a review of Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Dairantou Smash Brothers X)
a videogame developed by hal laboratory
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo wii
text by tim rogers
So this is it. This is the big Nintendo Wii game. What’s even coming out for the Nintendo Wii after this? Who gives a stuff! What more could you possibly need? Super Mario versus Solid Snake FTW!
At any rate, here’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the biggest little dollop of gruel yet slopped on the lunch tray of gamerkind. The Japanese title is “Smash Brothers X“, which sounds so much cleaner. “Clean” is the biggest compliment-word this game should ever be awarded, and I don’t precisely mean that as an insult: it is undistilled, pure, gelatinous videogame essence, sat on a table to wobble until eternity. It’s the third game in a series that, in the interest of politeness, we’ll say “has two other games”. Both of those games were popular; this game (sequel #2) takes the “more of the same” model plopped out by the last game (sequel #1) to a new extreme, stuffing it full of more playable characters, more collectible items, more gameplay modes, and more Kingdom Hearts-influenced scenario (which in the previous games was set at zero).
Nintendo masterminded a breathtaking PR plan: literally, they managed to halt the mouth-breaths of mouth-breathing near-thirtysomethings the world over at least once a week in the half-year-long run up to the game’s release, all by regularly updating a simple, clean website. Some players — old enough to have fathered children and not noticed — kept steely resolve, vowing to avoid spoilers and not look at the website until after the game was released.
That is to say, it’s Memorial Day, we’re going to go see Mel Gibson in “The Patriot”, wherein any of the main characters could die at any time, and Nintendo has managed to get all of the kids into the minivan without a single no-popcorn warning.
The “story” mode begins with Mario fighting Kirby in a giant arena that’s floating in space. The player chooses to play as either Mario or Kirby. If you choose Mario, when you win, you’ll see a cut-scene in which Mario punches Kirby so hard he turns into . . . an action figure of Kirby. Mario then walks up and touches the Kirby action figure, which turns back into Kirby. Mario pats Kirby on the back, and the two salute the wildly cheering crowds.
Then sinister stuff starts happening. A giant airship (owned by MetaKnight from the Kirby series, of course) shows up, et cetera et cetera, eventually we’ve got a running adventure in which Nintendo characters interact with one another with no dialogue (spoken or text), fighting for the vaguely defined “good guys” against hordes of “bad guys”; whenever a bad guy (Wario, Bowser, Ganondorf) shows up in a cut-scene, they’re equipped with a big sci-fi gun which, when fired, turns any Nintendo character into an action figure. Someone is trying to collect all of the Nintendo action figures! Who the flaming heck is it? If you want to know the answer, turn to the last page, and then buy the game.
Three, four, five, six times in the game, there’s a scene where a Big Bad Guy fires a gun at a Helpless Nintendo Character, and a Big Strong Nintendo Character jumps in the way of the beam, is turned into a toy, and is carted off. In all of those occasions, the Helpless Nintendo Character is, less than two seconds later, greeted by a Big-Brother-Like character.
The reason the characters are turning into action figures is simple: because the theme of the first Smash Bros. game was that all of the characters were action figures, and the player was just a kid playing with these action figures. Only the Kingdom Hearts II scenario-writer could say, “What if the action figures in Super Smash Bros. were real?” and then answer the follow-up question (“. . . you’re not hecking serious, are you?”) with “. . . Why wouldn’t I be serious?” That this sort of thing actually gets greenlighted is hilarious and awesome.
Yep. This is how game scenarios go when you’ve hired the guy who wrote Kingdom Hearts II. Mickey Mouse was such a badass in that.
As I slogged through the single-player experience, I looked on the bright side of things more than several times, going so far as to hope that the person collecting all the Nintendo action figures was a fifty-foot tall pimple-faced mama’s boy.
I know, Super Smash Bros. isn’t a platform game; it’s a fighting game, and it’s an awesome one. Still, that the team felt it crucial to include a twelve-hour-long mode consisting of side-scrolling stages interrupted by the only computer-animated cut-scenes in the game is proof that a lot of work went into this. Maybe I’m nitpicking, though I kinda wish it controlled just like Super Mario Bros. 3. Some of these level designs are okay, I guess, though when they start breaking out the Super Princess Peach-like “puzzles” (giving you a key literally two feet in front of a door), the air all around you may or may not become polluted with groans.
