Review: Super Smash Bros. Wii U

By Josh Snyder

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Cover art for Super Smash Bros. Wii U.

It may have taken a few days, but in the span of one simple announcement, Nintendo rendered my then-recent review of the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros. useless. How else could you explain why the famed developer went out of their way to showcase over fifty new changes to the Wii U version (changes that just so happened to fall in line with my criticism of the portable version)? Simply put – the 3DS version had some issues, and Nintendo wanted to work quickly to get in front of them. But in doing so, one truth did come out – Nintendo lied. The Wii U version, they said, would be so much more than the 3DS version I was currently sinking hours into.

Fortunately, that lie, which originally stated that the 3DS version of the famed fighting franchise would be identical to the Wii U version, proved to be wrong in the best possible way. Again it should come as no surprise that Nintendo and Bandai Namco, who co-developed the game together, have released onto the Wii U arguably one of the best fighting games ever made. But what is surprising is that, in doing so, Nintendo and Bandai Namco have also provided a blueprint for the somewhat-recently established genre of multiplayer-only games. Super Smash Bros. Wii U succeeds mightily as a fighting game, but it also solves a crucial problem that has crippled this genre for quite some time – how to stay entertaining and feel fresh past the first week.

It’s Smash Bros., But Better

Let’s get the basics out of the way – the Wii U version still offers world-class gameplay, and with the ability to play the game with a proper controller instead of the 3DS, it feels better than ever. Because the move sets and controls are so finely tuned, characters tend to stand out more on the Wii U version, taking advantage of that fifty fighter roster even more. Thankfully, that roster also unlocks faster than in the handheld version – there are more characters up front, and it takes less fights to unlock the final fighter. The same can be said for players who decide to go the route of completing various challenges in order to unlock characters and stages. It’s a smart move on the part of Nintendo to put only a few unlockable characters into the game, and to provide most of the roster up front as it provides players  more opportunities earlier on to determine which fighters they prefer and which ones they can avoid, while putting more emphasis on playing the ridiculous amount of game modes, all of which have their own unique take on the core-Super Smash Bros. gameplay.

Some of the stages from the 3DS version did not carry  over to the Wii U version, simply because Nintendo wanted unique stages on each platform to better reflect the games commonly found on those devices. For example, the Nintendogs level from the 3DS version is not in the Wii U version, which is fine because in its place are some amazing levels – a redesigned Star Fox stage and a new Metroid level that are so much fun players will immediately forget about any missing stages.

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The new stages are some of the best the series has ever seen.

Thankfully, Nintendo made improvements to the stability of online play for the Wii U version, although it still feels like playing a game on the original Xbox, with a limited number of options to choose from and persistent lag, though considerably less than in  Super Smash Bros. Brawl, so at least it’s playable. That said, Nintendo should figure out their online strategy sooner rather than later.

Many of the additions to the 3DS version did make their way  onto the Wii U, most notably the surprisingly deep fighter customization options. With this mode, Nintendo found the perfect balance, offering enough options to create unique fighters but without the system overwhelming players. This means players can both experiment and have fun. For those who played the 3DS version, they can even import their custom fighters over. This mode offers an example of exactly what Smash Bros. Wii U gets right – there is a lot to see and do, and for the most part, it is all worth the time to experience.

A Whole New Way To Play

In retrospect, I should never have believed Nintendo when they claimed the 3DS version was a near-clone of the Wii U version – I just couldn’t see that as being possible. But even   I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming amount of new content and changes to this version. There are so many things to do and improvements to highlight that it would be impractical to list them all here, so here’s the seven most notable changes to the franchise.

For starters, there are a grand total of eight different control options for Smash Bros. Wii U. For this reason alone this version tops the 3DS entry, but it also has a fortunate side-effect – this version is simultaneously one of the deepest and most accessible fighting games ever made. With so many control options, there is at least one method for everyone, which helps reduce a common barrier to entry in the fighting game genre – learning how to play. Want to master every single move for every possible scenario? Do as the pros do, and use a Gamecube controller. Just want to smash Kirby repeatedly? Pick up the gamepad controller and go to town. Is that controller too unwieldy, and the Gamecube controller too cramped? The classic controller pro works great.

