Life is riddled with disappointment. It may appear that there’s only one kind, but if you think back to past experiences you may realize that’s not the case.
There’s immediate disappointment, where you’re expecting one thing and get another. A movie that you’ve fawned over for months or years finally releases and it’s not exactly what you expected. Immediately, you realize it kind of sucks. (see: The Phantom Menace)
There’s expected disappointment, which is the easiest kind to deal with. There’s no surprise involved here, allowing you to cushion your expectations.
There’s creeping disappointment, the kind that you know is in play but need to think about and analyze before landing on a decision. It’s spoon-fed to you in tiny installments, making it slightly easier to deal with.
And then there’s the worst kind of disappointment, the kind that’s disguised as fulfilment. You look forward to something for so long that when you finally get it there’s no way it could be disappointing, but over time you begin to realize that maybe you backed the wrong horse. You may even go through denial, telling yourself over and over that the thing you so looked forward to is the best thing in the world and it couldn’t possibly be shit.
Such is the case with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a game so anticipated that there was no way it could possibly live up to expectations.
And it didn’t.
But that wasn’t the case at first. When I first played Brawl, I thought it was the best thing in the world. The graphics were on point. The soundtrack was amazing. And the gameplay…well, I initially didn’t realize just how terrible the gameplay was. Unfortunately, with a game of this size and scope that realization took a good long while to set in. However, after it did, it dawned on me: Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the most disappointing game in the history of Nintendo, and therefore the history of video games.
Built up as the most hyped game of all time, Brawl did deliver on many levels. On the surface, we got what we wanted. But as you delve into the real knitty gritty, (i.e.: everything that matters) it’s an overstuffed mess of awful gameplay, poorly made decisions and shattered dreams.
If there was a Mount Rushmore for Nintendo, the faces included would be Shigeru Miyamoto, Gunpei Yokoi, Satoru Iwata, and Masahiro Sakurai. That’s right, Masahiro belongs up there with the rest of Nintendo’s legendary brass. Not only is Sakurai the creator of Kirby, (and we really can’t give him too much credit for that because…well let’s face it, Kirby is just a bunch of circles) he’s also one of the most valuable assets currently working for the Big N. He represents the hardcore gamer, a demographic Nintendo pandered to with every release from the NES through the GameCube eras.
Sakurai’s mantra is “give the player a buffet”. This is a great rule to develop games by, but he always inevitably puts far too much in the buffet and the player’s plate becomes overstuffed.
Sakurai is the director of all the Smash Bros. games, the be all end all of any decisions and creative input that goes into them. This hallowed position is a double-edged sword: while he is responsible for coming up with Smash’s incredibly fresh take on the fighting game genre…he’s also responsible for tripping. (but more on that later) At the end of the day, he is equally responsible for both everything that is good and everything that is bad through the course of all that is Smash Bros.
But you can’t blame the guy for tripping somewhere along the line. (pun intended I guess?) The responsibility given to him was a heavy load: take Nintendo’s biggest names from the greatest franchises in gaming and put them all together into a single game that players had been dreaming of for a long, long time. In short, he delivers in almost every way. Almost every way. There’s one big exception, and it’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
When we were kids, we all had those discussions at the lunch table: who would win in a fight? Link or Mario? “Probably Link, right?” your friend would say. “He has all those weapons.” But then you argue back. “But what about Mario? I think Mario would be able to hold his own against Link.” Then one of your friends yells from the end of the table, “Pssh! Donkey Kong would beat them both!”
With the release of the original Smash Bros. we could now answer that question.
To fully understand why Brawl is so disappointing, first we need to understand where it came from. Super Smash Bros. was released for the Nintendo 64 in Japan on January 21st, 1999. Originally planned to be a Japanese exclusive, the bigwigs at Nintendo never thought that it would actually take off into popularity.
What were they thinking? Was the formula of Smash Bros. that far away from traditional fighters of the time that there was doubt it would succeed? Certainly, if there’s one reason why Smash has been so successful (aside from its all-star roster) it’s the departure from the normal conventions of the fighting game genre. In Smash Bros. you don’t just beat your opponent into oblivion; you also have to send them flying! Landing attacks racks up damage, and the more damage you take the easier it is to send you out past the invisible boundaries on all sides of the stage that equal death.
It’s a lot like sumo wrestling when you think about it: push your opponent out of bounds to disqualify them. Smash Bros. is just digital sumo.
