The first time I picked up a controller and turned on the Wii U version of Smash Bros., I felt relief. I was about to play the game the way it was meant to be played: on a TV, with Gamecube controllers, and with as many friends as I could find.
That reaction may seem weird, but part of my experience with the new Smash Bros. games had been soured by the 3DS version, which was released in October. The 3DS version may be a good game, but, after 20 hours of play on the 3DS version, I managed to break my 3DS' circle pad.Smash Bros. can be an intense game! I wasn't alone in this, either. I kept playing for a little while, messed-up circle pad and all, because I was so addicted to Smash -- but eventually, I was so bummed that I just dropped it. My hope was that the console version would be better.
We already ran a review on the 3DS version where Jason Schreier said, yes, you should play it. Let's get this out of the way: yes, you absolutely should play the Wii U version of Smash. To give you an idea of how much I mean this: I have booked tickets to fly across the country later this week and am getting my college friends together so we can relive our glory days with Smash. It's that great of a game. If the game was a "YES" before on the 3DS, it's twice as much as a "YES" now. Let's talk about why.
Smash Bros. is known for making fan fiction come to life, as it puts characters from all sorts of (mostly) Nintendo franchises together and makes them duke it out. It has everything from well-known characters like Mario, to more esoteric ones, like Mr Game and Watch. Smash is special in that, instead of simply hitting an enemy until their health bar depletes, you have to knock them off the stage. You still technically have "health," but the number you'll be primarily worried about is damage, denoted by a percentage on the screen. The higher your damage, the faster and harder your character will fly after being hit -- which means there's a bigger chance you'll be knocked off the screen. A character at 200% damage is much easier to send flying than a character at 0%, to put this into an example.
Another thing that makes Smash unique is the number of items, weapons, and environmental hazards you can use during play, all of which make things hectic.
In a typical match, you might find absurd situations like: a character from Wii Fit having to survive a battle against Mega Man, while on a stage from Donkey Kong. Oh, and Wii Fit Trainer is holding a Pokeball while Mega Man is wearing a Tanooki Leaf. And when the match is done, depending on what mode you're playing, the game might award you gold (which you can spend in other modes), trophies (which you can collect), and moves (which you can use to customise fighters).
If it wasn't obvious, Smash is a deep, but also very silly game. That's what makes it so popular as a party game: there are a ton of iconic, distinct characters and so many variables that matches are always full of chaos and laughter. Don't let that fool you. The game can be played seriously, too, thanks to a lively hardcore community that has bent the franchise to their will and has found many complicated techniques hidden inside the game. There are two sides to Smash Bros., both equally valid: the intense game that demands dedication and fast reflexes in order to keep up with its frenetic pace, and the absurd game people like to play as a button-masher, without any tactics at all. While previous games in the franchise have actively resisted against the hardcore community -- 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl introduced a number of elements that made the game less technical than 2001's Melee -- the Wii U version of Smash Bros. wants to make both types of players happy.
You can play matches normally, with items on, and with every mayhem-inducing stage available. Or, you can go into a mode called "For Glory," and play "seriously," without any items, and on the Final Destination version of a stage (for newcomers, what this means is: Final Destination versions of stages are flat stages devoid of environmental distractions and annoyances). If this description sounds familiar it's because, again, this is the exact same case on the 3DS version of the game, and if you read Jason Schreier's review, you already know that Nintendo's mascot fighter is a joy to play. The biggest difference is that now, players can actually be precise thanks to actual controllers -- and can all play off of one copy on a TV, of course. Given this, let's talk about what's new on the Wii U version, instead.
