Friday, November 9, 2018

Super Smash Bros. for 3DS

Being that I have elaborated on my love for Super Smash Bros. countless times on this blog without having penned a single review, it's imperative I open this essay with an admonition: namely, I do not possess any interest in a fighting's game competitive depth. This is not a passive-aggressive jab against others' personal tastes -- I've long since stopped begrudging those for their preferences, as I was one of those who conflated vitriolic attacks on post-Melee iterations/series director Masahiro Sakurai with the competitive fanbase at large -- but the point is, whether or not the latest iteration of Smash Bros., Street Fighter, a Dragon Ball game or even a debut in last year's ARMS presents offensive or defensive playstyles or sufficient movement options are matters beneath my notice. This is not a matter of willful ignorance; they're simply not things I have an eye for.

Nay, my occupation with fighting games lies in three factors: a) whether it's fun hitting things, b) whether they maintain -- at least on a base level -- a functioning combat system, and c) if they possess enough content otherwise to keep me interested. Admittedly, this isn't always upheld across the board -- the Smash Bros. apologist in me can admit even now that tripping in Super Smash Bros. Brawl was a fundamentally bad concept, even if I don't personally care about it -- but the point is, not much of that is very different from what the general gaming media typically elaborates upon in fighting games; in other words, if you're looking for a systematic breakdown of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS as fighting games, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Not that my passion won't speak for itself, and that's why I'll certainly get defensive on a couple subjects here and there, but I admit I am at a bit of a crossroads here: Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and for Wii U are, more or less, the same game. Yes, there are exclusive stages and modes between both versions, but them sharing identical rosters and fighting engines runs the risk of reviewing the same game twice, despite operating on completely different controls. In that case, as the 3DS version was the first, we'll evaluate most whatever it introduces here -- be they newcomers or items -- in themselves and, as appropriate, work around those for the Wii U game.

To claim Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is the greatest handheld fighting game ever made comes with some trepidation: not that we shouldn't assume developer Namco-Bandai (Tekken) is incapable of great fighting games, but let us put aside any obtuse arguments that Smash Bros. isn't unfit for handheld play -- not to mention the looming technicality that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is all but certain to usurp its title -- and focus instead on how the 3DS Circle Pad simply cannot withstand the activity of Smash play. It was only this year when not only did the rubber on mine begin tearing off, but even certain directional inputs like forward Smash Attacks briefly stopped registering. Some hasty adjustments -- like alternating between the X Button to properly jump and instantly winding up the Pad in the opposite direction, then back into its desired angle for running/Smash Attacks -- were rapidly absorbed into muscle memory, and so any relevant defects became a thing of the past.

Obviously, I should be sending my 3DS XL out for repair, but the point is that it's so goddamn fun I'm willing to make concessions. Even if my poor handheld can't handle the strain, my familiar intimacy with the core gameplay has become something of an addiction, and so I press on no matter the cost. Best described as something of a multi-man sumo match, hallowed Nintendo characters from the company's roughly 40+ year gaming history -- and certain famous third-party guests like Mega Man and Sonic the Hedgehog, while I'm at it -- frenziedly knock each other about in desperate bids to remain king of the hill. Despite the smaller screen, characters are easily identifiable thanks to Smash's surplus of options -- want bolder linings or reticles identifying a certain character? Customize as you see fit.

And what a cast this is! Thanks to the otherworldly perseverance that is Sakurai's work ethic, the vast majority of veterans return. As always, some are better than others -- Bowser gets an much-needed upgrade in both animation and an overhauled brawler-based moveset, whereas Zelda villain Ganondorf feels practically identical to his sluggish Brawl incarnation -- but purely on the basis of "casual" play, I cannot recall a Smash roster as unhampered by poor balance or feeble design such as this. I say that despite King Dedede being a personal favorite even though he's apparently one of the worst characters, but put any competitive analysis aside and instead study his comedically imposing girth. True to source material, he is a swaggering oaf obnoxiously throwing around his weight, be it his dash attack (his iconic trip Kirby fans undoubtedly recognize; surprisingly, it's an effective KO move!) and the endless amusement that is his new down-tilt. (Playing into his "slacking"crouch, he nonchalantly rolls over in pure laziness; naturally, one must abuse this as much as possible to irritate your fellow players.)

 (To prove my non-bias, one of other my favorites in Olimar -- the diminutive astronaut from Pikmin -- is perhaps the only victim of the 3DS transition. The slow, incapable AI for his Pikmin army -- rendered at 30 FPS to the engine's 60 -- renders him somewhat unresponsive, and that's a shame. While the nerf in less Pikmin -- six to three -- was understandable in both balance and 3DS limitations, he's an obvious strain on the system's hardware.)

