Thursday, April 4, 2013

Video Game Review: Super Smash Bros. Melee

Ah, Super Smash Bros. Melee. What can really be said about this game that hasn't been said by the millions of fans and reviewers in the twelve years since its release way back in the infancy of the Nintendo GameCube? Well, how about: "It sucks".

Fortunately, that was a lie. I just wanted to say something about the game which has never been said before. By anyone. Ever. Super Smash Bros. Melee is the glorious sequel to the glorious game known as Super Smash Bros. which released on the N64 and completely changed the course of the video game industry, particularly Nintendo, forever. Melee pulls a few over its predecessor by adding a much larger and more diverse cast of characters, several new game modes, and a much more in-depth multiplayer game, which happens to be the star quarterback of the Smash Team. There's just so much going on with this game that I really don't know where to start.

I guess the roster is a good place. The game offers up twenty-five playable characters, twenty-six if you count Sheik independent of Zelda. Right from the start the game has a lot to offer in terms of variety as each of the beginning characters plays very differently. Who you choose can completely impact the style of the game. Playing as Bowser is a totally different experience from playing as Donkey Kong, and they both fit nicely into the "Heavy Hitters" category of play. Even clone characters (of which there are many) feel largely different from one another. This is a very good thing, and it can make the game feel very immersive.

Fortunately that immersion isn't skin deep. This game has many layers and caters well to the casual crowd, the pro crowd, the hobbyist crowd... there is no member of any gaming audience which wouldn't like Super Smash Bros. Melee with the exception of FPS babies. They probably won't like it. Brawl has more things that suit their speed.

As I mentioned there are a large number of clone or near-clone characters, and by "clone" I mean "Characters which share a large number of attacks and animations with another character". There are at least seven characters like this, but there's an upside to it. While these characters might share a lot of surface similarities, they have very different styles of play. I'll use the pair of Links as an example. At some point in the game you can unlock Young Link whose attacks mirror adult Link's. However, they are much weaker and require a greater ability to reason and plan while adult Link is more of the strike-and-kill variety. To compensate for the weakness, Young Link is very quick. The game is totally different. Link plays the game by charging head first into battle and slaying his foes on a stick, but Young Link has to patiently bide his time and build his opponent's damage to a point where he can make a finishing blow. This is really cool, and it adds variety where most people wouldn't see it.

Aside from just a variety of gameplay, the cast itself is really varied and it's remarkable how natural they all look standing next to one another. Nintendo did a pretty good job of representing their relevant and even B-List franchises at the time. Super Maro Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Pokémon all have almost equal representation, although Mario has a few spin-off characters which puts it ahead. I guess that's to be expected from the flagship franchise. However, there are also characters representing Star Fox, F-Zero, and even the old Game & Watch handheld devices filling in the roster, and each one is splendid. Every character is uniquely defined by their personalities, and you can feel this just from watching their idle animations and placing them beside the other characters. Every single character is unique, and that really helps a game out when you've got a great ensemble cast.

Adding to the variety of representation are the stages. There's a lot of them and, for the most part, they're pretty cool. There are a couple of stages which seem kind of pointless or are irredeemably obnoxious with their hazards. The only ones which immediately come to mind, though, are the Yoshi's Island and Dreamland past stages, which are nearly identical to a pair of other stages already in the game (Yoshi's Story and Green Greens respectively). I feel that this was kind of a waste, especially when there were a few more unique stages from the original Super Smash Bros. which could have been revived instead.

The items are a lot less varied than the stages and characters and don't represent nearly the same amount of the Nintendo universe as they should. Out of all the items I counted twelve which were from Super Maro Bros. and related series (Donkey Kong Country) while The Legend of Zelda had two, Kirby had four, Pokémon really only had one (although Chansey eggs will occasionally appear without a Chansey), two come from Earthbound, and one each from Balloon Fight and Panel de Pon. There's also an item which is actually a peripheral for the Super Nintendo. The rest of the items (about eleven of them) are generic items created for Super Smash Bros. (although at least one of them was originally from Perfect Dark, which is something I find very interesting). With the items being predominantly Super Mario related, and another large portion being generic, I can't help but feel there is a lot of wasted opportunity here--especially when you consider that most of the generic items have counterparts from various Nintendo franchises which could have been used instead (the generic ray gun could have been Duck Hunt's famous Zapper, or the crate and barrel could have been stylized more like Donkey Kong Country equivalents).