Some of the battles are really satisfying; the little animation and sound effect when you kill an opponent in the deathmatch mode are fine-tuned to be satisfying, to be your motivation to kill more opponents — as used in single-player mode every time you kill anything, it provides a weird crunchy pace that is, at the very least, a lot better than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Arcade Game or its sequels. Back in the heyday of the multi-player money-sucking beat-em-up, games like The Simpsons or X-men The Arcade Game were brainless, ultimately metaphysically unsatisfying exercises that ended when the pizza arrived at the table. Those games just bled perfectly into the pizza-eating experience. Now, with Smash Bros. X, we have a game where the most satisfying elements feel like breaking the world brick-stuffting land-speed record. I’m not even messing with you here: about an hour into the “story” mode, (the timing of the previous night’s dinner might have had something to do with this), I nonchalantly paused the game, went to the toilet, and shat so hard I must have seen a ghost. Just as the eternally iron-pumping black man I sometimes call my “inner monologue” shouted “Hell Yeah Mother hecker!” Smash Bros. X was beyond the point of making perfect sense.
It was from that point on that I avoided playing the story mode with a second player; with such a random slog, when something satisfying somehow juts in, it becomes hard for either one of you to take credit. Credit — knowing who killed who — is everything in Smash Bros. X, and somehow having two players in the single-player mode somehow makes staying alive feel as cheap and dirty as dying repeatedly and credit-feeding Golden Axe. That stuff just isn’t funny.
It’s definitely not the “Tekken Force” mode from Tekken 3!
Eventually, the game got pretentious, portentous, and actually kind of rude. There are moments in the run up to the last stage (a hilariously giant Castlevania-like “exploration” maze) where the cut-scenes stop being funny and start feeling vaguely like what pornography must look like in the ecology-drenched world inhabited by the “Captain Planet” kids. Which is actually kind of hot — Wheeler would look awesome jerking off. What if he accidentally engaged the “FIRE!” ring?
There’s a moment close to the very, very end that turns this game with sudden fierceness into The Anti-Literature. A tear literally escaped my body at the point, though it actually came out my nose, and not my eye (had a car accident as a kid), so I’m still not gay. Faced with a terrifyingly bland, Final Fantasy-like final boss, the Single Greatest and Worst Moment in Videogame History happens. If you’re like me and you always play videogames with one of those sofa-side TV trays hovering over your lap, for God’s sake, if you don’t want tomato soup on the ceiling, exercise caution when approaching the final boss of this game.
I’m actually kind of serious when I say that, if the clusterhecking nonsense of the story mode — headgear-wearing &^#$# cutscenes, twelve hours of sloggy gameplay and all — existed only to increase the hideous size of that exclamation point right before the final boss, then I take back everything I said, and champion this game as worthy of Andy Warhol.
And then, it’s over. The game doesn’t need to put an ending in after what just happened; all we get is a wide-angle shot of all of the playable characters standing on a cliff, facing an orange sunset, the camera zooming back, as an orchestra, live via a cellular phone with really clear reception, belts out a terrific, Final Fantasy-like “credits theme”. There’s a choir, singing in German, or Latin, or one of those languages spoken only the cool people studied in high school, and every once in a while, the screen fades to black to show us title cards informing us of the deep and invigorating meaning of the words being sung: “He was my friend! He helped me out when I needed help! He was great! He was my hero! And then we stood there, together!”
Remember that scene in Final Fantasy VIII, where the main characters went up into space and were suddenly like “LOL, we’re in space?” And though the game graphics were still jaggy polygons, and though the dialog still existed in boxes, suddenly a real song started playing, with the fruitiest lyrics, and being sung by a girl? Most human beings, if they were living in a college dormitory the first and last time they played that game, got up and did the “rape-prevention” deadbolt. The ending of Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the exact opposite of that.
