Saturday, May 31, 2008


A Moment of Selfish Fanboy Glee

The latest numbers over at VG Chartz show Nintendo's Wii leading the pack in every major market in the world. It took Microsoft two and a half years to build a market base in America that Nintendo built in only one and a half years.

I had a feeling that it was inevitable, but it's still interesting to see it happening.

You can already taste the sour grapes flowing from the PS3 and X-Box aficionados. "But... but... sales don't mean quality! Wii games are dumb! The Wii's flooded with shovelware! It doesn't have the cool featuresssssss!"

Yeah yeah. Sure sure. Look, I was a Nintendo fanboy for the past ten years, so I know what you're going through. In the coming months, you will see support promised by third party companies begin to dwindle as people like me tear your little fucking hobby apart and turn it into something more suitable to our tastes. It's going to hurt when the solid facts start to demonstrate that the box of computer chips you bought for $600 is turning into just another footnote in gaming history, the sort of system that people describe with some variation of "It really had some must-own games, but..."

And it's going to serve you right. Because you've spent your entire gaming career shunning and marginalizing everything about video games that I enjoy. And you're going to see what it's like to have to hunt everywhere for that game you were anticipating because nobody's going to want to stock it anymore.

But it will make you a better person. Because you will come to realize that there are more important things than winning video game wars. You will see that your loser, third-place game box can still make you happy to the extreme. You will stop carrying around a chip on your shoulder that makes you believe that you're better than everyone else because of a piece of electronics that you own. You will still find software that you want to play, and you will enjoy it all the more for its scarcity.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy your long, slow slide into total irrelevance. The Wii will be here when you're ready for a real system.


Sunday, May 11, 2008


Super Smash Brothers Brawl

The world doesn't need another Super Smash Brothers Brawl review. Everyone knows what the game is about, everyone knows what to expect, everyone knows if they want it or not. On the other hand, it's a rainy Sunday morning and I really like the sound of my own voice, so here goes nothing.

Famously, Super Smash Brothers began its life as just another fighting game. It was to feature brand new characters, the kind you're likely to see in a fighting game. But at some point, series creator Masahiro Sakurai had the bright idea to turn it into a fighting game about Nintendo characters. Apparently, Nintendo didn't realize exactly what they had on their hands -- it was going to be a Japan-only release.

Luckily for worldwide Nintendo fans, they came around eventually.

And what began as a funky little fighting game has somehow evolved into a giant celebration of all things Nintendo. The latest incarnation still retains that "fighting game" core, but it's grown in so many directions that it's hard to believe that it started from such a simple idea. The latest incarnation is massive, with two equally involving centerpieces -- the multiplayer sandbox game and the single player adventure -- and a wealth of side-games and amusements besides.

Lemme tell you a little bit about it.

The Subspace Emissary

One of the things that had me excited about Super Smash Brothers Melee was the news of the brand new Adventure mode. It sounded amazing -- fight your way through side-scrolling locations inspired by the biggest games in Nintendo's arsenal on your way to the battles with the classic Nintendo characters. The first time I popped it in, I was awestruck by their vision of the Mushroom Kingdom -- stomping goombas and koopas, smashing blocks, riding platforms, it was everything I'd hoped it would be.

Then I got to the next stage, which was made up of two basic fights against Donkey Kongs of various sizes. Oh.

Then a huge dungeon inspired by The Legend of Zelda! Oooooo!

Then the escape from Brinstar sequence! Glee!

Then... a simple fight with Kirby. Followed by a simple fight with Fox. Followed by a simple fight with Pokemon.

And I realized that this wasn't going to be the platforming adventure that I'd hoped for. Don't get me wrong, it was still a decent single-player option, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it could be so much more.

And then, The Subspace Emissary was announced.

More than anything else, this was the mode I was itching to play. I fought my way through the opening prologue sequence and finally reached the first platforming level, a cloudy stage featuring Pit. I proceeded cautiously, ready at every turn to get my heart broken all over again. When I reached the first door, I felt my spirit sinking. Was the level over already? It was so short! I didn't even fight any enemies! Is this what the whole game is going to be like?

