Thursday, November 20, 2014

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii, 2008)

Given the comparatively short amount of time between the releases of 64 and Melee, I spent a lot of my early days on the internet wondering when the next Smash Bros title would hit the shelves. We had already been getting a few sneak peeks at Nintendo's next console, the Wii, by that point. Originally called the "Revolution", the system would heavily emphasize motion controls with much of its software. To make a long story short, the development team more or less gave up on this concept for Smash Bros since they had no way to implement it, so unlike most Wii titles, the next Smash game would focus more on showing off every other new feature the Wii had to offer. At E3 2006, Nintendo announced Super Smash Bros. Brawl with a grandiose cinematic trailer featuring veterans and even a few newcomers. They promised it to be the "best Super Smash Bros. ever", and the crowd went absolutely wild.

It can be said that Brawl was the original "hype train" game. That is to say, speculation, rumors, and a general feeling of excite filled the air during the prerelease era of the game. Everyone immediately flocked to various forums and other sites like YouTube to talk about the game and wonder what new characters would be added this time around. It was quite a time to be on the internet. There was so much hype for Brawl that Nintendo set up a website devoted to daily updates on the game, known as the "Smash Bros. DOJO!!". During 2006-2008, the site became a central hub for all things Brawl. The daily updates were released on a Japanese time schedule, so Americans wouldn't be able to see them unless they were awake around 3AM, but if you know the Smash fanbase, you'd know damn well they were willing to stay up. Sometimes the updates were simply new game mechanics or returning fighters, but what got everyone the most excited was when a new character was revealed.

Part of the reason Brawl took so long to release was its grueling development cycle. To put it into perspective, it was supposed to be a launch title for the Wii in 2006. It was literally ready to go gold when a certain character was requested to be added in, so even more time had to go into making him, his stage, and a music track. In general, it was often delayed, much to the disdain of fans. Super Smash Bros Brawl was finally released in North America on March 9th, 2008.

In the final days of the prerelease hype, the fanbase was ready to explode. Smashboards and other SSB-dedicated forums were rife with fans posting their last-minute speculation and talking about what they'd do when they finally got their hands on the game. There was even talk of people going to the midnight release dressed as their favorite characters. I didn't get to go, but from what a friend who did and told me about it, it was one of the biggest midnight releases ever held at Gamestop. Him and his friend were circling around the building; there was more of a huge crowd than an actual organized line, and like most big fighting game releases, they were even holding a tournament. At the time, I was in my freshman year of high school, and a lot of people in my classes were talking about Brawl.

I would go ahead and tell you what I think of SSBB, but the truth is, unlike 64 and Melee, I didn't get this game or a Wii for that matter until long after its release. I didn't have a lot of money at the time, but that wasn't the only reason and there's a more complex reasoning behind it all. What were my initial thoughts on the game during prerelease and the early days?

I had a history of primarily playing Nintendo consoles. I'd gotten most of them before even considering their counterparts, so logically the next step would've been a Wii. When Brawl was announced, I quickly made my decision and started saving up for the console in 2006. A lot of the new features looked good, but I wasn't thinking about newcomers so much as who would be returning. If you read my post on Melee, you'll know I'm a die-hard Mewtwo fan, and I had high hopes for his return. Up until this point, characters being removed was a foreign concept. While I could understand removing "clone" characters like Pichu or Dr. Mario, Mewtwo was entirely unique and still popular. However, it became evident pretty quickly that he wasn't returning either, which as really disappointing and ultimately enough to make me decide to use the money I was saving for a Wii and Brawl to get an Xbox 360 with Halo 3 instead.

