Super Smash Bros. is a game that, quite frankly, was never meant to be. No, I’m not saying its success was unexpected, I’m saying Nintendo deliberately tried to kill the game before it was even first released on the Nintendo 64. HAL Laboratories was trying to reinvent the fighting game genre to work with four players, and originally it wasn’t meant to star Nintendo’s showcase characters. The budget was small, the marketing was nonexistent outside of a very famous commercial, and it was never actually going to leave Japan if it hadn’t been such a smash hit in-country. But here we are, fifteen years later, and the game that broke all the rules about fighting games is breaking all the boundaries it can.
As with the previous three iterations of Super Smash Bros., players select their favorite Nintendo character or one of a handful of third-party guests, then proceed to cast, kick, pummel, or blast their rivals into submission. Damage accumulates on characters, making them less able to resist the extreme knockback effects of Smash attacks as their counters get higher. If a character is thrown too far beyond the boundaries of the screen, they are out; game modes that define victory as the most knockouts or the least falls are available. In addition to the frenetic multiplayer battle mode, the Wii U and 3DS games offer adventure modes and minigames for players to hone their skills in.
This fourth-generation installment of the series is the first to feature on a handheld console, and it was the 3DS version which released first this past October. Featuring the same massive cast of characters as the Wii U version, the 3DS card includes as its adventure mode “Smash Run”. In Smash Run, players are placed in a massive labyrinth filled with both their rivals and a plethora of foes; the fighters have five minutes to roam the maze, defeating the mooks and collecting powerup markers affecting their base stats. At the end of regulation time, a battle against the rival characters ensues, with random rules and/or victory conditions. Smash Run is a fun idea on paper, but the grunt monsters are too well-defended compared to the flimsy defenses of the other fighters. Worse, there’s no way to know in advance or to influence what the rules of the final battle are; this creates situations where you have spent five aggravating minutes maximizing your attack stat at the expense of speed, only for the battle to be a literal footrace.
The Wii U version dispenses with Smash Run in favor of Smash Tour, a board game conceit more reminiscent of Mario Party or Fortune Street than anything prior. Players roam a board collecting character and stat icons, similar to the setup in Smash Run, but when players collide on the board, a brief battle ensues to swap and steal those icons. In the end, players engage in a stock battle with as many lives as they have characters. Again, it’s a great idea in theory, but players have limited control over which characters they can work with at any given moment, and despite the efforts to balance the cast, sometimes you’re gonna get stuck with duds.
But the main draw of Smash Bros. is always the core battle game, and I’m glad to say that there is simply no better fighting game on the market right now. Combining the speed of Super Smash Bros. Melee with the forgiving mechanics of Brawl, the engine in Wii U/3DS is crisp and slick; you never feel like your character is slogging through molasses or that you’re fighting the controls more than your opponents. While the 3DS version is understandably limited to the built-in controller, the Wii U version allows you to use any controller Nintendo had first released in the 21st century. Literally. While the adapter to connect Gamecube controllers is in short supply as of this writing, using more recent controllers such as the Wii Classic Controller Plus or the Wii U Pro Controller is smooth and effortless. Using the Wii U GamePad as a controller was difficult for me, though; I was far more than happy enough to just use one of my classics. And if you’re feeling extra ambitious, the 3DS version can sync to the Wii U to act as a controller on its own. Which is convenient for the 8-player battle mode on the big screen.
Nintendo has done a pretty good job of making the game “future-proof” by promising DLC characters. Mewtwo, the psychic powerhouse Pokemon, is scheduled to be released in early 2015, and is being offered free to owners of both versions. In addition, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the first game to make use of Nintendo’s new Amiibo figures, which were released alongside the game. (Amiibo functionality is scheduled to be patched in to the already-released Mario Kart 8 early next year as well.) Amiibo are, for lack of any better description, Skylander figures with Nintendo skins. Using the GamePad’s built-in NFC sensor, the figures store artificial intelligence data for the characters they represent, making them capable of learning from human and computer opponents. At Level 1, Amiibo figures are little more than ambulatory targets; by Level 15 they start becoming consistently able to read your moves and challenging your personal style; when they reach their cap of Level 50 they can rival top tournament players. The figures are well-sculpted and gorgeously painted, but the implementation of the system leaves a little bit to be desired. Amiibo level up too quickly, making them frustrating opponents in too short order. There’s no tweaking of the AI possible, meaning that if it learns a bad habit, the only way to retrain it is constant battling. Worse still, the figures’ main selling point– that they can be used across several games– is slightly not as advertised; an Amiibo can only be formatted for one title at a time. While this works well for figures that aren’t in multiple games, such as Marth or Mega Man, some of the more familiar faces like Mario and Peach can’t fight and drive at the same time. In the end, the Amiibo feature is an afterthought in contrast to the extremely well-developed customization of existing characters and Mii Fighters.
It should also be noted that the Amiibo features will be patched in to the 3DS version as well. Why aren’t they there already? Well, ask yourself this: why would Amiibo be added to a system that doesn’t have an NFC sensor? The answer is also why the 3DS version has an aggravatingly long initial loading time: it was programmed with Nintendo’s New 3DS system in mind, which launched in Japan alongside the 3DS version in October. North America and Europe did not get the New 3DS in 2014, and as of this writing Nintendo has not announced a release date for the rest of the world. Presumably the silence was meant to avoid gutting sales of 3DSes and 2DSes, particularly with the one-two punch of Smash and Pokemon hitting this holiday season, but it is still infuriating.
Honestly, though, even with the somewhat quirky nature of the minigames and unlock schemes, at the end of the day this is quite simply the biggest reason to own a Wii U. It’s also a damn compelling reason to get your 3DS warmed up again. Focusing on what Smash does best– fast-paced battles with a horde of your childhood heroes– has made these titles must-owns, and while the extra content such as trophies and Home Run Derby is nice to have, it doesn’t detract at all from the just-about-perfect main game. This game is one that hits Fifth Gear and doesn’t let up.