Super Smash Bros. for Wii U review: Show me your moves

This review has been updated with commentary and a final score following the launch of online play in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

"Who would win in a fight?" is the lighthearted crux of the Super Smash Bros. series, and it's impressive how extensive that conversation has become. Pitting beloved video game characters in unlikely rivalries seems as amusing as it did during the series' 1999 debut, especially when it involves a mix of iconic faces and left-field picks. With fresh contenders, several new competition types and a lite resemblance of Pokemon training in the form of Amiibos, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is a meaty talking point that proves the "Who's the best?" debate is still well worth having.

Smash's bouts remain layered – newcomers can focus on throwing basic attacks by combining button presses with tilts of the joystick, learning deep-cut mastery of evasions and timing in-air knockouts as they add matches to their career. Whatever nuances your play style adopts, everyone's victory involves launching opponents from shared platforms, heaping damage on them to make banishing them to the oblivion beyond the screen's edges more feasible.

Things can quickly get chaotic, but that's part of the appeal. A ride-along fight between Mario, Duck Hunt and Jigglypuff atop the Star Fox team's Arwings can shift, dropping players onto the metal hide of the ships' target, adding laser fire and crashed-into force fields to the list of ways players can get trumped. Toggling items on adds another layer to stages, tossing Pokeballs, swords made from the Mario series' fireballs, or the Zelda series' karma incarnate Cuccoos into fights, amplifying a match's craziest moments. It's a great balance of rushing when you know you've got the upper hand, bailing when an opponent snatches a (mostly) one-and-done Golden Hammer, and dodging a stage's best efforts to end you. Even years of practice on a classic venue doesn't mean a particular combination of opponents, items and timing can't surprise you, and that's part of Smash's endearing magic.

Diving into Smash's customization options (shared with the 3DS version) leads to a deeper pool of mechanics, allowing contenders to adjust scales balancing the agility, defense and power of their fighter by equipping gear according to preference. Some gear adds bonus effects, like starting each match with a weapon in hand or healing from attacks blocked with shields. Special moves can be swapped out as well - Yoshi's egg throws can be swapped for explosive counterparts for example, or dropped in favor of getting a few extra jumps. This openness for change means that just because you dismiss a character's initial build doesn't mean that promise can't be found in a different configuration. With additional options to remap buttons and save custom layouts, Smash makes a wonderful effort to make its guests comfortable, and in the process, it boasts heavy incentives to experiment with the entirety of its roster rather than sticking with a handful of static favorites.

These stat-shifting, arsenal-altering options extend to Amiibos, Nintendo's line of real-world trophy figurines that, when used with Smash, grow stronger as they fight against human, computer or fellow figurine entrants. Amiibos enter the fray as blundering rookies that almost inspire guilt from their defeat, but they quickly gain competency as they level up. My Kirby Amiibo graduated from Drooling Punching Bag to Actively Avoid Out of Fear status long before reaching its level 50 cap, and my lazy swipes turned to calculated, strike-when-it's-right blitzes accordingly.

As cute as the idea of raising Amiibos is, it doesn't feel like I would have missed much playing Smash without tabletop companions. Customized character builds can easily be assigned to CPU opponents instead, and while those won't level up and don't share an Amiibo's supposed ability to adapt to your strategies, the difference feels like an easy trade off to save $13 per figure.

While Smash's depth deflects the negative connotations associated with the "party game" label, it's completely capable of hosting relaxed matches too. Select stages can now host up to eight human or CPU players, offering varied accommodations for personal space. Initial matches are overwhelming and crowded, but I was surprised how manageable the doubled occupancy felt after my senses adjusted. It feels great to fill Super Smash Bros. Melee's Temple stage with eight players, and larger scenes allowed multiple fights to naturally break apart before their resolution left victors to barrel into another crowd's fray.

As for how a Wii U would even serve eight players, a group can be split between new or original GameCube controllers (yup, Wavebirds too) using an adapter, Wii Remotes with or without nunchuks, Classic and modern Pro Controllers, 3DS handhelds (provided you have a matching copy of the game) or the GamePad. While remapping buttons might not solve your disdain for playing with a Wii Remote, I haven't found myself actively avoiding a controller for its awkwardness. I have found myself glued to GameCube controllers though, as both the original and Smash-specific builds remain my favorite way to play Smash. The new controllers feel comparable to the original builds too, both in weight and build quality.

If you're looking to entertain a smaller headcount, Smash Tour sends four players across board game layouts to chase a spread of stat boosts that are incorporated into fights, which are triggered by players bumping into each other. Each player begins with a roster of two, but fighters from your party will be randomly selected and pulled into these feuds, which mix in variants like health-draining flowers or an explosives-only range of items. The more stats and fighters gathered while patrolling the board, the easier it is to steal extras from an opponent's team by knocking them out in matches – and yes, you can deplete their supply, forcing them to sit out fights until they pick up another character. Items give advantages both on the board (for example, doubling the spaces you can move) and in battles (negating an opponent's boosted stats for one round), and with each turn equipping players with a new one, it's common for two or more to be played within the same turn.

