The video game industry’s gamers and gawkers alike have been quick to accuse Nintendo of failing to produce a “killer-app” for the launch of its GameCube console ever since the line-up was first unveiled at E3. They alleged that GameCube lacked a “smash hit” title with enough selling power to bring the early and critical success Nintendo would need if it planned to compete with Sony’s PS2 and Microsoft’s XBOX in 2002 and beyond. But is Super Smash Brothers Melee the killer-app title that Nintendo fans have been raving it is or is the mystique around it only the product of months of undeserved hype?
Super Smash Brothers turned out to be one of the last hugely popular games for the Nintendo 64. In retrospect, the title claimed a larger share of the system's 5-year legacy than anyone ever thought it would by offering addictive, fun, nostalgic, and truly maniacal multi-player gaming. It was a landmark title in Nintendo’s history of accidental hits. And with the sequel, Nintendo made sure to take advantage of the new franchise’s selling power.
To those of you not yet introduced, the small phenomenon known as “Smash Brothers” began as a pondering of the age-old question, “Who’d win an all out brawl between Mario, Link, Samus, and Donkey Kong?” The answer was not clear, so the game designers at HAL Laboratories slaved day and night (and night and day) to create a means to answer the question once and for all. This little experiment matured into a very multi-player N64 game: a 4-player brawler featuring several Nintendo franchise characters and simple enough controls for anyone to pick up a controller and join in on the fun. It was revolutionary in gameplay for maintaining an innovative objective of “smashing” opponents off of a stage to score a kill, as opposed to the usual hit point system found in fighters. It was by no means the most “advanced” fighter to diehard fans of the genre, but its addictive gameplay and showcase of memorable characters quickly made it the favorite of many Nintendo loyalists and casual gamers alike.
Every character featured in the title is extremely well modeled and features enough detail to still look amazing up close, even though most of the action takes place from a much more distant angle. HAL’s skill at character art really shines in this title and character models are really the meat of this game’s visual buffet. There's a reason this was the only title that NCL regularly released screenshots of in the months approaching GameCube's launch: it does a very good job of making everyone’s favorite Nintendo characters come to life, with a level of detail that could only be imagined previously.
The stages vary a little in overall graphical quality. A few of them feature noticably low polygon counts--but that's the price HAL seemingly had to pay to keep all of those detailed characters fighting at a fluid (and almost always constant) 60 frames per second. What is equally disappointing, but certainly more confusing is the muddy and washed-out texturing featured in a few of the stages. It isn’t a consistent problem, however, and is really only noticeable at a closely-angled zoom. That said, any slight shortfall in the stage's visuals doesn't take away from the gameplay one bit. While some stages are notably prettier than others, none are "ugly" by any stretch of the word and all are more than suitable for keeping your eyes fully content while you attempt to pummel your opponents into the ground. Their overall designs are excellently executed and definitely do justice to the games they represent.
The nearly 300 trophies you are awarded as you play through the game are a stellar bit of eye candy to show off to your friends or just to gaze at while your thumbs recover from a heated battle. Few games will bring a tear to your eye as effortlessly as Smash’s trophy mode does, where you can view and admire heroes past and present (heroes that many of us have spent hundreds of collective hours in the shoes of). The game's trophy mode also shows off the GameCube hardware's real-time rendering skills, as each trophy can be manipulated, moved, or lighted as you see fit.
Lastly and surprisingly not least is the game's overall presentation and feel. The menu system and interface built for this game are second-to-none. Smash Bros. Melee features a sense of polish and professionalism rarely seen in today's videogames and is nearly unheard of for a near-launch title. Being able to "tilt" the menus with the C-Stick is only a silly little perk, but even that does its part to add to the overall polished feeling. Everything from the pre-rendered introduction to the menu interface immediately sets the mood and atmosphere of the game and raises the bar high for the gameplay to come.
Sound effects are always hard to judge, since sometimes not being too noticeable means they’re getting the job done. But in SSB:M, the sound effects go above and beyond the call of duty and really add to the overall experience. Every action is accompanied by a quick and appropriate sound. Character sounds are not too realistic, not too cutesy, but rather land in a happy, cartooney medium. Beyond that, the production value that goes into any Nintendo endeavor is evident, and detail is paid where detail is due in the FX department.
SSB:M is no slouch in the listening department. Nearly every stage represents a certain game or franchise, and attached to each one is a member of its game’s soundtrack. Also pleasant to hear is that most every stage features some sort of hi-fi orchestrated musical piece. And if you’re like most Nintendo gamers, you’ll quickly notice the music’s superiority to the N64’s paltry MIDI offerings. The music is not only high quality, but extremely nostalgic of Nintendo games of the past. Whether it’s a re-imagined track from Super Mario 64 or the song of the Kokori village in Ocarina of Time, the soundtrack is often there to remind the hardcore Nintendo fans out there of adventures they went on years ago. But for the love of God, why did they have to throw in a remix of the Donkey Kong rap that actually ends up sounding worse than the DK64 version?
There are two basic 1P modes to choose from: classic and adventure. Choosing classic will allow you the opportunity to play through an almost identical single player mode as was available on the N64’s version. It basically consists of fighting (and smashing) through 10 or so stages, all based on certain preset scenarios and always ending in a hit-point based battle with the “Master Hand”. It isn’t the most entertaining experience, especially if you’ve played through it a few times on the N64 version and were hoping for something new in that respect.