The combination of fresh gameplay along with an all star cast of characters taken from Nintendo’s storied history laid the framework for success for Super Smash Bros. before it even came stateside 3 months later in April of 1999. The game was a hit. The four-player madness led to many nights of friends duking it out as their favorite characters, finally settling those old schoolyard squabbles. But it hasn’t aged well. The original Smash is a polygonal mess, and the clunky gameplay can be attributed to the limitations of the N64. I still hold the original Smash in high regard, but I’m also keenly aware of its shortcomings.
There was a lot of room for improvement, and it wasn’t long before that improvement was delivered. Super Smash Bros. Melee, released a scant 2 years after Smash 64 and slightly after the launch of the Gamecube in 2001, seriously upped the ante. Faster, tighter gameplay, an entirely overhauled physics engine and an improved single player mode made Melee superior to its predecessor in every way. More characters, more stages, the whole lot.
And Melee was the true test to see if you had any grit. Furious, face paced gameplay made it a competitive magnet. It’s also a technical juggernaut. Layer upon layer of gameplay nuances gave it replay value beyond everything established in the simple framework of Smash 64.
Part of what made Melee so great was that there were no preconceived notions of exactly where improvements should be made. Surely aspects of Smash 64 that needed fine tuning stuck out like sore thumbs to Sakurai and his development team. The rudimentary graphics and limiting character roster were first on the list to get upgraded. But in terms of the gameplay Melee would shape Nintendo’s newest franchise into what we know it as today.
Like Smash 64 before it, Melee was a hit. It fueled the GameCube for years through the dangerous competition of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s X-Box. But much like the limitations that the N64 imposed on the development of the original Smash Bros., the incredibly anemic development time of Melee left a lot to be desired from Sakurai and his development team.
Melee was developed over the course of 13 months. In terms of game development, that’s the blink of an eye. Sakurai quoted the development period as being “grueling” and lead him to live a “really destructive lifestyle” in which he would work 40 hours straight, sleep for four, then immediately go back to work. On the upside to this, the success of Smash 64 gave Sakurai the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted with Melee, granted it fit within the incredibly tight development window.
So, what did Sakurai do with complete creative control? “I had created Smash Bros. to be my response to how hardcore-exclusive the fighting game genre had become over the years. Melee is the sharpest game in the series.” he wrote. “It’s pretty speedy all around and asks a lot of your coordination skills. Fans of the first Smash Bros. got into it quickly, and it just felt really good to play.” (1Up)
The hardcore crowd is something that began to slowly drift away from Nintendo around the time of Melee’s release, flocking to the new hardcore havens that Microsoft and Sony were serving up to the gaming populace. Sakurai continues, “But why did I target it so squarely toward people well-versed in videogames, then? That’s why I tried to aim for more of a happy medium with Brawl’s play balance. There are three Smash Bros. games out now, but even if I ever had a chance at another one, I doubt we’ll ever see one that’s as geared toward hardcore gamers as Melee was. Melee fans who played deep into the game without any problems might have trouble understanding this, but Melee was just too difficult.” (1Up)
The difficult accessibility that most of Melee’s audience lauds is a fault that Sakurai wanted to smooth over with the next entry in the franchise, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. “If we want new people from this generation of gamers to come in, then we need it to be accessible, simple, and playable by anyone. You can’t let yourself get preoccupied with nothing but gameplay and balance details. That’s where the core of the Smash Bros. concept lies, not on doggedly keeping the game the way it was before.” This sentiment, the one regret Sakurai has over the masterpiece that is Super Smash Bros. Melee, is the beginning of what would make Brawl one of the most divisive games in history.
- Courting the Casual Audience
Moving past the failure of the Gamecube, Nintendo decided it needed to change its image and sail the uncharted seas of casual gaming. They believed there was an entirely new audience to attain, one that vastly outnumbered the hordes of the hardcore it helped nourish and grow in the 80’s and 90’s.
Their mission was easier said than done: sell consoles to people who normally don’t play video games. At E3 2006, Nintendo unveiled the Wii to the world. It was the very first home console with motion controls. Nintendo wanted to court non-gamers. It was a huge gamble, but it paid huge dividends. The Wii quickly became the fastest selling console ever, and in the months following its launch in November of 2006 Nintendo was unable to meet demand and keep the system on store shelves. Wii Fever had hit, and all of a sudden parents and grandparents were enjoying video games with their kids.
