Thursday, March 19, 2015

Super Smash Bros. 4 - Royalty Rumble

Once upon a time, fighting games were cruel, unforgiving titles only for the hardest of the hardcore gamer.  Games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Darksiders, and countless others were not mere entertainment:  they were battles to the digital death.  No nonsense, no tricks, just two players both at peak physical condition battling each other for glory.  These were games that required training under elderly sages in hidden Tibetan temples.  All so that you could master obscure combinations of buttons that might fire off a special attack.  Long hours of introspection under waterfalls to uncover the emotional discipline to pull off unbreakable combos would leave unprepared children feeling in tears from the arcade cabinets.

That all ended in 1999.  That year Nintendo unleashed a little party fighting game on the Nintendo 64, featuring cameos from its greatest and most profitable gaming series.  Mario, Link, Pikachu, Samus, and others battled in four-on-four matches in sprawling stages.  Special moves were pulled off with the ease of pressing B and a direction, making fighting games accessible to any newbie.  Rather than the deadly concentration of a black belt, "Super Smash Bros." rewarded luck, randomness, and cleverness.  The best player did not necessarily have to win, rather it was the one that grabbed the right item and could best manipulate the situation.  There were still plenty of frames to skip, physics exploits to learn, and combos.  But "Smash Bros." was above all the People's fighting game.

Super Smash Bros. has thrived and grown in popularity with each passing console generation, adding as many new fans as it adds characters to its roster.  The other fighting games now sit either growing more niche or more desperate for attention.  At this point the Smash Bros series is the only fighting series that really matters anymore.  So when a new game in the series comes out, it is not some small release, it is an epic event that tops out any new Nintendo console.  "Super Smash Bros. for Wii U" and "Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS" are two games with very long titles.  They are also the newest games in the Smash series, and thanks to their royal bloodlines, now rule the fighting game world by default.  But does heritage alone merit this domination?  Are they worthy of their throne?

(I'll save you the suspense:  Yes.)

"Super Smash Bros. 4" is one game divided on two consoles.  Where typically Smash was a console-only affair, the Nintendo 3DS allows you to finally beat up adorable cartoon characters on the go.  For the hardest core, 3DS Smash is clearly an inferior product.  The buttons locations and the grip never quite add up to same perfect balance of a GameCube controller.  It takes awhile before you quite get the hang of the handheld control but it does work.  Nothing really can compete with the party experience of friends, preferably inebriated, huddled around a single TV breaking each other's characters to pieces.  And this Wii U version supports eight characters at once, making the battles ever more unpredictable and intense.

To the world you're just a loser with a 3DS. In the game, you are the high emperor of Smash. The world can suck it.
Still, the 3DS version is not exactly terrible.  It is an extremely convenient little fighter, great for those droughts in your social life or waiting on line for games at PAX East.  Most of my experience with "Smash 4" comes from the 3DS game, just because it is so easy to play.  Nintendo had to work very hard to get all fifty-two playable characters on their handheld.  They removed a few characters that would not work, split up a few transforming characters into individual fighters, and created a mostly-functional if spotty online multiplayer system.  Because the screen is small and crampt, they added outlines to the characters, letting you to better follow the frenetic action of "Smash 4" when it is only centimeters tall.

However, those last two paragraphs really described the most exciting and innovate part of "Super Smash Bros. 4".  The biggest change is how you play the game, not what the game actually is.  Super Smash Bros. has always been about knocking your Nintendo icon opponent off the stage, either with your own attacks or with the random weapons and items falling from the sky.  Victory is achieved either through killing your friends the most time or if you're a player worth anything, you set it to Stock, and then the last one standing with remaining lives wins.  (Thus removing the kind of asshole player who hides in the corner and does nothing but steal kills.  Do not be friends with people like that.)  You have two sets of attacks set to the A and B buttons, along with grabs, an orb shield that defends your entire body from hits, and any number of extra skills.

Where the GameCube title "Melee" and the Wii title "Brawl" both seemed to add new interesting features to the franchise, essentially remaking the fighting game every time, "Super Smash Bros. 4" does not.  From the title on down there seems to be a conscious decision to not make this newest game particularly unique.  They might as well have called it "Super Smash Bros.: Another One".  The first game on the 64 has a sweet innocence about it, like a child playing with his toybox.  "Melee" aimed for hard cool, a kind of dangerous speedy action.  "Brawl" was consciously epic, from more realistic character designs to a main theme filled with Latin chanting, it was its own victory lap.  "Smash 4" has no personality of its own.  It has so little to say for itself it does not even have a proper single player mode.  Nothing on the scale of "Subspace Emissary", the lengthy impressive campaign for "Brawl",  was even considered for this game.  It barely even has an opening movie on the Wii U and none at all on the 3DS.

Smashing has never looked this good.
However execution and theming do not ultimately decide a fighting game, it is the fighting that decides a fighting game.  In terms of pure action and gameplay, "Super Smash Bros. 4", particularly on the Wii U, is the best this series has ever been*.  The game has been finely tuned and improved for another generation.  Little tweeks have been made to every character:  slow worthless fools like Bowser and Link can now actually move and are playable.  Meta Knight is no longer a ridiculous hurricane of broken.  You can customize your characters now slightly, choosing between three varieties of every one of their special attacks and adjusting their stats to fit your particular style.  Plus eight-man battles is something that no other fighting game at the moment could dare offer.  That is the ultimate cap to any great night of gaming socialization.

