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Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) artwork

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) review

"Defining Moment of the Smash Spirit"

IMPORTANT! Be sure to check out this review's Project M mod companion article, as well as the reviews for Smash 64 and Melee for context, if you wish.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) image

Super Smash Brothers, Nintendo's unconventional crossover fighting game series with an emphasis on multi-directional movement and ring-out scoring, has always been a series in a state of flux. The original game transformed from an original title offering only a selection of indistinct polygon men into a Nintendo crossover of historical proportions by virtue of a hail-Mary prototype series director Masahiro Sakurai presented to his higher-ups, and development for games in the series hasn't gotten much easier since. Shouldering the weight of being largely responsible for selling a new console, Super Smash Bros. Melee with a development window of only thirteen months to add a wealth of much-needed new content with the code of new hardware. Similarly, Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a title birthed from internal conflict, and its drastic design choices have made it subject to more outside conflict than any other game in the series.

As a game director, there are more ideal starts to developing your game than having your company's CEO announce at a press conference that a new game in the series is under way on new hardware... before you're let in on that little detail. At E3 2005, late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata announced that a new Smash Bros. game was bound for the launch of Nintendo's upcoming console (then titled the "Nintendo Revolution"), which was news to our perpetually tormented friend Sakurai. Only the next day did Iwata offer him a role as head of this project -- Sakurai accepted, of course -- and this sheer panic of an occasionally delayed development cycle shows in the final product, although perhaps not immediately so.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) image

For a game that officially entered development the day after it was announced at a press conference, Brawl has a boatload of content and changes, and it's a joy to dig into these as soon as that grand operatic intro hits you -- the music, as always, is exceedingly excellent -- and the sleek menus unfold. The selection of characters was arguably the best the series had produced thus far, with facets of Nintendo's legacy in the form of R.O.B. (a gimmick device that helped sell the NES) and Olimar (from the then-prominent Pikmin series) joined by third-party newcomers Sonic the Hedgehog and Metal Gear's Solid Snake, further realizing the Smash Bros. spirit of representing the great faces of gaming history as well as trimming some fat by replacing Melee's Young Link and Roy with the more original Toon Link and Ike. These icons team up in the most notable addition outside of vs battles, an ambitious campaign mode dubiously titled the Subspace Emissary, a beat-'em-up quest with a strange plot (to use the term loosely) across a regrettably generic setting. As fun as it can be to team up with a buddy to beat up some brainless baddies and see the fan-servicing cutscenes, the Subspace Emissary can be devoid of its own character due to Brawl's gritty aesthetic (likely an attempt at the oft-fruitless aim of next-gen realism or an aesthetic cohesive that has been better achieved by the more vivid upcoming Smash Ultimate); compare this 10+ hour journey though relatively nondescript forests, caverns, and such to the 30 minute romp through colorful Nintendo worlds that Melee's adventure mode offered. Regardless, the variety of items, collectables, playable characters, and minor customization make the mode worthwhile, but the core battle mode has its own additions, as well.

Accompanied by more match options and better bot AI, even the multiplayer is bigger than ever, with the widest selection of items and stages on display thus far to represent the similarly diverse player roster, although all this is not necessarily for the best. Battlegrounds range from a Mario Kart racetrack to a battleship from the Kirby series, as well as some locations familiar to the Smash series, although most of the unobtrusive past stages have been excluded here, perhaps with the shallow map creator function intended to make up for the loss (it didn't). The selection makes for excellent spectacle, to be sure, yet almost all the stages have some sort of obstacles to harm the players, often to the point of being a greater danger than the players themselves, and there are no options to disable these nuisances. Speaking of uneven play, the most memorable new items are the ones that deliver fanservice at any cost; the Smash Ball and the Assist Trophy, which allow for an extremely powerful attack and summon an ally, respectively. The former is fun to watch and The latter has some interesting gameplay shakeups in the form of Shadow the Hedgehog altering time and SimCity's Devil changing the borders of the stage, yet most summons just show up to run around and attack others, and some (like the screen-obscuring Nintendog) are annoying and gimmicky. It's a fun selection of party tricks, but it isn't much more than that; a series of spectacles that eventually runs out, prompting a purchase of the next game when it comes out. Going all-in on the path of the interchangeable and disposable Mario Party series is a massive shift in focus as far as core gameplay is concerned, and not one with much staying power, as the still-thriving Melee community and the non-existent Brawl scene attest.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) image

