First, full disclosure (because apparently, that’s a concept part of the internet is keen on starting month-long hate campaigns over, recently): I’ve been playing a lot of Smash in a competitive setting lately, so in part I’d like to focus on how I think the new game measures up in terms of being a truly competitive fighter. But despite that, I love the franchise for all of its charms, and a big chunk of the allure comes in the form of seeing all the fan service, animations, trophies, and musical renditions from some of my favourite franchises squished together into one comprehensive package. So, hopefully we can synthesize those disparate approaches into a singular, nuanced settlement without being all “but it’s not Melee,” or “go away, Brawl was a better party game and that’s all that matters.”
Also, I’d like to preface anything I say in this review, positive or negative, with this: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is a brand new Smash game that plays just fine on a handheld console, and does so while running at 60 frames per second. To me, this is an accomplishment in and of itself, and as a Smash fan, it’s totally awesome that I have the option of whipping the game out at any time to play some quick matches, alone or with others. But we’re ahead of ourselves already.
What’s Super Smash Bros., I hear absolutely no one asking? An obtuse fighting game with a cast of characters spanning the entirety of Nintendo’s lineage, and a few third party guys joining the fight for good measure. Up to four players battle on a stage usually rife with platforms or hazards, in attempt to rack up their opponent’s percentage meters, which in turn allows them to be more easily launched off the battlefield. Forgoing the usual health bar, Smash urges players to push each other outside of the level’s boarders in order to earn points or diminish their enemies’ stock of lives. This is done with attacks based off the unique characteristics of each character; Mario shoots fireballs, Pikachu summons lightning, Ness invokes his psychokinetic powers, and uhh… Ganandorf just elbows things, presumable because no one developing this actually got the end of a Zelda game before. Also of use are randomly-appearing items. Sometimes you’ll grab a Galaga bug that abducts opponents, lifting them off-screen. Sometimes you’ll throw a Poké Ball, from which an Eevee will spring fourth, hip checking the nearest fool. Sometimes you’ll summon an “assist trophy”, and The Legend of Zelda’s Ghirahim might appear. Maybe he’ll throw diamonds at your opponents. Or maybe he’ll just fail his multi-jointed tounge. You just don’t know with Super Smash Brothers.
I get that Smash probably sounds weird to anyone unfamiliar with the franchise, but let’s be real: who on this planet hasn’t heard of the games? Just know that in general, Smash has always been a series of kickass party games, and as of late, Super Smash Brothers Melee (currently the second game out of four) has been getting a lot of attention from the competitive fighting game crowd, prompting even more people to take interest in the new one.
Casual/single player analysis:
Alright, so enough preamble! How’s the game? Well, I’ll start off by saying that it’s a Smash game, that’s for sure. That’s a statement that’ll mean different things to different people, but if you’ve followed the series you know exactly what to expect. I’d go as far as to say that the only revolutionary thing about this installment is the fact that, through some form of demonic pact or another, it’s on a portable console. Not only that, but it manages to look pretty good while doing so! Weirdly though, the presentation quality varies substantially from stage to stage, and even from character to character. For example, stages like Battlefield or Final Destination look wonderful, while others, like the Spirit Tracks one, have assets imported from the original DS game, and are a polygonal disaster. Likewise, fighters like Pikachu look impressive with their consistent coloring, smooth edges, and animations that add a lot of personality. But why does Ike look like a mess, and is there a reason his hands are disproportionally huge? The number of diverse characters and stages present is staggering, but the noticeable differences in effort made can be questionable. Another example of this is that while the game runs at a mostly consistent 60 frames per second, side characters and background objects run at 30. Though this is clearly a hardware limitation, it makes them seem a bit out of place, and unfortunately, a little less exciting than they would otherwise be. Still, the focus on primary colors this time around, flashier attacks than usual, and the absurd amount of hit-spark make it pleasing to look at.
The sound design only complements the visuals, as each attack is accompanied by a satisfying crunch or crack, so between the sound and expressive damage animations, gives the player a great sense of feedback. I’d go as far as saying that simply hitting an opponent in this game feels better than it does in any of the previous ones, because these elements are so well designed. Elsewhere, sound is equally impressive, because like the other Smash entries, this one boasts a solid compendium of Nintendo music, some of which is lifted from the source material, most of which is rearranged entirely. This has always been a big selling point for these games, and the musical credibility of the series still hasn’t lost its luster. Like, have you heard that rendition of Smiles and Tears on the Magicant stage? The effort put into some of the fan service makes me incredibly happy, as I’m sure it does for everyone else who has their favorite series represented here.