The point is, even with characters that aren't necessarily "good," it's all too easy to get swept up by their respective blends of creativity and referential designs, a habit commonly channeled by the game's newcomers. Our first model in Bowser Jr. is not a character that excites me even within his source material, yet his Smash execution rendered him a common choice within my personal rotation. Any fan speculation regarding his being a miniature Bowser clone or wielding his lame Mario Sunshine paintbrush thankfully failed to bear fruit (barring the latter serving as his Final Smash), the spoiled prince instead piloting his Junior Clown Car from New Super Mario Bros. Wii. It is literally a vehicle for invention, wheeling about as a Mario Kart and whipping out deadly toys in forks, drills and even a whip-lashing tongue. (Further evidence that the numerous Clown Cars are, indeed, sentient beings.)

But why stop there? That Bowser Jr. emphasizes the Clown Car itself paves the way for the most ambitious alternate costumes in Smash history: the seven dastardly Koopalings. Individually, each of Bowser's former children would've been unthinkable collectively or individually -- their variances in size and weight render cloned movesets illogical, and none take priority over the other for inclusion (barring perhaps their "leader" in Ludwig) -- but this homogenized concept makes the impossible possible for seven more fan-favorite villains. That they went this far for one character is perhaps Smash's most beholden example of fanservice; on a personal level, I can't be more delighted in having Iggy and Morton join the battle (the former being my favorite Koopaling; the latter an undefinable inside joke).

Despite my lavishing upon Bowser's minions, Animal Crossing's Villager avatar is by far and away my favorite, and I'm not saying that by virtue of my vindication in knowing they'd be playable. The Villagers are the perfect condensation of a Smash moveset: playful, contextual innovation (in watching them pulling weeds or playing with sticks, you'd almost think they're completely oblivious to battling people), ingenious use of source material (pocketing projectiles as if they were furniture, not to mention the three-step process of Timber: plant a seed, water it into a tree, and then chop it down! Or just stop at No. 2 and smack people with axes), creative liberty (did they ever ride on Gyroids or fly about Balloon Fight-style? No, but who cares?), and personal preference (both genders are available!). That they're also home to some of the best facial expressions -- namely the smug look after they drop a bowling ball on an unfortunate opponent -- is a bonus.

Other newcomers fit into this mold as well: Wii Fit Trainer and Duck Hunt are perhaps the series' best representations of "characters I never knew I wanted," and while their wonky hitboxes are certainly lamentable, their referential whimsy in anonymous NES Zapper shootings and deadly Yoga practices are too fun to ignore (Duck Hunt also being vindictive in my being a rare supporter of his inclusion pre-release). There are plenty other folks I could elaborate upon -- the wonders of the  non-Nintendo characters, for starters, or how the characters' fighting styles draft the most unique newcomers yet -- but we'll save those for another time. 

Naturally, this iteration brings a whole new host of familiar Nintendo items to mess around with. While the loss of the Fan and Cracker Launcher are felt, an unprecedented amount of fresh toys -- be they Fire Bars from Super Mario Bros. as battering weapons, angry Cuccos from Zelda, or troves of tools from Kid Icarus: Uprising -- more than make up for it. That it could even rejuvenate concepts from games I don't particularly care for -- in this case, the Beetle from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which hilariously carries fighters up and away -- is a blessing. (Sadly, I wish I could say the same for the Gust Bellows -- an air-spewing jar that, to the opposing player, offers little resistance -- but hey, at least I can turn it off).

Alas, we hit a bump in the road with Custom Moves. While I appreciate the effort in elaborate customization, most are merely gimmicky versions of existing moves, and the exhaustive unlock process -- one dependent on randomized loot and slot machine earnings, both plagued by duplicate drops -- simply isn't worth it. Even the more embellished movesets have their ups and downs: the wealth of fanservice is appreciated for Mega Man (particularly whenever they deviate from the original moves), and I enjoy the hilarity in Wario's alternates, but Palutena's emphasis on custom moves is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" deal that ultimately damages her. (Many deride her default moveset as too simple, but said default moves are meant to encourage experimentation; in other words, they wouldn't make for very decent incentives in themselves.)