Of course, this music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu. That’s right, Nintendo fans — Nintendo assembled an expert team of, like, twenty composers from various videogame companies to remix 8- or 16-bit Nintendo blooping theme music into awesome orchestral perfection. Michiko Naruke, who exhibited excellent use of live whistling in the classic opening theme of Wild Arms, pays her respect by making an awesome medley of all the two-bar ocarina songs from Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And the ocarina songs all sound just like they sounded in Zelda! Yuzo Koshiro, whose expertly composed new-age or techno soundtracks to games like Ys or Streets of Rage, turns in a bitching, note-for-note recreation of the Legend of Zelda overworld theme. Yes!
(Lunar, Grandia, Radiata Stories composer) Noriyuki Iwadare and (Dawn of Mana, Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song composer) Kenji Ito turn in exceptional, chunky-bass Fire Emblem tracks.
(Mr. Masafumi Takada (Godhand, No More Heroes, killer7), meanwhile, does a couple of weird little tunes that kinda don’t fit the action.)
In the end, Smash Bros. X is what it is. Let’s be honest: It’s a random, carnival-like brawling “experience” that is probably going to be pretty fun at parties if everyone has played and attained a fair degree of skill at various old 2D side-scrolling action games. And that’s why we love it!
Since no professional videogame review being aggragated by MetaCritic is actually “real” without negative points, I’m going to use this paragraph to voice my concern about the game’s control scheme. Namely, the only way you’re going to be able to use a D-pad to move your character is if you play the game with just the Wiimote, which means that you have to press the A button with the side of your thumb and the hook-like pseudo-trigger B button with your middle finger to do a hard attack. Not too keen on that, thanks! I would rather use the Classic Controller’s brilliant D-pad (which I believe is the best D-pad of all time (I’ve verified this by playing through Landstalker with it)) to control my character. You can’t do this, however; though the game’s official website is smug enough to brag about the various controller-configuring menus, saying “We’ve thought of everything!” they actually haven’t thought of everything, because everything would mean I could use the D-pad to move.
Some people might say that the game doesn’t let you control movement with the D-pad because the analog stick is an integral part of the game design: you have to tap the analog stick hard in a specific direction as you press an attack button. I say that Virtua Fighter does a damn good job of having “short tap” and “long tap” special moves with just a digital joystick, and the execution time of said moves never feels longer than instantaneous. I want to double-tap that delicious, apple-pie-like, deep d-pad to run; I want to long-tap and short-tap to do smash attacks. My friends in the “Videogame Industry” tell me this is impossible in a game like Smash Bros. X, which is already taking huge risks and breaking tons of Nintendo’s internal rules (one of those rules being that a Nintendo-made game should neither have nor need a controller-input option menu), and that we should be glad we got as much as we did get, and that we should be doubly glad that this was all done in the interest of inviting The Casual Gamer to participate in the heated, old-school brawling action. Whatever. The default setting of the Classic Controller’s D-pad is left and right for “horizontal taunt”, up for “upward taunt”, and down for “downward taunt”. If Nintendo’s idea of inviting casual gamers into a hardcore game involves letting them do something useless in multiple directions, then I’d hate to see how they’re going to get hardcore gamers playing casual games, when that time comes. Are they going to invent overly complicated, customizable control schemes for a VCR-programming mini-game in Animal Crossing, where the A button operates the right index finger? On the other hand, a videogame that lets me customize my controls (thankfully, yes, I could make jumping button-activated and cancel the “up = jump” input) obviously assumes I know a thing or two about games, so why the stuff does it constantly put a little indicator over the character I’m controlling, even in the single-player mode — and only if I’m using a customized control scheme? I mean, why not put a “1P” indicator above someone who’s too dumb to make their own custom control scheme? It’s weird, and thinking about it actually kind of makes me lonely, like that screen on MySpace.com that keeps telling me “You must be someone’s friend to make comments about them”. Oh.
Seriously, not a single person whose hands I’ve plopped a Classic Controller into has not, immediately at the start of a match, pressed the D-pad to try to move, and instead initiated one taunt after another, after another, after another. I don’t know, though; maybe they were just really cocky professional players.
Also, online play is awesome. Smashing a buddy thousands of miles away, all without lag — that is heaven!
The high point of this game for me was, of course, being able to play as Sonic the Hedgehog, who I loved for his sharpness as a child and hated for his looseness as a man-child. In an age where every new game from Sonic Team controls like a stick of butter held vertical on a hot frying pan, Smash Bros. X emerges by default as the Best Game Starring Sonic the Hedgehog Since the Mega Drive Days. When I play as him, I’m so used to seeing him slide around helplessly in some of the most poorly-designed videogame stages of all time that I forget all my complaints about the controls and game design and allow myself to enjoy Sonic the Hedgehog not sucking.
