State of the Union: Two years after the release of Brawl, I'm looking to the Smash horizon
by Greg Mengel
Greg Mengel takes his own personal perspective on games and gaming culture in his column, State of the Union. State of the Union is published twice monthly on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.
Two years ago, on what may have been the happiest moment of my gaming life, I capped five hours of excited waiting in line when I finally adopted my very own copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. As I rocked that baby in my arms, looking deep into its cover art, I knew in my heart that it was going to be something special. For a long time, like any new newborn, it was the center of attention at any social gathering I brought it to. When friends entered my dorm room, I knew that they weren't there to visit me. They had nothing against me personally, but they only had eyes for the newest member of my family, what with his cute little creative stage editor, adorable four person multiplayer, and precious dozens of new characters, stages, and features to choose from, all of which were bound to offer hours upon hours of unique fun. I didn't mind - I felt the same way. Those were the good times.
Sadly, that exciting time passed, and gradually my friends began moving on to new interests. With the passing of each season, the baby Brawl got a little less magical. In the summer of 2008, during the climax of that idyllic time when Smash was the center of all our social events, my friends and I could be found, reliably circling the television screen every night, giving our attention to Brawl completely for hours on end. That autumn, as we resumed our responsibilities at school and work, our time spent with Brawl inevitably dwindled. We still found the time to play now and then, but it had to be squeezed in between more important events. Excuses began running rampant.
"Can't play tonight, I've got work in the morning."
"Wish I could, but my wife's in labour again, and I've missed the last few goes."
"I'd love to play, but I just contracted terminal cancer, and should probably see a doctor."
"I would, but I've got girl scout cookies that need eating, and Lost is on."
People just stopped caring. In time, everyone left Brawl behind. Now and then we came back to it, reminiscing in spurts, but the truth was clear - we had become bored with the game.
Now, two years after first holding Brawl in my arms, I know that I'm ready for a new Smash. I want to experience that magic again, to hold in my arms another intelligent fighting game that will not only entertain my friends for months, but will transport us to a world where Ganondorf and Captain Falcon can dual punch Solid Snake and a pair of pre-teen twin Eskimos off of a floating stage speeding through the back reaches of space. I'm anxious and excited to rediscover the concoction of fun that combusts into existence when cartoony characters from across the video game spectrum meet to do holy battle in the Nintendo arena. In short - I'm ready to start thinking about the successor to Brawl, and the next world we'll get to visit in the Smash Bros. universe.
So for this State of the Union, in celebration of the two-year anniversary of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, I'll be taking a detailed look at what I'd love to see in the next Super Smash Bros. sequel (which, based on the fact that the first three Smashes have earned Nintendo enough money to buy the island of Maui outright and turn it into their very own volcanic evil fortress, we can assume will someday be made, though it is currently unannounced). For the sake of clarity, I'm going to call this upcoming title... Super Smash Bros. Future. Here we go.
Super Smash Bros. Future - What I would like to see in an upcoming Smash.
Number One: More third-party AND traditional Nintendo characters
At its core, Super Smash Brothers is a series about bringing video game characters of all creeds, colours, and development companies together. When Brawl first allowed Sonic and Solid Snake to join the prestigious Super Smash Brothers line up, they changed the tone of the series from a celebration of all things Nintendo to a celebration of all things video game, hosted on a stage brought to you by Nintendo, and featuring a clear Nintendo focus. In a way, it set the groundwork for Smash as a sort of video game character Olympics - a way to honour the broad effects of video game culture on a fun fighting game stage. Now that the precedent has been set, it's time to allow more famous third-party characters to put their game faces on and represent their mother companies in the fray.
Like everyone else who has ever played, or even seen, a video game, I have a few contenders in mind who I think deserve to get a crack at making the cast list of Smash Future. They are...
1. Megaman (or anyone else from the series)
2. Simon Belmont (of Super Nintendo and Castlevania lore), and...
3. Banjo Kazooie
I won't go into why I think these characters would be great, because the internet is tired of hearing it. Instead, I'll just say that I'm excited for whatever new third party or strictly Nintendo characters Future has to offer us. If I were a betting man, I'd put Spanish doubloons down that we can bet on seeing Toad, Mii, Waluigi, or Midna and Wolf Link representing Team Nintendo come release. At the very least, we'll see three out of the four. What's certain is that the new Smash will have new characters, and that they'll most probably represent both Nintendo, and a few important third-party developers. Who makes the final list will be exciting to see.
