The Super Smash Bros series has been a longtime staple of my party-gaming lineup. Ever since the original was released for the N64 way back in 1999, my friends and I have always enjoyed getting together to blast each other into oblivion as our favorite Nintendo characters. Playing Melee after we all got off work on weekends was a regular pastime. We played the hell out of that game.
Seven years later, Nintendo released Brawl for the Wii, and I found it uncomfortable and underwhelming. The physics of moving and attacking felt weird, there weren't very many new combat mechanics, and many of the new features were downright bad or just not that exciting. Going from the original to Melee in the span of about two years was a phenomenal upgrade, but going from Melee to Brawl felt more like a step backwards, which is made even more distressing by the seven year wait.
I'm sure there are ardent tournament players who could argue that Melee has superior fighting mechanics, but I was never that hardcore to be able to explain the precise details. This article won't be a detailed analysis proving once and for all that Melee is better than Brawl, but is rather the thoughts of a casual player of the series who was disappointed with Brawl, and who finds Melee the more entertaining experience to this day.
As someone who only ever really played the multiplayer component to the SSB games, I can't comment with much authority on the single-player experience of Brawl. The new Subspace Emissary gameplay mode is a novel addition to the series, offering something of a more traditional single-player adventure akin to classic 2D action-platformers like Mario Bros, Metroid, Kid Icarus, and so on. It's a really good idea -- take the unique fighting mechanics of the SSB series, and place them in an adventure campaign that has some sort of significance beyond just staged battles between two or more fighters.
At first I thought it was really cool to be playing familiar characters in an actual adventure mode, but the thrill wore off fairly quickly as it started to feel shallow. I'm not sure what the exact culprit was, whether it was simplistic level design or what, but I just got bored with it after an hour or two of playing and never felt compelled to finish it. It felt kind of like a tacked-on afterthought instead of a fundamental addition. It's still a welcome sight, offering a bit of an improvement over Melee's single-player experience, but I still wish it had been just a little more thoroughly fleshed-out.
The multiplayer component is the real attraction of these games, though, and that's where I felt most disappointed. Right off the bat, the physics of attacking and moving felt weird, and I don't think I've ever been able to get used to them properly. Melee was fast-paced and every action felt very fluid and precise; I had tremendous control over my characters and the game was very sensitive and responsive to every single input. But there's just something about the way things control in Brawl, which makes my input feel ever so slightly sluggish and clunky.
The overall speed of things was obviously scaled back in Brawl. The action is much slower, with gravity having the seeming effect of minimizing momentum. At the same time, jumping feels particularly "floaty," and kind of unresponsive in that regard. A lot of the more nuanced controls and mechanics got simplified, basically making input feel more crude and imprecise. The changes to knockback and hitstun physics make true combos a lot harder, if not outright impossible, which makes the combat feel more like people are just taking turns smacking each other back and forth, instead of executing deft maneuvers and attack patterns.
The effect of all these minor tweaks is that I find the combat mechanics of Brawl kind of clunky and unsatisfying. To make an equally clunky and unsatisfying comparison, playing Melee is like watching a Jackie Chan fight scene, where there's a lot of intense, fast action going on with some very sophisticated choreography. Conversely, playing Brawl is like watching a sumo wrestling match, where you basically just get two fat guys smacking and pushing each other around.
Video footage of all the final smashes
The real downfall with the Brawl multiplayer, however, is the inclusion of new features like the Smash Ball, which lets characters execute a devastatingly broken and over-powered "final smash." The Smash Ball randomly appears from time to time, floating around the screen. Players can attack it, and whoever manages to break it unlocks their final smash, a special move that (in most cases) grants limited invincibility with a super-strong attack that can kill the other players in a single instant.
As exciting as it is to witness each character's final smash for the first time, they become old and tiring very quickly, and ruin the pacing of the game. Whenever a Smash Ball appears, everyone drops what they're doing and starts furiously attacking the Smash Ball as it dances around the screen because, basically, whoever gets the most final smashes in a given match usually wins. This completely shifts the emphasis of the game from mastering a unique skillset so that you can beat your opponents through sheer skill in head-to-head combat, into a far more shallow matter of just "attack the Smash Ball and press B to win the game."
The final smashes become even more annoying when you play against characters that are far more agile and therefore more likely to get to the Smash Ball. Sonic, for example, always seems to get the Smash Ball because of his superior speed and maneuverability. And his final smash is the worst of them all, because it gives him like 30 minutes of invincibility where he goes flying around the screen lightning-fast and knocking everyone into oblivion. And there's nothing you can do about it. If you're playing a timed match, you're actually better off just killing yourself; you're inevitably going to lose a point for dying, anyway, but at least you won't give Sonic a positive score for getting the kill.
Skip to 6:50 for a caricature of Sonic's over-powered final smash.
For the most part, the final smashes are completely imbalanced because they're so cheap. If you're on the receiving end of a final smash, it's often an unavoidable death that can be very frustrating to deal with, and if you're using the final smash yourself, then you just get a couple of instant-kills that are completely unrewarding because of how cheap they are. As a result, I usually like to leave Smash Balls turned off, which removes one of Brawl's most unique elements, making it essentially just like Melee but with new characters and worse controls / physics.
Other new additions like the Dragoon launcher are less game-breaking, but all of the other new features just tend to make matches extremely chaotic with so much crap happening at once. Matches become incredibly unpredictable with success seemingly hinging more on luck than individual skill. It often gets to a point where there's so much going on that you forget about the fighting entirely, because you're just rushing for the next special event item.
To me, Brawl just feels more like an expansion pack for Melee, instead of being a full-on sequel that I was expecting. Melee felt grand, exciting, and innovative, like any sequel ought to be. It added so many new features and improved all of the mechanics, thus making it a hands-down improvement over the original. Brawl, on the other hand, doesn't feel inspired; it feels derivative. It's like they just took Melee, simplified its more sophisticated elements to "make it more accessible" to a wider audience, threw in some new characters and stages, and called it good enough.
Simply put, I was not impressed with most of Brawl's new features and found its gameplay tweaks undesirable. I don't feel like it does a whole lot definitively better than Melee, and is in fact worse in some critical aspects. I realize some people find the final smashes fun and interesting, but I found them kind of annoying after a while. In the end, I just have a lot more fun playing Melee and wish Brawl had been better.