A Rewarding Fighting Experience On the Go, Despite Its Limitations
Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS delivers all the kinetic fast-paced action one would expect from a console edition of the revered franchise in portable package...with a few compromises.
At its heart, this is 'Smash as players have come to grow and love it. A huge roster of 49 characters spanning several popular franchises including Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, and Fire Emblem come together for this bout, though little else has changed in terms of basic gameplay. Indeed, characters still wail on each other, using randomly spawned items such a swords, bombs, the Nintendo Super Scope, and various assistant cameo characters to increase their opponent’s damage total, therefore causing them to become more susceptible to getting knocked out of a stage by a powerful blow. Successfully achieving this nets the attacker a point, or causes the victim losing a 'stock', depending on the game mode chosen. Returning fans can expect to easily pick up and play their favourite characters from previous iterations and find that, on the surface, most behave the same with a few tweaks to the balance, while newcomers such as Mega Man and Little Mac offer entirely new play styles to learn and master. It's sure to please many that the general flow of action is certainly faster than Brawl, and potentially even more so than the 64 version, though it never comes close to the hectic battles of Melee that hardcore fans swear by.
Perhaps this is in fact a good thing, as the 3DS admittedly makes for a rather awkward controller for frenetic action games. For newcomers, Super Smash Bros. is one of the easiest fighting game franchises to get a handle on. All characters have moves that are performed using the standard and special attack buttons, with varying attacks depending on which direction the circle pad is pressed in. Various moves can also be performed depending if the player is running or in the air, for example. The challenge comes from learning a character's (and the opponent's) moves, achieving optimal positioning, and capitalizing on an opponent's mistakes. It's a wonderful system that allows all kinds of players to compete at any level, while still having a skill/reflex ladder for dedicated 'smashers' to climb. As previously stated however, the 3DS doesn't do many favours for this kind of gameplay. While it isn't terribly difficult to get accustomed to the circle pad, those with smaller hands may find that 3DS XL will cause some strain on their right thumb due to the usage and position of the A button being the standard attack button. Thankfully, all the buttons are customizable, and it is possible to to arrange them in a more comfortable position to minimize strain. Returning fans will be pleased to know that the loathsome 'tripping' from Brawl is no longer a factor, but will also be disappointed that 'wave-dashing' and 'L-cancelling' are still relics of the past. It's still possible to 'dash-dance' however, and it's even more glorious than ever before. Huzzah.
This is largely a side effect due to the sense of spectacle being notably upped for this new iteration. Moves are flashier, colours are brighter, and landing a solid smash attack is rewarded with a satisfyingly visceral thud. Of course, the most visually impressive moments in the game emerges when characters unleash their "Final Smash", a cinematic and devastating move that almost always clears the stage, game balance be damned. The thick black outlines of the characters added exclusively to the 3DS version truly do make the characters pop against the vibrant backgrounds, which themselves are fully realized and active, overflowing with charm and nostalgia. The Reset Bomb Forest stage is a notable stand out, with a huge siege occurring in the background that is interrupted by a large explosion, suddenly altering the flow of battle and completely changing the layout of the stage. The sound design in particular also deserves a worthy nod. It's rather unique experience hearing the tell-tale 'wakka-wakka' of Pac-Man clashing with memorable 'boing' of Mario attempting to recover from a fall with a last ditch-jump, while off to the left a familiar incoming 'piiiiiiiii-KA!' is heard as an electric mouse hurtles itself into the fray, all set to a Mega Man 2 medley. It's moments such as these that exemplify how much affection and reverence was involved in crafting this game.
Which is why it's incredibly disappointing that not much else has been done to capitalize on the excellent framework. Whereas in Brawl, the Subspace Emissary mode attempted to tie a cohesive narrative together through it's large and diverse cast, nothing of the sort has been attempted here. Instead, solo players get to try out the new 3DS exclusive Smash Run, a revamped and improved Classic Mode, the familiar All-Stars Mode, and several mini-games and challenges in the Stadium.
Smash Run will appear quite similar to players who have tried the City Trial mode in Kirby's Air Ride, though it is far less effective here. In this mode, players will start off in a large single-player area, featuring several common enemies from franchises featured in the game, not entirely unlike The Subspace Emissary mode in Brawl. Here, players will have to defeat enemies that will grant them upgrades to 5 basic stats, such as attack strength and agility. Meanwhile, their opponents will be attempting to do the same, and after 5 minutes of 'grinding', the competitors meet in a competition that can vary between a timed arena match where KOs are rewarded with points, to a simple foot race. While heavily promoted, this mode is largely forgettable. Fighting the random enemies in the first part of competition simply isn't fun or rewarding, and the platforming elements simply don't work well with the control scheme to begin with. Worst of all, the random nature of the event simply doesn't allow players to really use any particular tactics or skill. Even if it turns out a player manages to snag enough Attack enhancers that they max out that particular stat, they stand no chance in a race if another player manages to get a higher agility stat. Players can get rewarded with Powers that they can equip on their smash run characters to activate during their grinding period such as enhanced damage with head-based attacks, but that all relies upon one actually wanting to play more of this rather ho-hum mode.
