The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VIDEO GAME REVIEW: Super Smash Bros. is a comforting brand of mayhem

(Courtesy of Nintendo)
Placeholder while article actions load

Super Smash Bros.
Developer: Sora Ltd./Bandai Namco Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Available on: Nintendo Wii U

In the beginning, Nintendo’s Mario was nameless, a man with no history, purposefully left in harm’s way to amuse an unseen interloper. In the past 30-plus years since he was introduced, one of the world’s largest video game companies has built a fanciful universe to nurture his existence while simultaneously using its massive profits to build new mythic figures, each occupying their own distinct reality. The Super Smash Bros. series mushes these many distinct worlds into one, with all of Nintendo’s luminous demigods, guided by an outside hand, converging in a violent dervish.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is the fourth entry in the series — released shortly after a similar portable version for the 3DS — and the first to abandon any sort of subtitle or numeralization. It seems Nintendo is comfortable presenting Super Smash Bros. as a comforting and familiar place for players to return every five years or so, an innocent pleasure that has innumerable variations but never really changes.

At its heart, Smash Bros. is a fighting game between corporate mascots, obscure side characters, and discontinued products like Nintendo’s Game & Watch and the NES’s mostly useless Robotic Operating Buddy attachment. Unlike other fighting games, which favor precision duels, Smash Bros. was designed for four players to fight in shaking, tilting, or collapsing spaces that are littered with random power-ups that interrupt any tactical focus. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U expands this to eight-player fights for the first time in the series. This increases the tension and surprise of trying to follow what is happening.

Developed by Nintendo, "Super Smash Bros." is a multiplayer video game published for the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS game consoles. (Video: Nintendo)

In Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, the kick button always kicks and the punch button always punches, but Smash Bros. is organized around a system of haphazard cartoonishness, each character a mystery box of inputs and outputs. The A button is used for simple attacks, and repeated presses lead to combos and modifiers depending on how your character is moving at the time. The B button is used for one of four special attacks, pressed alongside an up, down, left/right, or neutral input on the control stick.

All characters can be controlled with this basic template, though what each character will do when given these commands is wildly divergent. Press up and B while controlling Mario and he’ll do a jumping uppercut move, try the same thing with Jigglypuff and she’ll close her eyes and emit musical notes that can lull other players to sleep for a few seconds. Doing the same thing for Olimar will send him hovering slowly above the ground like a helpless humanoid helicopter. This inconsistency is compounded by the character movement system. Pressing the control stick for Mario and a few others produces a peppy but reliable walk animation, while doing the same for Captain Falcon produces arcing leaps that send him careening off ledges when you’d only wanted to pick up an item in front of you.

These kaleidoscopic traps of movement and attack can be mastered over time, but no sooner are you piecing together the particularities than the game’s camera zooms back reducing every character on screen to an inscrutable inch or two.

This violent transition from a game of nuanced animation spacing and timing to a zany spattering of cartoon mania is Smash Bros. bane and its raison d’etre. It’s a game that can simultaneously produce irritated exasperation and childish amazement. Like a baby left to clang pot lids together on the floor, there is some cacaphonous joy in discerning you had something to do with all the glittering wreckage onscreen, yet its rules and presentation remain obscure enough to ensure you can only guess at what happened.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has more features, modes, and menu nooks than any version in the series, but with the exception of two throw-away mini-games (Home-Run Contest and Target Blast), they all revolve around throwing two-to-eight combatants into an arena to see who’ll outlast who. Sometimes these are pure gladiatorial stand-offs and sometimes they’re kitschy recreations from older games, like playing as Bowser and Bowser Jr. while trying to knock out Mario and Luigi. There’s also an online multiplayer mode that can be played “for fun” or “for glory,” and a kind-of board game where players roll dice to strategically pick up powerups before being thrown into battle. The game supports Nintendo’s recently released Amiibo figurines, which come loaded with NFC chips that allow them to store data about how you’re playing, creating a kind of AI mold of your behavior that you can then use to practice against or add as a companion in Team fights.

With 50 different characters and more than 40 stages, the game always has a new wrinkle for you. Even after dozens of hours, some new configuration comes tumbling out between the cracks, something you might swear you’d done a thousand times before only to discover a new kind of thrill in seeing a hated Pokémon knocked off a certain stage.

It may be for this reason that Smash Bros. for Wii U is at its most beautiful when it stops moving. Pressing the start button at any point during a match freezes the game, allowing players to pan the camera across the tableau of comic violence and corporate mythology, zoom in on its sparkling smithereens and pan out to appreciate the bizarre excesses of its slapstick mythology. The game works not because it gives us half-control of Nintendo’s demigods but because it animates them in such impossible clarity that it’s possible to catch a glimpse of our own susceptibility to being pleased by violent clashes and fanciful fictions.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U holds these two opposite impulses — the creative and destructive — together for a few moments. While it’s impossible for that union to endure, there is some magic in seeing the worlds overlap for a few moments, swollen to the point of bursting, with the kind of make-believe that one forgets about in adult life but never really outgrows.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen

More game reviews:

“This War of Mine” deals with the horrors of war without the gore

Far Cry 4: Another trip into the heart of darkness

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game that can barely hold itself together

Dragon Age: Inquisition, an engaging and contemporary-minded quest

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, where everyone wants to kill you

Bayonetta 2 is an unhinged masterpiece

“Alien: Isolation” involves more cowering than killing

Verdict on ‘Vanishing of Ethan Carter’: Thoughtful and unabashedly bookish

O ‘Destiny’–its beauty lies in the eye of the consoler