Unlike the 3DS version, players on the Wii U version will have the opportunity to play with up to eight players. I'm not the biggest fan of this addition. The game strikes a perfect balance with just four players. Four players has just enough chaos to keep you on your feet, but can still be played seriously, with technique and purpose. With eight players, everything but insanity goes out the window. While there are some special stages that let smaller, isolated skirmishes happen on segments of the screen, you can still often find yourself in a situation where it's impossible to understand what's happening or how to stop getting wailed on from every direction. This madness, however, has made eight-player matches a staple of any Smash gathering I'm in. That makes sense. People hop in to experience something wild with friends, and fewer people have to wait on the sidelines for their turn. Many players won't mind this, but eight players seems like too much for me. It's problematic on the zoomed-out bigger stages, where it can become hard to follow your tiny little character, but it's also bad on the smaller stages, where everyone is too close for comfort. There are only a few stages available for 8-players, too.
Talking about the well-received eight-player mode like this, I must sound like a curmudgeon. It's funny. People like to give Nintendo so much shit about (supposedly) never changing, but Smash Bros. proves that the player base can be a little bit like that, too. There's a reason that people are still playing Melee. There's a reason why Nintendo brought back controllers they designed over a decade ago. Readily, I'd tell you that Gamecube controllers are the way to go, if you can find the adapters. Since it's the same controller as always, it also comes with some familiar drawbacks -- the "B" button can start to make your hand hurt after extended play, for example. Even so, for returning players, it will be the most familiar way to play. I've also heard from friends that the Wii U's Pro Controller is just as good, and perhaps even a better starting point for newbies to the franchise. Whatever you go with, the Wii U version offers a number of different ways to control the action, from connecting a 3DS to the screen, to letting you use Wiimotes.
Another new addition to the Wii U version of the game are Amiibos, recently-released toys that can be imported into a few different games, Skylanders-style. With a tap on the Gamepad's NFC sensor, you can bring in a special buddy in Smash to play with. Nintendo sent me a Mario figurine, and that's primarily what I toyed with.
Initially, I was sceptical about Amiibo. I'm not a toy collector, so as much as the addition seems perfect -- they resemble the trophies you collect in Smash Bros. -- I didn't see the point. Still, I brought my Mario into the game, and named him Mayo, in a silly attempt to make the Mario version of Petch and Lonk. I wasn't really sure of how to think of Mayo at first. Was he like a pet or something? Consider the way the game describes things. You can "feed" your Amiibo equipment so they can develop different strengths and weaknesses, depending on your preferences. It's a word that makes me think of a pet, or a Pokémon, or a Tamagotchi. But your interactions with Amiibos are somewhat limited. You can't play as the characters, though you can change the way they fight with equipment, depending on whether or not other modes have given you the right random drops.
You can throw Amiibo into battle and watch them play. The more they play, the more they level up, and the more formidable they become. Supposedly, as they go along, they learn from the battle. Initially, I put Mayo in free-for-all four-player matches, which I also participated in. But playing like this didn't feel right. If I wanted Mayo to learn to be a better Mario, shouldn't he be in matches with another Mario? I don't want him to learn how to play as some other random character; the tactics for, say, a Toon Link are way different from the tactics a Mario might use. So I started training Mayo in one-on-one matches against me, while I also played as Mario. Now, I'm not the best Mario player. But the more I played against Mayo, the more I improved as Mario -- and so did he.
It was a bewildering experience. I was initially not sure what in the world Mayo was learning from me, if anything. "He's being so random," I'd think, before noticing that it was common for us to react to a situation in the same exact way, often cancelling each other's perfectly-mirrored Smash attacks. The randomness was my erratic play, and Mayo was simply repeating what he'd seen me do. I started considering Mayo as a weird mix between a son and a student. In my attempts to teach Mayo, I started feeling attachment toward him, even if I did think he could come off as a doofy pet.
After training with Mayo for a bit, I'd throw him into battle against other CPUs. I'd watch expectantly, hoping that our time together proved fruitful and he could emerge the victor. If he performed well, I felt proud. And if he didn't, I felt a little strange, because I wasn't sure if the experience was like watching a kid at a soccer game, or putting a roster in a cockfight.
Since you can save your Amiibo's stats back onto the figurine, I decided to take Mayo over to a friends house and see what happened. Unfortunately, I didn't understand how to save the Amiibo to the figurine the first time around, and so Mayo arrived to my friends house as a clueless level one Mario. We put him in anyway, and as we went along, he quickly gained levels -- and became more formidable. Eventually, Mayo was nearly level 50, and was kicking everyone's arse -- including mine. If I ever beat Mayo now, it's often in tied sudden death matches, where we both kill each other at the same time and in the same way. I've created a monster.
