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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

'Smash Bros.' rumble

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer

Friday, March 21, 2008

It's hard to think that it's been over six years since "Super Smash Bros. Melee" was released for the Nintendo Gamecube. The seminal multiplayer classic has enjoyed a long and prosperous lifespan: since December 2001, it's become the highest-selling Gamecube game and is played regularly at the professional level (Yes, professional gaming exists). It featured 26 playable characters, hundreds of collectable trophies from obscure Nintendo games, and countless hours of gameplay between single-player challenges and multiplayer mayhem.

Needless to say, any sequel to "Melee" would have a lot to live up to. And that's just what "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" does. "Brawl" is packed to the seams with content. All the single-player challenges and multiplayer modes of "Melee" return, along with the most extensive and ambitious single-player mode, entitled "Subspace Emissary," of any of the "Smash Bros." games before it. Clocking in at eight to 10 hours, it far outstrips the paltry adventure mode from "Melee" or the standard classic mode of the original Nintendo 64 game. Don't expect much in the way of plot though; it's essentially a string of contrived scenarios designed to team unlikely pairings of Nintendo characters together (Samus and Pikachu! Who would have thought!) to defeat a mysterious yet bland villain.

The fan-service-tastic cut scenes between missions, however, are worth the admission for any Nintendo fan; the missions themselves, on the other hand, are a chore. They boil down to mindless romps through generic environments defeating obnoxious, poorly designed enemies, occasionally punctuated with a boss. I was quite glad to be done with "Subspace Emissary" when the last cutscene ended and I could get on with the rest of the game.

The one plus about the new single-player mode is that it's an easy and efficient way to unlock all of the hidden characters in the game. Counting character transformations, there are 38 playable characters this time around, and 41 stages to fight on. This includes series newcomers Sonic the Hedgehog and Solid Snake, the first two non-Nintendo characters to appear in a Smash Bros. game. This is just the tip of the iceberg for unlockables though; like the gameplay in "Melee," there are a ridiculous number of trophies, stickers and other collectables to unlock.

If you thought the trophies in "Melee" were obscure, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's not uncommon to get trophies for Japan-only NES games from 20 years ago. Add content from the six years between "Melee" and "Brawl," and the result is far more collectable content than ever before. Nintendo fans will squeal with delight. The fighting itself is similar to "Melee:" four players battle with famous Nintendo characters to try and knock opponents off the edge of the stage. The feel of the game is a little slower and more deliberate, closer to the feel of the N64 version minus the foggy graphics and slowdown which plagued it. That's not to say fans of "Melee" will feel left out. The period of adjustment is short for Smash veterans, and the return of nearly every character from both versions ensures satisfaction.

A big addition is the "Final Smash," activated by breaking open a special item. These super attacks are fun and satisfying if you get them, but frustratingly unbalanced if you're on the receiving end. The computer difficulty has also been ramped up this time around, particularly defensively; no longer will the computer-controlled players mindlessly wander into your fully-charged attacks.

Playing against three computer players is not advised, unfortunately. They seem to gang up on human opponents much more than in the past, which gets frustrating fast. You're best off playing with at least one other friend.

Control-wise, the design team, led by Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai, graciously allowed for a variety of control schemes for Wii owners. The game can be controlled using a Wiimote alone, a Wiimote and nunchuck combo, the Wii classic controller and, of course, the Gamecube controller. Playing the game with the old Gamecube controller is still the best way to go for experienced players, but Wii owners without old controllers will do fine with the classic controller or Wiimote/nunchuck combo, particularly if they're casual gamers with no experience with "Smash Bros."

Another big addition to "Brawl" (told you it was packed to the gills with content) is online play. Nintendo notoriously lags behind Microsoft and Sony in the online world, and this is the first major Nintendo release that is expected to generate a lot of online play. It has. In the first week the game has been out, online play has been disappointingly slow with flashes of occasional greatness. Crushing lag can cripple an online match, and even when things are running relatively smoothly, it still feels like playing the game in slow motion. The noticeable lag between input and action, particularly in a fighting game like this, tarnishes or ruins any multiplayer game. Even if you do find a smooth connection, battles against strangers are limited to two-minute brawls, and adhering to Nintendo's borderline paranoid parental controls, you never even see the names of your opponents.

Playing with friends is fun if you can organize it, but since there is no chat support and sending a message with the Wiimote is slow, your best bet is to call up your friends and set up a time  not exactly high-tech. And to even add friends to your list, you need to input their friend code, a random, game-specific 12-digit number. This isn't Xbox Live. Heck, it makes the work-in-progress Playstation Network seem luxurious.

Despite these flaws, "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" is one of the best multiplayer games in years. Everything that was right about "Melee," debatably the greatest multiplayer game of all time, is back. Add to that over a dozen new characters, new stages, new features and online play, and it's hard to complain about "Brawl." It's a no-brainer for any Wii owner, and it's destined to become the next great dorm room party game.

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