Super Smash Bros. 3DS review: Only the strong

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Super Smash Bros. 3DS review: Only the strong
It may not be the undisputed industry leader these days, and Nintendo currently faces stronger competition than it ever has, but one thing you can't take away from the Japanese gaming giant is its wealth of iconic, beloved characters. From Mario to Link to Donkey Kong (and on through another few dozen familiar names), Nintendo is responsible for the majority of gaming's most famous faces. In hindsight, the idea to combine them all into one massive fighting game nostalgia bomb was sublime genius, and the Super Smash Bros. games have been among Nintendo's most popular releases on each console they've reached. It doesn't hurt that the games have all been solidly constructed from a combination of unique fighting game mechanics and spot-on controls, but let's be frank, people are buying these games because they're the best way to punch Pikachu in his cute, smug little face.

That all might change with the latest entry in the series, however. Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS (that's the full title) is as much a trip down Nintendo's memory lane as any of its predecessors, but there's more meat here than in prior games. More to see, more to do, and all of it is built on the most solid fundamentals the series has yet seen. But is all of that enough to survive the franchise's first jump to a portable system? And what of the new online components, which have been a key failing of prior Super Smash Bros. games? Nintendo, along with development partners Namco and Sora, seems pretty confident, and the more time I spend with Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, the more I see why.​Though Super Smash Bros. is probably immediately familiar to anyone intentionally reading this review, let's reiterate the basics: Super Smash Bros. is a fighting game that features multi-tiered stages, support for up to four simultaneous fighters and items that appear at random on the battlefield, which can either aid or hinder the virtual pugilists. Rather than depleting health bars, fighters score KOs by clobbering opponents until they're sent flying off the screen. All of this can be altered at will in the game's options, but that's the general gist of things. Single-player gameplay consists of standard versus modes, an arcade-style Solo mode and the labyrinthine Smash Run. Multiplayer modes are largely similar, though the cooperative analogue to the aforementioned Solo mode is only available in local multiplayer, and there's no multiplayer equivalent for Smash Run. In keeping with series tradition, almost all of these modes will allow players to rapidly accrue gold coins, which can be spent furthering your addiction to shiny in-game trophies of Nintendo characters.

The combat itself has its own unique flavor. It's fast and frenzied, and the tide of battle can shift on a dime. Once a player has mastered the game's basics, it's not too difficult to dominate the computer-controlled characters in single-player mode, but in multiplayer the experience is tense and rewarding. One moment you're one top of the world - you grabbed the floating Final Smash orb and blew away both Kirby and that jerk Link with Samus' arm cannon – and the next your world is falling apart – you've been obliterated by a blue shell that just happened to spawn next to an understandably vengeful Hyrulean. I can understand why the debate rages over whether or not Super Smash Bros. is, in fact, a fighting game (as it certainly doesn't feel like a traditional fighting game) but I don't think it matters. Super Smash Bros. has its own feel that's more manic, and prone to making players swear at their friends for grabbing that stupid instant-KO hammer for the third time in a row.

Of course, the true draw of Super Smash Bros. lies not in its mechanics, but in its roster of famous gaming icons (dozens of them). Zelda, Fox McCloud, Kirby and the other series' mainstays return with new moves and tweaks to their existing abilities, but overall the returning fighters feel familiar enough that anyone should be able to select their favorite character and jump right into battle. By contrast, the new characters bring original, diverse play styles to the game.

Mega Man (on loan to Nintendo from Capcom), rather than thwarting foes with punches and kicks, uses abilities he's copied from nefarious Robot Masters over the years. He might toss out Metal Man's saw blade, or send players skyward with Air Man's tornado. And, of course, he always has his trusty Mega Buster, and his robo-dog Rush can launch him to safety whenever the Blue Bomber is in danger of falling off the stage. Charizard, though previously tied to the Pokemon trainer character, proves a solid combatant in his own right. He hits nearly as hard as Bowser but features far better agility, and he can fly to safety at a moment's notice. Even Lucina, who possesses moves nearly identical to her Fire Emblem cohort Marth, features her own unique gameplay style due to her size and the sword she carries. The end result is a roster featuring a complement of styles as diverse as any Capcom fighter, only thanks to Super Smash Bros. intuitive, simple controls, players won't have to dedicate dozens of hours to a single character just to pick up the basics. And, if you don't like a character, a lengthy list of color-coded power-ups can be earned and equipped to enhance your fighter's speed, agility and stamina, lending further customization to a game seemingly designed around the idea of giving players exactly the sort of fighting game they desire.

