Saturday, January 31, 2015

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Wii U…duh) Review

This review is going to a bit more informal than usual; originally I wasn’t even going to call this a review, but more just a “thoughts and impressions” kind of thing. I’m not going to explain or cover everything in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U in detail and am going to assume the reader (i.e. you) already has some knowledge of the game and the game’s content in this case. Above all else, this is mainly just about the aspects of the game that particularly stood out to me. With that out of the way, here are my thoughts on the newest Smash experience.

My experience with Super Smash Bros. dates back to the original game on Nintendo 64, which I fondly remember playing after school when it first released and also with friends many other times. It was such a surprising and novel game back then, and even though at the time I had never played a Metroid game and certainly had no idea who the hell Captain Falcon was, I had a blast nonetheless playing as Kirby and Samus Aran, unlocking everything, and doing all those “Break the Targets” and “Board the Platforms” levels. Later on Super Smash Bros. Melee cranked the series up to 11 and established the mold that the franchise would take the form of from then on. Super Smash Bros. Brawl built on what Melee established, not quite being another huge leap forward, but simply cramming more into what Melee had while also adding several new elements. Now, with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, it’s pretty much that same game again, except stuffed with more characters, more stages, more music, new modes and uber-polished gameplay that merges Brawl’s casual party game approach with Melee’s more technical skill-based approach. The result is…well, Super Smash Bros., now with the Duck Hunt Dog and Mega Man. That is to say, it’s one part polished, unorthodox fighting game crammed with stuff that is best enjoyed with friends and one part Nintendo museum. I think for me at least, however, the novelty of this series has worn off. I was excited about the game when gameplay was first shown off and loved every second of those character reveal trailers and all the speculation that went along with the game’s pre-release hype, but as the game’s launch got closer and closer, I found myself a bit apathetic. I was going to pick it up day one, but wasn’t necessarily overly excited for it and honestly sort of got sick of hearing about it after a while. Personally, I get much more excited for a new Metroid or Zelda game than for a big crossover that aims to make me nostalgic for those experiences. There’s just not much mystery when it comes to Smash anymore, especially thanks to the wonder (and the bane) that is the leaky internet. But I digress. While Smash Wii U has certainly had less of an impact on me than any of its predecessors, it’s still certainly a well-made game with a lot that I admire about it and a lot that I am fond of (and not so fond of) within it.

Multiplayer is still one of the most important aspects of Smash Bros. and thanks to the inclusion of up to eight-player battles, the game is now more a party pleaser than ever before. Online works better than in Brawl (honestly, this is mainly going by the word on the street since I barely used Brawl’s online, but I’m aware that most unanimously agree that it was shit), but unfortunately every single mode barring For Glory 1v1 was met with varying degrees of lag when I tried it all out, some of it hilariously unplayable and some of it manageable but still far from ideal. Unfortunately, if just one person has a bad connection, it ruins it for everyone. Luckily, 1v1 works mostly great and I’ve been able to get in a hundred matches here, mostly getting my ass kicked, but also winning a passable amount and having some fun encounters with strangers I will likely never encounter again. Although I should mention that, weirdly, my most recent 1v1 session was met with lag in almost every match I played; I don’t think this was on my end since I have a wired connection, but it’d also be a weird coincidence. But luckily and most importantly, online with friends in my experience works flawlessly as of this writing. I play with two friends and we all have good connections and I can recall maybe one instance of brief stuttering but otherwise every match has run as smoothly as if we were in the same room (it should be noted that every match we’ve played has been a stock battle with all items turned off). It’s great to be able to jump into a match with friends and not have to always gather together (because who wants to see their friend’s stupid faces, amiright? I kid, I kid).