I hopped into a few matches against a computer-controlled Mario, just to see if a level 50 Amiibo isn't just a more expensive level nine bot. Sure enough, I had a tough time against the highest level AI, but to the Amiibo's credit, that Mario's play style is very different from Mayo's. And more importantly, after this experience, I immediately started looking into buying more Amiibo -- not even ones for characters that I actually play, either. I'm actually considering purchasing some for every character, if only because, by training them, I might also learn how to play those characters better. I'm a way better Mario player now than I was before Mayo.
Still, I wouldn't blame some fans for feeling that this feature is under-utilized. I liked training Mayo, and if nothing else, spectating matches with Mayo gave me a good opportunity to marvel at how great the game looks. Smash Bros. for Wii U is one of the best-looking games on the system. It helps that the attention to detail is staggering.
This must be the case with every fighting game, I'm sure, but what makes Smash different is that a character's moves are so specific, everyone feels fleshed out. I want to play as pretty much every character, which is something I've never experienced in a fighting game before. Mario's kick isn't just any kick. It's the kick you can do in Mario 64. Bowser Jr's final smash isn't just a flashy move. It's a call-back to Super Mario Sunshine. That Nintendo would put so much love into nailing the characters isn't surprising: this is the same company that told Disney how Bowser should drink a cup of coffee in Wreck-It Ralph. Nintendo has a clear sense of how their characters should come to life, and everything about them in Smash Bros. works toward that. .
And yet, at times, I can't help but be a little cynical about what Smash Bros. has become. It's easy to commend Smash Bros.' character selection, in that it doesn't include just the biggest, most well-known stars. Instead, it's full of unexpected characters, like Palutena and Shulk. I can't decide if I think this is creative, or if Nintendo is scraping the bottom of the barrel. And maybe it doesn't matter. What I can say is that the game has something called "Masterpieces," where you can go and play many of the games that the characters come from -- but only a shorter, limited version of the game. Want more than that? You can also buy these games on the e-shop. It's the sort of thing that makes me wonder how deliberate the selection is; if the characters are there because they're genuinely interesting and worth including, or if they're in there because Nintendo wants to sell more copies of other less-popular games, and the best way to do this is to improve their #brand in Smash Bros.
Though Smash Bros. is most well-known for its multiplayer, the new Smash includes a number of things you can enjoy solo. There is the event mode, which, while not new, is one of my favourite parts of the game. Events are fun challenges that pull from the lore of the characters. In one challenge, you might be Jigglypuff the babysitter who has to put all the other kid-characters in the game to sleep. In another, you might be a Pokémon fighting against the other Pokémon characters, to prove that you're the very best, like no one ever was. In a different challenge, you might be Bowser Jr, learning the ropes from your dad, Bowser. Since the mode is so modular, you can have all sorts of great, themed matches that don't have to connect to each other, unlike a story mode would. I'm a big fan. (What the game doesn't have is an extended singleplayer adventure along the lines of Brawl's Subspace Emissary.)
Another great addition to the game are the Master Hand and Crazy Hand modes. Remember how I mentioned earlier that you can earn gold? This is one of the places where that gold might be spent. If you play the Master Hand mode, you pay a fee, and you get a selection of different challenges. If you beat the challenge, you get a prize. Matches have all sorts of special stipulations, since that keeps things interesting. One match might have a time limit. Another match might be a horde battle, where you face off against seven other characters. And even within that, the match might have more variables -- like maybe everyone will be easier to launch off the stage, because they're a lightweight. Or maybe everyone is wearing a bunny head, for some reason. Whatever it is, you have to prevail -- and if you do, you might get anything from a piece of equipment to feed your Amiibo or to customise a character with, or a trophy.
