Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wii U review: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Boasting the same roster as its 3DS counterpart, the latest Super Smash Bros. has arrived on the Wii U, and sports the same frantic action coupled with a solid blend of the play styles of the previous two entries in Nintendo’s all-star fighting series. Plenty of familiar faces return, while a few have been cut from Brawl’s offerings, and a couple have been split into multiple characters – such is the case with Sheik, Zelda, Samus, and Zero Suit Samus, each of whom now have an extra move or two. The newcomers are some of the most bold and varied additions to the roster in the series’ history, with the Animal Crossing Villager, Wii Fit Trainer, Pac-Man, Mega Man, Palutena, and Little Mac, joining the fray, among plenty more interesting additions.

While Smash played well on a handheld – better than most would have anticipated – it feels more at home on the Wii U. The Pro and Gamecube controllers evoke tight, smooth responses from each fighter, while the Gamepad and Wiimotes, despite having slightly less orthodox spacing and button layouts, fill their roles in similarly solid fashion. Stages and characters are generally easier to keep in focus in all their high-definition glory, though this can change drastically in some of utterly massive stages designed for the new 8-player Smash mode.

While the 3DS Smash Bros. offered up a solid variety of stages, the Wii U’s brand new arenas are better, by and large. The Kalos Pokémon League sets players on a medium area of ground with small variable platforms, and throws a few environmental hazards like fire, water, giant swords, and the occasional legendary Pokémon into the mix to keep players on their toes. The winding courses and mobile platform representing Mario Kart 8 are effectively a stand-in for F-Zero, whose only stage in this Wii U version is the tried-and-true Port Town Aero Dive from Brawl. Skyloft builds off the basics of Brawl’s Delfino Isle, albeit with many larger areas to set down in, while both Pilot Wings and Donkey Kong’s Jungle Hijinks offer simple yet refined design points.

While nearly every newcomer to this Smash Bros. has a stage to call their own, it is unfortunate that some of the series veterans get left out in the cold, so to speak. There is no new F-Zero stage beyond the 16-bit one exclusive to the 3DS version of Smash, and Kirby’s only two Wii U stages are the massive Great Cave Offensive, suitable only for frantic bouts of trying to keep sight of your own fighter in 8-player Smash, and the Halberd, which was easily one of the best stages to come of this game’s Wii predecessor. Each of the new stages does hold up solid with the quality and variety fans have come to expect from the Smash Bros. series, though.

The returning stages, on the other hand, are a bit of a mixed bag. Smashville, Kongo Jungle 64, and Port Town Aero Dive all play as wonderfully as they did during their respective debuts, while Donkey Kong’s 75m is obnoxious and poor in design. The claustrophobic setup of Luigi’s Mansion and bland emptiness of the Bridge of Eldin both make for strange choices as well, though Melee’s Hyrule Temple, which has long been an unnecessarily large stage, finally sees some more practical use, thanks to the inclusion of 8-player Smash matches.

With regards to 8-player Smash, certain stages were designed with this larger number of players in mind, like Sonic’s Windy Hill and an even larger version of the classic Battlefield stage, appropriately named Big Battlefield. Other stages are reserved for smaller numbers of players, and cannot be accessed for 8-player Smash. Online play proves generally more solid and connections more consistent than in the 3DS version, a welcome improvement that will hopefully only get better as time goes on.

The core experience of this latest Super Smash Bros. is a majorly impressive achievement for Sakurai and the rest of the creative team behind it, as it contains the most balanced roster of fighters since the original N64 version. Final Smashes, one of the most polarizing additions to Brawl, make a return, and have largely been retooled for the better. Characters with previously over-powered Final Smashes, like Pit and Ness, have been granted significantly toned-down replacements, while others have been swapped for more practical options, like Luigi’s vacuum cleaner and Zero Suit Samus firing upon foes from a safe distance inside her gunship. Others still have seen previously perfectly reasonable Final Smashes ditched in favor of still-plenty-effective and well-balanced moves that align more closely with some of their latest outings, such as Kirby’s giant sword he wielded in Return to Dreamland and Lucario’s Mega Evolution, parallel to Charizard’s own. It’s a far more intelligent showing for this mechanic that was previously able to tip the scales in matches so drastically that it almost certainly spelled one-hit K.O.s from particular characters.

Classic and All-Star modes both see a return, the latter being almost entirely unchanged from every Smash Bros. prior, a gauntlet run of matches against every other fighter on the roster, this time in reverse chronological order of their debut in the video game industry. Classic mode, meanwhile, sets the players’ chosen character trophy on a base that they can freely move about, and tackle different sets of opponents based on which fighters they will be up against, how many, which stage they will be duking it out on, and what sorts of rewards will be granted upon winning the fight. On top of these match-specific rewards, players can stop a roulette to earn further rewards, though losing two lives and being taken to the ‘continue’ screen will result in one or more of these rewards being taken away. The higher the difficulty setting, the better the rewards typically are, but also the more that will be taken away should players fail.

When selecting fights, players need to be mindful of their designated rival character, who is randomly selected at the start of each classic mode run. This rival will generally put up more of a fight than its CPU counterparts. Facing it early on can grant a sort of safety net, but yields less in the way of rewards, while waiting until the last possible minute to face off with it means a more challenging battle for a better haul. Occasionally, one of the CPUs will be kicked off the base by a more challenging foe who will take on either giant or metal form, which again, yields greater returns for players who best them in battle. Classic mode will, however, always cap off with a multi-man battle against a team of Mii fighters, and Master Hand/Crazy Hand/Master Core thereafter.

