Brawl is a difficult game to review because it exists in two different worlds. To the hardcore Nintendo fan, it is the epitome of all that is right with gaming. By bringing out all your favorite characters of the past 20+ years coming together to duke it out in a variety of creative and nostalgic levels, Nintendo has given its fans everything they could ever want and more. To the casual gamer, however, Smash is little more than a frantic fighter, with a bunch of random characters thrown together in cartoonish landscapes. These gamers can never understand why a little pink ball of fluff seems to be more powerful than a full-size gorilla, and they have no idea why the idea of Mario, Link, Pickachu, and Samus all facing off is such a tantalizing experience. At the end of the day, Nintendo has decided to pull out all the stops to make a game diehard fans are sure to love, and they manage to succeed in nearly every respect.
For the uninitiated, Brawl serves as the quintessential 2-D fighter. Up to four characters face off on a single stage, with the objective being to dish out enough damage that you are able to knock your foes off the screen and out of the fight. If it sounds like a simple premise, that’s because it absolutely is. There are no complicated moves to memorize, no lengthy combos to practice, and no secret moves to conjure. All combat is dictated by the control stick (or pad) and two buttons, made to welcome newcomers, while giving veterans the opportunity to experiment until they can find the perfect strategy with their favorite characters. A word to the wise: you are best served playing the game with either a Gamecube controller or the Classic controller in order to get the full Brawl experience. The game supports all control styles, but these two offer the most robust combat with minimal finger twisting. The Wiimote/Nunchuck combo is also a viable alternative, but stay away from using the Wiimote alone, as the game becomes nearly unplayable.
In what can only be described as fanboy nirvana, Nintendo has expanded the roster to include 35 brawlers from across the gaming universe. Series mainstays like Kirby, Jigglypuff, and Mario remain, and they are joined by newcomers such as Pit of Kid Icarus fame and Marth from the Fire Emblem series. Also rounding out the cast are Sonic the Hedgehog and Solid Snake, two non-Nintendo mascots who make appearances nonetheless. It seems as though the inclusion of these two heralds an exciting future for the franchise, and gamers everywhere can begin salivating as the wonder what would happen if other favorites such as Master Chief or Ratchet and Clank were thrown into the mix.
Nearly as important as who will fight is where the beatdowns will take place. Brawl gives you opportunity to choose your arena by offering 40 different stages in which to do battle. While some are simple, fairly inactive areas, others are quite lively due to environmental hazards or benefits depending on where you happen to be standing. The constant fluctuations give the stages so much more life than most fighters and really make the whole experience feel more organic. Truly, the variety of stages and multitude of fighters mean that in all the time you spend with Brawl you’ll likely never play the same game twice.
Oh, and you will be spending a lot of time with this game, make no mistake about that. Brawl is first and foremost a multiplayer affair, whose bread and butter is getting a roomful of friends to sit down and duke it out (digitally, of course). In addition to the standard moveset, you can still snatch up items that litter the stage to use against opponents, as well as assist trophies that call out particular characters to come to your aid during battle. New this time around is the Final Smash, an attack which allows whoever possesses it to unleash carnage so massive that it borders on unfair. The Final Smash attacks, when successful, nearly guarantees a KO and can change the complexion of the battle in an instant. No doubt numerous friendships will be ruined and controllers flung due to a well-placed Final Smash that cost the current match leader that seemingly assured victory.
Nintendo has tried to really up the multiplayer experience this time around by including online battles, but this is one area where things fall flat. Connection and lag issues abound, and many gamers have a hard time joining a game let alone finishing one due to server issues. Furthermore, there is no voice chat whatsoever, and when you are playing against strangers (anyone you haven’t exchanged Friend Codes with), you won’t even be able to see their name above their character. Basically, playing online is the same as playing against the computer, only this time you have an actual person to blame when just as you are about to make it back from the brink of death they whack you with a baseball bat and send you spiraling into the background.
For those without friends, there are also a few single-player modes, but none of them are particularly noteworthy. Classic modes lets you select a character and then take that mascot through a series of challenges in order to reach the final boss. It’s the same setup we’ve seen before in previous Super Smash Bros. games, but nixing it would be akin to heresy, so it stays. There are also Challenge and Arena modes to allow you to mix things up a bit when you grow tired of pounding your enemies senseless.
These modes are just the appetizer though, as the bulk of the single-player experience can be found in the Subspace Emissary. The storyline is virtually incomprehensible (no dialogue or subtitles to help move the story along), but the basic gist of things is that the bad guys are imprisoning heroes in the form of trophies and it’s up to the remaining characters to free their friends and put a stop to all this. As you play, you’ll be granted access to a number of different characters, giving you the freedom to mix it up with as many different fighters as you care to try.
While the Subspace Emissary is a fully realized mode, it still feels like it’s not quite completely there as a legitimate gameplay experience. The entire adventure is presented in 2-D sidescrolling fashion, and there’s so little variety to the levels that it all starts to run together after a couple hours. Further compounding the drudgery, there aren’t all that many enemy types, so you’ll be mainly fighting the same handful of baddies with the same attacks and weaknesses over and over until you’ve basically stopped caring.
The biggest issue, however, is the fact that the control scheme has been lifted straight out of the main game, which is a recipe for disaster. Platformers need a devoted jump button, and flicking the control stick up to jump is far too imprecise for a mode that often requires exceptional timing. Also, characters have a tendency to “skate” once they get moving, making quick stops and hard turns tough to execute. Finally, you must be very careful when even moving your character, as it’s easy to accidentally dash across the screen and right into a pit or enemy when all you were attempting to do was ease your way across the map.
It’s unfortunate that the Subspace Emissary has so many flaws, as it could have been a genuinely fun experience if some more polish had been added. As it stands, it’s currently little more than an alternative vehicle for unlocking characters for those who either don’t want to play the requisite 300+ matches it takes to get the full roster. With both the weak online support and the boring Subspace Emissary, Nintendo has made it perfectly clear that Brawl is a game that is to be primarily (and only) enjoyed with friends.
It’s obvious by now that Brawl is everything Nintendo wanted it to be, a labor of love devoted to the most hardcore of fans. The series has led a charmed existence since all the way back in 1999, when the first game came out of nowhere to lay claim to massive success. Brawl continues the series to a logical point, adding more characters and stages, all while keeping the core gameplay intact. Those playing this game as a party title meant to entertain friends and settle bar bets will find fun in droves, but lone players hoping to be roped in by an engaging story or take part in epic online matches will be sorely disappointed. One thing is for sure, if you have three other friends to play with, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the most fun you can have on the Wii.