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December 1, 2014

Season's Wii-tings II: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

I have to be honest: I don’t really care for the title.

I get it, of course.  There’s a Smash game out for the Wii U, and there’s a Smash game out for the 3DS.  How do you set them apart?  Say as much in the title!  But man, isn’t that name such a downgrade?  We had Melee, and then we had Brawl, and now we get…for Wii U?  Why not Showdown?  Or Riot?  Or -- well, I guess those are all the good ones.  But the point stands.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got in terms of complaints.  I could nitpick, I guess -- and I probably will -- but other than that?  Look, I seriously don’t think I need to tell anyone reading this that this is a good game.  If you have it, you know that already.  If you don’t have it, then you’ve probably heard as much by this point -- and I’d argue that you should buy it, especially if you have a Wii U. Generally speaking, just going over some of the ins and outs of the game would make this post completely pointless.

So let’s do something different.  Let’s start with a question: why this game?

There’s no way around it.  As good as Smash 4 is, it’s still another Smash game.  If you’ve been playing games since before the start of this generation (to the point where I almost feel genuine pity for those who have started at this point), then you’ve likely done this dance before.  Put a bunch of Nintendo characters on a map and have them enact some extreme sumo wrestling.  That’s it.  That’s the core gameplay.  Sure, there are millions of permutations you can get out of that core -- making it as tournament-friendly or casually-chaotic as you want -- but a tiger can’t change its stripes.

So if this game succeeds -- and it will, considering the progress it’s made so far -- then we’re effectively sending Nintendo a dangerous message.  We’re being their enablers once again.  “No, no, no!  Don’t innovate or move out of your comfort zone!” we might as well be screaming.  “Just keep making the same game with minor changes over and over again, and we’ll come a-running!”  The audience and developer alike are caught in an endless loop; they keep making Mario and Zelda games because they know those will sell, and we keep buying, so they keep making, so we keep buying.  We’re not giving them much of an impetus to make a new IP more than once a decade -- though in our defense, it’s more up to the Big N to deliver than us.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand then they announce that they’re working on a new Star Fox

These days I skew heavily toward Nintendo, no matter their output; right now it seems like they’re one of the few developers out there that’s even trying to make a good game.  It’s true that they’re practically rooted to a slippery slope vis a vis putting out “the same game over and over”, but A) those games have no right to be as consistently good as they are, and B) at least they aren’t coming out once every year to the point where there’s a drop in quality alongside a rise in resentment.  So while it’s easy to be of two minds about the company, I would GLADLY take them over some of the other guys out there. 

Still, the question remains: why this game?  Why Smash?  Think about it; it’s no secret that there are a lot of hopes riding on the release of this game.  It’s gotten a huge amount of attention from its loving -- if eccentric -- parent (this has to be one of the few things that Nintendo has marketed since the release of the Wii U).  It’s one game that by necessity has to be half a dozen games, and be the springboard for Amiibo support.  Think of all the time, effort, and resources that went into this one game, and imagine what could have been done with it.  Sure, it’s not exactly Destiny-sized in scale -- and thank ALL THE GODS for that -- but I wonder what would happen if some of that love went elsewhere.

Nintendo believed in Smash.  Maybe because it had to, but maybe -- more than anything -- because it wanted to.  Hope and faith alike went into the game, and high stakes rested on the shoulders of Sakurai, his team, and everyone even vaguely involved with production.  Imagine if that same level of belief -- those constant pushes, and reminders that “this is the thing to own” -- went into, say, Pikmin 3.  Or Mario Kart 8.  Or The Wonderful 101.  

The situation could be a lot different if any of those games got the Smash love.  But they didn’t choose those games.  They didn’t even choose to throw their weight behind a full-on Mario game -- which historical precedents would suggest that Nintendo needs to start every console off with a high-quality Mario game.  So the question, once more, is “why?”

And I think I might have an answer.  A reason.  A method to the madness, past, present and future.

It’s because Smash 4 is fun.

