Tuesday, December 02, 2014


Super Smash Brothers for Wii U

Back when Super Smash Brothers Brawl was released, Ben Croshaw did a review that got straight up everybody's ass because he hated it and he wasn't afraid to be hilariously cruel about it.  Among his reasons were the facts that battles were too chaotic and button-mashy, and the single-player campaign takes hours and hours to complete.  It did give me pause to wonder if Smash Brothers was actually a terrible game and I was too fanboy-blind to see it, but eventually I was able to dismiss it because ehhhh, that guy hates Nintendo to begin with, it's his job to be a funny fast-talking prick on the Internet, he was never going to like it anyway, etc.

Now Gay Gamer's Wootini has given the Wii U version of Smash Brothers a try, and although he's not as biting, he's got the same basic sort of complaints.  He doesn't know what's happening, it's difficult for him to keep track of what's going on, and since everybody says it's a party game that's better with your friends, he doesn't want to play it alone.  You can see in the video that he has two friends on the couch with him trying to explain to him how the game works, but it's painful to watch because he's clearly still put off by everything that's happening for his first two matches, even with two opponents who are going slow for his sake.

And, of course, I've bought the new version myself.  Because hey, gotta get that Mewtwo download next year, right?  And what do I think of it?

Yeah.  It's Smash Brothers.  The game.  The one which is Smash Brothers.

... *cough*

A part of the problem -- which needs to be addressed -- is that the 3DS version stole a lot of the Wii U version's thunder.  Yeah, this is the bigger, louder, cooler version to own, but there's no getting around the fact that a lot of the fun of a new Smash Brothers game is getting to know the new characters, so I'm not exactly coming into this game fresh.  The new stages are fine and everything, but the new features are primarily for multiplayer.  And since I don't have any personal friends to play this game with, and I have no interest in joining the competitive scene, there's not a lot here to really get me excited.

There's a pattern here.  Masahiro Sakurai created Smash Brothers with the goal of making a fighting game that was accessible to anyone, but he's failing at that goal, and it's for a very important reason.

Smash's single-player is languishing.

Let's Look the First Smash Brothers Single Player in Excruciating Detail

When Super Smash Brothers came out on the Nintendo 64, it was something of an oddball, what with its simple controls, its four-player battles, and its mechanics that required ring-outs rather than simple energy depletion.  Still, it followed the blueprint laid out by fighting games before it.  There's a single-player mode where you fight opponents one at a time, interspersed with minigames and ending in a series of boss encounters.  And then there's a multiplayer sandbox where you set up your own battles with friends and CPUs.

The single-player mode in the first Smash Brothers is wonderful.  It starts with a one-on-one match against a slow CPU Link on a very wide level where the bottomless pits are far away from where you begin.  You have time to learn the controls, it's easy to grab the items before the CPU does, it's easy to stay on the stage, you don't need to learn all of the buttons right away -- it's a great way to begin.  There's also a tornado that introduces the idea of stage hazards.  It's not very dangerous, at least until you hit high damage percentages, but it teaches you that there's more to worry about than just your opponent.

Then you move on to the Yoshi stage.  Now you're fighting multiple opponents at a time.  This requires a different kind of thinking compared to the first level, and it could easily overwhelm a new player.  Fortunately, these enemies aren't very aggressive, and they're easy to knock out with just one or two hits.  The stage is a bit smaller, but there are no hazards.  So they introduce the idea of multiple characters in a way that's easy to cope with.

Then we move on to Fox.  He's more aggressive than opponents we've faced before, but we've gone back down to one opponent to help the player focus.  He also does more shielding and dodges, perhaps encouraging the player to experiment with these mechanics themselves.  The stage is nice and wide again, and now the hazards are a bit more aggressive.

The next fight is against the Mario Brothers.  This time, they aren't the two-hit KOs that the Yoshis were, but you get the advantage of having a CPU teammate fighting with you.  This could be confusing -- after all, we aren't used to playing fighting games where a CPU is on the same team as you -- but by this point, the player is familiar with their own character, and the Mario Brothers are pretty similar both in their appearance and in their move set; it's easier to recognize that your ally is the out-of-place character in the fight.  The stage is also becoming more complex, with a moving platform at the bottom and objects in the air that impede your launching attacks.

Then we get Pikachu.  Back to one-on-one, and the opponent is more aggressive than ever.  More importantly, the stage is much more complex.  There are multiple places where you can fall down and die, moving platforms, and random Pokemon show up that can cause a lot of damage.

Then comes Donkey Kong.  It's a four-player battle with lots of mismatched characters, but it's easy to read because Donkey Kong is visually distinct on account of his size.  The stage doesn't try to hurt you, so it's easier to focus on dealing with an enemy with such wide attacks and which needs so much more damage to knock out.

Then it's Samus.  An aggressive one-on-one CPU battle on a stage with the broadest-reaching stage hazard of all, the rising and falling sea of poison.