Actual battle physics are mostly the same as they were in "Brawl" with a few improvements.  "Smash 4" is measurably quicker than "Brawl" on both platforms, though still a bit slower than "Melee".  The best news though is that one of the dumbest mechanics of all time, random tripping for no reason, is gone.  Hopefully for good.  Another great change is that ledge gameplay has been completely reworked.  Where in older games your opponent could hog ledges dooming you to death, you now rip them off automatically when trying to save yourself from falling into oblivion.  It makes for prolonged battles and removes one of the cheapest tricks from the series.

(Though fucking Kirby can still sacrifice kill you whenever he wants.  That's not going anywhere.  I hate goddamn Kirby.  Don't be friends with Kirby players either.)

Really though, the deciding factor for a Smash game is the roster.  The character selection has never been better with dozens of unique characters to choose from... along with a ton of clone characters to also pick.  As I mentioned before this game has a whopping cast ranging from mainstays like Mario and the man with the greatest ass in existence, Captain Falcon, to newcomers like Shulk from "Xenoblade" and the Goddess Rosalina from "Super Mario Galaxy".  Particularly interesting are the cameos from old Nintendo titles, such as Mega Man who has not really been a Nintendo mainstay for decades now after he had eight straight games on the NES.  That asshole dog from "Duck Hunt" is a hidden character.  And then Pac-Man enters the fight, grandfathered into the fray because Namco is the primary developer of this title.

Hey don't be mean to Toon Link!!
You can be less happy with a few other roster choices in "Smash 4".  Sure, new characters like Robin from "Fire Emblem: Awakening" offer interesting opportunities and unique gameplay.  But then there are characters that really just do not have much reason to exist, such as Dark Pit.  Who is Dark Pit?  Well, he's just regular Pit, but dark, that's it.  Unfortunately due to licensing complications, Solid Snake could not return from "Brawl", despite being hugely popular and a fascinating character in terms of moves and strategy.  Pokemon Trainer from "Brawl" was removed and replaced by just Charizard, leaving poor Squirtle, the one part of that character I actually liked, gone forever.

Still these niggling issues can easily be forgiven if your favorite characters are back, which I am happy to report is the case with me.  Toon Link is my favorite video game character of all time and he has been my primary character ever since "Brawl" ruined Star Fox (who actually is much more usable this time around, but never again will reach his "Melee" heights).  My back-up character, the filthy whore hiding under a veneer of innocence, Princess Peach, is here too, ready to crack your jaw open with a golf club.  Even if you happened to be a fan of the now-MIA Ice Climbers, there are plenty of characters to choose from.  It might take a little while to realize the exact way to deal with "Animal Crossing" Villager or how exactly to get Greninja from "Pokemon X"'s counter move to work, but it is rewarding and well worth the effort.

"Super Smash Bros. 4" is a huge game with tons of modes and plenty to offer.  There is too much to explore even in the course of the three weeks of research play such as what went into this review.  I was able to spend a long time playing the Smash Run Mode on the 3DS, a brief single-player adventure that ends in a competitive battle against your opponents using the stats you acquire to dominate your foes.  I happen to really like that.  But then there is the Amiibo functionality, a brilliant marketing strategy from Nintendo which sells extremely overpriced action figures with little memory chips which create unbelievably strong CPU fighters from your own battle data.  I have not even begun to explore that.  Then there are Home Run Contests, Multi-Man Melees, gimmick fights, online tournaments, All-Star Runs against every other playable character, and thousands of trophies to collect.  This is a mind-bogglingly massive game.

Once again, Nintendo has done it.  They are a frighteningly effective company when it comes to stealing my heart.  The golden crown of fighting game domination has landed in their laps, and it appears that it is going to stay there for a very long time.  At least until somebody manages to find an ever better collection of video game royalty and throw them into an even stronger, more balanced, and deeper fighting game.  That is something that almost certainly is not going to happen for at least another console generation, and most likely the only fighting game to surpass "Super Smash Bros. 4" is going to be "Super Smash Bros. 5".

* Slightly tough call since "Melee" is probably slightly better in terms of speed and gamefeel.  It is an indescribable feeling, the physics of that game just work for me, no fighting game ever managed to match it.  "Melee" will stay in my Top 10 of Best Games Ever Made, I love it beyond the abilities of the English language to properly describe.


  1. The fighting game community still exists, and is huge, with multiple tournaments per year with huge turnouts. Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken, Soul Calibur, Marvel vs Capcom, the Dragon Ball Z games. All these series, and many, many more, still have huge fanbases. Just because Smash is one of the biggest and best fighting game series ever doesn't mean other fighting games are irrelevant.

    1. Smash Bros. is the last blockbuster fighting game left, that was the point I was making. Street Fighter and the others continue to thrive in their own little worlds, but they will never manage to get the financial, critical, and popular recognition that Smash does. I'm sure right now the traditional 2D fighter scene has never been better in some ways, they might even have more players then ever and online has made gaming better. Last year I played what has to be the best goddamn traditional fighting game ever made, "Persona 4 Arena" at E3. Love that thing to death.

      But Smash rules. There is no denying this. To the other fighting games, Smash is Taylor Swift, the only pop star that matters right now. (And the one with the best legs.)

  2. Hahahaha I love your opinion on Kirby players.
    Do to the fact Kirby was the first character I ever played on smash ,every new smash I play the first character I play as is Kirby, even though he's never one of my mains.

    Ikes my man, with Fox and pit being my usual fallbacks.

    Sword Of Primus
    P.S If you can hunt down a copy a great fighter is Tatsunoko vs Capcom on the WII.