As for everything else in Smash U…sigh…ok, I’m not going to go over it all in detail, but mainly just point out the stuff I notably like and dislike, because there’s a lot of stuff here. First off, and this should go without saying, the character roster is massive and it is spectacular. Besides being able to have a sparring match between Mario, Sonic, Mega Man and PAC-MAN, all the newcomers are excellent additions to the roster and each is as unique as the last. Villager and Wii Fit Trainer are hilarious and creative inclusions, and others like Little Mac, Bowser Jr.+ the Koopalings, Palutena, and Rosalina and Luma are all great additions that make sense. Having a little known character like Shulk will hopefully increase exposure to the hard-to-find Wii gem Xenoblade Chronicles (which is getting a port to the New 3DS later this year, although I’d still recommend playing that game on a big screen, which suits the game’s epic scope more) and Duck Hunt is the craziest, funnest surprise character the series has seen yet. As for the stages, I generally like all the new ones, which are vibrant, detailed and meticulously crafted fighting arenas. There do seem to be too many overly gimmicky stages, however, and an option to simply turn off hazards like the Yellow Devil of Mega Man fame on the Wily Castle stage would have been ideal (the option to choose a flat final destination variant of each stage is a nice, if imperfect, compromise though). Disappointingly, there are less brand new stages here than in Brawl and more returning stages than ever before. I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this (it’s not only about always having more) if it weren’t for my other problems with the stage selection. This is my personal taste, but some of the choices for returning stages here are…eh. I would have gladly seen creative and memorable stages like the Wind Waker Pirate Ship from Brawl (which would have made perfect sense, since The Wind Waker HD just came out on Wii U a little over a year ago) return instead of the bland Mario Circuit stage from Brawl (which feels out of place next to its shiny new replacement one from Mario Kart 8), two nearly identical Animal Crossing stages, and that Kid Icarus level from Brawl that nobody likes. There’s more stages than ever before, but the selection feels smaller than in Brawl somehow, thanks to the prevalence of returning stages but also because there’s a lot of “sameiness” in the stage selection (two Skyworld stages, two Animal Crossing ones with a near-identical aesthetic, two Mario Kart ones, two lava Metroid stages, two Wuhu Island-based ones, etc.). However, I do love the variety that stages such as Gaur Plain from Xenoblade Chronicles and the Duck Hunt arena add to the selection. Ultimately, I feel that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is a culprit here, as I would have loved to have gotten some of that version’s new stages in HD and also some of its returning ones.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I passed on the 3DS version and wish it never existed (I did spend a good chunk of time with the 3DS version’s demo though). All it seems to have done is rob the Wii U version of content and I hate having this newest Smash’s content split between two versions. It makes Smash Wii U feel less comprehensive due to its general lack of Nintendo’s handheld history, and I like Nintendo’s handheld history, I like it a lot in fact…but I don’t want to have to buy a watered-down version with an inferior control system to celebrate it. This is a selfish choice and I recognize that many who don’t own a Wii U appreciate the handheld version and I can understand its portability appeal, but for me personally, I’d rather Smash Bros. stay as a single home console release.


The next main point for me to hit on is the game’s soundtrack, which is a massive 400+ plus songs, with a great number returning from previous Smash titles, but also with a wealth of new remixes, new original songs, and “new” unremixed songs that weren’t in past Smash games as well. Similar to stages, there seems to be less new music remixes here than there were in Brawl, but with nearly 150 new remixes and plenty of other great music it’s harder to complain here than with the stage selection. Still, it does seem like a lot of content in this game has been reused from past titles, which makes this newest Smash Bros. inherently feel a little less new than past titles, and less like its own game and more like a huge expansion on what came before. That said, I love the overall comprehensive nature of the soundtrack and have had a blast just listening to the in-game sound test and editing my music favorites list and fiddling with the My Music feature, which lets players set how often songs play on every stage (all of which is very, very appreciated). Several of the new remixes rock: some of my favorites include the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time “Gerudo Valley” remix and Spirit Tracks “Full Steam Ahead” remix, the “Duck Hunt Medley”, every single Mega Man remix, and just about everything Yoko Shimomura, Yasunori Mitsuda, and Yuzo Koshiro worked on. Other remixes are not so much my cup of sleepytime herbal tea with a touch of milk and sugar. I admire artists being creative here but I think a bit too many liberties were taken with some songs, and in some cases wish the original track was included instead (luckily, in many cases both a remix and the original track are included, which I appreciate). Truth be told, even if I can appreciate a good remix, I almost always prefer original songs to their remixes and this couldn’t be more true in cases such as the “Try, Try Again” remix from Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, which isn’t necessarily bad, just much inferior to the original in my opinion (Shimomura’s only blemish here, and for my money probably ever, so we’ll let it slide). When it comes to song selection in an individual series, there seems to be a lack of variety in many cases, with an overwhelming focus on endlessly remixing the most iconic themes from each game. It makes sense to remix the most recognizable theme from a series for Smash Bros., but as someone who is very intimate with the likes of Zelda and Kirby, it pains me to know of all the other fantastic tracks that are being ignored in favor of yet another Legend of Zelda “Main Theme” cover or “Green Greens” remix (as good as these remixes often are). But nowhere is this more apparent or annoying than in the tiring seven remixes of the freakin’ Donkey Kong Country “Jungle Hijinx” theme that’s we’ve all heard one zillion trillion times before. This wouldn’t be so offensive to me if these three hundred versions of the same damn song didn’t take the place of the countless other possible inclusions or remixes from the varied and fantastic soundtracks of the Donkey Kong Country games (sure, we get a couple of other songs, but most are just taken from Brawl and even then there are not a lot). Three of these “Hijinx” remixes are from past Smash games, so those can be excused, but the other four being included at the expense of something new cannot be. Most face-palm worthy for me personally is the fact that two songs were chosen from the sublime masterpiece that is the Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze soundtrack and one of them is the goddamn “Jungle Hijinx” remix again, which only appears as basically an Easter Egg in like three bonus levels in Tropical Freeze. This…just makes me cry; like, it literally hurts me inside. All right, all right, I’ll stop being overdramatically whiny. There’s tons of awesome music here and I also haven’t mentioned how many smaller and lesser known games are represented in the soundtrack, many with new remixes, which is really cool and will hopefully make some people curious about these underappreciated titles.

