Update - 29/11/2014: Now that EU servers are live it's finally possible to test the online portion of Smash Bros. As such impressions have been added below, with the original text following it.
It's a sorry reflection on the current state of online multiplayer that I react with equal parts delight and relief when Smash Bros. for Wii U is able to consistently find me opponents for matches.
With so many games monumentally ballsing up their online functionality (DriveClub, Halo and Battlefield 4 to name a few), Smash Bros. feels like it's in the minority. Yes the customisation options are severely limited: you can't set match criteria except when playing with friends, you can't change the time limit or have stock matches and there's no voting system to select a stage, meaning it's chosen at random. But the fact that, outside of rare instances of slowdown, it works. Two players can also team up on the same console and jump online, which is nice.
It's a real shame there aren't more options for online play, considering the amount of choice there is in the rest of the game. Currently there's four-player, one-vs-one and two-on-two team Smash. The lack of eight-player Smash is bizarre, considering it's one of the big new features for Wii U. Thanks to Nintendo's horrid online chat system and lack of notifications, meeting up with friends will require other means of communication, so keep your phone handy if you want to arrange a match or gloat (put it on silent if you've just been handed a beating, too).
Like the 3DS version, Smash Bros. offers a very good reason to spectate matches thanks to the ability to gamble. You can bet up to 100 coins on replays of other player's fights and, if you win, are offered the chance to bet said winnings on the next match, with the added incentive of bonus prizes. It's a fiendishly enticing system, and one that gently sidesteps any moral grey areas by only allowing you to gamble in-game money.
Barring some slowdown during matches, Smash Bros. online simply works. Yes there's a lack of customisation options, but working on a consistent basis is depressingly more than what can be said for many right now.
Little over six weeks removed from the 3DS launch of Smash Bros., the Wii U welcomes the arrival of its home console compatriot. While the portable outing served as an excellent warm-up, this is definitely the main event: comfortably the best offering of Nintendo Celebrity Deathmatch, even if it isn't without its faults.
Unsurprisingly, the Wii U uses its additional power to visually push Smash Bros. above and beyond its 3DS sibling. The stages, character models and backgrounds all combine to produce a wonderful aesthetic: being able to pause, remove most screen furniture, and then zoom mid-game to see fighter's facial expressions is a nice touch.
The brighter, more vivid colours add some real depth to the design of the stages. Combine these more hectic fights with dynamic levels based on classic Nintendo properties (such as F-Zero) that move at a much faster pace and you'll do well just to survive, let alone fight. These backdrops are as deadly as anyone on the roster, with every switch to a new environment presenting another opportunity to fall. It can be frustrating at first, but once you learn the ropes you can turn your attention back to beating the snot out of Luigi.
Smash Bros. for Wii U's combat maintains the delicate balance of complex mechanics and surface simplicity for casual fans which has made it so popular: there's still just as much fun to be had frantically mashing every button on the pad and hoping for a result as there is learning the intricacies of a character's moveset. More advanced players can further refine the roster by equipping them with stat boosters. But even the most competent tacticians will see their strategies go out the window when it comes to the new eight-player Smashes.
While a nice idea on paper, and one that might work well on cinema screens, eight-player fights can be a nightmare. Even on a 42 inch TV it's often a struggle to keep track of what's happening. The camera cannot zoom in unless all fighters are gathered together in parts of the map, meaning you're so removed from the action you've no idea what's happening. Team battles make things easier thanks to the colour-coding of both the fighters and icons atop their heads, helping elevate strategies above that of drunk fighting every mirror in a bar.
Like the 3DS version, Smash comes packed with an absurd amount of content, most noticeably in its audio. Fans of any one Smash fighter's portfolio are likely to find their favourite tune here. The soundtrack includes a combination of wonderfully arranged remixes of old favourites as well as their originals, with more unlocked as you progress.
The only issue is a lack of an elegant filter. There is no way to narrow songs by series, game or even a basic search bar. You can create a list of favourites, but with a track list of over 300, even whittling down to a tenth of that would require 'favourite favourites'.