The Miis are the new representatives for all forms of Multi-Man Smash found in the additional Stadium content, including time-sensitive matches, 10 and 100-man matches, and two other modes that pit players against highly aggressive Mii fighters and throw a rival CPU into the mix respectively. Home Run Derby makes its return, largely unchanged from the last time around, while the new Target Blast mode combines the basic idea of launching an object ala Home Run Derby with the old Break the Targets mode. The object of Target Blast is to chain as many targets as possible from the bomb’s explosion radius and the environment objects that are launched as a result of it for a high score.

Event matches also make a comeback, some being locked early on due to their requiring use of bonus unlockable fighters. These matches play out in a manner not unfamiliar to veterans of Melee and Brawl, with silly scenarios made up for the sake of adding interesting rules into the mix. On the whole, these latest event matches are easier than in previous installments, with a few sprinkled throughout that will prove a test of patience through trial-and-error runs. Some event matches do lack clear instructions, however.

Filling in a similar spot as the 3DS version’s Smash Run, the board game setup of Smash Tour provides lightning-fast matches with rules that range from relatively normal to borderline-ludicrous. Players will move around the board, collecting extra fighters and power-ups as they go, and using trophy powers to set traps and shuffle their opponents around the board, or even grant themselves an edge in a fight, such as starting off with a particular weapon or shrinking one of their fellow players with a poison mushroom. The fighter players will use in each match is predetermined, so there is no real way to gain an edge with relying on a particular fighter, and losing a match may see one of your fighters fall into the hands of another player. Smash Tour is entertaining for a brief run, and more conceptually interesting than its Smash Run counterpart on the 3DS, but it’s not the sort of game mode most players will devote a great deal of time to.

For completionists who want to unlock every trophy, soundtrack tune, and optional character ability, Master Orders and Crazy Orders set players up with very specific rules in order to reap these rewards. Tickets in Master Orders can only be purchased with coins, and range from straightforward time and stock matches against a handful of low-to-mid-level CPU fighters, all the way on up to high launch power, double speed Smash matches wherein each combatant has but one life. Crazy Orders, meanwhile, takes this concept one step further, combining it with the gauntlet run sensibilities of All-Star mode, as players race the clock to see just how many matches they can fit into a ten-minute span. Tickets for taking on Crazy Orders can be racked up quite quickly in Classic mode, and once a run of Crazy Orders starts, players can select one of three matches to attempt, which become increasingly more challenging as the rounds progress. However, damage taken is carried over from one match to the next, with slight heals occurring automatically between each bout. With all these factors in mind, carefully planning your next move in Crazy Orders is crucial, and playing to the strengths of whichever character you selected is typically advised, though not always a guarantee to victory. When the timer is nearly at zero, the damage counter high enough that another battle seems ill-advised, or the challenge factors being offered less-than-ideal for a fighter, Crazy Hand can be challenged in a match where both parties begin with a predetermined amount of HP, and attempt to whittle each other down from there. The more Crazy Order challenges completed before facing Crazy Hand, the more difficult the match will be, with extra CPU fighters taking to the Final Destination stage and even Master Hand joining in the fight.

There are an abundance of unlockables in the forms of soundtrack tunes, trophies, and stat boosts for the Miis and custom fighters. While the quickest ways to gather these is through Classic and All-Star Modes, some can only be acquired by clearing spaces on the Challenges board, accessible from the main menu. By and large, the challenges in this new Smash Bros. are far more reasonable than those included in Brawl.

Mii fighters are divided into three categories – Gunner, Swordfighter, and Brawler, who – as their names imply – focus on close-quarters punch and kick combos, mid-range swipes of the blade, and distanced shots respectively. Attributing defense, offense, and speed-boosting stats to these Mii fighters, as well as customized versions of the remaining roster members, can drastically alter the way they control in battle, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Some of the stat boosts unlocked can even start players off with certain items at the beginning of a match, or grant slightly multiplied damage dealt to foes, though these sometimes include tradeoffs that mean a fighter may be slower in battle or start off with a predetermined amount of damage already taken to their HP counter. The movesets for Mario, Donkey Kong, Mega Man, Samus, Captain Falcon, Fox, and so on can be swapped for new abilities, typically offering one option that carries out a faster but less damaging attack, while the other is a slower but heavier hit. It’s a great addition that makes battles less predictable, and allows a greater level of depth in the way players can strategize, without breaking the already solid balance between fighters.

Launching alongside this Wii U Smash Bros. are Nintendo’s collectible Amiibo figures, physical counterparts to the in-game characters. While only twelve were made available at the time of the game’s launch, they all operate in the same basic manner – they can be scanned via a chip that is help over the Gamepad controller, and brought into the game as CPU fighters. The difference between these Amiibo fighters and the traditional CPU fighters is that the Amiibos can be fed different stat boosting abilities, and will gradually learn better strategies for countering human players over time. Amiibos can easily rack up a large amount of experience points early on, while the progression slows as they ascend to higher levels. A low-level Amiibo is a relatively easy opponent to overcome, while an Amiibo at the max level of fifty can put up a serious challenge.

Plenty of classic and remixed tunes accompany each stage, while the graphical presentation is solid, though not nearly as impressive as other recent Wii U releases. From a distance, the textures on stages like Yoshi’s Woolly World and Xenoblade Chronicles' Guar Plain look decent enough, though pausing the game and zooming in for a closer peek reveals textures not nearly as polished as what other console exclusives have offered up. On the other hand, the lighting effects and colors in the Pikmin Garden of Hope, Mario Kart 8’s Mario Circuit, and the Kalos Pokémon League look more in line with the quality players would expect of a current-gen HD console, and these minor visual inconsistencies may be the result of this Smash Bros. being built off the same engine used for 2008’s Brawl. Slight oversights aside, this Wii U version is the most fun Super Smash Bros. has been in years, sweeping gimmicky elements aside in favor of deeper fighting mechanics and a superb roster.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

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