I didn't find Master Hand to be nearly as interesting as Crazy Hand. That's because Master Hand is kind of a safer bet. It's easier to win prizes that way. The stakes are raised in Crazy Hand, which means it's more fun to play. You bet gold in Crazy Hand, as you do with Master Hand. Where the mode differs is that it's not just one challenge. You get three choices between challenges, and if you win, you get a fresh new selection of challenges to participate in. If you keep going, the prizes are much better. The thing is, to actually get the prize, you need to defeat Crazy Hand at the end. And if you lose a challenge, or if you lose against Crazy Hand, you lose all the spoils -- greed may get the best of you, and you may overshoot. At the same time, the more you play, the more damage you'll receive -- and the more damage you have acquired throughout the challenges, the more health you end up with at the final battle against Crazy Hand (normal battles might not have health, but this particular battle does). It's easy to cash out quickly and decide to fight Crazy Hnad after one or two challenges, but you won't get as much out of the mode that way. While the best the game has to offer comes out on display against other real people, it's modes like this that make Smash sometimes worth playing on your own.
You can also get some of that sweet multiplayer action even if you don't have the ability to have a bunch of friends over. Smash Wii U comes equipped with an online mode, where you can play in matches for fun, or you can play more serious modes, like For Glory. While it's not as bad as the abysmal online featured in Brawl, you can sometimes experience lag in Smash Wii U online, especially in four-player matches. I'm more of a fan of one-on-one matches in For Glory, and in that mode I barely ever experience lag at all. http://twitter.com/xpatriciah/status/536331175845842945/photo/1
In any case, in addition to playing matches, you can also bet gold on other player's matches, and you can even participate in something called Conquest: http://twitter.com/xpatriciah/status/535716535864553472/photo/1
For Conquest, sometimes the game will randomly pull you into matches with predetermined characters. It will keep track of who wins, and once a certain time period is over, it will declare a world-wide winner. Both Conquest and spectating aren't the most robust additions to the game, but they're an interesting distraction.
Less impressive for the Wii U game is the inclusion of Smash Tour, a board-game like mode where players collect fighters and power-ups as they go along. At the end, all those fighters and power-ups can be used in a final battle, with each character loaded into the match as a single stock. So if you collect Mario, Peach and Luigi on the playing board, you'll get to play as each of them for one life during that final match. Whoever is left standing wins. Unfortunately, the mode isn't very interesting, nor is it well-explained. I don't see myself ever playing this mode, especially when, if I want to make things interesting, I can simply load up a normal match with special conditions and items.
Finally, we have the stage-builder mode, where you can do exactly what it says on the tin. While I didn't fool around with this too much, the Wii U's Gamepad really shines here. You can use the stylus to draw stages as well as drag and drop stage elements with ease. I can see players with lots of creativity and patience creating cool stuff in no time. Or at the very least, I can see them making elaborate dick stages. Because we all know that's gonna happen.
Other additions to the game found in the 3DS version make a comeback here, too. You can customise your Miis to make special fighters with their own play style and outfits. I didn't think this was as interesting as the ability to customise already existing fighters, since most of the things a Mii can do are slightly different versions of moves other characters can do. So why not play as the already established cool character instead? Plus, if you customise an already existing character, you do have the chance of making something curious and over-powered. As an example, under normal circumstances, Toon Link can unleash a normal arrow. If you customise him, you can throw fire arrows. Or you can equip arrows that pierce through enemies and projectiles. It all depends on what kind of Toon Link you want to play -- and this is just what you have to consider for one move. I haven't been able to dabble with this much either, mostly because of the random nature of move drops, but I'm very excited about the inclusion. It means that characters that I know like the back of my hand can stay fresh. I just have to change their movepool first.
There's definitely a lot to do in Smash, if you are so inclined. But for many, the core experience will be classic four-player Smash; that will be enough. That's because, without all the fancy bells and whistles that Smash Wii U is equipped with, the game is still great and well-crafted at its core. Smash might not be the most balanced fighting game, and it might even be the silliest fighting game around. But damn if Smash doesn't have a lot of heart in it too.