                I’ll try to run down my thoughts on the rest of the main modes really quickly. Master Orders and Crazy Orders are excellent new additions, great for a quick play session and both with their perks and I hope they stick around for the inevitable sequel. Event Match mode is back and still a blast, with even more events than in the previous games and a new grid-like progression system which I approve of. Then there are the 140 varied “Challenges” to tackle for various rewards, which can be an addicting task, at least until you reach the later, super difficult tasks, most of which I don’t even care to attempt. Stadium mode is back with all the Multi-Man Smash stuff and Home Run Contest, both of which are a nice distraction as always. There’s also a new Target Blast mode in Stadium that can actually be kind of fun if you give it a chance, but it’s no replacement for the “Break the Targets” mini-game in the past Smash titles, especially in the original Smash and Melee, where every character had their own individual target level which took advantage of each fighter’s unique skillset. But with an ever-increasing character roster, I can understand why they stopped doing this in Brawl (which just had five target levels used by all of the fighters) and in Smash Wii U. I’ve perhaps spent the most of my time with Smash U in the Vault portion of the game: perusing trophies, setting up my own special matches in the versus mode using CPUs and saving replays and screenshots in the Vault (Samus vs. her Dark Samus color alt., an epic battle between Mario and Bowser, a nostalgia-fueled throwdown between a bunch of NES veterans, etc.), listening to the game’s extensive soundtrack, and sampling all of the “masterpieces”: brief, timed samplings of many of the classic games that the fighters come from (even if I’ve personally played most of these titles already, I enjoy the inclusion of these demos and think their existence makes a lot of sense). Finally, there’s the new board game mode, Smash Tour, which is inoffensive to me but a party mode in what can already be a riotously fun party game depending on how you play it feels a little redundant and unnecessary.


There are two more things that I want to give particular attention to. The first is the game’s Classic mode, of all things, which hasn’t seen much change since the N64 original until now and honestly that’s how something called “Classic” should stay in this case. To be blunt, I’m not a fan of Classic mode in this game, which has seen a massive overall. It’s frustrating and it’s just kind of dull. I don’t like having to bother to slowly move my character’s trophy between matches to choose my next fight; this is just tedious and doesn’t add anything to the experience for me. I hate how there is such a focus on five to eight-fighter battles as well. For starters, this limits the amount of stages one is going to see; oh yeah, I forgot to mention that playing in matches with above four fighters cuts the stage selection down to about a third of what it normally is, with the selection becoming more limited the more fighters there are, which is quite unfortunate…but thanks to a patch being released as I write this, more stages are apparently being unlocked for eight-player Smash, which is excellent news! Besides this, while eight-player battles can be fun with a group of intelligent human players, playing against random CPUs with items cranked up and Pokémon flying everywhere is just a mess and I almost never had any fun in these situations. But above all, I don’t like the difficulty system in Classic mode for the same reason I didn’t like it in Kid Icarus: Uprising (Smash U director Masahiro Sakurai’s previous game, which pioneered the same difficulty system). If you haven’t played either game, basically there is a difficulty scale (in Smash U’s case, literally a scale) that goes from 0.0 to 9.0, with the ability to set the difficulty to 0.1, 0.2, and so on. You bet more gold for the higher difficulties but get better rewards for completing matches. It’s a novel concept and I like the idea of risking a bunch of gold for better rewards and then losing those rewards if I fall in battle. What I don’t like is how if I get knocked out of a match, in addition to losing some of the rewards I’ve acquired, the difficulty level gets knocked down five points, so if I was trying to complete the game on the highest difficulty of 9.0, if I lose once, the game automatically bumps me down to 8.5 and then to 8.0 if I lose again and so on. What makes me not want to even bother going for the rewards one receives on the higher difficulties is that the final boss comes with a ridiculously unfair difficulty spike and like a gajillion forms that one needs to learn the patterns of in order to get anywhere. But a player only encounters certain forms on certain difficulty levels, so continued failure means I have very little time to learn how to beat these phases. Basically, I don’t stand a good chance at understanding how to properly defeat these foes unless I replay Classic over and over on the highest difficulties, wasting time and gold. And as I said, Classic is boring, so doing that is boring as well. I prefer the old Classic (preferably Melee’s variant): straight and to the point, just fight after fight (and not a bunch of chaotic six to eight-fighter bouts), with a few mini-games and twists thrown into the mix and a battle against a fantasy incarnation of your twisted child creator’s hand (and perhaps its demented twin as well) at the end.