If merely punching plumbers and kicking koopas is too pedestrian for your tastes, Super Smash Bros. offers a number of clever twists on its basic gameplay formula. The "Classic" version of the aforementioned Solo Mode plays out like an arcade-style string of battles, but each fight features its own unique quirk. One might pit you against a giant Greninja, while another might feature a metallic King Dedede or ten relatively weak Miis all attacking at once. This variety goes a long way toward keeping things fresh, in lieu of the standard, cliche "series of one-on-one fights," and it demonstrates the range of gameplay options Super Smash Bros. offers.

Smash Run, meanwhile, sees players rushing through a maze based on famous Nintendo locales, while battling minor enemies from likewise famous Nintendo games. After five minutes of scurrying to gather as many power-ups as possible, the four fighters powering their way through the maze are transported to a proper battle, where their newly-enhanced abilities are put to the test in combat. There's nothing objectively wrong with Smash Run, but the platforming grows a bit stale, and if you're just in it for the four-way fight at the end, there are other modes that offer the same thrill without the five-minute slog beforehand. Both Classic and Smash Run gameplay modes – and all of the others in the game – all rely on the same basic controls, which is a clever design decision as it not only invites even the most nascent of players to enjoy a diverse selection of gameplay types, it also ensures that the game will have a lengthy stay in your 3DS before you've discovered every last facet.

It can not be overstated just how greatly Super Smash Bros. benefits from the jump to a handheld gaming device. Nintendo's iconic fighting game is the perfect antidote to long waits at the dentist or those times when you want to play something but don't want to leave the warm comfort of your bed. That said, the jump to a smaller venue isn't without its problems. The relatively small 3DS screen (and even the larger screen on the 3DS XL) can quickly grow distractingly chaotic, especially when there are more than two fighters duking it out. Likewise, the 3DS' bijou button scheme can cause hand cramps with extended play, while the 3DS circle pad feels sluggish when attempting to jump or double jump. Players can easily alter the controls in the options screen, but it's still an oversight that bears mentioning. That said, these are minor gripes that players will get used to within their first hour of play.

The biggest addition to Super Smash Bros. is undoubtedly its overhauled online gameplay. The Wii's Super Smash Bros. Brawl featured online multiplayer, but it was a laggy mess at the best of times. Fortunately, the 3DS game is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor, but the functionality of online play seems to hinge on the geographical location of other players. The vast majority of opponents I saw prior to the game's Western launch were located in Japan, and those matches were rife with lag. To Nintendo's credit, it was relatively minor lag, but even a delay of less than half a second renders the normally crisp controls slack and awkward. Playing against other Joystiq staff members located in the United States – even those literally on the other side of the country – greatly improved the experience, and those online matches functioned as well as any of the local matches I played against a pal sitting on my couch. The lack of online voice chat is unfortunate, but if the choice is between chatting with opponents via the 3DS and a stable battle, the latter option always wins out.

While there are definite areas where Nintendo could improve on Super Smash Bros. in an inevitable sequel, this is the most feature-complete, compelling Super Smash Bros. entry to date. It stands right alongside Fire Emblem: Awakening and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds as a game that every 3DS owner should play. Even if you can't find a smooth online match, the wealth of single-player and local multiplayer options will keep Super Smash Bros. fresh for months to come, and that's even before you consider the numerous unlockable characters, trophies, items and any potential DLC the developers might have planned. When Nintendo is firing on all cylinders, it creates the sort of games that other companies only wish they could put together, and Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is the perfect example of that sterling pedigree.

This review is based on an eShop download of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo.

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Super Smash Bros. 3DS review: Only the strong