Nintendo included all the control options because the button-mashing that was so common in Super Smash Bros. Brawl will lead to certain death in this version. This was a conscious decision reflective of a design philosophy that Nintendo has been pursuing for the last few years. By lowering the difficulty in one area, they can increase it overall throughout the rest of the game. Super Mario Galaxy 2 had some truly devilish levels, but it was still accessible to young and less-skilled gamers because of the inclusion of the Cosmic Guide, which would take over for the player and complete the level for them in the event that they failed a certain number of times. The multitude of control options in Smash Bros. Wii U ends up serving the same purpose, and for a game that relies solely on multiplayer, it is a very wise decision.

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Smash Tour has a lot of potential to be a great party game, and is a great example of the inventive approach Nintendo took with this game.

Super Smash Bros. Wii U includes number of new modes, and thankfully they provide a better experience than those found on the 3DS version. Smash Tour pits four players against each other in what can best be described as a cross between Smash Bros. and Mario Party. The goal is to acquire power ups that boost core stats – speed, attack, defense, etc. – and a roster of fighters, all in preparation for one final fight. Before each game, players can determine the number of turns, each consisting of players rolling a dice and moving around the board. If no two players bump into each other, the turn simply ends, but if they do there is a small fight with the winner stealing a fighter from their opponent’s roster. After all turns have been taken, the acquired power-ups are applied and players take their stable of fighters into one last battle with one goal – score the highest number of knockouts. The final match is not timed, and once a player runs out of fighters, they can no longer compete, meaning that players who collected more characters during the board-game phase will have more chances to score knockouts, but they might not be as powerful as players who focused less on fighters and more on their stats. If it sounds complicated, know that it isn’t, but do know that it is a lot of fun, especially with friends. It’s the type of outside-the-box thinking that keeps an old franchise feeling new and innovative. It’s familiar, yet different, and most importantly, just plain old fun.

Sadly, not every element hits a homerun – the level editor is frustratingly simple and in ways is actually a regression from the version offered in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. On paper it sounds amazing – players use the gamepad to draw levels, and there are some pre-made objects that can be placed into the level. But those items are basic and offer little variety. However, the bigger issue is that the level editor holds players back from making anything that would be complex or engaging. As the player places objects or draws platforms, an item meter along the bottom of the screen fills up, and when it’s full, no more items can be placed. The first time I filled the meter up, I thought it was a glitch – I had placed just a couple moving platforms and put some lava on a wall. But sure enough, that was too much for the game to handle, and I had to strategically delete content if I wanted to add one barrel that could launch players into my lava wall of doom. While I am glad that fans get something in the way of level editing in this version, it is almost never a good idea to move an idea or mechanic backwards with new releases. If a mechanic cannot be refined or evolved in any meaningful way, it might be better if it were left out of the final product, and this is especially true of one that takes a step back.

Eight Player Smash is exactly what it sounds like – instead of battles featuring four combatants, players can now fight with up to eight. To call it chaotic would be an understatement, but it certainly is a fun distraction. All strategy flies right out the window, and sometimes it’s just fun to abandon all sense of self-preservation and jump head-first into the fray and see what happens.

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Eight player smash is crazy, but a lot of fun.

Should that prove to be too much to handle, there are now themed events that players can undertake to unlock items and earn more gold (gold that can be spent to… unlock more items). These challenges sometimes revolve around fighting a group of characters under abnormal conditions, but many of them demand that the player perfect one aspect of a specific fighter to accomplish a unique task. A great example is the challenge that requires Jigglypuff to use her (its?) special attack that can put other fighters to sleep for a short period of time. The catch is that the player must make sure all three opponents are asleep at the same time, meaning they have a short window to send everyone off to dream land. But these challenges add additional wrinkles – in this one, the opponents do not fight the player, but instead run away from them. They will have to be out-maneuvered and chased down in order to complete the challenge, a task that is far easier said than done. These events once again show that Nintendo really put time and energy into thinking about how the core fighting mechanics could be altered to provide new gameplay experiences.