I have some personal memories of family members getting together to play Wii Sports. People that I’d never seen pick up a controller before (like my older brother, my older sister and their partners) weren’t only playing the Wii but were having a blast with it.
The success of the Wii allowed Masahiro Sakurai the breathing room he needed to craft his next great opus, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. It also fit in line with how he envisioned the series: accessible, simple, and playable by anyone. Sakurai wanted to make a game that both hardcore gamers could enjoy but also appeal to non-gamers without the intimidation of complex gameplay and mechanics. To all of the hardcore who were eagerly awaiting the next installment of the franchise, frothing at their mouths in anticipation, it was the complete opposite direction any of them had expected the series to turn.
This is what preconceived notions do to all forms of media that are held in deep, unfathomable anticipation.
- The Dojo!! A.K.A. The Hype Machine That Killed Brawl
The single greatest factor that lead to Brawl’s massive disappointment was the game’s official website, the Super Smash Bros. Dojo. As if having all of Nintendo’s All Stars in one game wasn’t enough to get people riled up, the Dojo really fueled the hype machine into overdrive.
Every weekday the Dojo would update with a post regarding some aspect of the game. Sometimes it would be an announcement of a new game mode or item that would make an appearance, but what everybody was most interested in were new fighter announcements. The Smash Bros. roster is the game’s strongest selling point and seeing which character is going to be playable has always been the most interesting part. The hype surrounding roster additions always trump stages, music and even gameplay changes when it comes to Smash.
And that’s what made the Dojo so interesting. The random nature of each post’s substance had people biting their nails in anticipation every day. The site updated on Japan time, which meant that here in the U.S. we had to wait until around 2 or 3 AM (East Coast time) for the site to be updated. I wouldn’t stay up every night to see the update, but on some nights I had the Dojo in the back of my mind and couldn’t help but stay up to see what was going to be added to Smash Bros. next.
80% of the time the updates weren’t interesting. Usually it would go something like, “Oh hey, items are back. Shit! I need to be up for work in 4 hours…” However, the rest of the time we got new fighter announcements, and that’s what everybody wanted to see. It was even exciting when we got a glimpse of updated versions of returning veterans. “Oh snap, Marth’s coming back?! He looks so cool this time! Look at the detail!” Seeing what additions and changes they’ve made to returning fighters was interesting but the announcement of newcomers was always the real draw. The kicker was that you never knew exactly when you’d see one. It could happen any night. I remember the day the Pokemon Trainer was announced. That one really came out of left field, and the mechanics of how he worked blew a lot of minds. “You mean he controls 3 different characters?! Cool!”
How unfortunate that when we finally got our hands on the game we quickly realized what a terrible gimmick Pokemon Trainer was, and how alternating between 3 different characters basically made him unplayable. It was the over-hype of the Dojo that made us believe that characters like Pokemon Trainer would be the best thing since sliced bread, but in reality would be a gameplay experiment that failed miserably.
The posts on the Dojo usually went into a fair amount of detail. Multiple screenshots visualized the new additions and paragraphs of text went into detail on explaining how they worked. If the Dojo was less detailed and a little more cryptic, would the hype train have ever left the station? Or perhaps leaving us with less knowledge would make us even more hyped? It’s a really difficult path to tread. You want to get information about your game out into the masses, but how do you do so without driving people crazy with anticipation? That leads me to put some of the blame on the gamers. I mean, how can you not? In the end the amount of hype that’s driven up about any form of media is always upheld by the people. Sure, those behind whatever it is that’s being hyped always drive the train from the station, but its the people that incessantly feed it coal that makes it pick up speed.
The Dojo did its job by informing us about the new aspects of the upcoming Smash Bros., but it certainly didn’t do itself any favors by teasing us with a flood of information in the form of trailers, musical clips and character reveals. The way it did so built hype in the most archaic way possible: feed people tidbits of information in the form of daily announcements that added to the buffet of options Sakurai would be giving his players. It only makes sense that this hype would naturally snowball as the game’s intended release date approached.
- Tripping and the Gameplay Casualties of “Blue Ocean”
When March 8, 2008 arrived, gamers in NA finally got their hands on Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Nearly a year of daily updates from the Dojo (and an added three-month delay) built the game up in our minds to be something it wasn’t. Only after the game’s release were we able to actually play it. Fans immediately began to wail and moan that Smash Bros. was the latest casualty of Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” strategy. Some of us quickly realized that due to the massive, sudden influx of casual gamers Brawl’s gameplay was severely watered down from that of its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Melee.