However, I'm not so quick to dismiss them entirely, as their presence gave birth to wonderful newcomers: the three separate Mii Fighters (Brawler, Swordfighter and Gunner). Thanks to their innate flexibility via body customization and costumes, we can fine-tune them however we wish; for instance, being the Tales of Symphonia maniac I am, I naturally customized my Lloyd Irving Mii -- costume and all -- to match his source material via Sword Rain (Neutral B: Blurring Blade), Tempest (Side-B: Airborne Assault), Sonic Thrust (Down B: Power Thrust) and Tiger Blade (Up-B: Stone Scabbard). With Miis already serving as avatars for friends, families, beloved celebrities/historical figures, and favorite fictional characters to interact with Nintendo's library, the wealth of costumes and moves for Mii Fighters in addition to combating video games' finest render Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS their highest honor; after all, I couldn't not take advantage of avatars allowing my departed brother to join the fray as a cowboy kick-master. (That's him floating up about up there with me in Magicant.)

Then there's the matter of stages, which...I'll try to be as respectful as possible here, but I still feel -- and always have -- that most stage complaints in Smash Bros. border on the disingenuous, and often fail comprehending the point of more elaborate hazards in bosses and whatnot. While I can certainly sympathize with, say, those who feel the Yellow Devil in Wily's Castle pops up too frequently, I cannot claim the same for those who dismiss the boss in itself. Deriding it as "fighting the stage" or "interrupting the match" displays a fundamental disinterest in what's forging an entirely new method of play: either competing to take it down and tossing others into its ensuing explosion, or contributing to the Devil's chaos. It is fine for one to dislike this concept, but I've yet to witness any criticism on this specific purpose.

It's why I'm confident in claiming Magicant -- a hodgepodge of nostalgic cameos within EarthBound Beginnings/EarthBound's dream worlds -- as easily the game's best stage. Nevermind that the five recruitable Flying Men are effortless to take down -- they're easy prey for items and it doesn't take much effort to recognize their attack patterns -- they blend in with battle as opposed to overtaking it, so you can either focus on king of the hill-style tactics (camp outside their spawning house!) or simply play along. Even then, the stage ensures its loving tributes to EarthBound mostly play into the stage, with Dungeon Man hulking underneath and a Sky Runner flying about as an additional platform. (And those distant wormholes showcasing iconic events from the series? I'm in heaven.)

Of course, there's plenty of milder stages to go around, and they're all of fruitful quality. 3D Land is a veritable obstacle course echoing its Mario source title, Mario Kart 7's Rainbow Road and Pokémon X and Y's Prism Tower are lofty traveling stages up there with the best, authentic nostalgic callbacks to Kirby's Dream Land (a scrolling stage set entirely within a Game Boy, spanning the game's five stages) and Balloon Fight (randomized recreations of the original NES title where, just like the game, you can "cross" from side to side), and I like to think of Tortimer Island (Animal Crossing: New Leaf) as an superb example of a "measured" stage (nothing too crazy going on; just hijinks in exploding fruit/sharks that don't force one particular objective). Yet again, even games I don't care for succeed in this area, albeit to an extent -- dynamic as Spirit Train from Zelda: Spirit Tracks is, the Bowser's Castle portion of Paper Mario ain't that hot, and I admittedly find myself wishing it'd stick to the The Thousand Year Door's S.S. Flavion rather than share space with Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

I could single out Find Mii -- based off the StreetPass software of the same name -- as the only real stinker (despite what I said about bosses, the Dark Lord's curses/upgrades aren't very apparent, and so he's just kinda lumbering around), but the divide between both versions means certain series get new stages exclusively in their respective consoles, and the 3DS edition gets the short end of the stick in this regard. I don't necessarily mind this for more obscure franchises -- EarthBound and F-Zero (Mute City, an attractive pixel-by-pixel recreation of the SNES classic) are what they are, and the likes of Distant Planet (Pikmin) and Flat Zone 2 (Game & Watch) are hardly tired, but the Melee stages for Metroid (Brinstar), Donkey Kong (Jungle Japes), and Star Fox (Corneria) absolutely are, and not even the presence of new remixes for the latter two can camouflage their staleness.

But Smash Bros. is more than its main attraction; true to its original figures-to-life concepts, these characters are ultimately toys, and there must exist other methods of play in Classic Mode -- easily the best iteration yet in directly into Smash's plaything theme, for what better way to capitalize upon spontaneous children's play via choose-your-own-adventure map? -- or All-Star's more condensed chronological direction for its marathon slug-fest. Actually, given how the latter's Kirby-esque rest area ties directly into this game's Battlefield stage, I'd argue it entices our curiosity even further via nebulous world-building; as it happens, for All-Star I've always made it customary to soak in these rest areas, and for 3DS has perhaps my favorite iteration yet within an isolated mountain shrine -- perhaps it's the gate for Battlefield's realm of mountainous pillars and ancient floating ruins?

