Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Impressions of Super Smash Bros 3DS

The Super Smash Bros series has been a longtime staple in my party gaming lineup, ever since the original was released for the Nintendo 64 back in 1999. Super Smash Bros: Melee was the one reason I absolutely had to buy a Nintendo GameCube; my friends and I enjoyed that game so much that we played it nearly every weekend over the span of three years. When Super Smash Bros: Brawl came out in 2008, I found myself underwhelmed by its slow movement and clunky physics, yet friends and I have continued to play it on occasion to this very day.

By now, my enthusiasm for new Super Smash Bros games has waned to near non-existence, since each new game has been the same as the last but with more characters, new stages, and new tacked-on game modes. After 15 years of playing essentially the same game, it feels like I've been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt, but I simply could not resist the allure of the appropriately-yet-unimaginatively-named Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS. After all, it's a timeless formula that I can now play when I'm away from home, on a platform I already own. What's not to enjoy about that combination of features?

I've had my copy of Smash 3DS for a couple weeks now, having unlocked all of the characters and stages and having tried each and every game mode, and I feel pretty confident in saying I like Smash 3DS a lot more than Brawl, and perhaps almost as much as Melee. It feels faster and more responsive than Brawl, and the controls feel right at home on the 3DS. The new characters are all really fun to play, and the plethora of unlockable content is enough to ensure a long lifetime of playability. And yet, after about nine hours of playtime, I've basically lost interest.

That's exactly what happened with me and Brawl -- I started playing the game and got super excited about all the new bells and whistles, feverishly racing to unlock content and to develop some semblance of mastery over my favorite characters, and then felt completely bored with it once I'd unlocked all of the important things and realized all I had left was to repeat the same instanced matches over and over again. At least Brawl had some kind of appeal in addition to the staple party-gaming multiplayer modes and mini-game challenges with its Subspace Emissary mode, a loosely story-based adventure campaign that admittedly wasn't all that good but still showed a lot of potential; Smash 3DS, by contrast, comes purely in bite-sized chunks of exclusively party-gaming scenarios.

Mario, Luigi, and Wii Fit Trainer battling on the Paper Mario stage.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, mind you -- each game in the series has been, by definition, a party game, and the "bite-sized" gameplay format matches the sporadic nature of mobile gaming. Smash 3DS accomplishes what it set out to do and is, in fact, a pretty solid game in its own right, even compared to its (arguably) beefier predecessors, but what Smash 3DS set out to do really wasn't all that ambitious. Smash 3DS feels more like an iterative update to the Smash series than a full-fledged sequel, one that simply adds more characters and stages while refining its various mechanisms and game modes. The game's "killer feature" is simply the fact that you can play it on the go; otherwise it's basically just more of the same with a requisite new layer of polish on top.

One way that Smash 3DS differentiates itself from its predecessors is the new Smash Run game mode, put in essentially to replace the missing Subspace Emissary from Brawl. Smash Run challenges you to a five-minute race to upgrade your character's stats (such as your run speed, your defense, the strength of your special attacks, etc) by exploring a metroidvania-esque map in search of treasure chests, challenge doors, and tough boss enemies. Once the five minutes are up, your stat bonuses are applied to a final challenge against either three AI-controlled opponents or up to three of your friends in local multiplayer, with the final challenges ranging from various types of smash battles (300% smash, team smash, multi-man smash, etc) to non-combat challenges like "race to the finish" or "tower climb."

Smash Run takes the fun PVE-style gameplay of Brawl's Subspace Emissary, where you get to use the core combat mechanisms of Super Smash Bros to run around 2D levels beating up common and stronger enemies, and condenses it into an intense rush to explore and to rack up as many stat boosts as efficiently as possible. It's really engaging, because every second matters, and the randomized nature of what enemies will spawn where, where you'll find treasure, and what random events you'll encounter ensure that you'll never know exactly what to expect. It's almost like playing a roguelike, except the map itself doesn't change from game to game, and it has the same addicting feel of playing a roguelike just to see if you can do better next time with another roll of the metaphorical dice.

Bowser in Smash Run mode with his stats and power-ups.

What's even better about Smash Run is that you get to custom-tailor each and every character to your liking before every single run. Each character now has two alternate special attacks for each directional combo (ie, three types of triple jumps, three "down B" moves, etc) that you can unlock by playing the various game modes. You can also swap out stat-altering equipment like boots and gloves to focus your character more on speed, attack, or defense, and you can equip different types of special abilities and power-ups that you activate from the touch screen menu, like dropping a power bomb from Metroid, or toggling brief invincibility, or summoning blades that spin around you and damage opponents. The more you play, the more and better customization options you unlock, so you're always improving and there's always some kind of interesting reward.