The other thing I wanted to give specific attention to is the lack of a story or adventure mode here. I’m well aware of why Sakurai chose not to include a story mode this time around (and in my opinion, his reasoning is...flawed, to say the least), but I loved the Adventure Mode in Melee and always hoped that it would evolve in future games. I generally enjoyed The Subspace Emissary in Brawl but it was ultimately forgettable thanks to an onslaught of mostly generic enemies instead of recognizable Nintendo ones and likewise a bunch of mostly generic locations instead of ones from Nintendo games. This is a crossover game, a game all about fan-service, and I don’t want to fight generic puppet monsters in a bland forest; I want to fight Stalfos’ in the Lost Woods. The cutscenes were cool though. But anyway, I don’t necessarily need another giant adventure like The Subspace Emissary (although something akin to it, just not so generic, could be grand), but just something like Melee’s Adventure Mode is great and nicely breaks up the single-player aspect of the game as well as adds a lot to the Smash experience in my opinion, so much so that Smash Wii U feels inherently lacking and incomplete without some kind of adventure mode, despite having probably more stuff to do than in any Smash game prior.

For the inevitable Smash 5 (whether Sakurai directs it or not, and I certainly wouldn’t fault him if he chooses not to), I hope Classic mode returns to form and an adventure mode of some kind returns. Besides new characters, new stages, and new music there’s not much I can think of that they can do with this series. It’s pretty much another Mario Kart at this point: Nintendo’s big money-maker that always delivers a fun, polished experience, but doesn’t really evolve or change all that much from game to game. I forgot to talk about the character customization in the game and the Stage Builder by the way. In short, character customization is a neat addition that is fun to play around with, but I’m not sure how practical it all is since its usage online is limited and without a copy of the 3DS version, I don’t know of a way to bring my customized characters to friends’ games. I do like the way this game handles the customizable Mii Fighters, but they too are limited in the same ways as I just mentioned. As for the Stage Builder, it’s nice that it’s there and the ability to freely draw landforms with the GamePad is neat, but the user interface here is incredibly cumbersome, the options are extremely limited, and ultimately this feature is still far, far from being all that it could be (also, similar to my complaints with The Subspace Emissary, I’d rather have Nintendo game-themed items and backgrounds than generic ones, please).

At the end of the day though, despite my nitpicks and complaints, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is a colossal undertaking of a project, and Masahiro Sakurai and his team deserve a great wealth of respect and applause for bringing this beast together in such an elegant way. It’s a finely-polished, finely-tuned experience crammed with content and is a worthy celebration of the many games that inspired it. It’s hard to believe what a juggernaut the Smash series has evolved into since its N64 roots (although I do still find great appeal in the quiet, weird atmosphere of the N64 original). Something I love about Smash Bros. is just getting lost in Sakurai’s maze of menus, remembering fond experiences with so many wonderful video games, and learning about characters and games I’ve never had any experience with or rekindling fond memories for certain games or series that I’ve lost touch with. I’m now more interested than ever in playing a Fire Emblem game (Fire Emblem Awakening in particular) thanks to Robin and Lucina both being boss and all the sweet music from the FE series present in the game (again, particularly from Awakening), and the fantastic Mother music remixes as well as the EarthBound masterpiece demo make me realize how much I really need to get on that whole “finally playing through EarthBound” thing. I haven’t played a Pokémon game in over ten years, but reading about all of these weird creatures I never caught from later games (post the original Sapphire Version, the last one I played, not counting starting LeafGreen and barely getting anywhere in it) and listening to all the great music from the series makes me question whether it’s time to dive back in. I know I’m being manipulated here; I know this is one of the major points of Smash Bros.: just one big, fun advertisement for Nintendo’s games. I’m fully aware, but given the amount of polish and care and charm in this game, I’m ok with it for now. It’s really all the details that make this game such a treat. Just about every animation, every voice clip, and every stage background is lovingly detailed and full of personality, not to mention painstakingly true to the source material. Easter Eggs like the Kid Icarus “Palutena’s Guidance” conversations are just an added treasure hidden among the layers upon layers of Smash. Memorable situations like an eight-player choreographed aerobics session with a bunch of Wii Fit Trainers I engaged in with friends at a party and communication via a Princess Peach duel high above Skyloft with another human being I randomly encountered online demonstrates the power of the experience that this game’s developers worked so tirelessly to deliver. And deliver they did: although Smash will perhaps never be as hype-inducing or as novel as it once was for me, it’s still a special and worthy experience.