There exist other options in our toy-chest: Multi-Man Smash is as addictive and trying as ever in its numerous challenges, while the new Trophy Rush steps up to plate as a chaotic mashing game. Emphasizing point-chains as we juggle smashing boxes, dodging lightning bolts, and prioritizing bomb blocks, I like to think of it as my favorite target for Global Smash Power records. Only Target Blast -- the latest in unavoidable efforts to reinvent Target Test (with the roster ballooning much as it has, it's impossible to craft individualized exercises for each character) -- disappoints, and for 3DS particularly suffers in only one variation rendering it a 10-second game in the vein of Kirby Super Star's Megaton Punch. While I'd argue the Wii U stages make a case for depth, the unintuitive Angry Birds-esque design renders it easily disposable.

Still, it's but one mode in a sea of choices, and I can hardly complain when there's this many collectibles in Trophies depicting characters of video games past. Some may lament they continue Brawl's direction of porting models from other games, but I instead choose to celebrate their lively flavor text. Courtesy of EarthBound/Mother 3 scriptwriter Akihito Toda, they are as funny and heartwarming as Shigesato Itoi's own eccentric works, be they tongue-in-cheek (""Was getting more 1-Ups and increasing the number of us the adventure's ultimate objective?" All the Marios got together and discussed this theory. The end.") to the nostalgic (How many children searched the skies for Zapdos after the second Pokémon movie? How many fans grew up to lovingly remember the shape of Magnemite?). It's a welcome change of pace from Brawl's relative dryness, one the localization takes great pains to preserve. (That I can only spot one error -- the floating skull Bubbles from Zelda: Ocarina of Time cited as appearing in Brawl, which never happened -- is a testament to that, if not the original designers.) Did I mention the alternative moody sky background sets the perfect tone for historical contemplation?

And yet, perhaps the finest Nintendo tribute lies within a museum, but what's Smash's finest mode in Smash Run. Inspired by Kirby Air Ride's beloved City Trial mode, for five minutes four players navigate an expansive maze populated by Nintendo enemies, who upon defeat drop themed power-ups that boost your stats for the end-game match. Much like City Trial, there's an innate addiction in defeating enemies -- the more you defeat, the stronger you become; why, even just incidental actions in running and jumping boosts their respective stats. Niches for advancement lie everywhere, from otherworldly doors host to bonus games to spamming moves on escalating platforms. 

To help the process along, mode-exclusive Powers are available to sweep up the battlefield. -- unleashing the massive Horizon Beam eliminates swarms of Dig Dug's Pookas, while accumulating your damage into Rage quickly disposes of larger, tougher enemies in Kirby's Bonkers, Pikmin's Bulborb or the nasty Clubberskull from Kid Icarus: Uprising (of course, if you don't want to, you can simply let it nap.). Careful experimentation within our restricted decks uncovers symbiotic relationships within Powers, be it building upon our Rage via Strong Punch (great for brawlers like Little Mac and Donkey Kong), or extending our air time in Extra Jump/Super Leaf. Even the stat-granting Equipment -- a ubiquitous crutch typically ignored -- come into play here, as I've found they're vital for head-starts; for instance, Sonic is already the game's fastest character, so I focused on equipment toughening him up to get him battle-ready.

The mode isn't perfect -- alas, 3DS capabilities strike again in the lack of interactive multiplayer (other players are merely invisible up until the conclusive mini-game), and the absence of rules is felt -- unlike City Trial, you can't determine what game plays at the end, so if you feel Race to the Finish stacks the decks against slower characters, you're outta luck. Still, most of the endgames are fair, and I particularly delight in those that have you beating waves of enemies. Some may feel their relative brevity produces an abrupt ending, but I'd argue their one-minute ordeal highlights how wisely the winner utilized their previous five-minute run; in other words, in a setting defined by bolstered assets, the mode condenses our victories rather than emphasizing our losses. (Undoubtedly why the duration of Final Smashes are snipped in Ultimate; why beat a dead horse in our defeat?)

Which brings us to the true beauty of Smash Run: it's different every time you play it. Enemies operate on a turnover basis, various structures such as that precarious stat boost-filled tower may be absent, and those platform ruins might just rocket us into 20-second brawls. Our only reliable factor lies within our customized characters, and even then, who's to say they'll be optimal for whatever set-up Smash Run has in store? It is a mode hand-in-hand with Smash's replayable appeal and unpredictable backbone, right down to offering most of the game's soundtrack as randomized BGM. (And really, how cool is it they included arrangements new and old just for this mode?)