But what if Sakurai was right? What if Melee was too difficult for the general gaming population? Okay, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. Even if that’s the case, I don’t think it justifies the over simplification of Brawl’s gameplay. One of the biggest complaints about Brawl is that it’s too slow. The characters are all floaty, there’s too much landing lag and lag in general, and tripping…TRIPPING. Never before has any competitive anything suffered such a difficult tribulation than Smash Bros. has with tripping.
Let me briefly explain the tripping mechanic. At any point during the game when your character begins to run or dash there is a chance that they will trip. In other words, any fighter can just fall over and be completely vulnerable to attack until they get back on their feet. So, in essence, you can be punished for doing absolutely nothing wrong. The tripping mechanic is mostly random but can also be activated by simply moving or attacking too fast.
Slow, watered down gameplay mechanics were bad enough, but tripping was a blatant red flag that signaled all of the hardcore Smash players that we should either get used to random punishment or go back and play Melee.
Overall gameplay mechanic changes weren’t the only death knell for Brawl. There were also more specific outlets for it’s massive let down, and they came in the form of playable fighters.
- Balance and the Meta Knight Debacle
One of the biggest issues when developing any fighting game is balance. This problem becomes compounded with every fighter added to the roster as the number of variables adds up in the form of different match-ups. This is an understandable nightmare for development teams. I don’t envy being on the bug testing team of a Smash Bros. game. Sakurai has stated on multiple occasions that he does a lot of quality control and balance testing personally and on his own time, proving the dedication he has to his craft and his immensely popular creation. But is balance really at the forefront of his mind? I can’t deny that the man is a genius game developer, an auteur to be sure, but some comments that he’s made in his weekly column in Famitsu (a Japanese gaming publication) makes me think differently.
2014 saw the release of not one, but two new Smash Bros. games. One for the Wii U and the other for their the Nintendo 3DS. One of the newcomers in those games, Little Mac, looked oppressively OP in his debut trailer. When discussing the nature of Little Mac’s place in Smash Bros., Sakurai touches on the notion of balance by saying, “Balancing a character comprised of opposing extremes is always quite difficult. Depending on the style of match, he’ll either clobber the competition or get completely shut out. He could even become broken in some combat environments.” (Famitsu) Um…did he actually say one of the fighters has a chance to become broken?
He goes on to say, “However, when choosing a character, I want to focus on whether he/she has some kind of special ability that no other character does, and whether he/she contributes to making a better and more enjoyable gaming experience. Compared to these two primary concerns, “balance” and “fairness” are afterthoughts. I mean, hasn’t Smash Bros. always been that kind of game? You get together with your friends, duke it out and have a good laugh–that’s what the game is really about. It’s no fun if all the characters are the same.” (Famitsu) While I agree with Sakurai that Smash is primarily for fun, his liberal stance on balance is to be lamented. Even in Melee, a competitive juggernaut, 4 or 5 characters always stood out as the best in the bunch and are repeatedly chosen in pro play.
Creative control and the director’s chair give Sakurai the ultimate say on which characters are OP and which characters suck, but there will always be balance issues that slip through the cracks. From time to time, without realizing it, a game will be completed with little glitches and bugs that stow away in the game’s code and sneak by the development team.
But this is the future folks. We live in an age of instant data transfer. Balance is still an issue, but it’s something that can be ailed as time progresses and doesn’t need to be locked down before “going gold” and shipping for retail. Via the power of the internet, roster adjustments toward the game’s overall well being can be made at any time. Many of the most popular fighting games use DLC and updates to adjust the inconsistencies in their rosters, but Brawl did not.
Oh, if only Brawl had patch updates. If that were the case then perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this incredibly nerdy manifesto.
Nintendo is a very traditional company, dead set and firm in their policies, one of which used to be (but has since been remedied) “No DLC”.
No DLC? Why? Well, in Nintendo’s eyes a game that needs DLC is a game that is incomplete and therefore shouldn’t be released yet. They’d rather delay a game to tweak it than release one that isn’t finished. This is understandable for certain genres, such as platformers or games with only a single player experience, but fighting games in particular require DLC as a modern necessity. Modern fighting games have grown to have rosters of 45+ characters, truly massive in their ambitions. There’s no way that developers can truly balance a game in the stature of Smash during the period of development. Its only through countless matches played by the community over the course of days, weeks, months, and even years that all the nooks and crannies of a game can be explored. Leave it to some asshole who is trying to deliberately find the easiest way to win to find the glitches that need to be patched with DLC.