The second single player mode is adventure mode, which in a way, is a beefed up version of the classic mode. Rather than being based on simple scenarios (i.e. 2 on 2, or kill all the Kirbies), adventure mode exploits the themes of the games that the general cast of characters come from. In Mario’s (or the “Mushroom Kingdom”) stage, you get to fight your way through a simple side-scrolling level based in the Mario universe. This much-hyped feature of getting to see such a side-scrolling level is hampered by the game engine itself, which makes the level feel more than a slow and cumbersome fight rather than a glimpse of yesteryear’s platforming greatness. Also notably far from the beaten path of the original game is the dungeon Link has to fight through as he searches for the Tri-Force, whose location changes every time you play. It’s frustratingly fun to run into the room you thought the golden triangle was in, only to realize that you stumbled into an arena where you must fight Link himself. In the end, though, adventure mode’s “adventure” wears off after playing it a few times and beating it becomes more a chore to collect trophies (which are scattered across the non-traditional stages) or unlock characters. It won’t take long to memorize the entire process and find yourself wishing you were doing something else.
Lucky for you there is something else to do, as a couple other modes are worth your time. There’s a Home Run Contest, Break the Targets, Practice mode, and Event Mode. Most notable of these is event mode, which features 50 unique scenarios that are consistently fun to play. They gradually increase in difficulty, but some are pretty fun to try and beat. A recreation of the battle between Link and Dark Link was definitely a blast to complete (as many of us might remember from the second Zelda game or the Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple). And the joke stage “Super Mario 128”, where you play as a giant character trying to smash 128 mini-Marios into oblivion, was worth laughing at until the inherent challenge of surviving long enough to kill that many Marios made itself apparent. There are 50 events in all, and they definitely add to the lasting value of the single-player portion of the game, but once they’re finished they don’t leave you wanting to replay them anytime soon.
”Break The Targets” returns from the original game, where each character must destroy 10 targets floating around an environment familiar to his or her respective game-world. It’s a great mode to familiarize yourself with a new character, as each stage forces you to try the characters’ various special moves to get the hard-to-reach targets. I found this mode especially fun when the traditional smash-fest didn’t feel too appealing at the moment.
New to SSB:M is the strange Home Run Contest mode. Here, by “smash-hitting” (directing your character in the direction of the strike and holding the A button simultaneously for a powerful attack) a large mattress-like object with a baseball bat you seek to send him flying as far as possible. You can unlock a couple of new stages in this mode, but beyond that it just doesn’t make much sense why it was added.
Also worth giving a try on occasion is the “Multi-Man Melee”. It’s a game of survival, where you have to smash ‘x’ number of foes or avoid getting smashed for ‘x’ number of minutes, depending on the setting. It’s a fun little mode to play with, but it quickly gets old. Adding to this is the fact that nearly every character has a “cheap” move that will clear away multiple enemies very easily, changing the focus of the mode from a really long battle to a tiresome kill-fest.
In addition to the game’s many modes are the components to the basic game itself. Things like the game’s many items do much to add to the gameplay. Few games have tide-turning elements like SSB:M’s hammer from Donkey Kong that will smash virtually everything in it’s path. The random element that items dropping from the sky add to the game is refreshing and only adds to the trash-talking fun to be had.
Looking back, there is plenty to do when you’re playing Smash by yourself. The game modes listed here will easily last any gamer a good 10 to 20 hours, especially since there are so many unlockables along the way. But like most things in life, the fun doesn’t last forever. After the thrill of getting to play as just about any Nintendo character you want wears off, so does much of the game’s appeal. It was a pretty fun time while it lasted, but none of the various modes really keep you coming back for more. Not that any other title yet released for GameCube can do much better, but the game just gets boring after the basic modes of play have been explored awhile.
The game’s basic VS. Mode is very much like it was on the N64. Up to 4 players can take part in a various array of gameplay modes. They range from the traditional “stock” game, where each player has a certain number of lives, to the new coin mode, where the player that beats the most change out of the others and grabs it wins. This is undoubtedly some of the best gaming SSB:M has to offer. The gameplay remains simple and focused on fun. Like any game, it can get a bit repetitive after a while, but that’s easily remedied by the sheer amount of options available.
Adding a component of organization that the first didn’t have is the new Tournament mode, which lets you enter and customize up to 64 combatants with all of the customization available in VS. Mode. This mode is especially fun when you have more than 4 people present hoping to get in on the action. Also, thanks to the game’s (relative) simplicity, one could plausibly have such a tournament at a family gathering like Thanksgiving or Christmas and actually have it be fun.
The additional Special Melees are also a lot of fun. The camera mode is a little quirky, but a nice addition. But the rest of the special melees (like Giant Mode or Slo-mo Mode) definitely add to the multi-player’s replay value.
Multi-player is definitely the heart of Super Smash Bros. While the game might not be the greatest single player adventure we’ve seen this year, it very well may be the best multi-player one. If you’re fortunate enough to have three or more friends, the multi-player alone makes the purchase worth the money.
While the game’s simplicity and overall lack of a fulfilling single player experience (even though there’s more than enough to do) prevent SSB:M from being a true “killer-app” of Super Mario 64 accolade, the game is still more than worth the it costs and probably one of the best GameCube games available. Whether Smash has what it takes to topple the likes of Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion is up to you, but I certainly believe it’s a contender.