No, the level wasn't over. It went on for a long, long time. And yet, when I reached the end, I was still hungry for more. And I began to realize that this was going to be an awesome experience.

A lot of folks have a pretty dismissive attitude toward The Subspace Emissary, which goes to show you just how spoiled gamers are these days. For crying out loud, this is an enormous side-scrolling platforming adventure for one player or two players cooperatively! It weaves together the adventures of fully 35 different Nintendo characters, plus Solid Snake, giving us such unlikely matchups as Link and Yoshi, Samus and Pikachu, Diddy Kong and Fox McCloud, Captain Falcon and Captain Olimar. The levels are huge and meaty, filled with strange and disturbing enemies that are equal parts imaginative and iconic. The story is tied together with lavish cutscenes. The only gripe I have is that Sonic the Hedgehog's part could have been a bit bigger, but hey, I can live with it.

I can't speak about a lot of the flaws that folks seem to find with the game because I personally never cared. The controls aren't fitting for a platformer? I never had a problem with them. Then again, I was the guy who played Adventure mode in Smash Brothers Melee more than any other mode, so maybe I'm just more used to using this control set for general platforming. The Great Maze is a chore? I was actually a little disappointed when it was all over. Sure, it's nothing that I'd want to do all in one sitting, but there are enough save points scattered throughout the maze that you can take a break whenever you get sick of hunting down boss fights.

I think the problem is that a lot of folks view The Subspace Emissary as a means to an end, a chore that needs to be completed as an easy way to unlock most of the playable characters in the much more attractive multiplayer mode. Me, I can appreciate it for what it is -- a huge, old-school platform/beat-em-up that has taken on a life of its own. It really is a separate game from the multiplayer party game.

The Ultimate Nintendo Sandbox

The other half of the disc is, roughly, "Brawl" mode. It's a game for two to four players, any number of which may be controlled by the CPU. You take your favorite characters, assign them to teams in any configuration you could want, and let them loose in a stage based on some of Nintendo's most memorable games, not to mention Metal Gear Solid and Sonic the Hedgehog. The basic objective is to knock your opponents off the screen, but your goal may be to score as many KOs as possible or simply to stay alive longer than your opponents.

And this is where Smash Brothers Brawl reveals itself to be a sandbox game. Quite literally, the appeal of the game is exactly the same as playing with action figures in a sandbox. It's all about creating scenarios. You can recreate one of Mario's famous clashes with Bowser, or, if you prefer, you can be Bowser and help him to finally triumph over Mario. You can set up Captain Falcon and Samus Aran as allies or rivals. You can blast Pikachu into the stratosphere to your heart's content.

The stages are many and varied, both in inspiration and execution. There are stages that scroll, stages that move from location to location, stages that transform, and static stages. There are stages with interactive hazards, stages with moving platforms, and stages with destructible elements. There's a stage that exactly recreates World 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers. There's a Wario Ware stage, complete with microgames that pop up at random. There's stages based on Animal Crossing, Pictochat, and Electroplankton, for no better reason than because it would be cool. Best of all, they were nice enough to unlock the Battlefield and Final Destination stages from the very beginning -- you don't need to play for a week to have your epic showdown on one of the no-nonsense stages.

Best of all, the game allows you to set up just exactly what kind of battle you'd like to have. Brawl for a minute, or brawl for half an hour. Are Final Smashes too cheap? You can turn off their appearance on the Items menu. Want to play a fight where everyone is on fire? You can do it with the Special Brawl options. The sheer depth of options available to you is just sick.

Way Too Many Extras

Seriously. It's overwhelming. Where do you even begin?

There's the level editor. The interface is clunky, and your options are a little limited, but you can't argue with the results -- with a little imagination, you can build as many different stages as you want.

There's the trophy gallery. Hundreds of different Nintendo trophies can be found or won in the game's various modes, such as the surprisingly addictive Coin Shooter mode.

There's the photo album. You can pause the game at any time to take a snapshot, or you can arrange your stickers or trophies to create a montage. You can even save brief replays.

There's the Smash Service. Every day, Nintendo will send you a new photo, a new video replay, and a new playable stage, all selected from content submitted by players from around the world.