Where the actual gameplay is concerned, well, it doesn't always work. Generally this won't be an issue, and it really isn't too noticeable in multiplayer matches, which is primarily what this game is used for. In the one player modes, however, there are a few glaring glitches which occasionally crop up. I noticed that on higher difficulties my character was less quick to respond to my commands. I'm not sure if this is because of an increased amount of activity on the screen, but that doesn't seem likely considering the large amount of items and players I've had in versus mode. This causes a number of issues, such as dropping through more floors than you intended to or getting caught up in the relentless assault of an AI opponent. The problem is, and this is something I'll talk about again in another paragraph or two, is that dying at no fault of your own isn't a "fun challenge", it's an infuriating experience which will drive some to madness. Dying at no fault of your own repeatedly will make everybody who attempts to complete every challenge in the game experience hot flashes and a period of time where they will awaken hours later as their flesh burns from the lobster-boiling temperatures of their shower.

At higher levels of play, such as the last twenty of the Event Matches or the Hard and Very Hard difficulties it seems that the developers attempted to make up for the shortcomings of their AI programming by giving the AI opponents skills which human players don't have. The AI will be able to cancel attacks at any point and string together combos which humans can't perform, as per the rules of the game itself, as well as manage to cancel dodges or dodge and attack at the same instance. This can get annoying very quickly as you can be caught up in a flurry of attacks from which there is no escape. AI opponents are also made heavier and stronger than they are during regular play, and it seems that stage boundaries fluctuate a little bit. Further, the AI in Free-for-All matches will team up to target the player character, regardless of how the game should be playing out. This makes the later Event Matches more maddening than fun, although it is very satisfying to have completed them all.

In addition to the increased abilities of the AI enemies and the annoying control glitches are the item spawns. There have been too many instances where I was charging an attack which would have one me the match only to have a Bob-Omb spawn right in my line of fire. Or a capsule, crate, barrel, egg, or party ball, all of which will of course contain nothing but a fiery explosion and a swift death. Like I said earlier, dying at no fault of your own is not a fun experience. After playing the game for twelve years, I have pretty firm grasp on how things work, and this game repeatedly seems to break its own rules in an effort to destroy you. This is not good game design, and it detracts from an otherwise amazing masterpiece.

Stage hazards are sometimes an issue, but I can't think of an instance where one ever destroyed me as thoroughly as the game breakers above. Typically the hazards are predictable enough that you can avoid them, and being caught by one isn't terribly maddening because you know it was your fault for not being able to dodge it. Hit by the lava on the Metroid level? Not an issue, because you know it was your fault. I think there may have been only a couple of times where I really got ticked at the stage hazards, and that was typically when in conjunction with one of the other broken aspects of the game. Never have I gotten miffed at the hazards in versus mode. Despite this, it would have been nice to have the option to turn the hazards off.

Speaking of options, there sure are a lot of them! If you want to start your game over (as I did) you can delete everything, or you can choose to delete only your trophy collection, only your unlocked characters, only your unlocked stages. They give you a lot of choice of what you want to delete, which is cool, because you can delete only the characters and experience other methods of unlocking them without actually losing your game progress. This is awesome, because unlocking new characters is probably my favorite part of the game.

There are also plenty of options when in the Versus Mode. Of course you have the typical standard matches, and you can choose to play timed matches, stock matches, or coin matches, which are all really fun, even though they're kind of basic. Building on that, though, are the "Special Melee" games which let you play under a variety of new conditions. You can play with a manipulable camera, you could play at lightning speed, slo-mo, or with giant characters. Every kind of power-up option is available as a Special Melee with one exception, which I've always wanted: Metal Melee. For whatever reason they gave players a Metal Box item in regular play but didn't include the option to play a Metal Melee. Makes me sad.

Really, though, the Versus Mode is where this game shines. Despite its age and a sequel, Melee has consistently been one of my major party games of choice. While a number of characters are unbalanced and don't make for very good competitive play, the complete roster is perfectly suitable for casual play with friends. The only problem is with people who are hyper-competitive. With people who tend to be poor sports it doesn't take very much of Smash to turn them into compulsive whiners. They'll make you wish you'd never taken the game out at all. Of course, that's not really a fault of the game, is it? My point is, playing this game with most people is a blast. Just know your friends.