While Smash Tour isn't something I would specifically boot Smash to play, it's a decent diversion that offers a different feel from the rest of the game's competitive modes. Planning routes to maximize pickups and spending items to most effectively screw whoever's in the lead can ramp up a room's tension quickly, and though it doesn't meet the on-a-dime agony of a star-stealing, Bowser-plagued turn in Mario Party, Smash Tour can still get plenty competitive. It moves quickly for a board game too, substituting battles for minigames and letting simplified on-board events happen without stopping everyone else's turn.

Smaller additions include Master Orders, which charge you in-game coins to take on unique fights and exchanges rewards for successful gambles (along with its marathon-esque Crazy Orders counterpart). The Stage Builder returns with support for custom-drawn shapes, and friends can now be brought along for the traditionally single-player Classic and All-Star modes. There are plenty of excuses to knock things around in Smash, and with its variety in challenge types, it's easy to return to.

While Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and its 3DS counterpart share the same cast, there's plenty of variation in their respective offering of stages. A dual-plane nod to Donkey Kong Country Returns that hurls players across gaps via barrel, a platform surrounded by lava and the Metroid series' relentless Ridley, and a crab-patrolled garden from Pikmin 3 help distinguish the Wii U selection from familiar locales seen on the 3DS. Even when sharing sources of inspiration, approaches can differ – the 3DS version channels Pac Man's signature black-and-blue mazes, while the Wii U version hosts an autoscrolling tribute to the lesser-known run-n-jump, Pac-Land.

The mix of play styles and themes keeps battlegrounds from feeling overly stale, and while I wouldn't have minded seeing more done to renovate returning stages on a creative level, the Wii U version's destinations are still enjoyable. Between scrolling venues, transitioning scenes and influences from visiting characters like Pokemon or Xenoblade Chronicles' Metal Face, I feel like there are enough ideas to keep me from getting fatigued within imminent return visits.

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Should you need extra reasons to keep going, you'll find thousands in the intense collect-a-thon undercurrent that runs through nearly every mode of Smash. Custom-focused gear can be mounded beside a stack of CDs, a field of trophies and a wall of challenges, as most modes pay out coins or the aforementioned treats as a gift to supplement your victory. This currency can be used for opportunities to boost your collection, such as straight-up buying trophies, taking on Master/Crazy Orders, boosting the difficulty of Classic mode to increase collectible payouts, or buying time in the lucrative Trophy Rush mode. Though collections have been part of the series for over a decade, Smash retains a sense of satisfaction in its payouts, one that will keep me eagerly chasing trinkets for the coming months.

Support for online bouts returns, offering 'For Fun' and 'For Glory' sections to help separate those looking for relaxing battles from those ready to risk their reputation, respectively. Whether playing with a teammate or going it alone, stranger-filled matches will always be 2-minute affairs. Thankfully, match options are unlocked for fights involving your friends list, including switching over to stock battles instead. Anyone needing a breather can spectate matches from other players, betting on each match's victor and, if they're feeling lucky, risking the loss of their winnings in exchange for steeper payouts.

There are stretches where Smash's online play is totally fine, but I've had matches plagued with stuttering frame rates and all-seizing buffering logos. Other Joystiq editors have experienced similar hangups to a lesser extent, so just know that your time online might not be consistently enjoyable. I can't imagine pros putting up with such conditions and I think the 2-minute limitation for random play will stifle the community's longevity, but when play is stable, picking desired rules and taking on faraway friends will make for some great reunions.

In comparison to its successes, Smash's other faults feel minor. The lack of a restart option in Events mode is frustrating, given that it's present in other modes like Home-Run Contest and Multi-Man Smash. Secondary challenges amplify this, resulting in waiting for fresh chances to reload before trying once more to perfect a stage on hard, or to pacify a time requirement. On a general level, load times are bearable, but infrequent instances have left me staring at lengthy loading screens when trying to return to a menu. It's not too noticeable in casual play, but I've often abandoned trickier challenges to avoid sitting through the dozenth loading screen rather than just being too frustrated with my own level of skill to continue.

Beyond those gripes, inconsistent online play and my indifference toward the Amiibo experience however, my time with Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has been exactly what I hoped for. Though its aptitude for scrapbooking Nintendo nostalgia is expert-tier, its expansion of character customization, switched-up play styles and abundance of goals to chase are what have and will continue to keep me stirring up feuds between Nintendo's all-stars with friends and on my own. Of course, it helps that the core bouts are still sublime to play, with or without the absurdity added by items or dangerous stages. Smash is an intelligent, creative, blissful continuation of the "Who's better?" character debate, and I look forward to changing my answer as I reconfigure Smash's roster and find new favorite ways to send Donkey Kong into the stratosphere.

This review is based on a retail copy of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, provided by Nintendo. 3 Amiibo figures, four GameCube controllers and the GameCube adapter were also tested, provided by Nintendo. Images: Nintendo.

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