In the time since Brawl’s release Nintendo has warmed up to the notion of DLC by slowly easing into the modern era. Like I said, they’re a very traditional company (and very traditionally Japanese, which makes them even more stubborn) so they needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into modernity. The Wii very rarely had DLC, but the 3DS and the Wii U saw a constant stream of both hardware and software adjustments via the internet. With games released for the Switch DLC and patches are just a regular part of the package, as they should be.
I don’t expect any development team to find all the inconsistencies in the complex data they’re developing, (especially in a game as deep as Smash) but I do think that glaring balance issues absolutely need to be adjusted during development. Enter: Meta Knight.
A villain (and sometimes anti-hero) of the Kirby series, Meta Knight is an original creation of Sakurai himself and hands down the strongest character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. The consensus is universal: Meta Knight is plain unfair. Not only does Meta Knight have the ability to fly but he can chase and attack opposing fighters as they’re recovering. Basically, he can have the entire stage covered at all times. It’s stupidly unfair. In a game where your main objective is to recover, I find it grossly irresponsible to allow some characters to have the ability of near-unlimited flight. Meta Knight, Pit, and R.O.B. are the biggest offenders here. Pit can fly underneath the stage and move from one side to the other without batting an eye. R.O.B. can do something similar.
These issues were remedied in future installments, culminating in Sakurai’s current opus Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In Ultimate, there isn’t a single fighter that breaks this rule. Recovering is easier for all fighters, putting the pressure on your opponent to rack up more damage in order to get a KO off of a single hit.
But going back to Brawl, why is Meta Knight the best character in the game? Perhaps nepotism is a factor? Was Meta Knight deliberately made superior to every other character in the game on purpose just because he’s Sakurai’s baby? Perhaps we’ll never know. If Sakurai’s mantra of adding characters is based on their uniqueness, what was Meta Knight’s unique quality? Being superior?
Why Meta Knight is OP is irrelevant. The fact remains that he was pretty much universally banned from tournaments and the like shortly into Brawl’s lifespan. Nobody wanted to play against Meta Knight in a game that people were already debating whether or not they wanted to play at all.
So, if things like tripping, sloppy gameplay, and the crash of over-hype made people start to think that Brawl sucked, then what do they do? Do they go back and just keep playing Melee? What if we wanted to keep a few things that Brawl actually delivered on? Many of us wanted Brawl’s over the top production values and larger character roster but with the gameplay of Melee. Thankfully, the Smash Bros. community was ready to step in and save the day.
- Mod Nation Smashers
The biggest case I can make for Brawl being the most disappointing game ever made is pointing out how many Brawl mods are out there. Is Smash Bros. Brawl the most over-modded game of all time? Not even close, but the amount of modding and tinkering that the community did with it is undeniable…and a little silly. Brawl Plus, Brawl Minus, Vanilla Brawl, Balanced Brawl and Project M all swam in the pool of Brawl’s universal disappointment. They shared a common goal in attempting to make it balanced and playable. The exception is Brawl Minus, whose goal was to make a mockery of Brawl and have all the characters be as broken as possible. (I have to admit that being a DK main it was nice to see him finally have a move where he throws barrels, even if it was only in a mod that made everybody broken)
This mountain of mods proves 2 things: Brawl’s widely regarded disappointment and the community’s adamant conviction to get what it thought was coming. I think we all had different notions of what Brawl would be before it was released. What it actually turned out to be was quite different than what everybody imagined. Most Brawl mods were little pet projects that materialized once people realized how easy it was to mod the game, but one in particular stands out: Project M.
The best way to describe Project M is this: it’s the game that Brawl should have been. The game’s official site describes it as “…a community-made mod of Brawl inspired by Super Smash Bros. Melee’s gameplay designed to add rich, technical gameplay to a balanced cast of characters while additionally enhancing the speed of play.” So basically, Project M takes all the issues I complained about above and fixes them. Brawl’s main issue, its maddeningly slow pace, is completely erased. Fighters not only move and fall faster but a level of technicality is added that was previously absent.