Besides modifying existing characters, you can even create your own custom Mii fighters by choosing from three archetypal templates (gunner, brawler, or swordsman), picking their special attacks (three options for each directional combo), and even customizing their appearance with outfits and hats. Otherwise, they use the exact same Mii avatar you created for yourself, so it looks just like you. Most of the Mii fighters' special attacks are variations of existing moves for existing characters, which basically lets you pick your favorite moves from all your favorite characters -- you might, for instance, choose Samus's charge shot, Zelda's stealth burst, and Fox's reflector. This, to me, is Smash 3DS's best feature because it allows for such a wide range of possibilities and makes you feel a more personal attachment to your own custom character.

Unfortunately, none of these cool customizations work during online play, which limits online multiplayer to the default, "vanilla" Smash we've been playing for the last 15 years. While playing online you can either choose to play "For Fun," a casual party game mode that turns on all the items and stage hazards, or "For Glory," a more competitive game mode that turns off items and plays exclusively on "Final Destination" level variants while recording your wins, losses, and various stats. Both are timed matches, and you can't change any of the options in either game mode. It's a little disappointing, because I don't care much for the chaotic fustercluck of "For Fun" (I especially don't like playing with Smash Balls), and I don't care much for the bland "Final Destination" levels of "For Glory" either; it's just two opposite ends of a spectrum with no satisfying middle-ground.

Mario defeating enemies and earning power-ups in Smash Run.

Even if there were a more satisfactory middle-ground, I probably wouldn't play online very much because of how laggy online play tends to be. Online matches in Smash 3DS use a peer-to-peer connection, which basically means the speed and stability of your connection will only be as good as that of the person with the worst internet connection. If you're playing someone halfway around the world, or with someone whose ISP is powered by a hamster wheel, then you're likely to encounter freezes and stuttering lag that disrupt the timing of your inputs. I've played about 12-15 games online and about half of them had some kind of noticeable lag; though it's never been strong enough to make the matches unplayable, it's been enough to curb my desire to play online more often.

Smash 3DS fixes some of the more notable problems from Brawl, yet perplexingly retains some of Brawl's other notable problems. Movement is faster, attacks feel weightier, and the controls feel more precise in Smash 3DS. There are still minor limitations with the accuracy of the 3DS's circle pad as compared to a full joystick, but at least the software isn't designed to be deliberately imprecise like the infamous tripping of Brawl. So on the whole, Smash 3DS feels better than Brawl, but it still uses the same obnoxious scoring system that arbitrarily awards KOs to players after someone suffers an obvious self-destruct, just because someone happened to touch that player 30 seconds ago, and typical matches still have too many freakishly random things between pokeballs, smash balls, stage hazards, assist trophies, and so on all being active simultaneously.

After playing Sony's PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale, I've also come to realize how little I care for the Smash Bros series' damage and KO system. In SSB, the damage you deal to another player doesn't matter at all if someone else swoops in and delivers the killing blow, which makes matches more about opportunism than anything else. In PSA:BR, you have to earn each of your kills by charging your own "AP meter" to execute killing maneuvers, which requires you to be an active participant in combat -- you can't simply avoid combat and kill-steal. The system in PSA:BR promotes more offensive engagement and doesn't penalize players as harshly for minor errors and fluke accidents. Chalk this one up to personal preference if you will, but I prefer the system in PSA:BR and would have loved for Nintendo to include a similar type of game mode in Super Smash Bros, especially since any hope for an actual PlayStation All-Stars series is basically dead.

My two favorite characters: Samus and Zero Suit Samus.

Like each of the previous games, there's a lot of excitement to experience in Smash 3DS right up front, but after a few days of unlocking things, the thrill wears off and you're left with the same basic game we've been playing for the past 15 years. Customizing your characters for use in Smash Run is a fun way to pass the time if you're waiting at a bus stop or something, but I don't see there being as much lasting appeal in Smash 3DS as a true party game as compared to its console brethren, since it requires all of your friends to own a 3DS and their own copy of the game. Odds are, you're going to be playing Smash 3DS by yourself, or possibly online against laggy, random strangers, which I just don't care for much, personally.

Super Smash Bros for Nintendo 3DS is a pretty solid entry in the series that does the requisite things necessary for a sequel of this nature, but doesn't do anything all that mind-blowing to make it an absolutely essential purchase. Perhaps my tastes have changed over the years, but I just don't see myself spending much more time with Smash 3DS now that I've unlocked all the important features, because it feels like I'm just repeating the same games and grinding through challenges over and over again. That said, I still got nine hours of enjoyment out of it, so if you're an avid fan of the series I'm sure you'll get your time and money's worth. If you have a Wii U, though, you might be better off just waiting for that version to come out for the convenience of easier/cheaper local multiplayer and its greater production values.


  1. Nice review as always. I know you don't really "take requests" but if you could rip apart Shadow of Mordor for the horribly average AAA game that it is that would be awesome.

    1. That game's been on my radar, but as usual I'm not gonna pay full price for it. If you're willing to send me a copy of it, though, I could maybe see about working it into my schedule.