There’s no question that there are different levels of appreciation a person can have for a video game depending on whether they play it casually or competitively. It’s rare, however, that a game can be loved by a casual audience and hated so much by the competitive scene, but Super Smash Bros. Brawl pratfalls headfirst into that trap – and if you speak to its director, that might actually have been the point.
Look around forums, Reddit pages, or YouTube videos and you’ll be inundated with posts and comments that complain of the game being too slow, having broken Final Smash moves, not being technical enough by removing wave-dashing and L-cancelling, featuring unbalanced characters, and introducing a mechanic that seemingly stomped on a lot of ‘hardcore’ fans’ puppies: tripping. You’ll also see that a ton of people absolutely love the game, and played the hell out of it without the prospect of fame, glory and money to motivate them.
Is Brawl the best, or worst, Smash Bros. game? I don’t think there’s a definitive claim to either side of the argument. It represents a similar turning of the tide (at least in the eyes of some fans) to that seen by Mario Kart around the GameCube era, where the game is perceived as a catalyst for a shift towards a ‘party game’ mentality, with technical skills eschewed in favour of random elements and beginner-friendly mechanics.
No matter what your leanings are in terms of the game’s ergonomics, as a love letter to all things Nintendo, Brawl is utterly glorious. Seriously, this game features more Nintendo than I think even Nintendo knew existed. You’ve got dozens of maps that you can customize from a magnum opus of a soundtrack, hundreds of collectible trophies and stickers, and a single player mode that’s basically Nintendo porn. Actually, that probably already exists, so let’s say it’s the ultimate in Nintendo fan service.
I’ll get to the Subspace Emissary in a moment, but first I want to reflect on the point of trophies and stickers in this game. Erm, there is absolutely no point in any of them, right? They don’t make you better at the game, you can’t do anything with them, and you’ll probably never collect them all, but they’re just… they’re really awesome, you guys.
Every trophy has been meticulously designed and features an informative, sometimes humorous, blurb that must have required plenty of man-hours to complete, all for players to simply look at them for a bit. Somewhere along the line, that logic is fucked, but that just makes me appreciate the hard work of the developers even more. Everybody knows the thrill of a trophy dropping out of the sky mid-match. It’s like a small hit to the Nintendo junkie in all of us. The sheer amount of ancillary content means that 100% completion of the game is probably a fool’s errand, but my word is it addictive.
The element that compliments this monster Nintendo package (I think I’m still reeling from that Nintendo porn faux-pas – sorry) the most is the fantastic Subspace Emissary mode. I was genuinely gutted when this wasn’t announced to make a return in Smash 4. To be slightly reductive, it was an evolution of the Adventure Mode in Melee, but to give it its props, it’s probably the best mode in any Smash game. Platforming around themed levels and fighting bosses was great fun, but the real star of the show – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a game with Mario in it – were the cutscenes used to tell the absolutely batshit story. This was the Nintendo universe turned up to 11, showcasing a developer with the shackles off and able to have fun with these iconic characters.
It may sound like I’ve praised Brawl more as something of a Nintendo museum than a game, but I played more Brawl with friends than any of the other titles in the series and I had a ruddy good time, thank you very much. Yeah, it’s a lot slower and less technical than Melee, but that’s not really what Smash is about. At least not according to director Masahiro Sakurai, who has been quoted several times as saying that he could make Smash a more hardcore game, but he doesn’t want it to stop being a game in lieu of it becoming a sport.
I’m not a pro Smash player. I’m not even a great Smash player. I reckon I’d probably suck more than Kirby if I ever tried to take it too seriously, but I love Smash, and I have a real fondness for Brawl. I don’t think it can be denied that the gameplay, in terms of creating the purest balance between casual and hardcore requirements, was perfected in Smash 4, but Brawl was the game that defined Smash as an icon. From the very first reveal of Solid Snake, Smash took on a whole new significance in the gaming sphere. Character reveals are now a major event – the highlight of any Nintendo Direct, and basically the only thing people care about in the lead up to a new game – you didn’t see that happening when Ice Climbers were added to Melee.
It seems that the release of Smash 4 helped to cull the hate for Brawl, and with the amount of love and graft (one more game like this will probably put Sakurai in an early grave) that clearly went into making such a huge game, the last thing it deserves is hate. Fundamentally, you can’t please everyone, but a game with this level of reverence for its source material should please anyone who claims to be a Nintendo fan. The series has moved on and improved, but no game, for better or worse, had more of an impact on its current state than Super Smash Bros. Brawl.