That seems patently obvious, I know.  It’s a game, so of course it should be fun, right?  Well, yes and no.  These days, being high-quality doesn’t necessarily equal being fun; I’ve got my issues with The Last of Us, for example, but people love it precisely because the stuff that goes on in it ISN’T fun (at least I hope that’s the case).  They love it because it’s, in their eyes, engaging.  That’s the clincher, I bet.  A game that’s engaging can be fun, and a game that’s fun can be engaging.  They don’t necessarily have to overlap, but they can and do.

Okay, so how is Smash 4 -- and just Smash in general -- engaging?  Anyone who’s spent more than ten minutes with the game should know that it can be a swirling nexus of chaos and rage.  There’s so much going on that for the uninitiated, it’s just a mess -- an impassable wall of disaster for anyone who tries doing something as inconceivable as use their eyes.  Cheap shots, lucky hits, backstabs, betrayal, calamity, and salt by the barge-load are practically baked into any given match in any given session.  Only by taking out the very elements that make Smash what it is can you hope to have even a modicum of control.

But that’s just it, isn’t it?  This game isn’t about control.  Not entirely, at least.

It’s true that a sufficiently-skilled player can put the odds in his/her favor (whether it’s in a tournament-type setting or out of it), but even then there’s no guarantee that everything will go just according to keikaku every time.  Or any time, really.  You can see it on a level as basic as this year’s batch of characters; remember when people were afraid that Palutena was going to be a godlike character because of the massive range on her attacks and moveset variations to put any given matchup in her favor? 

Now look where she is: an un-favorite by most, and assumed to be scraping the bottom of the tier list.  Just as there’s a big difference between Street Fighter 4 and its joked-about cousin, Theory Fighter 4, there’s a big difference between planning what’ll happen in a Smash match and what actually happens -- even on a moment-by-moment basis.

And that’s entirely the point.

What’s going to happen in a match?  I don’t know, and neither do you.  The only given is that everyone involved -- be it two opponents or eight -- is going to fight it out and try to win.  Skill will inevitably factor in, but items, stage hazards, and other players are going to make every fight an all-out struggle -- and that’s before factoring in human error from all parties.  The one who wins will be the one who shows the most dominance in a match; some semblance of control, yes, but more to the point, he/she will be the one who manages to stand against and adapt to the endless array of hazards.  Madness aside, Smash isn’t that far off from any given fighting game -- so yes, you can count me in the camp that says “Smash is really a fighting game”.

But even if it wasn’t considered a fighting game, it still fills a niche that Nintendo doesn’t always cater to.  Think about it.  Mario games, and Zelda games, and Donkey Kong games, and Pikmin games, and plenty more are typically tight, focused single-player games.  They express the art form and the creator’s craft for your enjoyment, and in turn give the player a chance to express him/herself.  On top of that, they’re an easy method for reflection and self-improvement -- self-imposed challenges primed to get the most out of a game.  Can you do a three-heart run in Zelda?  Can you get all the collectibles in Mario or Donkey Kong?  Those are the sorts of things that matter to people, and with good reason -- least of all because they make a game feel more meaningful to the player.

Now, think about some of the Big N’s other games -- namely, the ones in the headlines for a record number of copies sold.  As of late, we’ve seen big numbers for Mario Kart 8, Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, and of course both versions of Smash 4.  What’s the connection? 

Easy.  Competition.

As good as Nintendo games can be, there’s something that’s lacking in, say, something like Pikmin 3.  You don’t know how satisfying it is for me to be able to find a fruity bounty or clear a puzzle on the sprawling map -- but I’d bet that’s mostly because my head isn’t screwed on right.  For someone like my brother, a game like Pikmin 3 is justifiably beneath him.  What’s the point of playing?  Why bother getting fruit?  Why is this game so boring?  For him, and for plenty of others, that game isn’t delivering what it needs to -- an opportunity that even something as simple as Guess Who can deliver.

Those Nintendo games have earned favor because they CAN do it -- because, indisputably, they let the player say “I WIN!”

