Thursday, March 13, 2008

Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Things Thereof

I love crossovers. I love the character interactions found in Godzilla vs. King Kong, Robocop vs. Terminator, Freddy vs. Jason, and Aliens vs. Predator. I love the bigger company crossovers like Marvel vs. DC, Capcom vs. SNK, and Kingdom Hearts. And I love the random franchise mash-ups like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Harvey Birdman, and Super Smash Bros. It's so interesting and rewarding to see these characters, who you've invested so much time in, come into contact with other characters that you love. You'll see your favorite characters put into funny situations -- a former-superhero-turned-lawyer defends Secret Squirrel for allegedly flashing a woman, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny play a prank on a human detective whilst he's falling to his death, a team of street fighters challenges the super-powered X-Men to a match, and a pink marshmallow sucks in Solid Snake to grow a manly beard.

Yes, I've been playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl recently and it prompted me to write this post. The game is such a great homage to the Nintendo brand. You'll see obscure references like Mr. Game & Watch, R.O.B. the useless NES peripheral, and Dr. Wright from the SNES version of SimCity to newer characters like Captain Olimar from Pikmin, Lucario the fourth generation Pokémon mascot, and Mr. Resetti from Animal Crossing. The game is so entirely self-referential, from its playable characters and stages to its trophies and stickers, that it'll sure bring a nostalgic smile to any gamer's face.

There's a lot of great things to be said about the Smash Bros. series. It's very easy to get into, simplifying special moves to a directional tilt of the joystick coupled with a button press. Its gameplay plays off the familiar design of the platforming genre and has enough random elements to give an unskilled players a fighting chance. But I think the most important aspect of why the series is so fun is the variety that each character brings in. Nintendo's rich history and diverse franchises make me think that they are one of the few companies who can pull off a game of such magnitude. You see, it was common for games of yore to rely on a gameplay gimmick to differentiate itself in its oversaturated genre. Bionic Commando had his grappling hook, Mega Man stole powers from defeated bosses, Rainbow Islands had the rainbow arcs, Lode Runner had terrain deformation, and Castlevania had the whip. Nintendo franchises, many of which originated from that era, each had their own gimmicks and I'm glad to see these characters appear in SSBB with their gimmicks intact.

Princess Peach, whose incarnation is based off of Super Mario Bros. 2, has her floating skill and the ability to pick up turnips and items from the ground. Kirby has his multiple jumps and the ability to suck up characters to steal their powers. Pokémon Trainer controls three different pokémon and can switch between them at anytime. Captain Olimar has to pick up pikmin from the ground and command them to do the fighting for him. Yoshi has his unique second jump he received in the Yoshi Island games and all his egg-related glory. Sonic's gameplay is about constantly moving and staying on the offensive, much like how his games are about speed and forward motion. It's also great to see characters who didn't originate in gimmick-based games appear in the Smash series with original movesets like Captain Falcon, Fox McCloud, and the Ice Climbers. I'm personally a little disappointed to see Diddy Kong, who originated from a series that revolved around tagging and piggybacking, not show up with Dixie Kong as a partner. Instead, he's based around his later incarnations in Donkey Kong 64 and Mario Power Tennis, which is a bit less interesting.

Nevertheless, since each character came from a gimmicky background, they brought their gimmicks with them into Smash. Smash is a mish-mash of dozens of platforming ideas, which gives the game its variety. Not very often do we see a fighting game where every character is based on a different gameplay concept. I can only think of the Guilty Gear games and to an extent, Mortal Kombat II. And I'm not talking about Mortal Kombat's fatalities, which are completely useless aesthetic gimmicks. I'm talking about how some of the characters introduced ideas to the fighting game genre that did not exist back then like Shang Tsung's morphing and Reptile's invisibility. Square Enix is making their own crossover fighting game called Dissidia: Final Fantasy, but I'm not convinced that it'll be as good as the Smash series as their characters originated from a rather gimmick-less series.

Far too many games today try to do everything from your Halos to your Grand Theft Autos. What we're ending up with is a homogenization of ideas and design. Everything is starting to look the same to me to the point where I usually can't tell what open-world game or first-person shooter I'm looking at. I think we need to roll back the clock and start relying on gimmicks again to differentiate our games. We're seeing this in the independent scene with games based on space or time manipulation, perspective changing, obfuscation, shifting characters, and lots of other neat ideas. The only commercial game with the same design philosophy was last year's Portal, whose entire gameplay revolved around shooting portals and teleporting oneself from point A to point B.

Going back to Brawl, there are lots of gimmicky stages as well. My favorites are WarioWare, Pictochat, Flat Zone 2, Mario Bros., 75m, and Elektroplankton, in which it seems like you're fighting on an exact replica of the respective games. Other creative stages include the Mushroomy Kingdom where you play desolate versions of the first two stages from Super Mario Bros., Smashville whose time of day and various events are based on the Wii's internal clock, and The Summit where you fight on a large melting iceberg. These stages further epitomizes the brilliance of this fictional world that Nintendo created. Being able to stand on a line drawn in Pictochat is completely ludicrous, but in the context of this game with all its zaniness, it's actually somewhat believable.

That's because from the start, these characters are treated as figurines, as toys for the player to play with. In the original Smash Bros. game, the opening movie shows a child's room where the figurines come into life and start their fighting. In the Subspace Emissary mode in Brawl, when these characters die, they don't actually get killed but revert back to trophy form. The entire narrative is placed under the prospect of a child's imagination. The Master Hand is representative of our own hands playing with these toys and this is a common theme used throughout the entire game. In the character select screen, for example, players control a glove as a cursor that points at characters and can drag icons around, unlike other fighting games where players merely highlight characters on the screen. With this notion, Nintendo has perfected the art of creating a unified world from their various character mythos. Even with weird juxtapositions like a deformed Mario vs. a realistically proportioned Captain Falcon vs. a flat Mr. Game & Watch vs. a cel-shaded-inspired Toon Link, I accept it as a believable universe.

I wasn't really sure where I was going with this post. I just wanted to talk about some random thoughts I've had while playing Brawl. To summarize, I love crossovers, I love gameplay gimmicks, and as ridiculous as the Smash universe is, I love its fiction.

No comments: