Monday, December 3, 2018

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Notice: Unfortunately, there wasn't time to access my SD-card saved screenshots for this review, so aside from my Miiverse archives, you may witness press screenshots of varying sizes. An error in formatting also excised most of the music links. Please excuse the inconsistency for now.

Again, the same disclaimer found within my Super Smash Bros. for 3DS review applies here: namely, any and all analysis on Super Smash Bros. for Wii U's worth as a competitive fighter shan't be present here. This is not a matter of passive-aggression, but merely one of disinterest, as I simply don't approach fighting games in that manner. Truth be told, however, the "casual" moniker is one I've soured on, as it doesn't accurately convey my relationship with Smash Bros. in the slightest; indeed, as both these reviews prove, my Smash intimacy demands I grant them in-depth evaluations as functioning video games, be it how much I delight in smashing things or the quality of alternative play provided.

And given director Masahiro Sakurai's God-given design philosophies -- "always consider the beginner player" and "make every game as it were your last" -- there is certainly no shortage of that to go around. Like every Smash Bros. before it, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is my kingdom -- one divided alongside its 3DS cousin, with which it shares the same gameplay engine and massive character roster. Common sense would entail I enjoy this version just as much -- if not more so -- but with an expanded empire such as this, its imperfections become far more prominent. As a self-proclaimed Nintendo fanboy, I am not blind to these faults -- much as I desire for Wii U to be a masterpiece, it only just misses the cut, and that wounds me just as much as I deeply adore it.

Let it be known my own qualms with Smash are born not necessarily out of frustration, nor do they undermine my love for this glorious condensation of Nintendo Nirvana; indeed, this'll definitely serve as much of a pseudo-defense essay in the vein of my previous 3DS review. Nonetheless, said qualms arise from performing a careful analysis of what's not quite right, before turning around and saying "what you have here is a fantastic base, but it could be improved." Only one particular mode escapes my full reign of benevolence -- and I guarantee anyone who's played this iteration knows what I'm talking about --  but regardless, much as I am willing to defend Smash, I am its ultimate paradoxical nitpicker.

But let us put such quibbles aside for now, and observe the majesty of our Namco-Bandai-provided toy box. First and foremost, I have always treasured Smash's distance from Nintendo "canon" in treating its characters as animate figures: living, breathing facsimiles that aren't quite, and yet are, famous characters present and past. Be it studying their movesets in Training Mode -- Motoi Sakuraba's trumpeting  Brawl arrangement of the Melee menu theme accompanying the ruined Battlefield's rising sun -- or warming up within All-Star Mode's aquatic coliseum, I am never not in awe of what I control within this illustrious crowd, from the ever-present (Mario, Pikachu, and Link), to the exciting and new (Pokémon X and Y's amphibian Greninja) to the niche (Xenoblade Chronicles's Shulk). It is thanks to Mr. Sakurai's insane work ethic that for Wii U's -- and by extension for 3DS -- 58 characters materialized through base game and DLC, but cleverly flexes above that number through the various genders for Animal Crossing's Villagers and Wii Fit Trainers and alternate "costume" characters in the bratty Koopalings (homogenized within Bowser Jr.'s Junior Clown Kart) and Pikmin 3's timid Alph (switched in for Captain Olimar).

We discussed previously the game's successful balance of "fun" characters and appreciating the newcomer's creativity, but how does the latter play into the actual gameplay? With most of the "must-have" characters -- your Warios, Diddy Kongs, and Meta Knights -- occupied by Brawl, perh perhaps Sakurai deemed it necessary to imbue more newcomers within strict fighter archetypes to have them stand out; consequently, this makes for the most unique collective of newcomers in series history. Simply observe the elegance of Super Mario Galaxy's Rosalina: paired with a bubbly Luma, she is a bona fide puppet fighter, operating her baby star from a distance or close-by for back-and-forth combos. There have been previous characters dedicated to stage control, but never to this level of concurrent activity.

Others echo this design philosophy as well; there's Punch-Out!!'s Little Mac, whose flailing aerial clumsiness is offset by fierce, speedy ground smashes that render him one of the most satisfying character (particularly in free-for-alls; fill up that KO Meter and unleash that KO Punch!); Fire Emblem Awakening's mage tactician Robin, whose fragile spell tomes and swords gradually crumble just like within the source material, requiring a similarly tactical mind to master; the aforementioned Shulk, whose Monado Arts turn the tide for any situation (Shield to increase weight, thereby buffering against at high KO percentages, or perhaps Speed to catch up with nimble opponents). While perhaps unwieldy for newcomers -- I admit to struggling with shifting between Shulk's Monado Arts -- that Smash elevates to basic complexity signifies its confidence to the depths of its roster: if these characters are too hard for you, you can always fall back onto the basics in Mario and Kirby.


And let's not forget the third-party characters! While Metal Gear's Snake was sadly axed, Sonic the Hedgehog returns with Capcom's Mega Man and (naturally!) Namco's Pac-Man in tow. That we up from Brawl's two third-party characters -- somehow rendering that game's Herculean efforts a relatively paltry effort -- is a blessing; that DLC achieves the impossible by ramping that total up to three more in Street Fighter's Ryu, Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife and Sega's Bayonetta  -- making for a grand number of six -- is a feat of magic I can scarcely believe. Bayonetta's Nintendo-funded identity these days perhaps dulls her shock, but the execution of Ryu (imbuing his combo-heavy source moveset within the combo-exclusion confines of Smash Bros.) and the mere presence of Cloud (a character who, at best, has a periphery association with Nintendo in Final Fantasy/Kingdom Hearts spin-offs) is where Smash Bros. supersedes its identity as a Nintendo celebration and one of that worshiping the very best of gaming. (Let's also not forget DLC making up for past sins by reviving cut characters in Mewtwo and Mother 3's Lucas; the latter may be smiling now, but seriously, the poor kid's been through enough!)

There exist citations of awkward frame data and hitboxes, particularly for the newcomers. I sympathize with this critique -- they do cripple Wii Fit Trainer's Smash Attacks, and despite the undeniable creative liberties in Pac-Man's moveset, I care little for his Galaga-inspired grab -- but I do not put much stock when considering how they play into the overall construct of Smash; as in, how do they operate outside of straight-up fighting? For instance, long have I held the tradition of just pausing the screen and taking snapshots of every wild expression and whatever situational positions they stumble upon, be it the cartoon antics of Donkey Kong, Wario and King Dedede or simply just watching Duck Hunt flop about in awe. As a sucker for dumb humor, I have taken countless shots you will undoubtedly witness throughout this review. (Although the nitpicker in me confesses there are character models I don't care for: Sonic's bizarre insistence on a textured smirk renders his facial expressions limited, and Ganondorf's weird clay-molded face is just silly)
But my toys require more than simple-minded awe, and so new playgrounds and methods of exertion must be forged. My kingdom expands further with 8-Player Smash -- with Smash already hilariously susceptible to situational circumstance and cause-and-effect as it is, the series' massive host of special-move projectiles, items, stage hazards, Nintendo-summoning Assist Trophies, and match-deciding Final Smashes multiply into an infinite whirlwind of gleeful chaos. Evolving stages new and old, it speaks to the latter's craftsmanship that the likes of Temple, Onett, Mario Circuit (Brawl), and Luigi's Mansion accommodate such crowded festivities as if designed for them all along.

As I elaborated in my for 3DS review, post-Melee stages are often held in ill-regard by the Smash community -- an opinion I am at odds with, especially when considering for Wii U's maps are typically dismissed in favor of the 3DS stages. It is one thing, perhaps, to call out stages entirely lifted from source material on the grounds said material doesn't gel with Smash's framework (Pac-Land, or the returning 75m Donkey Kong recreation from Brawl), but quite frankly, I consider anything dismissing obviously telegraphed hazards (Mushroom Kingdom U, whimsically fusing all eight worlds of New Super Mario Bros U.) or the "difficulty" of multitasking fighting and jumping from platform to platform (Orbital Gate Assault, a thrilling rollercoaster of a Star Fox stage) as hyperbolic. I won't pretend such a position doesn't arise from frustrated personal taste, but even if I  were to entertain critique towards the latter's association "distracting background elements," I cannot for a moment take that seriously when similar complaints are lodged towards Final Destination's supernova flash, which lasts for maybe two seconds and doesn't even reduce the characters to silhouettes. (Guys, they're right there!)

Some of you will undoubtedly call me insane for the opinion I am about to divulge: so non-existent is my barometer for stage frustration that I consider The Great Cave Offensive -- a collective smattering of Kirby Super Star's spelunking sub-game and often dubbed one of for Wii U's worst arenas -- my absolute favorite stage. Call it my Kirby bias, call it my rebelling against the status quo, but it is, to me, heaven. Where others dismiss it as an indecipherable mess of I Spy, minecarts, and cannons smacking everyone about, I perceive it as a brilliant deconstruction of large stages thanks to the The Danger Zones -- lava patches decorating the stage that instantly eliminate battered fighters, rendering it perfectly possible to be KO'd anywhere. Naturally, its humongous girth serves as a dumping ground of fanservice, allowing for Hideki Sakamoto (Yakuza 2) to conduct an orchestral arrangement of The Great Cave Offensive's level themes or have Sakurai lovingly recall the wistful Celestial Valley tune from Kirby Air Ride.

There are other amazing stages -- Pilotwings and Wrecking Crew are fantastic classic callbacks, relying upon simpler gimmicks in shifting planes and collapsing floors. Jungle Hijinxs (Donkey Kong Country Returns) and Super Mario Maker cleverly echoing their respective source material, the former forging new ground into Smash (foreground and background switching!) and the latter presenting over 200 stage set-ups. The awe of Mario Circuit (Mario Kart 8) and Woolly World -- two stages from either just-released games or future ones -- simply existing. Midgar (Final Fantasy VII) and Umbra Clock Tower (Bayonetta) transplanting two iconic gaming history moments into competitive telegraphs and thrills. (Midgar's shtick of chasing down Materia for stage-wrecking summons gels right with Sakurai's philosophy for the Smash Ball: inducing a mass dash for what could ultimately decide the match.)

Still, I admit there are a couple more misses in the Wii U game; for instance, I don't typically mind "walk-offs" -- stages where one can be KO'd simply by venturing too far outside the terrain -- but Fire Emblem's Coliseum's take on the " perpetually- transforming king of the hill" concept from its 3DS counterpart (Arena Ferox) simply doesn't work in that model, and so it just comes across as generic. Meanwhile, much as I appreciate Sakurai's insistence on evolving stages through new  approaches of play (i.e. boss stages), Metroid: Other M's Pyrosphere is fundamentally broken on every level thanks to its non-telegraphed enemy spawns and ridiculously overpowered Ridley boss (which nonsensically joins your side when you, uh, pound on it enough). Admittedly, it's one of those things that's so hilariously divorced from function I can't help but laugh at the absurdity -- and let it be known whoever came up with the Ridley KO stock icon is my hero -- but I'm not about to rush into defense of an Other M stage.

(And before you ask: yes, I hold no love for Zelda: Skyward Sword's Skyloft, and while I won't pretend there's not some bias there, I think it'd make for a fine traveling stage were it not for its fleeting transitions. For the record, if I were to entirely dismiss representation of games I don't like, then I'd have to disregard the genius of Gamer -- the Game & Wario mini-game wherein 9-Volt escapes the wrathful watch of his bedtime-imposing mother. How, exactly, Sakurai thought to turn that into a stage is beyond us, but let us be grateful for the funniest stage in Smash history.)

Not that my kingdom doesn't make accommodations, and that's how we end up with Omega Forms: flat versions of stages adopting a Final Destination-motif. Some cite them as evidence of Sakurai's alien pulse on the competitive Smash community -- and maybe they're right -- but I often turn to them whenever I need a breather from the game's hazard-heavy stages, establishing a compelling paradox of repose in simple, straight-up brawls. Even if they're not quite the stage hazard toggles most wanted, the benefits provided have me grateful these respites even exist at all, be it reveling in their awing landscapes (F-Zero GX's Port Town Aero Dive) or the novelty of modifying familiar stages (EarthBound's Onett from Melee, although I must admit that despite it being my favorite Smash stage, the GameCube geometry is more than showing its age).

(Let us also hold a moment of silence for the Miiverse stage, which drew upon Wii U's social media service of the same name for only two short years. As if fully aware of the adolescent absurdity plaguing the platform, fan-made messages designed for every fighter popped up throughout the match and ranged from genuine cheers, tasteless sex, and irrelevant silliness in everything from "Roy is my spirit animal" to "Go Papa Smurf!" (for Ganondorf). Alas, as per my notice, I was unable to mine any hilarious shots I've captured, so I've grabbed one of my favorites I've spotted online. I promise you it is completely non-offensive and safe-for-work while perfectly illustrating the stage's cynical chaos.)

If I must elaborate on another ill-formed complaint, it's "there's a lack of single player content!" Considering there's no less than twelve individual solo modes, I'd argue it's moreso a lack of content you don't enjoy. For some, that may not be much better, yet as I regularly find myself enjoying the recurring Multi-Man Smash and Event modes or participate in Special Orders -- where the omnipresent Master Hand and Crazy Hand award us with prizes in exchange for completing their respective mission -- I cannot help but wonder where most of the fuss lies outside two genuine stinkers. Certainly, there exist problems in my provinces -- Events' lack of an instant reset button can grow irritating -- yet I'd hardly claim they actually ruin the modes.

Take everyone's favorite punching bag in Classic Mode, for instance: much as I can sympathize with "there's a lack of themed matches" or "it exploits the worst of CPU defensive trait in instant shielding/dodging", I'm not one to dismiss something simply because it's the not the same. The CPU is cheap, yes, but as the mode still plays into the choose-your-own-adventure play found in the 3DS version, strategies are still devised: we grow to recognize solo matches are tougher than they appear, and with us able to "collect" fallen allies for team matches, we recognize the value of choosing multi-man matches. This strategy, too, applies to Master Core/Fortress -- it is long, yes, but knowing a healing Heart Container awaits between both forms means we must study boss patterns/dodging techniques and gauge our potential survivability within the Damage Zone-laced fortress. (Not that it's perfect at this -- I've found Core's multi-slash attack varies in its telegraphs, and not all are fair.)

Meanwhile, as I've elaborated previously for the 3DS game, the presence of an EarthBound writer renders the trophy descriptions funnier than ever -- never before did I ever consider the intimate, close-knit hardships of New Super Mario Bros. U's Big Urchins -- but I am endlessly entertained by the accompanying Trophy Studio. All 700+ trophies are available for posing every which way, be they flipped up or shrunk in size, and with my aforementioned appreciation for random humor a prime outlet, I've conducted countless crossovers for the sake of absurdity. Check out my masterpieces below:

As you may've noticed, I have a Majora's Mask problem. If anything, this is what I'll miss the most from trophies being excised from Smash Bros. Ultimate, but I digress.

Even so, I am not blind to my kingdom's faults, and can recognize there exist problematic areas -- we elaborated upon Target Blast's unintutive design in the 3DS review, but there's also Stage Builder, which I admit I am at odds with. On one hand, that it possesses a respectable amount of new, delicious backgrounds -- be they a sky of floating ruins or a realm of toy blocks -- is a massive improvement from Brawl's measly three ripped from the Adventure Mode; unfortunately, an equivalent amount is not provided for the actual building materials, undermining the ingenious use of the GamePad to draw your stages. (Granted, the endless depths of human creativity have provided suitably-anarchic concepts such as "Smashketball," but I only wish it wasn't presented as an afterthought.)

It's enough to make one wonder if the kingdom has grown too big; in other words, if the roster's ballooned to such a size the game can't properly accommodate every single feature to compensate. This isn't to say it doesn't make faults outside of that -- much as I quite like the look of the glittering, silhouette-teeming menu, for example, the highlighted button masses and overall set-up don't make for an innate navigation -- but with production divided between two versions, we can't help but wonder if forced cut corners impelled the production of more modest ideas. Not that Sakurai conceived Smash Tour -- this game's star mode -- with the intent of disappointing us, mind, yet it's easily the most underwhelming "big draw" feature in any Smash game. Unlike the rest of the internet, I do not take offense at its execution -- true to Sakurai's "disassembly" style, the board game-based mode takes maybe one match to fully digest, as everyone's simultaneous movement presents a QOL convenience not found in Mario Party, and I rather enjoy the chaos of collecting and losing fighters.

Nay, my problem lies more in it existing at all -- while a board game set-up certainly works for a multiplayer setting, it does little to draw upon Smash's strengths as an all-star crossover. Compare to for 3DS's Smash Run -- a concept immediately conducting both Smash's innate unpredictability and Nintendo fanservice -- and a tabletop-based attempt simply won't channel any equivalent potential, let alone present the same drive and passion behind ambitious outings like Melee's Adventure Mode and Brawl's Subspace Emissary. Again, such endeavors would likely have been impossible in the games' concurrent development, but Smash Tour's uncharacteristically tame on all fronts, be it Sakurai, Smash Bros., or even our own expectations.

Expectations like, say, a goddamn massive soundtrack clocking in at 500+ songs old and new. We have previously discussed the success of the game's main theme -- which echoes the electricity of a pre-show opener -- and naturally, a studio as big as Bandai-Namco must have toss nearly every last composer to conduct their take on it. Some say for Wii U and 3DS drive this theme into the ground; myself, I cannot get enough of it, and consider it very possibly the finest assortment of original themes that I cannot possibly bear to select a favorite. If forced, I might gun for the game show-esque take for Multi-Man Smash (Keiki Kobayashi, responsible for Katamari Damacy's best theme) -- balancing a gleeful optimism while playing into Smash's identity as a spectator sport -- but that only scrapes by when considering the universal showdown Master Hand (Linda AI-CUE, Taiko no Tatsujin), the exuberant mayhem of Trophy Rush by (Katsuro Tajima, Splatterhouse), or the meditative rumination exuding from Trophy Gallery/Hoard by Yoshinori Hirai (The IdolM@aster) or All-Star Rest Area by Taku Inoue (Tekken). Only the default Final Destination theme by Torine (The IdolM@aster) disappoints in its bizarre tinniness, but thanks to My Music, I can tune that out with the appropriate rock of Final Destination Ver. 2 (Junichi Nakatsuru, Soul Caliber).

And yes, My Music! Now instantly accessible from the stage select screen, I become lost in dictating the music ratio of each and every stage. With such a delectable smorgasbord of arrangement styles, it is a delicate process I approach with the utmost importance; for instance, take the vocal themes: naturally, I must have Masato Coda's (Monster Hunter) lovely Light Plane Vocal Mix be the star for the breezy Pilotwings stage, but complications arise for Fortress Boss by ACE+ (Xenoblade Chronicles). Despite subverting expectations in its addictive Spanish take on Super Mario World's boss theme (listen to that vocal!), it being shared on two stages (Mushroom Kingdom U and Super Mario Maker) means I must juggle its worth alongside two tracklists -- despite being as good as it is, should a more obscure song take precedence over the "main themes" for New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Maker? Does lowering its chances render it a special occasion whenever it does pop up?

This mental elaboration is what makes My Music such an engaging endeavor, all stemming from my appreciation of Smash's prestigious repertoire. Just take Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels Medley -- the knowledgeable Mario fan like myself initially wonders why such repetition was necessary, until we realize Katsuro Tajima was given the paradoxical mission of conducting a Super Mario Bros. medley excluding the iconic main theme. The result: a thoroughly triumphant orchestra that instantly enraptures us with the Princess Peach Rescue theme -- a curtain-closer already meant to congratulate us -- and sweeps us through an engaging torrent of Underground, Underwater, and Invincibility that climax with the triumphant Flag theme. Let us also not forget Smash's tendency to pull from the most obscure recesses of Nintendo's library; as in, hello, Motoi Sakuraba reprising The valedictory elegy from Baten Katios: Lost Origins! How on earth does that violin not shred?