More entertaining for solo players however is the new and improved Classic mode. While slightly shorter than it used to be in previous entries, Classic mode challenges players with clearing several stages before challenging the Final Boss, Master Hand, in a showdown. Several new tweaks make this rendition of Classic mode stand out from the previous versions, most notably is the new Intensity system. Before starting, players select an Intensity, ranging from 0.0-9.0, requiring them to pay with coins earned through general play to raise or lower the intensity from the standard of 2.0. The higher the intensity, the greater the challenge, though so too are the rewards players can earn in a slot machine-like mini-game before the start of a match. Lose a match however, and the intensity is knocked down by 0.5 and a couple of precious rewards are stripped away, along with some pocket change. Further adding another layer of depth is the ability to select from up to three branching paths between each stage, colour coded accordingly to represent their difficulty. Don't want to fight Little Mac at 9.0 intensity with Marth? It won't dish out as many coins, but maybe a Star Fox character will be a more suitable match up. The catch is that special stipulations, along with the exact character being fought only appears after a path is committed, meaning that perhaps that Star Fox path leads to a Metal Fox, or a team match with the player and Kirby on one side with Fox and Falco on the other. This variety, coupled with the fact there are only 6 stages per run makes the new Classic Mode perfect for those eager to thoroughly grind out all there is to obtain within the game, and makes the goal of completing the mode with all the characters far less tedious and repetitive. The increased threat of losing after earning a coveted new trophy adds a new-found tension to the proceedings that was always absent in the previous games. There is even a new boss for players to fight if they brave the higher intensities, although the fight itself is rather cheap and the design of the boss character is rather lazy, despite the fight actually being visually spectacular. It's no Tabuu, but it certainly could have been better.
Less effort was made to update All-Stars mode, though unlike previous games this mode is unlocked from the beginning. This time, players will fight through different time-periods of games, starting with the likes of Pac-Man and Mario and finishing off with newer characters such as the Wii Fit Trainer and Greninja. These characters will be encountered in groups, and the player will be challenged with fighting through the various stages while carrying their damage percentage through to the next stage, with healing items offered between stages. Naturally, the characters are weakened so as to make this an easier challenge, but none of the intrigue of Classic Mode is present. Players just select one of three difficulty modes, and play through the same sequence of opponent's and get a unique trophy at the end.
The Stadium rounds out the final main solo mode offerings, featuring "Multi-Man Smash" and "Home-Run Contest" from previous games, as well as the brand new "Target Blast!", which supposedly is really exciting because it's the only one to feature an exclamation point in the name.
"Multi-Man Smash" challenges players to defeat several weak Mii Fighters in sub-modes largely pulled from it's predecessors, including 10 and 100-Man Smash, 3-Minute Smash, Endless Smash, and Cruel Smash, the latter of which flips the mode on it's head and challenges the player with relentless opponent's while in a weakened state. 15-Minute Smash has been replaced with the new Rival Smash mode which challenges players with defeating more Mii Fighters than a Rival. These will likely be one-shots for most players, as none are very compelling to warrant more a couple playthroughs each, other than perhaps Cruel Smash, which is really really hard and actually feels pretty good after beating an old high-score.
Home Run Contest is virtually unchanged from it's presentation in Brawl. Players are tasked with wailing as hard as they can on a sandbag, raising it's damage percentage as a timer ticks down before slamming a home-run bat into it, sending it hurtling past various distance milestones. It's an entertaining mode for friends to compete with, but can grow stale and frustrating with time. "Target Blast!" (yes, the exclamation point is very necessary) is a mix between "Home Run" contest and catapult games based games like Angry Birds, where the player needs to beat on a timed bomb and raise it's damage percentage before using a smash attack to send it into a field filled with targets, where it explodes in a fiery blast(!). Players have two-rounds to clear the area of targets, and their total is tallied up at the end. It's really not as exciting as the exclamation point makes it seem, and as with most of the Stadium's offerings, ultimately forgettable.
There is also a small mini-game called "Trophy Rush" that players can partake in, and unlike other modes, it can be found under the "Trophies" sub-menu. Using coins earned from various modes, players can purchase a timed round, where more coins spent equates to more in-game time, up to a max of 2.5 minutes. It's a fairly simple mini-game where the player is tasked with clearing out a series of falling boxes, building up a combo that eventually triggers a 'fever' which causes blocks containing coins, trophies, and custom parts to rain down. It's an improvement on the lottery system of the previous games that requires a little more skill, and it's possible to get a good number of trophies every one that it feels more rewarding than relying purely on a random number generator and the laws of probability.