While this ended up being a great long-term decision, I still missed out on the Smash action for a while. I honestly don't know what "deconfirmed" Mewtwo in my mind, but I guess it was the reveal of the then-new 4th generation Pokemon, Lucario. While he's anything but a "clone" of Mewtwo, he is a similar concept and was likely at least somewhat of a replacement. If you know me, you know I never cared for Lucario. As much as I love Pokemon and the 4th generation, his design and concept always came off as uninteresting and generic to me; a "poor man's Mewtwo", if anything. Almost everyone you ask will tell you he's their favorite Pokemon, so there's a factor of being generic too. I honestly do not mind Lucario, he just isn't my style and made somewhat boring stand-in. Later I'd find out this wasn't the case, as Mewtwo was intended to be in the game, but was cut late into development to give the team more time to work on the game's extensive Adventure mode.

Anyways, I finally obtained a Wii with Brawl and a few other games during the holiday season of 2009, and it was definitely the game I played the most of. After finally getting my hands on the game, I admittedly warmed up to it. Since it's what everyone gets the most excited over, let's talk about the character cast first.

In addition to most of Melee's roster returning, Brawl included many long-requested fan favorites. Nintendo mainstays like Wario, Diddy Kong, and Charizard finally made their Smash debuts in Brawl, as did obscure characters like Pit from Kid Icarus, who received a major redesign which would later see use in Kid Icarus Uprising.

Aside from the inclusion of R.O.B., who wasn't even a video game character but rather a real-life gaming peripheral robot used to sell the NES, the most groundbreaking inclusions Brawl had for its time were third-party characters. That is to say, characters that are owned by someone other than Nintendo. The first of these was Metal Gear's protagonist, Solid Snake. I'd never played MGS at the time, but I'm retroactively very happy about his inclusion after I did play the series in 2014. At the time, the newest MGS game on the horizon was MGS4, a PS3 exclusive. Brawl had a lot of elements from this game, essentially giving it free advertising. Way to be a nice guy, Nintendo!

The other third-party newcomer was the one I mentioned that stretched Brawl's development time out, and one that just about every fan requested: Sonic the Hedgehog. After decades of rivalry, Sonic could finally square off with Mario, not to mention other Nintendo icons. He was given his own stage, Green Hill Zone, but the music from his home series differed a lot in that it was almost entirely ported from other games rather than an original remix, aside for one made at the last minute. Still, he was one of the characters I found myself using a lot.

With Mewtwo's exclusion, it was admittedly hard for me to find a new main. Wario and Sonic were interesting, and Link had a fun playstyle this time around, but there was definitely something missing. After a few days, I remembered that Wolf O'Donnell, the anti-hero from the Star Fox franchise was playable. I initially saw him in an early episode of Arby n' the Chief in 2008, but I guess I forgot since I didn't own a Wii yet. I was already a fan of Wolf as a character, and it didn't take long after unlocking him to figure out that his playstyle was perfect for me, and he's been my top main ever since, serving as a worthy successor to Mewtwo.

All in all, Brawl had a very interesting roster that was impressive for its time. Some of the exclusions were a bit unjust and not all the newcomers were appealing, but it had a certain charm to it and fans often consider it the best for its size, general diversity and long-awaited additions.

In the way of aesthetics, Brawl offered a bit of a mixed bag. Naturally everything looked better and of a higher resolution due to being on a newer system, but the game also tried to go for a vastly different art style. Everything was meant to look less cartoony and more "realistic". Textures were more defined and colors were far more muted and subdued. The menus had a bright, white theme to them, which I never cared for in any user interface, yet every modern site uses one. Other than that everything looked really nice and the stages especially had a lot of detail to them.

Easily one of Brawl's strongest points was its soundtrack. 64 and Melee both had wonderful OSTs full of love letters to old Nintendo titles, but Brawl took this up to eleven with a fully-orchestrated soundtrack with loads of remixes of iconic themes from each franchise. It's become one of the most well-known video game soundtracks and is often remembered by gamers everywhere. On the other hand, one of the worst things about the soundtrack is the main theme that they used for Brawl, an opera-esque song with Latin vocals. It's a great song by itself, but every original song that Brawl has to offer that isn't from an existing franchise is literally a remix of this, and it really gets on my nerves.