Although Project M uses the gameplay of Melee as a point of reference, matching it 1:1 is not its goal. It is undeniably faster than Brawl, but not an exact mirror of Melee. That’s a good thing: it allowed Project M to retain its own uniqueness while still adhering to the core essentials of Smash Bros.
It feels like a whole new game. Playing Project M for the first time was like an adventure, trying out every character to see what changes had been made. Moves were added in some cases and removed in others, all in the name of balance and fun. For example, Pit no longer has the ability of near-unlimited flight; he has a normal recovery like everybody else. (the same changes were made to Pit in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate) Shitty characters like Zelda and Lucas are now powerhouses, making them not only playable but appealing.
But it’s not all about maintaining balance and allowing a competitive atmosphere to flourish. Fun is a key factor in what makes Project M so endearing. Since Smash 64 I’ve really only played as one character: Donkey Kong. The Melee days were tough. He was at a terrible disadvantage compared to the rest of the cast, but I stuck it out and played only him. (I dabbled a little with Dr. Mario as well, but not nearly as much) With Project M, I feel like all of the characters are fun and appealing.
But that’s not all. Character changes and balance weren’t the only things added to Brawl’s roster. Fighters introduced in Melee that had been cut in Brawl were put back into the game! That’s right, fighters such as Mewtwo and Roy are playable in Project M! Yes! YES! For many people Mewtwo represents Pokemon right alongside Pikachu and Charizard. He’s the original legendary, but unlike his appearance in Melee, now he doesn’t suck! Similarly, Roy was given many new abilities that allowed him to rival Marth as the go-to Fire Emblem swordsman.
The stages are edited in a way so that wacky and obtrusive hazards are no longer a factor. Some people might find this boring, and that’s fair, but for serious Smashers this aspect of Project M was a Godsend. No longer did we have only 5 or 6 tournament legal stages to choose from. If anything, there were too many good stages!
You’d be naïve for thinking that Sakurai and his team weren’t aware of Project M. With Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, he did us one better and allowed players the option to turn off stage hazards. This one tiny addition made a big difference. It was something that should have been in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS but for some reason took until only recently to be put into the game.
Like the Project M team states, “Project M aims to capture the essence of what made Melee a truly great game in our eyes.” They succeeded, but have long since stopped developing new additions to the popular mod. Time, it seems, has caught up to them. Sakurai has, too.
- …Subspace what now?
The Smash Bros. series isn’t known for its single player experience. Smash is a game that thrives when multiple people are sitting together in front of the TV, duking it out. That didn’t stop Sakurai from broadening his horizons like he usually does. He wants that buffet to be as big as possible, and with the extended development period for Brawl (in comparison to the anemic development period for Melee) there was time to create a unique single player experience with incredibly ambitious parameters. It was called the Subspace Emissary, an entirely separate single player adventure that could stand as its own game.
Subspace looked great on paper, but in execution falls short in almost every regard. It was to be a Nintendo fan’s wet dream: all of the characters in Brawl’s roster would come together in a scripted epic composed of side scrolling levels connected by cinematic cutscenes. The player can choose which characters they want to be based upon whoever is involved in the current part of the story, (there are usually somewhere between 2 and 6 characters per scene that can be chosen) and even team up with a friend and tackle the game via co-op.
Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, Subspace is a sloppy mess. The gameplay is even slower than the already sluggish and floaty speed of the normal game. To combat this, players can customize their fighter using stickers collected via various means. Stickers can alter fighters’ stats, making them faster, stronger, or even jump higher. Unfortunately, there’s usually a tradeoff when altering stats. For example, a sticker can give you stronger smash attacks but limits your speed. This single player only statistic altering mechanic might seem intuitive, but the real problem doesn’t rear its ugly head until you try to use that fighter in a normal game and get your butt whooped because you’re used to all the stat enhancements you put on them in Subspace.
That’s not a terribly big issue. The gameplay in Subspace is separate from that of the normal game so there’s really no use in nitpicking it. However, I think where Subspace really fails is in what’s to have been the real draw in playing the single player adventure: its cinematics.
I wanted to like Subspace in the worst way. When Subspace was announced on the Dojo the opening cinematic was revealed along with it. Mario or Kirby, depending on who you choose, have to battle Petey Piranha in a boss fight after he kidnaps Zelda and Peach. The cinematic was impressive. Brawl’s art aesthetic, which is epic and realistic in tone, lent itself very well to the cinematics. The little movies are dated now, but at the time were a great incentive to keep playing. However, the more you go through Subspace the more you begin to feel like something isn’t quite right.