I guess, by then, the game has its claws deep into my muscle fibers; I’m fantasizing, occasionally, about crafting custom stages for Sonic to play around in, and then sharing them with my friends. All the while, I wish that I could make my own characters, too. The recent-Smash Bros.-like Jump Superstars proved that Jump manga characters actually are cooler-looking than Nintendo characters. It’s enough to make you wonder.
It’s said that Katamari Damacy was originally plotted out with just spheres and cubes — roll this sphere around, sticking cubes and spheres to it, and it gets bigger. The personality of the game came afterward, and it kind of shows. I don’t even mean any offense by that: Katamari Damacy is a game of spectacularly skillful design. It’s fun, it’s amazingly well-conceived and executed, and the graphic design choices go above and beyond the call of duty to actually wedge some catharsis into the whole ordeal. The thing is, I’ve jerked myself into such a tizzy over Sonic the Hedgehog that it’s now very difficult for me to separate the concept of Smash Bros. from the execution. Did Hal Laboratory get an idea for an inverse fighting game (small characters and big stages instead of big characters and small stages) with a clever little play hook (knock the players off the edge, keep them from getting back up), or did Nintendo ask them to make a party-action game starring Nintendo characters, and this was the first thing they came up with? Would this game be worth any time at all with characters I didn’t recognize? Is this game just another Mario Golf, pulling Mario-addicted gamers to a completely different genre? From a Mario Golf perspective, it’s a hell of a success, though as the videogame for the Nintendo Wii that’s sold a million copies in the shortest amount of time — and, fatalistically, without even using any of the Wii’s selling points — it’s kind of embarrassing. Where the previous game let you discover figurines of characters during solo play, this game’s “big innovation” as regards the “collection” gimmick is to let the player also discover stickers, which they can then freely — and in 3D! — place on the figures they’ve collected via the museum mode. That Super Smash Bros. Brawl inspires people to do this sort of thing is a resounding testament to the fact that it might, perhaps, not be a terrible videogame. On paper, however, these things look scary, as though “videogames made me do it” is becoming as equally viable a defense for kleptomania as for multiple homicide. I mean, it’s got a Nintendogs . . . thing in it, wherein a polygonal puppy bounds up and paws at the screen. The thing is, the puppies in Nintendogs are crude computer-animated compromises for actual puppies; they’re not “Nintendo characters” per se. Putting them on a more mechanically capable machine than the Nintendo DS doesn’t make you exclaim, “Yay! A Puppy!” so much as it makes you scratch your head, identify subliminally that it’s a reference to Nintendogs, which is, yes, a videogame compromise for people who want a puppy and are just too lazy to get a puppy, and wonder why they didn’t just film an actual puppy, and then realize that if they did film an actual puppy, it would basically shatter the game’s vibe.
Or would it? The question you have to ask, at the end, is one of integrity: is there anything that can shatter this game’s vibe? Really? It might just be crafted from the ground up in the interest of all-encompassing immunity. We’ve already got a realistic human Solid Snake brandishing a realistic rocket launcher or sniper rifle against ultra-unrealistic humans like Ness from Mother 2, armed with a baseball bat, and a cartoon dinosaur named Yoshi, on a stage based on the Nintendo DS Picto-Chat application, where an unseen hand draws scratchy, sketchy lines that function as platforms. As a person who recently finished watching the entire series of “The Sopranos” and was amazed by the craft and sheer artistry of the finale, I feel vaguely insulted even thinking about how, in a world where BioShock (a game I, for the record, don’t even really like) exists, this tittering sack of fetish fragments called Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the game that just about everyone else who tangentially shares this hobby is looking forward to above anything else. God help us all when the walls start caving in.
At least I know where I’ll be when Jesus comes riding that great big Yoshi in the sky: sitting on my sofa with my best buds, engaged deep and fierce in a hard round of Super Smash Bros. Brawl — Action Button Dot Net‘s choice for best game of all time, laughing it up, sharing good times, right up until the last atom make-disappears itself.