The "Super Smash Bros." series is a Nintendo-developed fighting game that takes scores of iconic Nintendo characters and throws them into virtual arenas to knock the living daylights out of one another.
Nintendo has traditionally produced one major series installment per console generation. In typical Nintendo franchise fashion, gamers have always gotten one "Super Smash Bros." game per console generation: the original on the Nintendo 64, "Melee" on the GameCube and "Brawl" on the Wii. But earlier this year, Nintendo released the first version of the fourth "Super Smash" game on the Nintendo 3DS. It’s still good, but the scope of a "Smash" game doesn’t translate all that well to a tiny 3DS.
We knew a home console version was coming, but the question was, would it be good enough to warrant the wait?
Spoiler: Yes. Yes it is.
The character roster is absolutely fantastic; if you count gender variations, there are more than 60 fighters to choose from in "Super Smash Bros." for Wii U. Old favorites and Nintendo cornerstones like Mario, Link and Kirby all return, but they’re joined by an interesting cast of newcomers, from obvious choices (more "Fire Emblem" characters, one of the most-represented franchises in the series) to the obscure (Shulk from the excellent yet overlooked "Xenoblade Chronicles") and the bizarre (Duck Hunt Dog). You don’t start out with all of these characters unlocked; you earn the right to fight them once you complete certain match types or milestones.
There are a few snubs, of course (how Isaac from "Golden Sun" hasn’t been introduced while so many "Fire Emblem" swordsmen have had places is beyond me), but there’s something for everyone. Sonic the Hedgehog returns as a guest character, joined by new guests Mega Man and Pac-Man -- you’ll find someone you know, even if you haven’t played a game since the George H.W. Bush administration. Nintendo will also grant a bonus fighter to those who buy the 3DS version of the game as well (Mewtwo), though the official company line is that there won't be any paid downloadable characters in Super Smash Wii U.
Just having a large roster wouldn’t be enough, however. The main complaint I (and many others in the "Smash" community) had with "Super Smash Bros. Brawl," the last home console game in the line, was the power balance of the fighters. Early on in the "Brawl" life cycle, it was obvious that two or three characters were much better than the rest (most notably the ridiculous Meta Knight, a character at one time banned from official tournaments). Nintendo has paid attention to that feedback -- "Super Smash" Wii U’s roster is much more balanced.
Most characters are legitimate contenders, provided you take some time to learn how to best use them. There are of course a few outliers: On the high side, there’s Little Mac (a bit too fast for how much damage he deals), and on the low, Zelda (who’s never been good anyway). Still, everyone has at least one or two weaknesses; Sonic is the fastest fighter in the game, but he’s a handful to control and has a very limited smash attack range. Little Mac doesn’t have a particularly good stage recovery move. Jigglypuff is ... well, Jigglypuff.
Nintendo has also revamped the way characters take and dish out damage, for the better. Basic and charged smash attacks not only do more base damage, but launch fighters farther -- you no longer need to bring Link up to 90% damage to send him careening to the screen's edge. This gives all of the fighters a more tangible sense of strength, and keeps you more focused on the reactions in combat than the percentage numbers on the bottom of the screen. Standard four-player "Smash" is lovably chaotic.
Then there’s the new eight-player "Smash." Which is absolute pandemonium.
The most amazing part of this mode is the lack of frame rate drop or lag. There’s so much going on that you’d expect there to be slowdown, at least occasionally from the Wii U. But it never happened. Granted, that’s only local multiplayer. (Note: There is no "8 Player Smash" online. Which is probably a good thing; latency issues would kill the experience.)
Nintendo finally activated the servers for online "Smash" at midnight of launch day. Here’s the state of affairs: It’s much better than the buggy online play of "Brawl," but as with all games, the latency (or lack thereof) is wholly dependent on players’ connections. Some four-player matches felt like they were being played locally, with zero lag. Some one-on-one bouts were nigh unplayable, with play freezing every few seconds. It doesn't help that the Wii U is Wi-Fi only.
Matchmaking is quick and easy, though it could be better if Nintendo let us find opponents by region and world (instead of just the latter) as they did with "Mario Kart 8." Playing against someone in France is all well and good, but if they’ve got such a high server ping that you could make a sandwich before one of their attacks registers, it renders it all a bit pointless.
Still, the onus for these things is more on players than it is on Nintendo. Online play was up and working from 12:01 a.m. (servers went live at midnight) and held steady for the two hours I played.
All this is accomplished on the Wii U, the least capable (judging by raw benchmarks) of the current-gen consoles. So there has to be sacrifice somewhere. But I’m not seeing it -- the characters are all wonderfully detailed, and the differing art styles never clash. The stages, especially older ones remastered in HD, are flat out beautiful. Final Destination, the stage of choice among competitive "Smash" players, has been given an especially breathtaking makeover.
Well, there isn’t anything wrong with the metagame or the mechanics. Or the stages. But there are some parts outside the main experience that aren’t up to task.
The worst offender is "Smash Tour," a new mode vaguely reminiscent of "Mario Party." Players take turns as Miis navigating a board, pickup up stat boosters and random fighters along the way. The concept is simple enough, but it’s absolutely destroyed by the mode’s presentation.
Everyone spins a number wheel à la "The Price Is Right" and moves a number of spaces at the same time. Meanwhile there are pop-ups for items, stat effects, fighter drops and 15 other things. All happening at the same time. The game barely explains the rules or why things happen; it turns into a total mess. Not to mention that, if you don’t win a battle (and even if you don't finish last in the process), you can lose your fighter in bouts where the CPU's difficulty levels fluctuate for some reason. Smash Tour was interesting the first time, if only because it was new. Stick to the main game.
Although it’s got a simple formula, you’ll have a tough time getting bored of "Super Smash" Wii U. It’s hectic, party-starting and accessible in a way few other franchises have been able to pull off. If you own a Wii U, don’t pass this up. If you don’t own one ... this makes a strong case for a purchase.
"Super Smash Bros." for Wii U is available in North America 11/21/14, in Europe 11/28, Australia 11/29 and Japan 12/6. Nintendo provided a copy of the game for review.