A game like Pikmin 3 would have me become an explorer (or a toiler in the fields, if you’re the cynical sort), but a game like Smash 4 would have me become a fighter -- and with it, the chance at becoming a champion.  It’s incredibly base, but it’s an important part of games, as it’s been for countless generations.  Maybe a lot of modern games have succeeded precisely because of that base requirement; sometimes you just need to show others who’s boss, and draw a sense of satisfaction from that.  (By extension, maybe that’s why multiplayer suites get shoehorned in, like with Tomb Raider 2013).  At this stage I’d think that we all know what games CAN be, but every now and then we have to indulge our basic instincts.

My guess is that Nintendo is starting to realize that -- or if they haven’t yet, then they will in light of these positive sales figures.  They’ve managed to bring people in with the promise of competitive games, and might be able to stay relevant if they keep doing that.  Again, I’d bet that they’ve already realized that, because one of their first new IPs in years -- Splatoon -- is not only an arena-based third-person shooter, but also promoted its multiplayer suite before its single-player wares.  While it’s true that the Big N knows how to work competition into its games (likely as far back as the first Super Mario Bros., if the Game Grumps’ on-the-spot rivalries are anything to go by), Smash 4 and its contemporaries could be the signal of a paradigm shift with their unique character and twists.

I’ve said before that fighting games are a part of the purest, most straightforward genre of gaming there is -- that they’re as much about dominance as the common (middling) shooter, but do so with a distinct flair.  I stand by that, but there’s a problem: despite their best efforts, all too often people -- even seasoned players -- will bemoan that the barrier of entry is too high.  Skullgirls has practically included a full explanation on how to play fighting games, and Guilty Gear Xrd apparently has one of the best tutorials out there, especially for beginners. 

But I have my doubts that even those two are enough.  I can remember a time when I used to think “Why would I ever press light punch when heavy punch does WAY more damage?”  I’d bet that a lot of people are still in that phase -- especially in the daunting face of up to six attack buttons.  That’s on top of learning combos, combo timing, special moves, offensive and defensive mechanics, move properties, and more.  Even the most basic of basic combos in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 requires upwards of eight rapid-fire button presses in sequence.  And it only gets worse from there.

With Smash 4, the barrier is no higher than the average curb.  Two attack buttons.  One block button.  Universal inputs.  A combo system that’s there if you’re looking for it, but far from a requirement.  The simplicity of Smash is one of its strongest weapons, giving those who wouldn’t know where to begin with the average fighter all the opportunities they need to jump in and enjoy the game.  But it goes beyond that; because you don’t have to worry about executing massive combos, you can focus on the game -- and more importantly, what it teaches you even if you’re not aware of it.

Once you pick your character and figure out which moves do what (assuming you stick with said character), you learn about their properties.  You learn the ins and outs, and how to effectively use them -- and because of that, you learn how to effectively fight in general.  Match by match, win or lose, you learn how to control yourself so that you can find ways to control the match.  You develop your play style along with awareness of the stage -- the principles of positioning, and the ins and outs of each piece of the map.  You learn how to deal with enemy fighters, and how to handle both their strengths and weaknesses.  And yes, you even learn how to defend against (and use) items -- a resource that can save you, hamper others, or just plain give you a leg-up in a pinch.

I don’t think I need to tell you how cool that is.

We’ve still got a ways to go before we get full-on virtual reality, but Smash 4 at least provides a few similar benefits.  Again, the low barrier of execution means that the focus is on the game, and what you can do -- no filter, no obstacles.  It’s just you out there on the map, fighting as hard as you can amidst a constantly-changing environment and situation.  It’s a competition that at once makes it possible for anyone to win and gives those who learn the systems the tools they need to exceed.  If you want to run, you can run.  If you want to fight, you can fight.  Anyone can jump in and goof off -- or they can go all in and master the game without whittling their fingers into dust.

But even beyond that -- beyond shouting “I WIN” or the drive to “git gud” -- the Smash games are about those moments.  It’s about moments where you can laugh, and rage, and cheer barely a millisecond after something happens -- and something is always, always happening.  And of course, there are those moments that you’ll take with you, long after you’ve played the game; just look at some of the stories on the subreddit, and you’ll see what sort of impact Smash 4 alone has had on others.  That’s not to say that other games can’t have and will never have the same effect, but...remember this?