As one may have noticed, custom parts was mentioned as one of the rewards within "Trophy Rush". These are also possible to earn within the pre-stage slot machine in Classic mode and come in the form of Equipment, Specials, Headgear, and Outfits. The latter two are purely to customize the aesthetics of the Player's Mii Character, who is now a playable character. Equipment can be used to enhance any characters with buffs to various stats, not at all unlike smash run. Some items also have special bonuses, such as the ability to attract Smash Balls (an item that allows characters to trigger their Final Smash). Specials on the other hand can change the special moves characters have. These are earned on a per character basis, with two additional moves per each of the 4 special move inputs, allowing for a fair bit of customization. Granted, some of these moves do not look especially different, however it can be interesting to customize certain characters to play differently. Fox for instance can modify his side-B move to move in a diagonally upwards motion, mimicking that of his old rival Wolf who appeared in Brawl. These customizations can be brought into any game mode and greatly help when tackling harder instances of Classic Mode and All-Stars. Custom characters can also be used in competitive modes such as basic Smash and Smash Run, though they can also be completely turned off if players like. Ultimately, it's a welcome feature that does encourage players to tackle the harder instances of Classic Mode for something other than trophies, which comparatively, do not affect gameplay.
For most 'Smash players however, customization and solo modes are icing on the cake. Beating the tar out of friends and loved ones is the main reason why many keep coming back again and again to the 'Smash series and the 3DS release is happy to provide the player with several ways to do so. For optimal performance, it's best to make use of the local ad hoc play, where one can play together with up to three local friends in normal Smash, Smash Run, All-Star, and Multi-Man games. For the most part, this works really well. It is incredibly fast and easy to set up a local room and have friends join, and within a match, input lag being comparable to that of an LCD TV, or less. This truly is the game's saving grace and the reason why it deserves a high score; there's no way around it, Super Smash Bros. is simply one of the most entertaining local multiplayer options on the 3DS
Internet play on the other hand is a bit of a mixed bag. A suite of play options are available divided into a few modes. When selecting the option to play "With Anyone", players will have the option play "For Fun" or "For Glory". As one can deduce, For Fun is essentially unranked play where the player can chose between 4 player free-for-all smash or 2 vs 2 team play with. Alternatively, For Glory matches players with those of similar skill levels, removes items, uses "Omega Stages" (basically versions of stages with only flat platform), and also has the option for 1-on-1 matches. This is a great mode for players who want to play smash without any of the more random elements interfering with fights, and the game does a fairly good job of matching players up with reasonable opponents. Sadly, the in-game experience seems to suffer for so in this mode than in "for Fun", as input lag and stuttering are more common. It has gradually improved since launch, but there are still instances where players may join a game where the action will stutter and stop every 5 seconds or so, rendering matches virtually unplayable. Additionally, while it's great that the "Omega Stages" essentially levels the playing field on all stages, it severely hampers the general air-game, allowing ground based characters such as Little Mac to absolutely dominate in the hands of a capable player. There is nothing wrong with having platforms in stages, and it's a shame seeing levels such as Battlefield and Yoshi's Island get flattened.
Thankfully, it is also possible to play "With Friends", which although unranked, allows players to tweak their settings in any way they want. The system generally works, but is not without it's annoyances. In theory, it is very easy to find friends and play with them, if an external means of communication system There is no invite system, and to join a player they need to first host a game and wait for someone to join. Granted, they can host a game and will be alerted once a player tries to join and be allowed to accept or deny them, but this likely won't happen without a rather large friend list or external notification. It's not game-breaking by any means, but an invite system would have gone a long way to make the process faster. It is worth noting that "With Friends" is also susceptible to the stuttering and input lag issues that can plague the online modes, so while it's still possible to have a good time playing with Friends online, local ad hoc is naturally the more stable experience.
The mandatory inclusion of Street Pass makes up the final, if forgettable multiplayer mode, called Street Smash. Here, the player controls a coin (depicting the icon of a character in the game) from a top town perspective in a grassy field. Players can then challenge street passed players to a dual where the objective is to use a ram attack to knock the other player's coin off the stage. There really is no challenge to this game, as all the opponents are controlled by AI, and unlike the player do not use the shield or dodge moves, and therefore are easily counter. It's a rather mindless experience that earns the players the equivalent of pocket change and a random equipment, special, outfit, or headgear drop. It's not offensive or intrusive by any means, and the matches are relatively quick, it's just all rather meaningless in the face of the fantastic local multiplayer.
And really, it is for the local multiplayer that this game deserves a recommendation. Players that have never fallen in love with the franchise won't find any significant changes to the formula, but returning and new fans will find a ton of content to delve into. The core fighting systems are incredibly easy to get a handle on while still satisfying to master, and the presentation is a real spectacle on the handheld thanks to the gorgeous graphics and impeccable sound design. With a wealth of solo mode content, seemingly bottomless amount of trophies and custom parts, and endless hours of entertainment that can be had playing with and against friends makes Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS an easy game to recommend to those looking for a rewarding fighting experience on the go, despite its technical limitations and lack of true innovation.