Super Smash Brothers: Room for Improvement?

As the release of Nintendo’s Wii U grows ever closer day by day, it brings with it the promise of a new Super Smash Bros. title at some point during the console’s lifespan. Considering that Super Smash Bros. Brawl was not hugely dissimilar to Melee in terms of scope, many will be excited to see what kind of improvements will come along with the Wii U’s increased hardware power: the detail of the models and stages, the size of the roster, the range of game modes, the quality of online play.

And whilst these possibilities are quite exciting, I’m a little more interested in how Nintendo will handle some of the finer, less tangible details – many of which will likely not be all that easily communicated via press release screenshots or promotional trailers.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim and great commercial success. Having anticipated it eagerly, I picked it up on launch day and burned through the content, unlocking every stage and character, and the majority of the trophies. Regular multiplayer matches caused it to take up residence in the Wii’s disc slot for a month or two, but surprisingly, it was quickly forgotten shortly thereafter. My friends and I grew strangely apathetic and disinterested in the game relatively quickly, especially when compared to our experience with Melee, which clocked a playtime of thousands of hours. On the surface everything seemed to be an improvement – a bigger roster of characters, a larger number of stages, a dedicated singleplayer story mode, a fantastic orchestrated soundtrack, online play – and yet it had only a fraction of the lifespan of Melee.

The sheer amount of time we had already invested in Melee was definitely partly to blame for our lack of interest. After all, Brawl didn’t showcase the same jump in features and spectacle that Melee had over the original game on the N64. It was, by and large, pretty similar to Melee, and lacked the novelty of its predecessor. However, after mulling it over in my head over the course of a couple of months, I decided that Brawl was, in my mind at least, a worse game than Melee. Still, my reasoning behind this opinion often differed from the reasoning of forum-goers and commenters across the internet – (it is largely regarded that Melee is the superior game, at least as far as depth of gameplay goes). Many users complained about the dumbing-down of competitive play through the removal of certain advanced techniques, such as wave dashing, or L-canceling. However, this didn’t really apply to my friends and me: none of us had ever even attempted to wave dash, nor was the lowering of a skill-ceiling something which would effect our play with one another. Indeed, to be fair, some of the techniques that were removed appeared to depend on the exploitation of unintended design flaws.

Now, by no means was Brawl a bad game – in fact, it’s very good, and well worth checking out at the very least. However, it’s by no means perfect, and in some respects, worse than its prequel. For the sake of clarity and convenience, my contentions with the game will be presented in list form.

1. The Subspace Emissary sucked. The Subspace Emissary was made out to be the Story mode option of Brawl, as well as a replacement for the Adventure mode of Melee. It boasts gorgeous CG cutscenes featuring the Brawl cast, as well as boss battles against well-known franchise villains, such as Petey Piranha and Ridley. Unfortunately, that’s about all it has going for it. The story was threadbare, the level design was repetitive and bland, the gameplay was monotonous, and it ultimately felt like a chore that had to be slogged through in order to unlock content for other modes. Embarrassingly, Melee’s Adventure mode remains a much more enjoyable and interesting experience overall, despite only lasting the guts of about 20 minutes on each run, whereas Subspace Emissary gives a play time of about 10 hours, give or take. Disc space and development time that could have been given over to other game modes was instead used up by this lackluster option. I’d like to see either a return to a short Adventure-style game mode in the sequel, or go the full hog and give each character their own short story mode á la every fighting game ever – interspersed with a little dialogue, the odd boss fight and bookended by some mini-cutscenes. Trying to fit the entirety of the 30-strong cast into a single story appears to be a futile and messy task, filled with compromise.