Also, players have complete control over how long a match can last, how many points need to be accumulated, or how much money should be obtained in the coin matches. Players are also able to completely customize which items appear and how often they spawn. There's also a list of other rules which can be altered, such as customizing which stages can be chosen at random, which player gets to the choose stage next (Loser Pick, Winner Pick, etc.), and probably a few I've missed. This lets players tailor the game to their particular tastes. Additionally, there's a really cool Tournament Mode where you can technically play as Ditto. Makes me giggle just thinking about it.

The one player game is primarily split up into three modes: Classic, Adventure, and All-Star. Classic Mode is more like an arcade mode which takes the player through eleven primary stages and a few mini-game stages. Every second stage adds a new twist to the regular combat, such as fighting a team of enemies or fighting a giant enemy. This can be a whole lot of fun, although one thing I don't like is the return of the Metal enemy round just before you reach the final stage. This is a hold over from the previous game, in which you battled Metal Mario before the final confrontation with Master Hand. In Melee any character can be your metal opponent, which I immediately disliked. I felt like it cheapened the Metal Mario character which developed on the N64. Also, the metal enemies are much lighter and easier to defeat than Metal Mario was, which always bugged me.

Adventure Mode's name is a little misleading. There isn't a whole lot of adventuring once you reach the later stages, but the earlier ones do feature some platforming segments which are fun the first time. Unfortunately they get bland really quickly, so doing them twenty-five times to 100% the game can get really boring. However, the Adventure Mode does have some cool throwbacks to the original title for those willing to look. I'll give you guys an example: you battle a team of Yoshis of different colors, later on you battle a team of Kirbies with different hats, and finally you battle a team of generic NPC henchmen. If you aren't familiar with Super Smash Bros., this reflects the Yoshi Team, Kirby Team, and Fighting Polygon Team matches. There are other references to the first title (Giant Donkey Kong), but I won't spoil the surprise (in this post).

There's also All-Star Mode, which challenges the player to battle every character in the game using only one life. This mode is actually way easier than it sounds, even on the harder difficulties. The primary challenge stems from the fact that you don't heal between matches and are given only three heart containers to carry you through the mode. Still, I wouldn't sweat it too much. Players with any amount of skill won't even need to heal very often. Even with Pichu.

Furthering the one player experience are Event Matches and Stadium Matches. The Stadium Matches are actually mini-games, such as a home run contest or the target challenges. These can be some good fun, but they won't hold your attention for too long. My favorite part of the game is the Event Matches mode where you must complete fifty matches each with unique and special conditions. Some of these get really creative, such as having to guard a Yoshi egg from a trio of angry enemies. While the later ones are, as I mentioned earlier, infuriating, the majority of the Event Matches are really fun, and I wish there were more of them.

Visually the game is stunning, even today. Its textures aren't as detailed and its lighting a little different, but the game still holds up really well. I think this is due in large part to the very bright and distinct nature of the colors and visuals. In Brawl everything seems to blend together, and this is the case with a lot of modern games. In Melee everything is distinct and real treat to look at. It's almost like literal eye candy. Like, it makes you want candy to look at this game, and I don't quite know why. There are also some very cool "magic" effects where they're needed, which are very fun and bubbly. The whole game looks splendid and animates very well. I really can't find any fault with this aspect of it.

And the same can be said of the sounds. This game is aesthetically perfect, and while the soundtrack might sound a little stale to some, I assure you that's only because the songs used are classic. We've heard them all before. But I want to let you in on a little secret. Come closer. This game is why half of these songs are classic. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have heard the F-Zero music outside of Melee, yet everyone knows the tune. And the beautiful thing about this game is that, despite appearing in the era of god awful voice acting none of the characters make your ears bleed. None of them. Oh, it's beautiful.

Do I recommend Melee? Oh, you bet you do. Of course, you all knew that was coming. If you don't know how much I love this franchise... what the hell blog have you been reading? I have to say that even though it's flawed, this game is really one thing you shouldn't miss. It's not the kind of game you should play start to finish, like I just did, because the one player game does stale when you take it in all at once like that. Melee is that wonderful kind of game that you can play, put down, and play again later and finish it at your own pace. Not to mention the treasure trove of trivia that is the trophy gallery. As a kid I spent more hours reading every biography collected than I did actually smashing heads. Of course as a result I spend my early twenties regurgitating gaming trivia and writing reviews and sitting in my parents' house playing video games and wishing I'd read more books so I could write and maybe went outside once in a while and didn't get fat. But who cares? It was worth it.

Unfortunately this game's glitches and inconsistency pissed me off too much to give it a perfect score. I think an eight out of ten is good, though. Let's go with that.