All of the modes from Melee made a return, and as you might expect, there was a slew of new ones to take on. For starters, every singleplayer mode was now able to be challenged co-operatively with a friend. As a multiplayer-focused series, Smash expanded a lot in Brawl. Using the Wii's wi-fi capabilities, Smashers were finally able to play with others online, a feature long-requested and absent from the GameCube. Brawl's online play got a reputation for being one of the worst online gaming experiences, however. While it was entirely possible to get a "good" match if you and your friend lived in the same country or region, anything else was questionable. Finding random matches would often take upwards of half an hour, and finally playing them resulted in an unplayably laggy experience. I still thought it was an okay option if you weren't able to play locally, though.

Perhaps the largest addition to Brawl was interestingly enough, to the single player mode. I'm talking about the heavily expansive and semi-story based Adventure Mode known as "The Subspace Emissary". It was teased a few times before Brawl's release and rather heavily talked about. It featured fully-rendered cutscenes and a somewhat basic story involving a mysterious entity trying to take over the Nintendo/Smash Bros world, so all the fighters team up to stop the threat. It's nothing mindblowing, but I do enjoy seeing all the characters interact and the gameplay itself is fun, if not repetitive at times. You'll go through stages reminiscent of a Kirby or Mario game defeating generic enemies as well as fighting other characters in a standard Smash match. Sometimes you also fight bosses from other games like Rayquaza from Pokemon or Ridley from Metroid. Even if you don't like the story, it's a great way to quickly unlock all the characters and other things. One major flaw with the SSE is that most of the enemies you face are generic ones rather than enemies from Nintendo games, which I felt was a huge missed opportunity.

The last and most important thing to go over is the gameplay. I'm just gonna say this now: this is the easiest you'll ever hear a competitive Smasher go on Brawl. Let me explain. When Brawl released it disappointed a great number of Melee's competitive players due to the huge difference in physics and the overhaul of the core gameplay. Brawl was generally slower than Melee. You generally couldn't run as fast, and advanced techniques like wavedashing were removed altogether. It was also a lot floatier. Characters jumped much higher and took significantly longer to reach the ground. Your character also had a random chance of tripping when they change directions, and the lack of hitstun lead to very little combo potential and a campy, defensive competitive gameplay.

The reasoning here was that Masahiro Sakurai wanted Smash to be a casual game that everyone could enjoy, and was somewhat displeased after seeing how Melee's metagame evolved, feeling that his dream wasn't entirely realized. Therefore, it was clear that he designed Brawl to cater more exclusively to casual gamers. The result divided Smash's fanbase considerably. Many competitive players just went back to Melee or didn't stop playing it, and Brawl's competitive days sort of came and went. It was a popular game when it was new, but the over-presence of absurdly powerful characters like Meta Knight and Ice Climbers as well as the gameplay that could sometimes be compared to watching NASCAR lead to Melee eventually eclipsing it. It's usually relegated to "side" tournaments at major venues now. Brawl has gone on to be the proverbial "black sheep" of the Smash series, and even mentioning it around competitive Smashers usually results in ridicule and other negative reactions.

I fully acknowledge Brawl's issues, but I do think it is a bit over-hated. While its fans are some of the worst, the game itself is at least tolerable and very fun on a casual level. That being said, I usually play the other games unless I specifically want to play as Wolf or Snake. The negative reception didn't stop the fan community from putting their heads together and creating some extensive game mods. A dedicated group of fans created a mod known as "Brawl+" with the intent of balancing the game out and speeding it up. It was so well received that the team expanded it into what is now the largest game mod of all time: Project M. It restored most of Melee's physics and techniques while keeping all the good things Brawl had and making every single character viable and balanced. They even brought back Mewtwo and Roy!

In conclusion, Brawl ended up being the most "controversial" Smash release and made plenty of changes, but I honestly think the good outweighed the bad and most people selectively remember the bad things about it. Though Nintendo recently shut down the online services, it's still a fun game to revisit occasionally. It's just that a lot of Smashers felt that they waited almost 7 years only to be disappointed, and this feedback would certainly be taken into account when the next game was announced.

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