2. Cloned characters. Wolf, Falco, and Fox. Ganondorf and Captain Falcon. Toon Link and Adult Link. I have no problem with characters sharing certain elements of their playstyle with one another, but Brawl had seven characters that were practically model swaps of one another. I’m adamant in my belief that characters absolutely must have their own individual special moves. Now, I know adding cloned characters takes less effort/time/money than developing a whole new addition to the cast, but I’d happily sacrifice three clones or a game mode for an extra “true” character or two. Imagine replacing Toon/Young Link with Fierce Deity Link instead: give him a slower, stronger set of moves and movements to suit his huge, double-helix sword, maybe the ability to fire projectile discs from it – somewhat similar to Link’s regular ol’ Bow n’ Arrow combo, but perhaps faster and with a shorter range. Drop the clones, and instead incorporate fresh characters with their own mechanics and tactics to be mastered.

3. Costume changes. Historically, the Smash Bros. series has only ever offered players the ability to change the colours on their selected character as a means of differentiation/customisation, with the odd exception here and there (for instance, Wario can switch between his standard Warioware attire and his classic dungarees). This is an area with great and obvious potential for expansion. For example, Samus Aran alone has a multitude of power suits in her series’ history to draw on for wardrobe fodder. Imagine an in-game shop stocked with various costumes/model changes to buy with in-game currency. This would also allow for model swaps to be incorporated into the game without hurting gameplay in the process – for example, you could buy Daisy to be used as a model swap for Peach, or Dr. Mario to be used in place of Mario. The only possible downside to this would be a reduction in character recognition amongst newer players: “Who is that? Is Daisy an unlockable character? Why does she use all of Peach’s moves?” However, after a bit of play time this problem would be quickly surmounted, and I’d happily trade this inital inconvenience for a wider range of customisation all-round.

4. Lack of diversity amongst roster. There’s a clear over-representation of certain franchises in Brawl’s selection of characters, reducing the number of slots that could be given over to lesser-known series and thereby improving the level of diversity amongst the roster overall. Three Star Fox characters that all possess largely the same abilities is too many, and Pokémon swamps the roster: there’s three separate monsters to play as, and a trainer character that uses another three Pokémon to fight with. Sure, they’re recognisable (for the most part anyway), and come with a bunch of easy-to-translate abilities from their native games, but do we really need six of them? Nintendo has a wealth of intellectual properties to choose from, featuring characters with colourful back-stories and histories of their own. For instance, you could add Sami or Max from Advance Wars, or Dark Samus from the Prime trilogy, Tom Nook or Redd the Fox from Animal Crossing, Skull Kid (sure, the Zelda roster is well-fleshed out, but I have a soft spot for Majora’s Mask, I must admit), Saki Amamiya from Sin and Punishment, Jill from Drill Dozer, Little Mac, Chibi-Robo, Count Bleck, etc. I’d prefer to see a more even spread of representatives from less celebrated franchises in general, even if it was in the form of a single character – I’d trade one of the two Earthbound or Fire Emblem characters in a heartbeat for a single character from another somewhat obscure series.

5. Level design. Brawl was plagued with simplistic, symmetrical levels. So many of the levels featured in the game were made up of little more than a few small platforms hovering over one larger one. “But that’s all any Smash Bros. game has ever done,” I hear you cry! Nonsense my good fellows, nonsense. Let’s take Onett from Melee for want of an example. Here, there are platforms, but they’re grounded within the universe they’re supposed to be depicting – you jump across shop facades, rooftops, tree branches and clotheslines. Compare this with Spear Pillar, Lylat Cruise or Shadow Moses, which lack the organic asymmetry of Onett, and seem content to instead provide some random floating platforms placed in front of a themed background. As a result they feel sterile, shallow and artificial.

New Pork City appears to try to emulate Hyrule Temple from Melee, by providing a large, open stage on which to fight, and even appears similar in layout. However, because it’s constructed with very regular geometric shapes, it’s much less interesting both visually and thematically, as well as from a gameplay perspective. In fact it’s almost too open, lacking the natural corridors of the lower sections of Hyrule Temple, making it very difficult to achieve a KO without having your opponent already battered black and blue.