There's the online Spectator mode. If you're not good enough to compete online, you can watch other people from around the world compete, and even bet on the outcome using your game coins.

There's the music. Hundreds of songs from over a dozen games have been recomposed or remixed for Brawl, and many of the playable stages have multiple songs available that may play in the background when you fight on those stages. You can earn new songs by scooping up CDs that drop randomly in Brawl mode or by reaching certain milestones within the game itself. You can listen to each song by itself or affect how often it gets played on its native stage.

There's Tournament mode. Set up a fight with as many contestants as you want.

There's Classic mode. Fight your way through the various tiers to reach the boss fight with Master Hand, just like in the original.

There's All-Star mode. Battle every single character in the game, in the order of their original debut, with no extra lives and limited health recovery.

There's the Stadium mode. Battle hordes of opponents in Multi-Man Brawl, revisit the Subspace bosses, take on a Target challenge, or play the surprisingly addictive Home Run Contest.

There are the Masterpieces. Actually kind of lame -- timed demos of games that the Smash Brothers characters originally appeared in -- but hey, the more the merrier.

This disc is stuffed, top to bottom, with things to do. You could ignore half the content in this game and still be blown away.

Is Smash Brothers Actually Good?

Super Smash Brothers Brawl has received a modest amount of negative feedback, which has actually sort of surprised me. The most respectable criticism has, of course, come from Ben Croshaw, who has so far devoted one episode of Zero Punctuation to hazing the game, and another to responding to the hate mail he received as a result.

He does tend to go on, but picking through his rant, there are three points that ring true to me:

One of the most frequent criticisms leveled against Brawl is that it has nothing going for it except the fan service. That, if it wasn't for the Nintendo characters, the fans would not only stop caring about it, but also recognize it for the flawed piece of garbage that it is.

This raises an important moral question: Why do I like Super Smash Brothers Brawl? Is it a compelling game in its own right, or do I just buy into it because I'm Nintendo's bitch?

It's hard to give an objective answer. On the one hand, I don't find myself playing with the characters whose games I'm not familiar with. My main characters are Wario, Mr. Game & Watch, Ice Climbers, R.O.B., Pokemon Trainer, Captain Olimar, Ness, and Mario, roughly reflecting my taste in non-Smash Nintendo games. If none of them were playable, I'd be hard-pressed to enjoy, say, endless Samus vs. Marth battles. I don't much like fighting games to begin with, so it's hard to argue that my devotion to Brawl is based 100% on its merits as a gameplay experience.

On the other hand, I'm not so fanboy-blind that I'll play just anything with a name on it. I don't play Metroid or Zelda or Mario Kart or Mario Party or Mario [Sport] or Super Paper Mario or Pokemon Diamond/Pearl because I've tried them all, I've gotten sick of them, and I'm done. Brawl must be doing something right if it can keep my attention the way it does.

So what's the answer? Probably, Super Smash Brothers Brawl is, foremost, a game that is played as a conduit to a fantasy, one in which your favorite Nintendo characters compete in the deadly art of SMASH. This is supported by gameplay that varies from competent to engaging. Your enjoyment will be proportional to how well you relate to the characters, but if you can clear that hurdle, you'll probably find that there's enough game here to keep your interest up.

The Final Word

Whatever else you may think about Brawl, you have to respect it as a monumental undertaking. Nintendo had to convince Sakurai to put aside his own projects at Sora Ltd for three years so that he could return to make this game, and the result is a product that feels like a vision realized. From the assist trophies to the final smashes to the epic adventure mode to the hundreds of orchestrated video game songs to the stage editor to the offbeat stages like Smashville and Pictochat to the long-requested characters like Wario, Pit, Diddy Kong, Sonic, and Wolf, this game feels like it was intended to be Sakurai's magnum opus. No feature was left behind, no idea half-implemented.

This game is the end of a series.

Yes, Nintendo will continue to make Smash Brothers games, but they'll be inconsequential. Anything they add at this point could only serve to make the game unwieldy and bloated. Any characters they add could only serve to water the roster down with unnecessary fluff. This is the ultimate incarnation of Nintendo's biggest franchise.

It can only go downhill from here. So this is as far as I'm going to follow it.


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