Number Two: More stages not affiliated with fighters
One of my favorite stages in Brawl was one that came from a game which not one of the playable characters represented: Smashville, from the Animal Crossing series. Interesting though it was on its own, the reason I liked Smashville so much was because of how it made the game feel like it was about video games in general, instead of just the specific video games represented by the Brawlers entering the fray. Playing on stages from the same games and worlds that the playable characters hail from has a tendency to make the game feel old, or repetitive, in my mind. I like the idea of bringing four characters from a wide variety of games and bringing them to a stage that is completely unrelated to them in any way. It's yet another way Smash can feel like the video gaming Olympics.
Don't get me wrong, there's also something fun and kind of special that comes when you give your character home-field advantage (I'm famous among friends for wanting to bout on the Pirate Ship while playing Toon Link), but neutral (non-affiliated) stages sometimes do more to bring the broad scope of Smash to light. Greedy as I am, I want to see more of both.
Number Three: An online multiplayer experience that doesn't make me doubt there is good in this world
This one's important. What Brawl had in amazing, addicting, infinitely replayable multiplayer, it completely lacked when it came to playing online. Friend codes? I think we can all agree, as the online backbone of one of the most popular multiplayer games of all time, this just doesn't cut it. In this system, people have to work to play online. Not only that, but once you do make it online and hook up with a friend to play, every stage is lag city. One of the few times I went through the effort of logging in and challenging my brother in New York to a duel, I was met with a vicious three second lag from my controller to the screen, while he experienced only one second of traffic on his end. The result was a match that can only be compared to two drunks, blindfolded and spun around for thirty seconds with their foreheads on a baseball bat, then released and ordered to fight. We didn't as much battle as try to predict the future, pressing buttons in anticipation of moves that could come from our opponent three seconds ahead, then struggling lamely to recover from them. It was enough to make me seasick. With experiences like that under my belt, it's no surprise that I long since gave up trying to enjoy the online Brawl experience.
Now I'm by no means familiar enough with the dark technological arts to be able to make an intelligent thesis as to why playing Brawl online sucks so terribly (if someone can give me the a summary, I'd be much obliged), but I will say this: if these online multiplayer issues to exist in Smash Future, then it will really, really be a waste. If it could get its feet off of the ground, a solid online multiplayer for a Smash Bros. game would be mind bogglingly popular. I would not be surprised in the slightest if its online community got as large as those of Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, or Team Fortress 2. I dream of a world in which dedicated Smash players can find and play each other not by the number of their friend code, but by the name of their handle. I have a dream of one day enjoying downloadable Smash content, and general custom map support. Basically, I have a dream of a Smash Bros. online multiplayer that reliably works - a dream which I'm sure 90% of of you readers who have tried playing Brawl online share with me today.
Number Four: A generally more balanced set of tiers.
My biggest problem with Super Smash Brothers historically is the fact that the characters in each of its games have been ranked by ability into a dogmatic system of tiers. According to the Smash Wiki, these tiers "...indicate how professional smashers expect each character to be able to perform under tournament conditions," meaning that if you take two expert Smash players of equal skill, stick them in a room with two controllers and a copy of Brawl, and tell them to have at it, the player with a character from Tier G will most likely to get completely destroyed by the player with a character from Tier A. These tiers are meticulously determined by a long and detailed analysis made by expert players, and have become Gospel to hardcore Smashers across the globe. Even most moderate Smash aficionados are familiar with the tier lists, and can tell you where their top characters lie on it when randomly asked on the street. Their mere existence is a sign that there's still tough fighting to be done by Smash designers on the balancing front.
I don't have a problem with people using tiers (I can't imagine a successful tournament without them), but their existence in Brawl shows that we've yet to get a truly balanced Smash product. I often fantasise about a Smash Bros. in which each character has a fair chance of thrashing any other character totally equally, even in tournament play. A lot of what makes the series so entertaining is rooted in the chance players get to bring their favorite video game characters into the ring to do battle. When you can bet that playing as that character will end up with a loss to better-tiered characters 90% of the time, a lot of fun is sucked violently out of the game. Hopefully the character list in Future will be so balanced that expert Smashers won't need to assign any tiers at all. That's such a herculean labor that to even ask for it feels unrealistic, even childish. Still, it's the goal, so we can only hope that one day it comes to fruition.
