Does the date November 19, 1999 ring a bell? If you're a Nintendo fan, it certainly should. It's been nine years since the first Smash Bros game graced the N64 during its golden years, pitting Nintendo's iconic characters against one another in an all out battle that became an overnight cult classic. It's true, there are gamers out there who live and breathe Smash Bros, and rightfully so, the series features frantic, fast-paced, multiplayer bliss that truly can't be found on any other platform. Now, nine years after its launch - seven after Melee's record-breaking GameCube debut - gamers are treated with the long awaited Wii follow up, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. How does it fare?
Truthfully, Brawl isn't so much an evolution over Melee as it is a fine-tuning. Everything right down to the music, presentation and yes, even the bosses are identical to its earlier brothers. While that may put off a few gamers right off the bat, Brawl comes jam-packed with more play modes, characters and features than ever before, not to mention absolutely epic offline and online battles that span across the entire Nintendo universe, and even spill over into Konami and Sega territory.
While the original Smash Bros featured 12 characters, Brawl features a whopping 35 to choose from with more than 40 playable arenas, dozens upon dozens of items to use and the very cool final smashes - finishing moves that launch opponents across the screen in a blaze of particle effects and silky smooth animations. Veterans will immediately feel right at home with classics like Link, Fox, Donkey Kong and Samus making their triumphant return, while newcomers like Sonic, Pit and yes, Solid Snake add a whole new level of strategy to the mix. The roster is robust, no doubt, but there are admittedly a few characters whose inclusion in Brawl had me scratching my head, most notably Captain Olimar from Pikmin, King Dedede from the Kirby series and the 'Pokemon Trainer' who seem awfully out of place. And while purists of the series will be thrilled with the inclusion of Sonic, I can't help but feel like this was a missed opportunity for other third party characters and I'm particularly distraught over the omission of a personal favourite of mine, Mega Man, who seemed like a shoe-in right from the get-go.
But moving on, the series has always been about multiplayer mayhem and this is where Brawl truly shines. This is a fighter that plays at break-neck speeds, is incredibly responsive and intuitive and for a game that essentially relies on two buttons, surprisingly deep with its move set, while sporting an almost ludicrous amount of customization for your battles. But best of all, Smash Bros finally ventures out from the confines of your living room and into the online world. Up to four players can duke out - three of which can play on one console - and it's here where you'll likely spend the majority of your time. The game also remains lag free - though if you or your opponents have a nasty connection, you may experience some hiccups - a feat in itself considering the intensity and fluidity of the battles.
'This is a fighter that plays at break-neck speeds, is incredibly responsive and intuitive and for a game that essentially relies on two buttons, surprisingly deep with its move set...'
Unfortunately all isn't perfect in the online world, which shouldn't come as a surprise to Wii owners. The cumbersome friend codes remain an absolute chore and the lack of any sort of leader boards is unacceptable in this day-and-age of online, community gaming. Yet, the worst offender is the lack of any voice chat support. I could rant about Nintendo's stubborn, childish refusal to include voice chat in its games, but I'll save you from the lengthy exposition. Needless to say, Nintendo needs to join the 21st century, and fast. The included level creator is also pretty disappointing. Some players may find some enjoyment in creating their own battle arena, but it's too limited to be of any real value.
Now, if you're the type who's not interested in online gaming, fear not, Brawl has a little something for you, too. The Subspace Emissary is the new story-driven, single-player component to the game that features side-scrolling, platforming levels and had fans salivating at the possibilities when it was first announced way back when. How does it hold up? Well, not so good. On one hand, the Emissary is a nice compliment to an already robust package; on the other hand, it just isn't fun. During the eight or so hours it takes to complete, you'll wade your way through uninspiring levels, repetitious battles and awkward controls that make fighting neither enjoyable nor intuitive. Roughly half-way through the adventure, if that, you'll likely give up and return to the game's online mode and never look back. However, if you are dead-set on ploughing through the Emissary, you can link up with a friend to play cooperatively and at the very least, enjoy a barrage of some of the best CGI to ever grace a Nintendo console.
Though the Emissary may not be the most compelling reason to pick up and play Brawl, at least it looks nice. In fact, the entire game is pleasant on the eyes thanks to progressive scan and widescreen options. Brawl also happens to sport some of the best particle effects yet seen on the Wii, with flashy animations - especially when you trigger a final smash - that'll have your jaw-dropping. The same can be said for the highly-detailed, stunning new character models, which all animate fluidly in the game's 60 fps environments, each of which receives its own brilliantly orchestrated audio score.
It's impossible not to admire the series' remarkable accessibility and engrossing multiplayer battles. Indeed, Smash Bros is as addicting as it's ever been, but it's certainly not perfect. Some of the character additions left me baffled, and the Subspace Emissary just doesn't live up to the polish seen in every other aspect of the game. Either way, with an epic online mode, dozens of unlockable characters and stages and hundreds of collectible trophies, Brawl deserves its place in every Wii-owner's collection.