And yes, the music! We'll get into most of the original music for the Wii U version, but we simply cannot ignore the main theme. Presented by Namco veterans in composer Keiki Kobayashi (Ace Combat) and arranged via menu by Junichi Nakatsuru (Soul Caliber), it confidently exudes all the intense zeal of a pre-show sports broadcast. As grand as the themes for Melee and Brawl echoed their sprawling majesty, there has never been a Smash theme so intent on anticipative vigor, and by god, does it work. In that sense, you could say Smash's finally embraced its identity as a tournament fighter.

But really, the remixes are the star, and Mr. Sakurai clearly agrees; just as in Brawl, a most ambitious video game celebrating gaming history must draw upon the industry's greatest musicians, and that's how we end up with an all-star lineup paying homage to their favorite songs. Some strictly adhere to the originals' composition and style -- Rio Hamamoto's Gerudo Valley (Zelda: Ocarina of Time) and Michiko Naruke's Full Steam Ahead (Zelda: Spirit Tracks) are veritable modern-day updates complete with their own natural flourishes -- whereas Masashi Hamauzu's lovely Stage Select (Pikmin/Pikmin 2) expertly weaves two songs together to the point where it may very well be an original composition altogether. Others choose to be more experimental -- a trait largely reserved for the Wii U game -- but seeps into for 3DS here and there. (How, exactly Masato Coda conceived a vocal edition of the Nintendogs Bath Time Theme is beyond me, but the adorable silliness renders it one of my favorites.)

The game's more elaborate stages are complemented appropriately: Jesahm's Super Mario 3D Land Theme / Beach Theme and Shota Kageyama's Super Mario Bros. 3 Medley (Giant Land!) successfully bookend the 3D Land stage's four-stop ride, and Masashi Hamauzu's hyperactive orchestral in Green Greens Ver. 2 (Kirby's Dream Land) giddily spirals off as if giddily rejoicing the legacy of Kirby's very first game. We even get reprisals of certain composers returning to previous works, be it Shota Kageyama's stunning N's Castle Medley (Pokémon Black and White) and Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka's Balloon Trip (Balloon Fight), the latter easily one of Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS's most nostalgic tracks in its chiptune recreation.

Indeed, the rare bouts of wistful sentimentality have lent Smash its best remixes in the past, and that's why I have no reservations in citing Yoko Shimomura's Magicant/Eight Melodies from EarthBound Beginnings as the most outstanding arrangement in both versions -- and yes, I claim this without a hint of bias. For a stage (Magicant) capitalizing upon nostalgia -- on top of that, from a series already channeling nostalgia through interpretation -- a most tender sound must be enforced, and that's how Shimomura's trademark violins come into play. Imbued within a dreamy, upbeat synth, her strings wax a grand requiem for a world of dreams, before concluding with a tear-inducing, piano-accompanied Eight Melodies impossible for series fans not to be arrested by. It is quintessential Shimomura in its precious, ethereal design, and that's how it served as my lullaby for a straight year. (Let it also be known I also shed tears upon learning EarthBound's credits theme in Smiles and Tears was arranged; granted, I don't know what voodoo Toru Minegishi performed to a) channel Keiichi Suzuki's homely composing style, and b) successfully replicating EarthBound's instrumentation within an accelerated arrangement, but know that I treasure it more than life itself.)

There is so, so much more I could elaborate upon. The countless variables allowing prime opportunities for hilarious snapshots. The StreetSmash mini-game, involving 3DS's StreetPass by having character tokens bash each other off a game board. Delightful QOL conveniences in last-used character color palette automatically accessed on the select screen. Why, I could even gush about what's, to my mind, the last notable example of 3DS's 3D effect (Look at Battlefield's stray leaves! The shards of Yoshi's cracked eggs!). But alas, I'd end up talking forever, so let us conclude on one final talking point: Smash Bros. has grown to function on the mantra of "if we can do it, we'll do it." On the underpowered 3DS handheld, this is a mighty tall order compounding on what's already a Herculean task of balancing, controls, and behind-the-scenes negotiations.

And yet, here it is, right in front of me for the past four years. Not everything for 3DS does succeeds, but that they even tried at all means I do not, at any point, ever tire of repetition or deplete my toy box. It is beautifully, endlessly rich; as every bit a miracle as it is having Mario, Link, Mega Man, and Cloud Strife in the same game. That I can share the following screenshot -- yet another one of many I took - is, in itself, a blessing.

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