Then it's the Kirby team.  It's a series of eight opponents, two at a time, more resilient than the Yoshi team, and you have to take them on alone.

Finally, it's the bosses.  Metal Mario, a one-on-one fight against an opponent that barely flinches and needs insane amounts of damage before you can launch him.  The Fighting Polygon Team, a huge wave on enemies with some resilience that you take on three at a time.  And finally, Master Hand, a final boss that changes up the rules without making all of the things you already learned obsolete.

And along the way, there are minigames.  Break the Targets and Board the Platforms are little platforming puzzles, each tuned to the fighter attempting them, challenging you to think about how each character handles.

Thank God That's Over With, What Were We Talking About?

I think it's important to really dissect this bit of the game because we need to understand how well it works.  It's not just a random collection of battles -- it's a well-tuned, highly designed experience that slowly introduces the player to the game, not just through a rise in difficulty, but with carefully planned scenarios and levels.  It's the perfect way for new players to get to know the rules of the game and what an impact different team matchups make.  They take what they learned and apply it to fights against their friends.

Not only that, but it's a satisfying single-player campaign.  It tells a loose sort of story about rising through the ranks of all of these Nintendo characters and eventually reaching the peak of the mountain where this mysterious hand monster lives.  Bits like a fight against both Mario Brothers at once or eight Kirbys with different copied abilities don't just serve a purpose in the learning curve; they're also iconic sorts of events that Nintendo fans recognize and relate to.

Unfortunately, this kind of experience is getting sort of lost.  Smash Brothers has earned a reputation for being a great party game, but it's come at the expense of losing this single-player experience that draws in new players.

Melee and Brawl gave nods to this original setup with their Classic modes, but they weren't the same, were they?  The matchups were kind of randomized, and it didn't really feel like a story that had been thought out and planned in the same way the original did.  But hey, Melee had Adventure mode, which was the same sort of idea as the original, but with platforming levels in between.  That was pretty cool! And Brawl had The Subspace Emissary, wow!  That was amazing, a huge single-player game that could have been its own stand-alone thing!

But people complained about The Subspace Emissary.  And god dammit, I hate to admit it, but they were right.  Sure, I love it for being a single-player platforming adventure, but it's not a single-player fighting game.  And that's what Smash Brothers needs.  A single-player mode for new players who want to learn the game.  And asking them to sit down to a ten-hour adventure before they can enjoy this party game with their friends is just plain rude.

The problem is, Nintendo's takeaway from the Subspace Emissary blowback was that they shouldn't waste their time on the single-player stuff when everyone just wants the multiplayer party game.  And wow, you can see that in the Wii U version.

You press start, and you're taken to a menu which has a HUGE red button labeled "SMASH", and then a tiny little blue button that says "Games & More", which is where Classic mode has been stashed away.  That's right, the single-player campaign is no longer a headliner.  It's a side game, relegated to the "Other Stuff" pile.  You start it up and... it's a disaster.  Gone is the classic fighting game style tournament tiering, the thoughtfully designed matchups, the idea of progressing through a story.  There's a table with six little piles of fighters on it, and you pick which pile you want to fight against.  Any new player is going to be immediately overwhelmed by all of the options, wondering what any of this stuff means.  You move your character around the table, and if you get too close to one of the piles, you're forced to fight against it.  No room for wandering around and experimenting -- your actions immediately have consequences.  Did you accidentally bump up against the big bunch of six fighters?  Good news! Your introduction to this game is an incomprehensible six-against-one clusterfuck.

It's singularly unsatisfying as a single-player game.  Even with the randomization going on in Melee's and Brawl's Classic modes, at least there was an attempt at themed battles.  When you fought against a team of enemies, they were usually from the same franchise and took place on a level that related to those characters.  This game just feels like... you opened up the multiplayer and set the CPUs and stages to Random.  There's no thought or idea to it.

I mean, I get that people love the party game.  And I'm sure that there are people who got into Smash Brothers without ever once playing by themselves.  But there are people like me who like the Nintendo crossover aspect of it, but want to play alone.  There are people like Wootini who are playing it for their first time and need a way to ease into the chaos.  There are people like Ben Croshaw who... I dunno, I stand by the idea that he never would have liked it, but maybe he would have hated it less if there was a nice, short little single-player bit to help him and his friends make sense of it before they went off the deep end with it.

There was a lot that I was willing to excuse for the portable version just because Smash Brothers has never been portable before.  But the console version is a different story.  Yes, it's beautiful, and there's clearly been a lot of work put into it, and the new characters are awesome, and it's still a lot of fun... but something's missing.

Nintendo's got to take this seriously.  Smash Brothers is their trump card.  It's the thing that everyone loves that nobody else has.  But if they only listen to the entrenched players and commit to the multiplayer mode without welcoming new players with a good single-player experience, their audience is going to shrink.  Considering all of the hoopla Nintendo's heaped on the last two versions, and all of the stuff with Amiibos and Gamecube adaptors and everything for this one?  I think they want to be careful with this cash cow.


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