Note: This review contains spoilers regarding the single-player component of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
For reasons that were never entirely clear to me, I had surprisingly little interest in the pre-release buzz surrounding Super Mario Galaxy, and when a store clerk eagerly outlined for me the exact nature of the new game (including screenshots), I definitely didn’t have anything nice to say about what I saw. But Galaxy ultimately proved to be visually astonishing, inventive, freewheeling, endlessly adaptable — and possibly even more of a life-altering revelation than Shadow of the Colossus. Now the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl finds me in the same boat — purchasing the game as Pavlov’s dog might, but not intrigued or aroused in the slightest by any of the game footage I happened to see. You can guess what happens next, I’m sure, but we’ll get to that.
By now you’ve either gotten your hands on the game, or have been placed in a miles-long queue — though still no doubt intimately familiar with the gameplay mechanics and such, so I won’t belabor that information. Unlike Galaxy, Brawl does not follow a specific path to a conclusion, but is more “self-created” (depending on your whims at the time), and this makes it harder to break down. What follows is then best described as a series of comments and observations based upon the game’s many different elements. A bit sloppy, under normal circumstances, but very much befitting Brawl’s unique grab-bag mentality.
Well, when I said the game doesn’t follow a path, I was half wrong. Brawl has a revamped single-player mode, complete with “levels” and “narrative”; it is an absolute embarrassment, and I would recommend avoiding it at all cost — that is, I would if it weren’t also the speediest way to unlock all 40 characters. Gameplay destroys it — the harshness of the control scheme is perfect for the fighting game, but lacks the delicate finesse required to navigate tiny moving platforms. Although the cut-scenes themselves have their moments (Peach steals the show), and I admire the chutzpah of choosing to omit all dialogue and subtitles, the (non-)story is ultimately an exasperating nuisance. There are, however, several things worth pointing out about it.
To understand the story, we need a quick refresher on the mostly forgotten original Super Smash Bros. from 1999. The game was conceived as being the fancy of a young child, taking his Nintendo action figures out and setting up an arena for them to fight each other on his desk (this is the foundation for the game’s unique “elevated platform” design, culminating in death for a character when he “falls to the floor”). After emerging as king of the table, the chosen character then squares off against his creator’s hand. This concludes with what has to be the most powerful two-second game ending I’ve ever seen: the victorious game character falls back lifeless to the ground, while his “dead” master backs away in — wonder? fear? resentment? — as the bedroom door slams shut in his and our collective face. It is chillingly oblique yet magnificently suggestive.
So with this in mind, when I heard that Brawl would feature a story of its own, I took a random guess as to what it might be — “Vindictive player wants his toys back” — and was genuinely shocked to find myself absolutely correct. The figure behind the Hand, named Tabuu, is an impressive coup for the designers; I think his name alone is a strikingly brilliant play on the “taboo” of crossing between the real world and the play world, but spelled with the letter “you”. He cuts a Tron-like figure, which is also an interesting ambiguity, since in that film the main character was called upon to be both a game player and a game designer (and this story may affect you differently depending on which of the two fits your mental projection of the ominous Mr. Big). The game even has the grace and good sense to briefly ask: “Tabuu” needs the Hand to serve as his intermediary within Game-land, but at some point doesn’t the in-game Hand cease to be an extension of the player and become a “character” in his own right, with as much to lose as Mario, Link, et al.? All of this is so well-conceived and thought out that it’s upsetting to see it married to an hour of footage consisting of assorted poses, leaps, and kicks.
(On that note, may I personally say that I’m sick and tired of seeing the dissolution of boundaries between our level of reality and a game’s level of reality portrayed as a journey through hyperspace, complete with swirling lights, flashing colors, and lots of neon. There must be a more dynamic and creative way of presenting transgressive material like this.)
Although truthfully I’m happy if I saved you the trouble of slogging through the so-called “Subspace Emissary”, I’m glad that the background was established anyway, because it may be even more important in the context of the real heart of the game: the newly designed levels and fighting arenas. Even though many of the core game mechanics have not changed a jot from Melee, I still found it almost impossible to return to the older game after seeing what the newer stages were capable of, and just how much they were willing to play around in the gray area separating the game from the player.
