A lot of hay’s been made about Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s supposed failings. There’s no voice acting, the graphics are rough, the roster is disappointing, it feels like an early access game, etc. But I’m here to say none of that matters. Well, ok, it may matter to you, which is totally valid, but in the grand scheme of things, this neat little fighting game already has everything it needs to be successful.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl, released for just about every platform under the sun earlier this week, is the latest piece of licensed flotsam from the accurately named publisher GameMill Entertainment. The difference between this Smash-like and, say, an abomination like Nickelodeon Kart Racers lies entirely with the chosen developers, a small Swedish studio with a proven track record in the “platform fighting” genre.
Ludosity first made a name for itself in competitive fighting games with Slap City, a silly-looking Super Smash Bros. clone with a lot of hidden depth in its mechanics. In fact, it was Slap City that got Ludosity the job working on Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl, an indication of how seriously both Nickelodeon and GameMill were willing to take a project that could just as easily have been yet another licensed turd.
“Nickelodeon is absolutely on board with having the game be competitively viable,” Ludosity CEO Joel Nyström told Kotaku shortly after Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s reveal. “That’s been in the conversation from the start. That’s why they came to us.”
It’s this pedigree — not to mention a healthy dose of nostalgia for Nickelodeon’s classic cartoons — that’s contributed to the rapid pace with which the Super Smash Bros. community has taken to Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. In just the first week, we’ve seen in-depth discussions about character rankings as well as exhibition matches and high-level tournaments featuring some of the best Smash players in the world.
While some of this fervor can be chalked up to the reality of content creators needing to stay on top of the latest thing for views, it really feels like something special is happening here. The platform fighter genre has long been dominated by Super Smash Bros., and with good reason. The franchise’s Nintendo roots and decades-long history obviously make Smash the biggest game in town, so much so that competitors like Brawlhalla and Rivals of Aether (wonderful though they may be) barely manage to make a dent in its market share.
The only game that truly got to play with the big boys was Project M, an unofficial mod for 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl that made it play more like the fast-paced, 2001 hit Super Smash Bros. Melee. Sadly, the Smash community has largely been happy to sacrifice Project M and various successors to the false god of esports, removing them from major tournaments for a modicum of behind-the-scenes support from Nintendo itself. In this way, Nintendo manages to have its cake and eat it too, remaining officially hands-off with regard to Smash competition while also meddling with grassroots events every chance it gets.
As such, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl couldn’t have come at a better time. The competitive Smash community is ripe for a new platform fighter with memorable characters and none of the associated Nintendo baggage. All its developers had to do was put out a decent game that respected its source material. Fortunately for them and everyone else looking for a Smash-like to fill that aforementioned niche, this here Nickelodeon game is actually really freaking good.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl builds off the genre foundations established by Super Smash Bros. all the way back in 1999. Cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants, Danny Phantom, and CatDog duke it out in stages consisting of floating platforms, with the goal of knocking opponents into the abyss on the edges of the screen. Damage is tracked by a percentage total rather than a Street Fighter-style depleting health bar. The more damage a character takes, the easier they are to knock off the stage. Special moves are assigned to a single button whose utility changes depending on which direction you press.
I don’t write any of this as some major revelation. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl isn’t shy about its influences. Nigel Thornberry’s flick attack is basically Jigglypuff’s rest. Patrick’s Hugdriver special works much like a longtime Super Smash Bros. move known lovingly as the Bowsercide. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle rep Michelangelo can use his grappling hook to tether to the side of the stage from long distances and pull himself up, much like the recovery techniques of over a dozen characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Honestly, the whole game feels like someone made a Nickelodeon-themed Super Smash Bros. Melee mod. And that’s wonderful! Nickelodeon was a formative source of entertainment for kids of my generation and Super Smash Bros. Melee is one of the greatest games of all time. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s derivativeness is its greatest strength, as it’s allowed most everyone to jump into the game with a basic understanding of how to control their favourite cartoon character.
Which brings us back to those pesky complaints. While I don’t agree with all of them — I’m a huge fan of the stylised graphics, which do an excellent job bringing together 13 shows with wildly different aesthetics and making them feel cohesive without skimping on any character’s personality — I mostly understand where people are coming from. In some ways, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is an underbaked game that doesn’t give you much to do but take part in battle after battle. Its tutorial is just a slideshow. Even things you assume would be basic features in any fighting game, like voice acting and alternate character colours in mirror matches, are missing.
Despite its licence, this is simply not a game built for a casual audience. Just look at what Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl does right: the varied movesets for every character; the easy to understand yet difficult to master movement options; the ability to view hitboxes frame-by-frame in training mode; its developers’ focus on finding the right balance between doing right by its roster of beloved cartoons and making the game competitively viable. It uses rollback netcode, for crying out loud! And good rollback, too, not any of that Street Fighter V crap. That this game even exists is mind-blowing, let alone the obvious care and passion with which it was developed.
Fighting games are a tricky proposition. Most fail to engage a casual audience despite increased efforts from folks like the Mortal Kombat devs at NetherRealm Studios to expand and improve upon single-player experiences. In that way, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is pretty barebones, with just a basic arcade mode and online battles to tide everyone over. But for serious fighting game players, who take these games and grind them for hours at a time, that’s more than enough. After everyone else lodges their complaints and moves on to Metroid Dread or (ugh) Far Cry 6, they’ll still be here, learning the ins and outs of a fighting game that even the most wild-eyed prophets couldn’t have seen coming.
While Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is far from perfect, that’s never stopped a game from being tournament viable before. Just look at the original Super Smash Bros.. I don’t know what possessed Nickelodeon to support the development of a competitive fighting game, but I’m glad Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl exists, especially for its potential to remove Nintendo’s stranglehold on the genre.
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