None of the cinematics contain any dialogue. This is okay for the first couple of scenes, but as you get further into the story and more characters start appearing it becomes painfully apparent that Brawl’s incredible soundtrack can’t cover the fact that everybody is pantomiming to each other.
Some characters, like Yoshi or Kirby, don’t talk. That’s okay. DK and Diddy are monkeys, so they can’t talk either. Alright, fine. But what about the Star Fox characters? They’re incredibly chatty in their own games. Could they not have had small bits of dialogue in a scene or two to break up the awkward silence? Solid Snake’s voice actor David Hayter reprised his role for Brawl, and the player can unlock secret codecs in certain situations in which Snake talks with other characters from the Metal Gear series about the particular fighter Snake is currently up against. For example, when triggering a codec while facing Diddy Kong, Snake says, “Otacon, there’s a chimpanzee here wearing a Nintendo hat.” It’s an easter egg but can be amusing depending on the character Snake’s talking about.
However, throughout the Subspace Emissary, Snake is completely silent.
I just don’t understand why all the characters had to be dialogue free. Charles Martinet has done such a great job giving Mario a voice and I think few people think of Mario now without also thinking “let’s a-go!” or “it’s a-me, Mario!” How come there was nothing like that included? I assume the different languages the game was made in have to do with this, such as Marth (at the time) only speaking in Japanese. These are the kinds of things that push development back, so perhaps they made it dialogue-free in order to get the entire mode finished at once.
Regardless of the reason for the silence some cinematics work just fine. The Luigi scenes are entertaining and funny because Luigi is so expressive in his body language. But other scenes, such as the ones including Pokemon Trainer, make me cringe.
There’s one scene where Pokemon Trainer and Lucas team up. At this point in the game, the Trainer has only one of his Pokemon: Squirtle. Lucas and the Trainer walk to the edge of a cliff (Sakurai just loves putting his characters on the edge of cliffs) and watch Charizard (a random one?) flying down into the valley below them toward a tower. The Pokemon Trainer takes out flashcards (flashcards!) of Ivysaur and Charizard, showing them to Lucas and pointing to Charizard.
What the…? Wait, shouldn’t he be using the Pokedex? Why the hell is he using flashcards? Does he have 500+ flashcards of every single Pokemon in that backpack of his? Isn’t the Pokedex like, the bible for Pokemon trainers? If different languages and localization will push back development the Dex doesn’t need to speak: it can simply display a picture of the Pokemon he’s looking at. Little things like this stand out to me.
Another missed opportunity of Subspace is the world that the story takes place in. You’d think that a story mixing all of these characters from different franchises would incorporate the famous locales from all those games. Oh snap, the Subspace army is invading the Mushroom Kingdom! What? Popstar is under attack? We’ll have to go to the depths of Brinstar to flush out the real villain behind this!
Excellent scenarios like this aren’t in the cards because the world that Subspace Emissary takes place in is completely amorphous. Yes, recognizable and famous locales like the ones mentioned above are pushed aside in favor of neutral, bland areas like desert, jungle, plains, or arena. The world map in Subspace is one screen, a bland mixture of various generic locales. Why jump into a warp pipe to get to the Mushroom Kingdom or hop on a warp star to take you to the Fountain of Dreams when you can climb…mountain. See what I mean?
The only redeeming quality that Subspace presents is an easy way to unlock all of Brawl’s roster. The very first time you turn on the game you can go to Subspace and select the easiest difficulty to breeze through the campaign and unlock all of the fighters as you go. This can be achieved in one sitting if you have a little over 3 hours to spend.
What was billed as the epic Nintendo crossover to end all Nintendo crossovers ended up becoming a complete afterthought. Considering you can unlock all the fighters through other means, Subspace can be ignored entirely. Oh, and you don’t need to play through the entire campaign to see the cinematics. They’re all on YouTube.
- Online play? Yeah, no.
Brawl was the first Smash Bros. game to include online play…kind of. I say “kind of” because while technically, yes, the game featured online play, it never worked. I can only remember one time I successfully got into a game online with friends, and even then it was a laggy, unplayable mess. This was 2008 and Nintendo was just dipping their feet into the waters of online infrastructure so they can be forgiven for trying.