Brawl also places greater emphasis on stage-specific gimmicks in order to make them more interesting to fight on. And whilst the developers’ hearts were in the right place, they often become overly intrusive in practice, breaking the flow of the game. For example, the stage Hanenbow is made up of leaf platforms that change their angle when hit by a character’s attack or by the native stage creatures. Depending on their angle the music of the stage changes; in theory this is a very interesting idea, but in reality it ultimately just frustrates and gets in the way of the action. There are also a couple of levels that draw from classic games, like a sidescrolling Super Mario Bros. level, or a Donkey Kong stage. Unfortunately, these stages are translated exactly as they appeared within their original game, and while they may have made compelling levels in platformers or arcade games, their layout doesn’t quite work within the framework of Super Smash Bros. Large characters are especially poorly suited to the small platforms featured within these stages.  What could have been a neat and historic addition to the level roster instead feels as though it were shoehorned in for nostalgia’s sake.

6. Ledge grabbing. I didn’t like how they dumbed down the range at which a character does a recovery grab onto the edge of the stage in Brawl. No longer did you have moments where you’d be on the edge of your seat, wondering if you’d just about tip your fingers onto the nearby ledge. Instead you just locked into place like some kind of magnetic freak. Basically, it went from “OHSHITISHEGONNAMAKEITOHDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMN” to “OHSHITISH– Oh”.

7. Lack of visual clarity. This is a significant problem that Nintendo runs the risk of creating with the newfound graphical power of the Wii U. Given access to the extra figurative cylinders at the heart of the console’s engine, there is a great temptation to wring as much eye candy out of it as possible, and blast the socks off the kids drooling over the subsequent screenshots in the process. Indeed, it’s pretty enticing to imagine the greater graphical fidelity the Wii U could bring to the series, but I must rain on this parade and instead offer some dour words of warning. When Brawl rolled around, it brought with it a slight graphical enhancement over its predecessor. Initially, the extra spit and polish was great – explosions were prettier, characters were more detailed and backgrounds were more vibrant. However, the additional layer of sheen soon began to make itself feel unwelcome. Stages like Lylat Cruise have backgrounds packed with spaceships, streaking lasers and exploding meteorites, which, although pretty, are occasionally too lively and active, and begin to obscure the action taking place in the foreground as a result. In a fast-paced game like Super Smash Bros., the visuals must be clear and easy to read, so that the player can adequately keep track of the action on-screen and not feel overwhelmed by superfluous information. There were rare moments in Brawl where’d I lose track of my character’s position in the confusion of a screen transition or a background change and die as a result. Ultimately, I felt as though I had been screwed over by the game and that the death wasn’t my fault, which is a terrible response for any title to engender in a player. Control and ownership of any mistake the player makes is an incredibly important part of any game, let alone a competitive multiplayer beat-’em-up. Nintendo will need to exercise caution in implementing any graphical improvements in the sequel, or run the risk of degrading the quality of the gameplay in the process.

8. Smash Balls. Man, eff this shit. Smash balls were a controversial addition to the series amongst my friends and I: on the one hand, the special attacks were often totally awesome and cool to watch – seeing Ganon roar across the screen or watching Samus unleash a gargantuan laser beam is always welcome. However, they often had the potential to completely break gameplay. Some of the characters had completely overpowered Final Smash attacks – like Sonic’s Super transformation, or the Landmaster tank called down by Fox. Others had pretty pathetic powers if they managed to break the ball: for instance, Pit summons a crowd of weak and easily avoided enemies on screen. If a KO is ever achieved as a result of this, it’s safe to say that you have witnessed a minor miracle. Ultimately, my main contention with the Smash Balls is that they’re sometimes used to balance out weaker characters. This would be fine if stronger characters had poor Final Smash attacks, but that’s definitely not the case: for example, Falco is often viewed as one of the best characters in the game but also has one of the most powerful Final Smashes. I’d love to see Nintendo leave Smash Balls out of the equation when balancing characters in the sequel, and continue to allow us to turn ’em off if we still dislike them.

And there you have it, pretty much all of my niggles with Brawl laid out in a somewhat concise manner. If Nintendo wishes to better Melee and Brawl (at least in my eyes), they’d do well to keep some of these points in mind. Also, leave Pac-Man out. He’s a total dorkus.

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