As well as having the bigger soundtrack, the Wii U version also has more exclusive modes than the 3DS version. Master Orders and Crazy Orders are the best of the bunch. Master Orders has players purchasing tickets for coins, tickets being different fights with victory earning rewards. Crazy Orders is its survival mode equivalent: take as many tickets as you want, but one loss loses every prize earned along the way. It's a great risk/reward system that surprisingly becomes more addictive with every loss. Imagine the Price is Right but at the end contestants would fight Forsyth for the car and you're nearly there.
The other Wii U-exclusives, Events and Smash Tour, are hit and miss. Events are the hits, Smash Tour misses. The former, like in previous entries, are a series of special matches with set reward criteria. It's a great spin on regular battles and there's loads to get through. The only downside is that many of the special unlock requirements can be 'gamed': for example, some set a time limit without also requiring a minimum difficulty. It's a minor issue, and they're fun enough to return to on harder difficulties, but holding that carrot a little further away would make victory more fulfilling.
Smash Tour is a hybrid of Mario Party and Smash Bros., and puts far too many eggs in one basket. Players move around a board collecting stat boosters (the same seen in the 3DS' Smash Run), fighters and trophies, fighting at the end of turns if you stumble across another player, before culminating in a winner-takes-all fight after the final round. It's overly-complicated and, even after several games, I had no idea what I was doing and why I was/wasn't doing as well as the other players.
While there's certainly a lot to do in Smash Bros., one thing you still can't simply do is compare how well you fare against other players around the world, thanks to the lack of traditional online leaderboards. The Wii U version will instead include the Global Smash Power System - much like on the 3DS, it is inverted to show how many people your score beats in each mode, rather than listing players from best to worst - but it seems a way to obscure positions rather than display how you stack up.
As so much of Smash Bros. is about bragging rights, it seems at odds with Nintendo's insistence on competitiveness. Sakurai explains the decision in an interview with VideoGamer, claiming that online leaderboards only cater to the very top, but the opposite is true. If I'm ranked 10,000th in the world, I'm smug about being better than the 10,001st, and obsessively try to break the four-digit barrier.
Despite a couple of missteps, Smash Bros. for Wii U is still an amazing game. The stages and fighters are a joy to watch, and the urge to unlock every trophy and complete every challenge remains as strong as ever. Smash on 3DS was an incredible offering, and worked wonders with the hardware, but the Wii U entry comfortably outshines it thanks to the added power of the console. The 3DS version can keep me occupied on the train, but the Wii U will occupy my evenings for many months.
Amiibo - Skylanders rival or quick cash-in?
Launching alongside the Wii U version of Smash Bros. are Nintendo's Amiibo figurines. The toys transfer a CPU-controlled avatar into your game for you to train and take on your friends' toys. There are currently 12 figures available, with more to arrive next month and in the new year. They are currently only available on Wii U, using the NFC reader on the GamePad, with a portal launching in the new year to add compatibility for the 3DS.
While they are a fun idea in principle, their limited application means they become more of a distraction which takes away from the real meat of the game.
Amiibos can only be used in Smash (and its eight-player version), with no limit on how many toys you have in any match. You can either take part in the fight or let the Amiibos have at it, allowing them to level up while you kick back and watch the carnage. The figures have a level cap of 50, which can be reached relatively quickly. In just three fights I hit level 20 for three different characters, so it probably won't take to long for you to max out the toys. You can also adjust stats by feeding them the equipment you collect throughout the game.
The limitation of Amiibo only working in Smash mode means you can't bring your compatriots into the most enjoyable parts of the game. You can't team up in Events, take down Master Hand and Crazy Hand in Classic, or even work through Multi-man Smashes together. It makes the toys feel forced into the game, and dilutes them into something only the most avid toy collectors and Nintendo fans will bother with in the long run.
Considering Amiibo are used even less in other games - unlocking content in Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors - and can only carry data for one game at a time, it makes the whole idea look poorly executed. Nintendo is too late to the party, and has brought a cheap bottle with them, too.