Jesus said it himself in the Bible - "Yea, I say to you, Let all of my Smash characters be equal in the eyes of the Lord, as 'tis already with sinners and man, made in my image, so that thine Link may beat thine Meta Knight, just as thine Jiggleypuff thrashes thine Captain Falcon, for this is the way of the Lord, your God, in whose name all things are owned."
Wow, I wish he actually said that.
Number Five: Balanced final smashes
God, final smashes... they really do need some help. Fun as they are, when taken as a group, final smashes are about as balanced as an elephant and a chicken riding a seesaw, during a hailstorm, at night (the hailstorm and night stressing just how random their design can get). It sometimes seems like they were pulled blindly out of a magic hat by Brawl's developers and thrown into the game simply for the sake of looking cool (which almost all of them succeed in doing). Some are avoidable, some take skill to land, some are one-hit KOs, some do major damage, some are useless depending on which stage you're on, some will do nothing except make you raise an eyebrow, and, when taken as a group and compared with a discerning eye, not one of them makes sense.
Take Lucario's final smash, Aura Storm, for example, and weigh it against Ganondorf's Dark Beast Ganon. Aura Storm (as you can see in the video linked above) involves Lucario flying vertically off of the screen, and then returning to hover demonically above the stage, at which point he slowly moves a beam of powerful blue energy either left or right. It's a decently dangerous move, but it's also easy to dodge if you hang to the right or left side of most stages and keep to the air. Now look at how easy it is to dodge the Dark Beast Ganon when it is unleashed. Not. So. Much. Comparatively, Aura Storm seems a little... flaccid. There are many discrepancies like this one that can be found when perusing the list of final smashes, all of which desperately need balancing. It's not an easy job, but it needs doing, or people will continue the current trend of turning off the final smash ball in any competitive match.
Number Six: More choices for the stage editor
When I first heard that Brawl was coming with its very own stage creator, I was shocked, and possessed by a spirit of excitement. Once I cracked my knuckles and got my hands dirty with it, that excitement quickly morphed into grumbling disappointment, and brought me one step closer to becoming a grumpy old curmudgeon. With only three backgrounds and just over two dozen "building block" pieces to choose from, Brawl's stage creator was more than a little handicapped. If Smash Future includes (and really, I think it should) a stage creator, it needs to have a much larger collection of backgrounds and building blocks available for players to craft with in order to keep custom stages from feeling boring and repetitive like they did in Brawl.
It's also worth noting - if Future ends up creating a thriving online community, then the scaffolding would be in place for a setting in which players could share and receive support for their custom stages in a digital library or marketplace. That support could come in the form of weekly or monthly contests (this week: only make stages shaped like Sonic's head), top player-ranked stages available for download, and/or a forum for each stage, in which players could grade a stage or leave comments. If the custom stage creator in Future can get that kind of support, then I will be a happy man (as will millions of other gamers).
Number Seven: A loose release date
You can end it with the suffix "-ish", Nintendo, to make it clear to us that you're not making any promises. Like I said before - barring a series of terrible setbacks, we pretty much know a new Super Smash Bros. is coming sometime, most likely after the Wii console era. That being said, if you good folks could just let us fans know that a Smash Future is indeed officially going to be put in the works, sometime after all the new Marios, Metroids, Zeldas, and Kirbies have their day in the sun, then you would put a lot of minds at ease, mine included.
Number Eight: Keep doing what you're doing
I don't think it's possible for Nintendo to release a Smash Bros. that I won't like and play repeatedly until the dawn of the coming apocalypse (which, according to Hollywood and a handful of prophetic Mayans, gives me just under two years). They're just that great. Whatever Nintendo decides to do with Smash Future, I trust them completely; those guys know their way around a Smash title, and, once they get around to it, will no doubt produce another one that can be described with a slew of positive adjectives, like amazing... or funtastic. I think I echo the thoughts of many when I say that I can't wait to see what they do next.
Well, that's it for now on what I'd like to see the next game in the Smash Bros. universe. I'm sure I'll have more to theorize over and discuss into the ground as the years roll on and we begin hearing a few more "official" rumours blowing in the wind. I'll share 'em when I hear 'em. Count on it. In the meantime, I'm off to call those friends I mentioned and give my copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl some much-needed attention. I might as well - it's the kid's birthday this month and I didn't get him anything. He just turned two.
- Greg Mengel
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