Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl

Available on: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Developer: Ludosity, Fair Play Labs | Publisher: GameMill Entertainment

Release: Oct. 5, 2021

As SpongeBob takes a major smack to his spongy face from Nigel Thornberry’s oddly flexible, over-his-head leg, the yellow pineapple inhabitant is sent flying. Through it all, SpongeBob has no audible reaction. No iconic laugh or cries of pain from longtime voice actor Tom Kenny. Nigel Thornberry is also perplexingly silent, avoiding his signature catchphrase, “Smashing!" after, ahem, smashing an opponent across the stage. The uncomfortable silence creates a distance between the player and the game.

“Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl” has the potential to become a legitimate, top-tier competitive fighting game. But while many will praise its great fighting mechanics, it’s impossible to overlook the baffling audio design.

None of the characters in “Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl” have voices. You won’t hear, for instance, Ren of “The Ren & Stimpy Show” saying something iconic to the character, like “You EEEEDIOT!” Instead, there’s an uncomfortable lingering silence before the game announcer shouts “Oh-ho! What a hit!” to fill the void.

On top of this, none of the popular music from Nickelodeon’s shows can be found in the game. There are tracks that emulate the vibes of specific franchises, but no in-game music directly references motifs from Nickelodeon’s roster of memorable opening themes.

Not only do these odd sound design choices make the game seem a bit soulless aesthetically, they show that the developers missed one of the biggest selling points of the popular crossover fighting series Super Smash Bros., which “All-Star Brawl” attempts to emulate.

Developers Ludosity and Fair Play Labs have admitted to taking heavy inspiration from Smash Bros. The gameplay, menus and modes all crib directly from the Nintendo series. Instead of the classic 1-v-1 setup with health bars that most fighting games utilize, “All-Star Brawl” has a damage percentage system similar to Smash Bros., with the ultimate goal being to knock your opponent offstage by increasing their percentage through multiple hits.

The gameplay nails the Smash Bros. formula both casually and competitively. It plays almost identically to “Smash Bros. Ultimate,” with a faster overall game speed. Several beloved mechanics from older games in the Smash Bros. series are included in “All-Star Brawl,” like wavedashing and waveshining from “Smash Bros. Melee” — or in “All-Star Brawl’s” case, wavetoasting using Powdered Toast Man’s special shield.

But a big part of the charm of Smash Bros. is the nostalgia it evokes in its players. “Smash Bros. Ultimate,” in particular, is a celebration of video games themselves. Characters’ movesets and dialogue reference great gaming moments and elements from within their respective games. From the stages to the retained 8-bit music to the Spirit Mode characters — which are literally just PNGs ripped straight from their original games — all of it harks back to the games that Smash Bros. draws its fighting roster from.

That ode to gaming is why the hype cycle, reveal trailers and speculation over new characters are such a big part of the Smash Bros. fandom and culture. There’s nothing quite like the overwhelming joy fans feel when their nostalgia is validated by representation in the game. Smash Bros. understands the importance of recognizing these feelings in their players and showing that they were felt by many others.

The Smash Bros. developers consistently play up reveals and speculation, tuck small references in-game that only the most dedicated fans would catch, and consistently honor your memories of certain games — as evidenced by lead developer Masahiro Sakurai’s gaming paraphernalia and extensive familiarity with the history of multiple gaming franchises.

Smash Bros. is a catalogue of gaming memories, ranging from cherished older titles to buzzy new ones. That’s why moments like the reveal of the addition of Sora from “Kingdom Hearts” have as much of an impact on Smash Bros. fans as the addition of Sans from “Undertale,” despite the former being a long-requested character and the latter being added as a Mii Fighter costume.

This isn’t to say that “Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl” is devoid of charm or nostalgia in its design. Its fighters move and look like we remember, and certain special moves call back to great moments in their respective shows. But by neglecting the sound design for the characters and the game’s soundtrack, Ludosity and Fair Play Labs have, intentionally or otherwise, overlooked a critical component of Smash’s appeal.

"Our focus was on creating the best possible gameplay experience for core brawling fans and Nickelodeon fans around the globe,” said Joel Nyström, Ludosity’s CEO, in an interview with Game Informer. “It is not as straightforward to do as one might think, and as we continue to build the Nick All-Star Brawl franchise, we will be reviewing all options, which may include adding VO [voice-over] down the road.”

Hopefully, characters can be voiced soon, because currently, without voices or soundtracks containing memorable tunes from shows, “Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl” feels lifeless, with the characters and stages appearing as copies that don’t quite nail the memories we cherish from the cartoons. Sure, the gameplay is tight and fun, but without the iconic phrases, noises and soundtracks, these fighters might as well be anyone.

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