Nintendo hyped this game to high heaven and hell alike.  The company needed a win, yes -- and desperately, one could argue -- but their E3 2014 showing was less about selling “experiences” and more about having fun.  Fun with their games, naturally, but with their fans, with viewers near and far, and even with themselves.  And it worked.  They sold the spirit of the game months ahead of its release, promising fun for everyone on the grounds that the game would be supremely fun.  And they were right.  They were absolutely right.

In a perfect world, Smash 4 would be a focal point -- the centerpiece of the living room the Big N used to speak so boldly about.  I’d be ecstatic if, at some point in the future, you could not only count on the game to bring Billy and Jimmy together for a session, but their sisters, their parents, their grandparents, and even their pets (assuming they’ve achieved some semblance of sentience and thumb usage).  That’s wishful thinking, I know, and more than a little unrealistic, but you know what?  If any game could do it, it’d be something like this one.

Why?  It’s because Smash 4 is fun.  Or, to be more precise, Smash 4 IS fun.

And that’s about all I can say about it, really.  I did a string of posts on the game already -- ins and outs and a few particulars -- so I don’t see much reason to repeat myself.  I like this game.  Others like the game.  I wish it, and Nintendo at large, the best.  And most of all, it’s proof that even if the game industry is in a dire place right now, there’ll always be titles that can bring on the smiles.  There’ll always be good games -- and with it, there’ll always be hope.

So.  What’s next on the list, then?

Well, as a wise man once said…huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh?


  1. I finally got to spend some QT with Smash 4 (I agree 1000% on the title btw) and I bought an Amiibo for me and my lady friend. Splodie(Link) and Cream Soda(Samus) are already kicking our asses back and forth.

    I sort of miss the story mode laid out in Brawl, but at the same time I don't. I like how most of Smash is about having fun, not watching cut scenes. In fact it's about making your own damn cut scenes. The Pitt and Palutena talking stuff about the other people in the game is all I need for that.

    Anyway, I'm glad you're playing Shovel Knight next. I let it fly under the radar for too damn long and ended up obsessing over it until I beat it. No small accomplishment with my busy schedule. November really is a a TERRIBLE month for NaNoWriMo, but I finished in 28 days. :D

    Cross Up makes a great diversion for those busy days.

  2. "...but I finished in 28 days. :D"

    Ahem. This is for you. You've earned it.


    Yeah, losing a story mode kind of hurt the game (imagine what HD power could do for a batch of connected cutscenes -- besides make the budget spike), but on the other hand, is that really what people are looking for in Smash? I enjoyed The Subspace Emissary, but after beating it? Never touched it again. Ever. So I guess Sakurai and company focused on the top priority. Or Namco Bandai and company, to some extent. (I like to pretend that Dark Pit's side B special is a fanciful take on Tekken's Electric Wind God Fist.)

    As for Shovel Knight? Well, let's just see how it goes with that. It's been the core of a LOT of topics on my mind recently, so I'm hoping in the weeks that follow I'll have my feelings all sorted out. Because it would seem that the word of the day is "conflicted".

    Or "exceed". I love words with X's in them.

  3. I'm willing to give DA: Inquisition the benefit of the doubt for now, if only because of that Mass Effect goodwill -- but even so, I'm a little worried about whether or not it'll have what it takes to be, you know, good. Could it be the game that FINALLY justifies the presence of the PS4 and Xbone? I want to believe.

    But then I hear that there's a glitch that makes it impossible to progress through conversations and forces a reset of the console. I can see how that can be a problem in a game that's a good three-quarters conversation.

    But yes, I'm exceedingly happy with how Smash 4 came out. So far it's one of the few games -- and maybe the only game -- that managed to ride the Hype Train all the way to Release Station without turning into a flaming scrap heap as it pulled in. The problem is that now I have to learn how to play legitimately, because if my experiences so far are any hint, I can't rely on my bag of tricks from Brawl to see me through. New AI = THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

    That all aside, it's cool that you're having fun with Persona Q. And glad that you like Shovel Knight, too; guess I'd better make sure my post does it justice.

    Sigh...I guess I'll have to limit the number of Kamen Rider references to eighty. How in the world am I going to manage that?