It’s the obsessive-compulsive of the fighting genre, on the outskirts of the specialist market with a big smile and a bulging rucksack. Brawl aims to be nothing less than the most complete installment of Super Smash Bros, a fighting game of huge depth, and in addition provide a surfeit of sickly sweet treats for the videogame brand fans. Further dancing around the issue does it a disservice: it achieves this, and then some. Super Smash Bros Brawl has the kitchen sink, all right, but it’s pretty much got the rest of the house hidden in there as well.
Generosity isn’t a word often associated with videogames or, indeed, Nintendo. Brawl dares you not to use it. It’s creaking under the weight of its content, rammed to bursting with modes, options, trophies, stickers, music, levels, and demos. It’s hard to know where to start – even existing modes are significantly improved with considered changes: event mode, for example, now has separate difficulty levels and can be attempted in co-op.
The singleplayer campaign is the greatest beneficiary in terms of quantity: the old mode of a simple battle through stages followed by a fight against a giant hand still exists, but it’s now joined by a lengthy side scrolling quest mode that can be played in co-op. It’s best to get this out of the way first, because it’s the only weak element of Brawl’s offering – knockabout nonsense à la Donkey Kong Country at best, basic and repetitive at worst. Near the end there’s some significant recycling of environments along with the big boss fights, and it occasionally becomes onerous, but to define it as more than a shallow element of the overall game’s greatness would be deliberately obtuse.
That greatness is multiplayer. Super Smash Bros is a series that has often been unfairly derided as button-mashing, largely thanks to its surface sheen of cutesy characters, but it has one of the most enduringly innovative and deep systems of any fighter, built around controlling key locations in the levels and anticipating the movement of opponents. The fighters either fit into distinct groups or are unique: Olimar would be an example of the latter, the former would be the likes of Link, Pit and Marth – all sword characters with some broadly similar styles where the distinctions in individual moves make a huge difference. Of course there are higher-tier characters and some that seem a little weedy, but none of them quite has the butterfly/bee combination perfect, and holes can be picked in every defense.
Learning how to keep an opponent down in combination with the intricacies of each stage is worth the considerable investment, and Brawl’s stages stand comparison with the series’ best: the new Pokémon stage seems simplistic but can be jarringly confusing with the involvement of the background characters flipping the level and destroying sections of the ground; similarly, Shadow Moses gets progressively wrecked as the fight continues, until a full-scale Metal Gear bursts through the scenery and screams. Pictochat constantly alters the terrain, the Wind Waker level replaces Rainbow Road, Mario Sunshine cycles through the basic Smash variants with an Isle Delfino background, and shyguy racers on the Mario Kart stage can sweep you off the screen in an instant. If there’s a criticism, it’s that many of the new stages have elements that affect the layout – and some that attack characters directly. These have to be learned and incorporated into strategies, and it can seem a little like a chore when you get caught in a lava flow on the new Metroid Prime level for the third time – but, equally, it’s beautiful when you escape it and knock all of your fellow combatants in.
As for those characters, almost all of Melee’s roster return for action with some significant additions. Captain Olimar is particularly unusual, depending on Pikmin as his offensive and defensive limbs, but is very capable after the intricacies are worked out. Sonic is realized magnificently: speedy, powerful, full of cheek, altogether the most definitive vision of the character in years; how strange that it’s taken Nintendo to remind us why we liked him in the first place. Snake’s movements and attacks are instantly recognizable, and his fighting style retains that strange wavering between comedy and competence that defines the character. Pit is annoyingly deadly, Meta Knight is a buzzing thorn in your side, and King Dedede is a powerhouse who will dominate any match under competent hands. Of all the new characters the only relative disappointment is the Pokémon Trainer, whose charges have cribbed move sets and seem like more of a greatest hits novelty package than a powerful and coherent combination of abilities.
Beyond this core of the game, Brawl begins to open up as it’s played. More characters, more levels, more items, more demos, more trophies, more powers, more stickers, more soundtracks. Unlocking the various prizes is constant, both because there are simply so many trinkets up for grabs, and because the philosophy of the game is to constantly reward the player, whether with a few coins, a statue of an obscure Nintendo character or the chance to fight against a new challenger. Combined with the ‘unlock’ screen, which offers little hints as to conditions that have to be fulfilled for other prizes, Brawl lures out the completionist lurking in the heart of every gamer.
Super Smash Bros Brawl is the most complete realization of its core idea you could imagine possible, and far more than a spruced-up Melee. Because of this, there’s something a little funereal about it: it is so comprehensive that there’s nowhere for this series to go without radical change, and any further entries on a similar model will simply be iterative. But why think of the future? Brawl is all about Masahiro Sakurai and his team putting a full stop on Super Smash Bros. as they have developed it and we have known it. And what a way to go.