Take, for example, one of my favorites, the WarioWare level. It’s set up exactly as if you (or another) were about to play a round of the real game, only to have the fighters blunder into the service elevator. “WarioWare” carries on as it normally would, with a five-second mini-game cropping up every once in a while — but you don’t play the games. Instead, you’re playing the fighters forced to play the mini-games in the middle of the brawl, which doesn’t stop. This leads to the only touch in Smash Bros. Brawl that I think takes advantage of the Wii’s brilliant, revolutionary hardware arrangement — Wario’s distinctive rasp bellowing out of the control’s speaker, praising or moaning at you, as the combatants succeed or fail at their tasks. Who’s who and where’s where? To make it really interesting, bring Wario himself into the level…
Or try the level inspired by the DS’s Pictochat. Once again designed to make it appear the portable tool has been blown up so that you could doodle on a larger screen, instead the Pictochat becomes an arena for a different kind of fight. “Someone” is drawing on the screen, but these aren’t simply black lines that obscure the action. Although a horizontal line makes a platform for the characters, very rarely is it that simple. Molten rocks burn, Ferris wheels can be ridden, a spiked fence hurts to land on, even a gusting cross-wind can be animated and whisk you off the edge. But wait: the game actually tells you just who’s the sketch artist — the character you’re presently using on the field. So “Link”, then, just drew an explosive missile that blew Link away, even though Link is not really Link at the time, but yourself, leaving “Link” to be doing what you’re supposed to be doing with Pictochat, even though Link is for the moment also a physical part of Pictochat itself. As you can see, this gets pretty fun. (Now I have to wonder who is the on the “receiving end” of Pictochat here…?)
Another of the new levels is a lovingly reproduced facsimile of the very first level of Super Mario Bros. — even the invisible power-up blocks are in place — but with a twist: the landscape is a post-nuclear wasteland. When I originally played this game 22 years ago, I imagined the Mushroom Kingdom to be lush and green, and I wasn’t wrong; the game was full of bushes, plants, and running (if motionless!) water. No, this is all that’s left after millions of Marios the world over have rampaged their way across the land. The camera keeps scrolling forward on its own as if it can’t bear to look at the devastation for too long, while the forlorn Muzak rendition of the classic Mario theme that accompanies the level makes everything seem even more desolate than it is. This fungal-infested terrain has been appropriately re-named “The Mushroomy Kingdom” (I like to imagine that ‘y’ graffiti-ed on to the “Now Entering” sign). It actually reminds me of the Myst parody from many years back that professed to show what the island looked like after being “defaced by so many tourists.” When the dust settles come year’s end, this could prove to be one of the most affecting images of 2008.
With the inclusion of Kid Icarus (or Pit, if you like) in Brawl, one of the major holes from Melee has been plugged. Unfortunately, his “personalized stage” is one of the least exciting in the game. I had expected a properly constructed upward-scrolling level (fixing Melee’s horrendous Icicle Mountain), with the re-orchestrated theme of Kid Icarus’s first stage, to be the best level in the game. You do get the music, however, and it remains one of the greatest pieces in video-game history.
Getting my old Robotic Operating Buddy as a playable character was a nice surprise, but not having a stage of his own leaves him cast adrift. Since it couldn’t make it into this version, when they make the next Smash Bros. game, I would like to see a proper Gyromite level (musical red and blue columns would make an interesting hazard). Since this game is so fascinated by emptiness, and takes so many aural cues from Wrecking Crew, I would also like to see a level inspired by that game. Spike, on the “reverse side”, gradually destroys the environment until…
It might be easy to forget this, but Super Smash Bros. Brawl is possibly the greatest jukebox of all time. The game has rarely been turned off since it came into my house, but I’ve only been playing it half the time. It’s awe-inspiring how much incredible music was stuffed into this disc, and it can be listened to whenever you want, for as long as you want. Perhaps it’s an odd situation that I sometimes have to forcibly remind myself there’s a game involved, but the value of this work on multiple fronts is not to be underestimated.
Finally, for many years now Nintendo has been hinting toward a kind of pseudo-religion (I’m not sure how to describe it, truthfully) centering around Luigi as its “higher being.” Brawl doesn’t deviate from this line: Luigi is likened to a star in the heavens (again!) before coming down in a new form; when the entire cast has been turned back into “figures” by Tabuu, Luigi comes out of it to rescue them; when you have to square off against “evil” versions of every character in the game’s climax, Evil Luigi is the final opponent (I think this last was actually coincidental, but that’s some chance at nearly 50-to-1 odds). Nothing new, and I wouldn’t even bring it up in the first place…however, they seem intent on adding a new chapter to Nintendo’s gospel here. When Luigi goes flying up into the sky to transform into a statue, it’s thanks to a blow from the mallet of King Dedede (both characters are introduced at the same time), and when Luigi breaks free later, it’s only thanks to a special badge Dedede pinned on him that has the ability to nullify the “real world’s” power…begging the question as to how His Majesty got that spiritual energy. Weege and Dedede…you know, I can definitely see a cult growing up around these two characters, and I’m going to keep a close eye on any Kirby-related material that comes down the pipe in the future. For that matter, I’m also going to keep an eye on Mother 3 (if they ever get around to releasing it over here!); well, watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. Also be sure to check out Luigi’s Final Smash and find out what a mystic the man can be.
In less than six months, Nintendo has arguably pulled off one of the greatest one-two knockouts in gaming history — and this fails to take into account the hefty number of other outstanding games on their new hardware. As often as I’ve judged them in the past to be hopelessly regressive, they, more than any other present developer that springs to mind, seem to have taken it upon themselves to push the medium in new directions and break undiscovered boundaries with the ultimate goal of expanding your consciousness. You should let them.