I got a Nintendo Gamecube a couple of years into college, and one of the first games I bought was Super Smash Bros. Melee. I’m not generally a big fighting game guy, but I am a big Nintendo guy, and it ended up being an outstanding purchase. It singlehandedly justified the not-inconsiderable cost of buying a couple more controllers, because it was always easy to find a few more people who were ready to put down the books and spend an hour or two beat the tar out of each other in the form of beloved Nintendo characters.
That boring story is there to draw a little parallel to where I find myself with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Not only is it an outstanding game in its own right, but since I’ve just started a graduate program I once again find the rare moments of non-studying to be filled with a controller in my hand, trying to see if I can get good playing as Fox, or if I can finally figure out how to pull of Ness’s recovery move.
At this point I think most people my own age have played a Super Smash Bros. game. Aside from the fleet of classic Nintendo characters that populate the game, there are two big elements that make the series unique among fighting games. First of all, the fighters don’t have a health bar. The object is not to beat on each other until they fall down. The object is to knock them off the edge of the stage. The more damage they take (represented by a percentage), the easier this becomes, so a person who is at 125% damage will fly a lot farther than someone at 15%.
The second defining element of Super Smash Bros. is that it does not rely on memorizing a list of combos to pull off the moves. Functionally it’s limited to a “special attack” button and a standard “hit” button, which do different things depending on where your control stick is positioned. Slamming the control stick and the hit button at once will produce a smash attack, which is the strongest hit you can land on someone. As evidenced by the very serious level of play that happens with Smash Bros., there’s a lot of depth to be mined out of such a simple setup. But the flipside is that it’s possible to hit the two attack buttons and move around and at least feel like you know what you’re doing. In other words, at a certain level the game lets you mash buttons and still have fun, or it lets you drill as deep into it as you want to go and take it really seriously.
These elements were present in the original Nintendo 64 version and in Melee, as well as in Brawl, the Wii version that I never played. In fact, if I really felt like I needed to come up with a complaint for SSMWU, it’s that it reminds me heavily of Melee. The first character I played with, Donkey Kong, played pretty much exactly the way he did on my Gamecube. But given that a couple of my favorite characters were altered just a bit, I actually prefer this. No matter what anyone says, part of the appeal of Nintendo games is in their nostalgia, and that goes doubly true for any game that bases stages an characters off of Game & Watch, which predates most of the players themselves.
It helps that the Wii U version is following a terrific model. Melee gave the players an extraordinary level of control over their experience, and all of that has survived into this version. Do you want to play a match where you play for ten minutes straight? How about for a whole hour? You can do it! How about a game where the only item are bombs, and they come out really frequently? Go for it. Maybe you want one where everyone is giant and metal most of the time, but then you adjust the “smash rating” so people go flying off the board at the slightest tap? And then you play that for 99 minutes, because you can? The remarkable thing is that Nintendo has designed a game that can handle all of the bizarre stuff you throw at it. You couldn’t do a “Breaking Madden” kind of column with Super Smash Bros., because the game is unbelievably durable. It doesn’t glitch out when it’s asked to do something strange.
And lest you misunderstand me, there is a ton of new stuff in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. One of the big ones is the preposterous feature of eight-player games. Setting aside that the game supports enough controller configurations to make this work, eight-player matches are absolutely bonkers. It’s complete insanity, eight fighters bouncing all over the screen, throwing items at each other, and generally making it impossible to see what’s going on. It’s a feature geared towards a specific kind of player, the one who enjoys the frantic chaos of the game. I happen to be one of those people, so I really enjoy them. The other feature I love are the event matches, which I believe made their debut in Brawl. These are basically scenario games, where you are given a setup and a specific character. For example, one tasks Mario with destroying a building (Wrecking Crew-style) while two Warios work hard to knock Mario off the screen. These are my favorite single-player elements, and even though Super Smash Bros. has always worked best with a lot of people in the living room, the Wii U version feels like they understand that’s hard when you don’t live in a dorm room. This is also evidenced by the usually-solid online mode, which has worked well for me about 90% of the time. All of this doesn’t even cover the new characters and stages. There are a lot of new ones, like Little Mac from Punch-Out, and third-party characters like Pac-Man and Mega Man. There are of course more unlockable ones, but those are surprises I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. All that to say, Super Smash Bros. is bursting with content to explore.
But the single best gift I’ve been given by Super Smash Bros. is that it has become the first video game that has managed to become a true family experience for me. We have enough controllers for me, my wife, and my almost-five son to play at once, and against all odds we have had a lot of fun with it. There are ways to handicap me so that I’m a lot easier to send flying, and we just go from there. That’s a very special thing that no game has yet managed to accomplish, not even Mario Kart 8, which until now was easily the best game on the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. has really been a joy for us. It’s familiar in all the right ways, and completely surprising when it needs to be. This is the sort of game that will be played for years, and can be enjoyed by just about anyone.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, who wants to come over and play a few rounds?