It's not easy launching a new instalment of a series like Super Smash Bros, as each entry has offered yet more options and choices than the one before. Added to that, the franchise has garnered the kind of fan obsession that makes any change or addition a bigger issue than it should be.
More than enough pressure, but its this kind of challenge that developers such as Masahiro Sakurai step up to and show the best of what they can do. This time round there's an added complication: how do you fit Super Smash Bros. onto a handheld?
Some background first. The series draws together characters from Nintendo's first-party titles (and recently has introduced a few faces from other companies). It's distinct from other fighting games in that there's no health bars and locations are rarely to a realistic scale. Stages offer a degree of verticality, and so there's some platforming agility mixed in with fighting prowess.
You don't knock your opponent down, but try and knock them out of the arena, through repeatedly striking them to increase their percentage meter, which as it increases with each landed hit, calculates the probability that an attack will send them soaring out of the arena for good - the higher the number, the farther your opponent will be thrown with each hit.
Every character has the same control mechanics, offering a range of simple attacks. Normal strikes are with A, but coupled with a directional input on stick or pad will see them perform a Smash attack, while character-specific specials are mapped to B (such as Mario tossing fireballs, Link using his bow or bombs).
But stages also fill up with items that can be used to damage, block or annoy your challengers further. From light sabers to guns, explosives or even food which recovers a little damage, the range of objects is large and varied enough to make each encounter unique. There are even Pokéballs that'll call some Pokémon into battle to assist, and secondary characters from other games that serve a similar function. Then there's every character's Final Smash, which means that when the ball drops on screen all fighters race to unlock it. The victor automatically pulls off a powerful attack that almost always sends rivals off the map.
The first thing that strikes you about this 3DS version is the amount of content the team have crammed onto the cartridge. None seems introduced just for the sake of it or to extend the game's lifespan: it's all extra game modes, unlockable characters and new stages. And all are presented in an intelligent and interesting way for the player, and you start unlocking stuff almost without realising even as you're still getting to grips with the intricacies of the combat.
The main game mode is Smash, a battle against one, two or three opponents, with the difficulty tweaked just as you like it. It's but one example of the heavy customisation that's available throughout the game. You can alter game time, lives, determine what items drop (or turn them off completely) and much more. You can even build your own customised fighters - which we'll get into shortly.
Level diversity also contributes to this variety. Each stage is built differently, and with great dynamism. During battles the stages will change - lava pools will flow up to swallow the bottom of one stage, anti-grav racing vehicles will tear through the middle of another stage, for example - to radically alter the flow of battle. Of course, you can also use "omega stages", single platforms with no changes present, for those wanting to focus on the fighting alone.
Then there's Smash Run, an exclusive mode to the 3DS game and a rather unique one for the series. Each player is dropped into a randomised dungeon that they've to explore and defeat enemies in within a set time limit. Each defeated foe drops XP perks for each combat attribute, split between offensive and defensive skills.
At the timer's end, the bonuses are added together and the character's stats modified as the fighters are regrouped and dropped into either a battle arena or some other test such as being the first to climb tower - because the twist is that the ending of Smash Run is randomised, so it's not just about trying to mop up attack power increases to win. It's a lot of fun, so shame then it's only available via local play and not online.
While there's plenty of other modes as well, the menu system is a car crash, with game types buried in multiple sub-menus, making it hard initially to work out what's available, and where. A cleaner menu would have been appreciated, but you can't deny the value of what the games is offering.
We've been hooked on Classic Mode, a 'path of the warrior' type challenge in which you choose between different battles as your fighter advances along a simple quest map, and the final battle of which depends on your difficult level. This ranges from 1 to 9, according to the gold you invest (higher difficulty means more cost, but the chance of a bigger payout). It's a similar system to the Cauldron challenges from Kid Icarus: Uprising.
All-Stars Mode has a curious documentary value, as you must defeat all the game's characters in chronological order of seniority, with a single life and some recovery items. Definitely a different type of video game history lesson.
In a game that makes even the post-mode credits sequence a mini-game (letting you knock out each staff member's name as they scroll by) that there's more shouldn't be that surprising. Home-Run Contest has you trying to smash a bag as far across a field as possible with a baseball bat, and there's Multi-Man Smash, where you can combat with up to 100 enemies at once. These modes may seem trivial compared to the main game experience, but they're also a great way of training techniques that'll better your experience in battle.
Because the classic modes are so quick, you'll clock through them easily with the entire roster (and once in a while a new contender will appear - defeat them to add them to the character select screen). As a result, you learn to distinguish the fighting style of each character, and split them based on which ones you prefer and which you'd rather not play. It works fines as its own tutorial in finding the strengths and weaknesses of the roster.
The team wanted this entry to be heavily customisable experience. The options menu offering another range of possibilities to mould the experience for each player, from thickening, or losing, the character outlines, remapping buttons, altering sound options (special mention to the soundtrack, which offers some quality remixes on character and game theme songs), changing your public profile, and even customising and saving variants of each character with new specials unlocked through play, letting you tinker to make them stronger, faster or anything in-between and bring them into battle with you.
The 3DS does a great job with the character models and their animations, as well as the detailing of every stage. The biggest drawback is the most obvious one: screen size. It's sometimes difficult to see every detail, especially with four fighters and items scattered around the stage, more so when the camera pulls back from the action.
But this will be a bigger bone of contention for those that have been weaned on Smash Bros. through the TV. But while you do get used to the issue after a while, it takes longer to adjust to the smaller buttons and stick when compared to the usual controller we've used for the fighting game in the past.
Ultimately, Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS offers plenty for everyone, and the wealth of options means you can happily tailor to your play style without breaking the gameplay. And that's designed as such that more so than most fighters, this offers a lot of fun for those wanting a quick bash with friends, and those seeking an experienced clash with other veterans.
Is it like playing on a console? No. The screen can sometimes feel too small, or you'd like to use a more solid traditional controller, but it's all the power of Smash Bros. in the palm of your hand, adapted to the type of gameplay experiences that come with this device. In short, this is yet more essential first-party stuff for the handheld.
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