And the modes just keep on coming. Home Run Derby is still the same but still just as fun, and the new target smash is a mix of the Home Run Derby mode and Angry Birds, of all games. There are a number of endurance tests, where the player takes on waves of fighters who can easily be knocked out, such as 100 Man Smash and 3 Minute Smash. And then there are all of the trophies and songs  waiting to be unlocked, a simple mechanic that taps into the completionist in all of us. I was worried going into this game about there being no replacement for the story mode from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the Subspace Emissary, but those worries ended up being completely unfounded.

An Overall Amazing Experience…

The biggest reason that Super Smash Bros. Wii U works so well is because Nintendo and Bandai Namco took full advantage of the resources they had available to them. Most might focus in on things like the upgraded visuals, and even I have to admit that seeing a Smash Bros. game in high-definition at sixty frames per second for the first time was a sight I won’t soon forget, but Nintendo was not content to simply re-release an old game with upgraded graphics. The thought of an eight player mode would have seemed too good to be true even a year ago, and with so much action on screen it wouldn’t have worked on older hardware. This growth is something that, thus far, hasn’t been highlighted too much in the eighth generation – many of the games released so far run on seventh generation hardware. For Nintendo to be an unexpected leader here shows just how seriously they took this game, which is remarkable considering that they could have simply re-released Super Smash Bros. Melee and still made a boatload of money.

The most important lesson to take away from this game is that its success is a direct result of the variety in modes and gameplay. It’s easier to appreciate just how important this is when you compare Smash Bros. Wii U to another popular multiplayer-only title – Mario Kart 8. Of course the latest Mario Kart is a blast to play, and it certainly benefits from having an easier learning curve, allowing gamers to pick it back up after a long absence. But after continuous, prolonged play it starts to feel repetitive. It is, after all, a kart racer – only the most diehard fans of the genre will continuously play it for months to come. But the same, thankfully, cannot be said about Super Smash Bros. Wii U. True, most of the modes revolve around fighting mechanics, but those mechanics are utilized in so many fun and unique ways that this isn’t so much a fighting game as the ultimate party game.

…Despite Some Unfortunate Flaws

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The simplicity of the level editor is really disappointing.

But even Nintendo isn’t immune to missteps, and it should come as no surprise that these mistakes revolve around the level editor and online play. One element the limited editor lacks is the simple ability to share levels with other players. As of this writing, if I see a picture of a user created level online and I want to try it out, I have to hope the author has shared enough information that I can recreate the level myself. That method is so far removed from being acceptable that it makes me want to ditch the editor for good, especially in light of games such as Minecraft and Little Big Planet. Nintendo has stated that the ability to share levels will be added into a patch sometime in the future, but the fact that “sharing user created content” will appear as a patch note in 2014 or 2015 is beyond absurd.

For the online mode, the biggest disappointment is that it feels just as advanced as the same multiplayer I was gaming on back in the early 2000s, when all I had to take advantage of my brand new Xbox Live subscription was MechAssault. But even then, MechAssault allowed players to chat with one another, so in some ways Nintendo still has some catching up to do.

I know it’s old hat to be complaining about Nintendo’s online policy, but what bothers me is that they would rather include a half-baked feature instead of a fully-fleshed out feature. If a developer cannot commit one hundred percent to a mechanic, then a decision needs to be made – either commit, or drop it and reallocate the resources. Going forward, I would rather Nintendo ditch the online altogether.

One Final Smash

If any developer out there is currently planning a multiplayer-only game, then take note – Nintendo and Bandai Namco provided the perfect blueprint to ensure gamers will be entertained for months and months post-release. While it certainly helps that this is an already successful and established franchise, which happens to feature the most recognizable and popular characters in the history of the medium, Super Smash Bros. Wii U is also a game that fully commits to almost every new and refined idea it puts before the player. This is how you make a multiplayer-only game – refine what already works, play around with the established formula to create something fresh and, most importantly, make it fun.