While we’re on the attention to detail train – which, as stated, is monumental to the appeal of Smash Brothers – let’s talk about trophies. These are (usually) 3D models of various characters, items, or background details present in all sorts of videogame franchises, that are usually but are not limited to Nintendo products. There are over six-hundred of them, and some of these models are made from scratch, others are replications of how they appear in the games they hail from, but all come with a terse description of the materiel. These excerpts have always been entertaining, but are particularly witty this time around. I’ve heard that this is because Shigesato Itoi (the guy who made Earthbound, or the Mother series) was the writer behind all the weirdness, but I haven’t been able to find proof of that anywhere – though it would make total sense. Anyways! These trophies are obtained through playing the single player content, minigames, or just directly through the trophy shop. A little nitpick with how the currency works, though: the only thing that you’re able to buy in the game are these trophies, but you’re only given a select few to buy each day. You’re able to wager coin to increase the difficulty for the single player modes, but oftentimes you’re still rewarded with gold for completing these challenges. Without the option to spend coins on things like custom parts or other unlockables, gold seems to do nothing other than amass endlessly; it was an odd choice.
Regardless, the auxiliary modes are a fun distraction now and again, but the important ones are Classic Mode, and the new “Smash Run.” Classic mode has you picking a character, adjusting the difficulty slider with the promise of better rewards, and then fighting your way through a number to themed battles before facing off against Master Hand. It’s a little tighter than it has been in past games, though there’s a new final enemy who appears on higher difficulties that quickly becomes a frustration to fight with certain characters after the veneer of coolness wears off, because not all fighters seem equipped to properly deal with some of the shit that this thing pulls. Smash Run is similarly fun: players run through a labyrinth with randomly-generated enemies and powerups in attempt to boosts the stats of their characters before facing off against others in a randomly-determined match. This could be a race, a contest to defeat the most enemies, or a normal round with any number of specific rules applied to it. The mode is its own kind of chaotic fun, and I got a lot of single player enjoyment from it, because it’s great for unlocking trophies, custom moves, and equipment.
I quite like the idea of equipment, by the way. Each character has three slots, and you can equip items to them that increase one stat and decrease another. These numbers are randomly generated within a certain variance though, and sometimes come with added effects. And although this brings up obvious balance issues, equipment has the potential to make characters both faster and stronger than they otherwise would be; something I feel adds a lot to the competitive aspect of the game. Fighters can also obtain two alternate specials for all of their B moves (making for twelve in total), and the effects range from slight stat alterations to changing attacks entirely. Most are amusing, and are fun to mess around with at the very least. Everything combines to make the most engaging single player experience a Smash game has offered yet.
Oh, and quickly: the controls work better than you’d think. While the circle pad can at times be inaccurate – and while the major hand cramps you’ll likely get will remind you that the 3DS must have been designed by inhuman creatures with angular hands – the producers did a good job making the game feel as responsive as it does.
And so we come to what the people actually care about: multiplayer! Without exception, playing four player free-for-all Smash Bros. is one of my favourite things to do. Sincerely, I feel like this incarnation might be the best expression of that fun yet, because the characters and items are at their most interesting this time around. Almost everyone in the huge cast of fighters has a unique play style, especially the newcomers – from Robin, a mage who needs to micro-manage their ever-diminishing bank of spells; to Little Mac, a fearsome foe on the ground, but a total joke while airborne; to Wii Fit trainer, a shapely mannequin whose fighting style involves utilizing various yoga poses. Super Smash Bros. 3DS is thoroughly ridiculous, and like past installments, it’s a huge boon to the game’s longevity. But honestly, selling a Smash Brothers game for its free-for-all aspects is tough, because it really is the kind of thing that needs to be played to be understood.
It’s fun. It’s fun as heck. But I’ve heard that many players have had issues with lag over local wireless play, depending on the electrical interference; I haven’t really encountered this issue, but the wireless connection frequently is imperfect, and that’s a shame.
Multiplayer is pretty much the main reason why people care about Smash as passionately as they do, so if you haven’t got any friends interested in playing with you, there’s always the online mode! The netcode for Smash 3DS is a lot better than that of Brawl’s (any game’s netcode is better than that of Brawl’s), though there are still hiccups and in fact, the way the game runs online is still a disappointment compared to other fighting games. Not only does the game lag online more often than not, but is inconsistent; the input delay varies wildly from game to game, to the point where I would rather just disconnect than see the match through (something the game penalizes you for). To compound the issue, when playing against strangers every single game type (other than “for glory” one on one) is a point-based game set on a two minute timer. And no one on the planet likes Time matches in Smash.
So from there, let’s get into my experiences playing against others in a competitive setting, and see how Smash 3DS holds up on that front.
So, there seems to be this opinion going around that Smash 3DS sits firmly between Melee and Brawl in terms of how the game handles and plays. This isn’t the case. From my experience, Smash 3DS is more about fighters playing footsies than being hyper aggressive towards one another; that is to say, it’s more Street Fighter than it is Marvel Vs. Capcom; that is to say, it’s a game that obviously has more Brawl in its DNA than it does Melee. If Smash 3DS is indeed the offspring of these two parents, then Brawl clearly had the majority of dominant genes.