Let us also be forever grateful that Capcom is far more lenient with their properties than SEGA (plenty of songs, but little to no remixes; also, many of them are grating vocals from the 3D games) or Square-Enix (No remixes, and just two FFVII songs. Joy.), rendering our receiving of six godly Mega Man remixes all the more special. Easily the finest selection of arrangements, Cut Man Stage  (Mega Man) by Michiko Naruke (Wild ARMs) and Quick Man Stage (Mega Man 2) by Shota Kageyama (Pokémon Black and White) are unbelievably euphoric, raving guitars and anticipative synth/violins welcoming back one of gaming's greatest icons with a five-star treatment Capcom in themselves refused to provide.

Still, much like Brawl, not every music track is equal. I hardly blame this on any clashing styles -- if anything, I more than welcome it given the variety of series and settings represented within -- but the actual composition quality leaves to be desired on certain tunes, and I wish more quality control was operated here. For instance, the Fire Emblem/Pokémon output by Yuka Tsujiyoko (Fire Emblem) hardly compares to her Brawl efforts, with Route 23 (Pokémon Black and White 2) depicting the game's weakest instrumentation. There are other clunkers -- Manami Kiyota (Xenoblade Chronicles) imbuing her nebulous vocals within Destroyed Skyworld (Kid Icarus: Uprising) is a genius move hampered by poor MIDI, whereas Michiru Yamane's (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night) take on Fight 1 (Fire Emblem Gaiden) wouldn't be too out of place on a 1998 Geocities homepage.

There are other things -- some songs are ill-placed on certain stages (a Yoshi's Story track on a Yoshi-branded Super Mario World stage rather than Woolly World?), and some poor representation for certain series (What's with all the DK Island Swing tracks? The Metroid Prime: Hunters rip no one asked for?) -- but for my money, perhaps the most egregious mishap is abridged prior remixes for the sake of adhering to two-minute matches. Why, exactly, Sakurai and co. dictate time matches as the "default" mode of play for Smash is beyond us, but regardless, the results vary -- while Melee's Brinstar (Metroid) remix's second half was largely identical, the same can not be said for the DK Rap jarringly excising entire verses. (And no, I was not very happy discovering my all-time favorite Smash arrangement -- a delicate, loving arrangement of Pollyanna (I Believe in You) from EarthBound Beginnings' official soundtrack -- was halved. Not at all.)

I could, yet again, point to Smash Bros. being my kingdom -- if I don't like a music track, I simply turn it off. I could even relish in DLC transplanting music from stages I don't care for (Skyloft) placed upon amazing ones (Hello, Brawl's Pirate Ship!). But I can't deny the problem existing, and  all that simply strengthens my desire from Smash to maintain better quality control. I appreciate Sakurai's "everything and the kitchen sink" philosophy more than anything in the gaming industry. I adore it; I will defend it to the death. Yet much as I am grateful to for Wii U  engaging me with its colossal size, said magnitude will only render these flaws all the more apparent. We can move beyond a favorite Kirby song not being in, but homogenized Donkey Kong Country selections are forever.

And yet, it is undeniably a work stitched with boundless love, right down to the self-referential comedy in the gentle Art Academy song Swan Lesson placed on the Duck Hunt stage or Little Mac's theme from Captain Rainbow reverberating from Boxing Ring's speakers. That I grumble every time I switch from Time to Stock matters little when knowing some kid out there -- likely without any knowledge of Wii U eShop titles or Japan-only Wii games -- was confronted by this left-field absurdity or experienced EarthBound and Kirby Super Star for the first time through the Masterpiece demos. for Wii U is one of a kind, genuine in presenting its attractions with earnest zealousness.

Alas, come this Friday's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I must depart both my kingdoms. Much as I desire to move on for greener realms, I regret leaving the likes of Orbital Gate Assault and Tales of Symphonia Mii costumes behind. But I shall never forget for Wii U's beautiful mess of a toy box, and that much of its most accomplished features shall be preserved moving forward -- none the least in Mii Fighters resurrecting my deceased brother as a cowboy kickmaster -- has me most grateful.

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