nintendo fanatics. There is a meticulous attention to detail, and that old-fashioned shine reminiscent of Nintendo’s best titles, past and present, make this one of the best Wii games to date. Though some features are lacklustre or borderline unnecessary, this is another fun entry to the franchise with enough content to keep you playing for years to come.