The core concept of Smash Bros. is pretty much as old as time itself. It’s the classic power struggle; it’s ‘my dad is bigger than yours’; it’s those playground arguments about who would win in a fight between Batman and Lion-O. But more than that, it’s a celebration – proof if proof be needed that Nintendo’s family of familiar faces is the best in the business. Today one of the most popular competitive fighting games in the world (player count across Melee and the new game at Evo 2016, the world’s leading fighting game tourney, fell only just shy of front-runner Street Fighter V), it’s amazing to return to Smash’s humble beginnings and remember just how barebones the experience used to be.
Fire up the Wii U game and you’re greeted with an daunting amount of choice. From packed menus that seem to go on forever to a character select screen that only gets even more ridiculous as you add to its vast selection of fighters through general play, you never feel like you’ve seen everything the game has to offer. That cannot be said of the original game, with its eight core fighters and limited modes, but the comparison is hardly fair – this is a pattern seen consistently throughout the history of the genre. Street Fighter’s roster of playable characters has swelled from eight in Street Fighter II to 44 in Ultra Sreet Fighter IV, X-Men Vs. Street Fighter had just 17 to Marvel Vs Capcom 2’s 56, Mortal Kombat had only seven characters on its inception… in comparison, Smash’s cast of 12 fighters (four of whom are locked until certain criteria are met) looks positively healthy.
Better yet, there’s very little fat on the roster. With the exception of Luigi (who, as you might expect, plays almost exactly like Mario), every character has their own distinct feel and playstyle. At one end of the spectrum sits Donkey Kong, a heavy and hard-hitting option for those who don’t like to mess around when it comes to dealing damage, while at the other is Fox, who relies on little-and-often damage as he darts around opponents. There are agile options who can recover well, characters who do better at range than up close and everything in between – for so small a roster, there’s a great degree of variety on offer. This extends to the settings as well, with stages based on every major series represented each boasting their own feel and array of options. From the rising hazards of the Metroid stage to the angles of Sector Z’s moving ships and Arwings, where you choose to fight is just as important as who you choose to fight with. If in doubt, just plump for the Kirby stage – it has the best music and, given that competitive staples Battlefield and Final Destination are only available in single-player here, it’s hands-down the most level playing field for any given match-up.
If you even want to play fair, that is – the real joy of Smash Bros. is found in its versatility, letting you play the way you choose. By default, items will appear or fall into the stage periodically to spice up the battle, both the nature and frequency of these eventually fully customisable. Like the stages and stars, most of these are nods to classic Nintendo games or power-ups – something taken further still by the Assist Trophies in later games, which call in cameos from even more famous characters – and you can get your hands on everything from Poké Balls that unleash random monsters to the hammer that helped Mario thwart Donkey Kong way back when he still went by Jumpman. Fans of mayhem can crank up the drop rate to ensure non-stop silliness, house rules can be established where certain items are banned and purists can get rid of them entirely, shifting the focus – nay, the genre – from entertaining party game to adept fighter.
Combat itself is novel in that the game doesn’t feature traditional health bars. Instead, damage accrued by each character is tracked as a percentage at the bottom of the screen, with higher values increasing the effects of additional powerful blows. This feeds directly into the goal of the game, which is to knock opponents off the stage. Any side of the screen will do the trick, with different characters and levels all prioritising different approaches – small stages like Dream Land make blasting rivals off the side the quickest way to go, while characters with strong spiking attacks often do better to stomp their foes off the bottom of the screen. Where possible, that is, as things like the rising acid on the Metroid stage deal damage and blasting those who touch it back upwards with considerable force.
The higher your percentage goes, the greater the risk of being sent flying by even the most innocuous of attacks – powerful, well-placed smash attacks can usually finish the deal from around the 50 per cent mark, with 100+ (the maximum is 999, at which point a gentle breeze is enough to finish you off) marking the point at which you need to start being extra careful. Matches are played either for time – where KOs and deaths are tallied up after a fixed period to decide a winner – or for stocks, each fighter having a set number of lives to use before they are eliminated entirely. Coming back into a great fight at 0 per cent after being knocked out is a delight, especially if you’d been panicking about the inevitable KO previously – a chance to be a little more reckless and aggressive with your attacks, and also to exact revenge on whoever it was that didn’t think you deserved to be on the screen any more.
For a game with only two attack buttons, there’s a surprising degree of depth to Smash Bros. and its high-octane combat. The B button is used for special moves, which performs one of three signature attacks when combined with directional inputs – in the N64 original, only up, down and neutral specials exist, but Melee added a fourth direction one for left/right inputs. The title ties into the game’s novel use of the analogue stick, where gentle movement of the stick and ‘smashing’ it quickly in the required direction produce different effects. Do this to move and dash, rather than walk; do it with your standard A button attacks and you’ll see them upgraded to powerful Smash attacks, generally the best way to introduce opponents to the gaping off-screen abyss. It feels a little strange at first, unresponsive even, almost like you’re not in full control. But just like in any other game that makes good use of analogue control, you come to learn your limits and work on your execution, eventually arriving in a place where everything happens exactly as you want it to, barely having to even think about it. That it isn’t only played alongside the likes of Street Fighter and Tekken at tournaments of the highest level, but pulls in comparable figures in terms of entrants and viewers is telling of the quality of Smash’s core mechanics, and watching pros compete really hammers home just how much more there is to the game than most people who play casually even realise.
While the first game may not have had a great deal going on in terms of modes and options, however, the same criticism cannot be levelled at any of its sequels. Each piled on additional content – loads more playable characters, additional items, cool new modes and in-game trophies and achievements all come together to make every Smash game since the first an incredible proposal in terms of value for money. With so much of the game’s charm and appeal coming from its expertly-handled fan service, covering more bases just serves to write beautiful new verses in this love letter to all things Nintendo. What was once a fairly basic fighter is now one packed with potential and options; what was one a fairly low-key novelty now one of the most prominent fighting games on the scene. If ever you need reminding what’s so good about Nintendo, just go play Smash – the ultimate collection of Nintendo’s greatest hits and a way more adept fighting game than many give it credit for.