The prior game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Melee, was a giant in the competitive scene, providing a low skill floor and intuitive gameplay for newcomers to enter the series and a high skill ceiling and nuanced techniques for diehard fans to constantly improve their skill, with new strategies and exploits being found to this day. Brawl, on the other hand, slows down gameplay and engages in intricate tweaking to make the game not necessarily easier for newcomers but certainly less ideal for competitive play. The most apparent change is simply dialing back the swift responsiveness of player input and character animation, as well as floatier movement in general. Worse yet, momentum isn't preserved when jumping, meaning that as you run forward, you do not travel in an arc according to your velocity but instead enter a neutral state of speed as you jump; you might as well be standing still before you jump forward. This invokes a feeling of sluggishness and violates the satisfyingly tactile feel a video game should strive for; going from Melee to this is akin to playing the original Super Mario Bros. after playing Mario 3 onward. To complement this back-step with a literal misstep, Brawl has "tripping," a random chance that, whenever your character walks or runs, he will fall on his face and be reduced to a state of utter vulnerability. As if this wasn't horrible enough, every single input the player makes has a chance of being delayed up to two frames, a nigh-undetectable subterfuge that still inevitably affects play. While communicative animations and ever-solid sound design can still make Brawl feel fine in its own right, past standards and baffling design doom Brawl's movement, the most fundamental component of the gameplay, to be unacceptably unreliable.

What's so strange about most of these such design choices -- many a page could be written about the exclusions of various Melee techniques and the presence of a day-one Ubisoft title's worth of glitches -- is that they don't make the gameplay any more approachable. Does having to play Russian roulette whenever you so much as take a step make a game any more intuitive or appealing? It doesn't make for an easier induction so much as it limits how far your ability can get you, especially considering how unbalanced the game is, with infinite combos and overpowered characters about. At best, tripping and input delay nonsense have negligible effect on casual play, while it eliminates desire to hone one's skill. The general retardation of gameplay and importance of chance does not elevate the casual to the skilled's level so much as it reduces the potential of skill to a sluggish sameness. It's not unlike how console FPS titles dumb down gameplay from their PC counterparts and build around the bad foundation, and look where that left the genre for several years around the turn of the century: with not much of a lower skill floor but a severely lowered skill ceiling where it counted.

As for why these designs were made if they don't necessarily make the game much easier for everyone to pick up, it could be that they were intended to mask the spottiness of online play or make up for the unreliability of the joystick-less base Wii remote, which Sakurai was forced to make the game compatible for. Was Brawl a realization of a goal to make Smash Bros. an experience without a high skill ceiling at all? If so, why did Melee have specifically programmed animations for advanced techniques or 64 have tutorials for the likes of Z-canceling? Many, if not all, of the techniques utilized in high-level Melee play are not present by accident. That Brawl's bad design facets are not optional make it certain that Sakurai didn't really mean it when it said the series was meant to be played by anyone, the way they wanted it. Brawl certainly sold well, but its minimal staying power today in the face of more challenging titles is a testament to the result of lack of depth, despite all the spectacular content surrounding it. What a shame that such blazing potential is held back by such a contrarian core...

...Yet this doesn't end the chapter of Brawl.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) image

Over time, the modding scene boldly stepped up to correct the problems imbued in Brawl, achieving gameplay that approximates, if not outright surpasses the lofty standards set by Melee. Faster gameplay? Better balancing? The return of advanced techniques? All that and more. What's really delightful about the modding scene is that it fully realizes the glacier of potential Brawl had buried by making the gameplay so glacially slow, all the while adding droves more content to dig into. Fans do a great job making the likes of Bethesda games functional, yet the minds behind such works as Project M, Legacy, and the BrawlVault community as a whole are truly something else, especially considering just how deep-running and fundamental the fixes go. This likely proved a catalyst in the official series itself, with Nintendo reversing the course Brawl had taken to make Smash 4 a more ideal balance of accessibility plus depth as Project M achieved and with the upcoming Ultimate bringing back content of previous games in the way the Legacy XP mod has done.

The fact that years of effort went into making Brawl an impressive spectacle, years of fan effort went into making it a great game, and that years more still shall be spent improving it further is a testament to what Super Smash Bros. is, really. It's something that's bigger than any one company, any one brand, any one craftsman. It's a community that makes great memories and great creations together. It isn't just a crossover of video game icons; it's a crossover of players, programmers, musicians, reviewers, and much, much more. That's the Smash Spirit. And that's the way it should be.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (October 28, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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