What does this mean for gameplay? Smash 3DS is much slower, and much floatier than Melee, though not quite as much as Brawl. Also, most attacks seem to have an exorbitant amount of start-up or end lag, and while you’re able to ”auto-cancel” air moves by landing at a certain time, these specific frames always activate quite close to the timing the move would usually end at, and don’t increase the speed all that much. I don’t believe this is necessarily a bad thing, but in the context of Smash Bros, slower, plodding combat really only elongates battles, increasing the time it takes to wait for players to make it back onto the stage after being knocked off (which always seems to happen in Smash 3DS, what with the extended boarders and better recovery options than past games). And while I’m just throwing advanced mechanics out there and further alienating players who don’t understand what I’m talking about, let’s talk about shielding and rolling. It feels like this game is all about the shielding and the rolling.
Shields, I’ve noticed, activate incredibly quickly, and there’s almost no shield-stun (in the other games, if you’re hit while having your shield up, you remain locked into it for longer than usual) when being attacked, which means you’re easily able to shield-grab pursuers, or just roll out of the way because rolls are incredibly fast and tough to punish. And since almost none of the attacks in Keep Rolling: the Game feel safe, the defensive options are oftentimes the most viable tactics. If a player is going to going to play defensively (which is wise) in Smash 3DS, they’re going to dictate the speed of the match. In Melee, the overall game speed was much faster, and since players could actually combo and generally had waaay more options, chasing down a fleeing or overly-defensive opponent and turning the momentum in your favor by being aggressive is often desirable. In Smash 3DS, most characters aren’t given the tools to play in this fashion; something that makes one on one matches entirely less exciting.
A lot of people have been saying that the rate at which the shields degrade remedy this issue. Though I feel like this mechanic meant well, it has an unintended side-effect: since the shields break fast but can be quickly dropped or rolled out of, they encourage players to be more defensive, and the positives make this a dominant strategy. In my experience, I’ve never seen them actually break (outside of using Marth/Lucina’s Shield Breaker attack), but the threat is enough to warrant backing off after it takes a few hits. Let’s not mince words: in the competitive context, Smash 3DS is a game about tepidly approaching the opponent, and continuously disengaging until a player lands a hit.
The fact that landing concurrent hits happens rarely doesn’t exactly help, either. Like Brawl, “true” combos are hard to come by. While comboing was mostly impossible in Brawl due to lack of hit stun and the ability to air doge almost immediately after taking damage, characters are at least left vulnerable a little longer in Smash 3DS. Still, this amounts to little more than being caught in incessant up tilt chains, oftentimes – something that’s far more annoying than it is rewarding.
So we have a rather slow-paced game about small, safe exchanges and gradual engagement/disengagement. Again, while this isn’t a bad design (I made the comparison to Street Fighter earlier, and feel that series does this concept much better), it’s an obvious problem when there’s as much room as there is to maneuver around the stages. In typical side-scrolling fighting games, you’re forced to face the opponent without much wiggle room one way or the other. In Smash, you can run away or stall all you’d like, and as stated, the alterations to the game’s mechanics are conducive to this. It makes me feel like this games needs to integrate something similar to BlazeBlue or Persona Arena’s “negative penalty” – a debuff that causes players to take fifty percent more damage when stalling, or playing too defensively.
Like, wanna know the main strategy nearly all the Greninja players I’ve encountered online use? Rolling to the end of the stage and constantly shooting projectiles. And what happens when you approach? They slide over to the opposite end and continue the ranged assault on your sanity. The other most common character I’ve encountered is Yoshi – who’s considerably more powerful this time around. He’s a veritable wall of spacing, with powerful air attacks that seem to activate quicker than the rest of the cast, on top of ceaseless egg throwing which forces opponents to play at his pace. And again, the fact that these types of play styles are so common and effective demonstrate what sort of player Smash 3DS caters to: the patient ones with an agenda against spectacle and, presumably, fun.
And it’s not like Smash 3DS is terrible in a competitive setting. It’s just… unexciting, and often frustrating. It can be a lot of fun if you and your opponent have a mutual reckless abandon of the powerful defensive tactics that slow the game’s pace; but there’s a part of me that knows I could just play the turtle, sliding back and forth, punishing the characters’ many lag-riddled attacks with a succession of constant shield grabs (an aspect that also does zero favors for this game’s speed).
So in the end, it’s not like Melee. Not at all. We’ve got another Brawl on our hands, I think.
Well, where does that leave us? It’s tough: I love Super Smash games, and this one is very good at being exactly that (they always are). But at the same time, as a fan of hardcore fighting games, it’s impossible not to be sort of disappointed with the way the competitive aspects of Smash 3DS turned out. It’s not like we need wavedashing, and I’ve always been of the opinion that L-cancelling was kind of needless. But Smash 3DS gives the player limited options that actually feel viable, and the ones that do only make it less interesting.
I think that there is an actual dilemma when trying to fuse the frantic four player casual matches and highly technical one on one games into one comprehensive package, however. Like, look at Melee: its free-for-all is kind of a mess, because the hit stun and overall speed make it clustered and disorganized. In fact, I think Brawl was actually much better suited to these sorts of fights.
To me, Smash 3DS is an honest attempt to retain the fun-but-manageable free-for-all battles of Brawl, while trying to integrate small bits of what makes Melee the hype-driven monstrosity that it is. And while it succeeds fantastically with the former and falls entirely flat with the latter, Smash 3DS can still be great fun if you play to its strengths.