No game company on the planet has been more successful at building marquee-quality franchise titles than Nintendo. And, on a related note, no game company has been more successful at finding a way to integrate most of its franchises into a single, “everybody needs to buy this” sort of game. Nintendo achieved the first feat with Super Smash Bros., a simple “knock your enemies off the screen” fighting game developed by trusted Nintendo partner HAL Labs, and followed it up with the even more ambitious Super Smash Bros. Melee. The problem: the first game was released on the Nintendo 64, and the second on the GameCube, neither a super-popular game system. Still, Nintendo sold roughly 5 million copies of the original Super Smash, making it the N64’s fifth most popular game, and 7 million of Melee, which made it the GameCube’s top seller. How could a sequel do on the red hot Wii?
The answer is most likely going to be “very well.” Super Smash Bros. Brawl ($50) was released this week in the United States after a successful February launch in Japan, where it has already sold 1.4 million copies. And no matter what you think of the gameplay—most major publications have praised its accessibility and simplicity, while some see the action as button-mashing and chaotic—the depth of the title is quite possibly peerless. Brawl has been in the works for two and a half years, during which Nintendo’s specially-formed, Tokyo-based development team has been stuffing the DVD to the gills with nostalgia. Seriously insane amounts of it, such that anyone who has owned a Nintendo console since 1985 will find random references to their past, and Nintendo’s, scattered all throughout what otherwise is a 1-4 player punching and shooting game. You don’t need to appreciate, say, the Mario Kart theme of the level above to enjoy the action, but knowing why you’re repeatedly being hit by go karts while you’re fighting is the difference between a challenge and a chuckle.
Once again, Nintendo’s biggest draw here is the slate of characters drawn from major and minor franchises it—and friendly companies—have released. Brawl lets Mario, Wario and Princess Peach fight against Pikachu, Donkey Kong, Link and Zelda. It resuscitates Pit, hero of Nintendo’s beloved Kid Icarus. And, for the first time, Brawl brings in two non-Nintendo characters: Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Konami’s Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid. More photos and details are available by clicking above or below.
The game’s primary mode is a 1-4 player smack fest that takes place on the equivalent of a single screen full of platforms, though depending on the level, the camera focuses only on certain platforms at the same time. Rather than possessing a traditional life meter, your character punches, kicks, and uses projectiles to create instability in on-screen enemies—0% is complete stability, and over 100% is enough to risk being knocked off the screen, losing the game. This system replaces “instant death when your life runs out” with a way to let you keep fighting—with a higher risk of elimination—even if you’re in the multiple 100’s. A good hit at that point will almost certainly eliminate you, but if you’re skilled enough to avoid a hit, you can keep going. Weapons tossed into the levels, background-specific ways of being eliminated, and character-specific, dramatic “Final Smash” attacks, keep the action varied from level to level.
As with earlier Smash Bros. titles, Brawl pulls its backgrounds from classic Nintendo games, but pretty dramatically updates them visually, improving the smoothness and animation of art last seen on discontinued consoles. As is almost always the case with Nintendo-developed titles, the backgrounds do not tax the Wii’s graphics hardware, but they look good, sometimes great, and bring added depth to scenes that fans of past Nintendo games will instantly recognize. Above, a realistic castle scene inspired by the less-well-known Japanese game series Fire Emblem contrasts with the hand-drawn, completely cartoony look of Yoshi’s Island and Yoshi’s Story, games that focused on Mario’s dinosaur comrade. Characters are rendered by Nintendo to the best of their classic forms, such that Mario is a textured cartoon, Link and Zelda are more realistically proportioned, and Donkey Kong is a hairy, semi-cartoony mix.
A big and unexpected treat in the game is Subspace Emissary mode, a single-player adventure mode that starts off weak and is dragged down by mediocre movie-style cutscenes, but winds up surprising you with its length and variety of classic game inspired levels. Early on, the NES game Kid Icarus—one that for years has begged for a sequel—is recreated in cloudy, platforming stages involving Pit and some familiar enemies, each with much-improved graphics that whet the appetite for a more complex follow-up.
Donkey Kong, once the star of his own series of successful (albeit controversial) action platforming games on the Super NES, also gets his chance to shine again in the Subspace Emissary levels. A couple of stages allow both Donkey and his Junior sidekick Diddy to roam through jungle and barrel stages inspired by the SNES titles, smashing enemies and finding items scattered across the levels. On occasion, you’ll find a colored door that leads to a secret room full of enemies and a little trophy.
These trophies, and related items, are the game’s other big draw. The more you play, the more you win, and the more you explore, the more trophies, items, backgrounds, and songs you find from classic Nintendo titles. That earlier reference to “insane amounts” of nostalgia? As you play, the game constructs a vault full of unlocked items: literally hundreds of songs from old Nintendo games, 3-D models of characters and items, and much more. Then there’s the area where you have a minute or three to try stages from the games—40 seconds of Ice Climber, 1 minute of Super Mario Bros., 1:30 of Kid Icarus, 3 minutes of Super Metroid or Star Fox 64. And the places where you can learn how to unlock more hidden content, or use coins accumulated in the game to buy it.
After a day of playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl, it’s obvious that we’ve only scratched the surface. Ten or so levels into the Subspace mode, and we’re still under 10%, and we haven’t even tried the free online play mode yet. Hopefully a friend out there has the game too—we expect to have another quick report on Brawl if so.