They have since gotten Smash Bros. online working properly. Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS had a working online component but it wasn’t perfect. It didn’t have to be, though. It was playable, and that’s all it had to be.
The online play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is excellent. It’s more than playable. I’m online with my friends quite often, and very rarely do I encounter lag bad enough to impact the game. It took them 10 years, but Sakurai and his crew finally got it right.
Damn, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate really is the ultimate Smash. It makes up for the steaming shitfest that was Brawl in every way.
- You Must Recover!! Redemption in the form of the ultimate Smash
However egregious the error, there’s always room for redemption. Smash Bros. is insanely popular, pretty much assuring a new entry on every single one of Nintendo’s consoles from this point forward. Case in point, last year’s release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate proved to be Sakurai’s moment of redemption. I may have qualms with how Brawl turned out, but I can’t villainize him. He may be responsible for tripping but he’s also responsible for all the great parts of Smash Bros. as well. I also can’t deny how much of a talented developer he is, a veteran of the gaming industry and a hardcore gamer in his own right. (it’s always fun to read about what games Sakurai has been playing in his columns in Famitsu and the Japanese Nintendo Dream magazine)
I was blindsided by the reveal that every fighter from previous Smash games were returning. Yes, I was in the camp that thought Ultimate would simply be a port of Smash for Wii U and 3DS but with all the DLC and some new fighters and stages. I should have known better. That’s not Sakurai’s style. The poor man kills himself trying to appease us. He knows full well the responsibility that comes with being able to play with such popular characters and takes that responsibility seriously.
Smash for Wii U and 3DS was a step in the right direction in many regards. The gameplay was faster than Brawl but not quite reaching the levels of gameplay nuances in Melee. But that was good enough. The roster filled out, but unfortunately the Wii U version of the game was held back by the technical limitations of the 3DS. Sakurai was steadfast and resolute about both games having the same roster. That meant that if a certain fighter didn’t work on one console, it wasn’t going to work on the other.
Case in point: Ice Climbers. They sat out the Wii U/3DS version of Smash because of the limitations of the 3DS hardware. Since Ice Climbers are two fighters in one, it was impossible for the 3DS to display four players playing as Ice Climbers at once. As a result, they had to be taken out of the roster. I wonder if the same went for Pokemon Trainer. He didn’t make the cut in those games either, but Charizard was selected from his three Pokemon to stay in. Perhaps the 3DS couldn’t handle four Pokemon Trainers switching their Pokemon in and out at once?
Unlike the lead up to Brawl, Nintendo gave gamers and members of the media many chances to play Ultimate before its release. Before Brawl’s release it was locked up like the recipe for Coke. Perhaps they knew how much the game was going to suck and didn’t want to give us a chance to take it off of our radar? Maybe it was far too buggy and simply couldn’t be played by people who weren’t members of the development team? Whatever the case, Nintendo was far more open about letting us demo Ultimate than they did Brawl.
Since the release of Smash 64, Nintendo never really acknowledged Smash Bros.’ competitive scene. Recently however, they seemed to have embraced it. Their announcement of Ultimate in June of 2018 coincided with a tournament featuring pro Smash players, including those in the Melee competitive scene. Are they willing to commit to Smash Bros.’ competitive community or was it all just to score PR points with fans and consumers regarding the release of the upcoming game? Regardless of their intent, it’s nice to see Nintendo finally show a side that we’ve always wanted to see.
Through demos and pre-release tournaments we’ve been able to see a lot of footage or even get a chance to give the new games a spin. The gameplay overall is certainly faster than Brawl, but not quite as fast as Melee. Characters are still a little floaty, but attacks happen in a fast and more precise manner. Early in their development, Sakurai stated that tripping was being taken out. Perhaps there’s hope that he recognized Brawl’s missteps and is trying to make up for it?
The number one goal in any Smash Bros. game is to recover, and with Ultimate Sakurai has grabbed the ledge and made it back to the stage. The only question is where he goes from here. Sakurai really wanted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to be the ultimate Smash game, and I think he’s succeeded. Ultimate fires on all cylinders and checks every box.
Immense roster? Check.
Engaging gameplay that epitomizes the series? Check.
Online play that actually works? Check.
More than 4 or 5 playable stages? Check.
A balanced roster? Check. (I maintain the opinion that there isn’t a single fighter in Ultimate that is bad, and there are only bad matchups for that particular fighter)