Super Smash Bros. Brawl Hands-on Impressions

To put it simply, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is more of the same. But as we've observed with several franchises, more of the same isn't always a bad thing—especially when it's a lot more. In fact, there's so much friggin' content in Super Smash Bros. Brawl that it's awfully difficult to see the bottom, and after a solid nine hours with the game, I've only barely touched on all that the game has to offer.

Hardcore Melee fans will be pleased that the core gameplay hasn't changed much. Tweaks in physics and reworkings of characters seen in previous installments of the series make returning to the franchise a little jarring, but those who've banked countless hours in Melee will fall into old routines with gusto after an hour or so.

For gamers unfamiliar with the Smash Bros. series, the core gameplay is rooted in multiplayer battles for up to four players, taking control of various franchise characters and beating the tar out of one another with fists, feet, weapons and items across a variety of familiar landscapes. Its simple control gameplay—which utilizes basic motions and button-presses rather than the complex combos and special moves of many other fighters—is faithfully recreated in this latest installment of the series. And it's still ridiculously fun.

But where the "new" of Brawl really shines is in the roster—not just in terms of new characters, but also in terms of updates to familiar faces. Speaking in broad terms, Nintendo has put in a great deal of work toward further differentiating the roster, particularly in regards to returning characters. One of my issues with Melee was the way in which many of the game's unlockable characters were mere clones of default fighters; a visual swap here, a stat fix there, and voila, Dr. Mario. But those clones that have made the cut have been made quite distinct from their counterparts in Brawl.

By way of an example, Toon Link—a rendition of Young Link, reworked in appearance to mirror the character's Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (GCN) appearance—isn't just smaller and faster, but also features special attacks which work in fundamentally different ways than Link proper. By creating these marked distinctions, fans of the series can expect to get much more mileage out of the roster—and then, of course, there are the newbies.

The appearance of several new characters in Brawl isn't limited to just simple fan service; many of them offer very new and unique ways to play the game. Captain Olimar from Pikmin, for example, elaborates on the team-based tandem play originally explored by Ice Climbers, and should prove an interesting character for many players despite a steep learning curve. Pit and King Dedede shake up the light and heavy ends of the roster respectively, providing power players in either end of the scale as an alternative to Sheik or Bowser. Solid Snake's focus on explosives and timed attacks brings a great measure of calculation into an otherwise chaotic mix. And that's just the start—I'll admit that after several hours put into the game, there are still plenty of characters that remain locked to me.

The sheer amount of content extends into almost every avenue explored by Brawl. Not only does the game offer a load of playable characters, but the arenas in which they fight—which are arguably as important as the characters themselves—are tricky and ridiculously varied.

Though Brawl comes complete with several barebones or otherwise basic stages, the "gimmick" levels—in which some element of gameplay is introduced by the arena itself—are absolutely fantastic. Giant monsters threaten to inhale combatants in the Pikmin stage, and a level based on WarioWare drops microgame-esque tasks on players which can be completed for bonus items or other benefits.

What makes Brawl amazing is the ways in which elements in the game complement and complicate eachother. A matchup between any given characters will unfold very, very differently between one level to the next. And with 37 characters in total, the possibilities are manifold.

Though the multiplayer matches will likely make up the bulk of the time dumped into Brawl, there's an insane amount of content loaded in to keep players occupied. The Event Mode rounds make for an interesting and challenging diversion, one which even the most weak-willed of players (read: me) can get through thanks to variable difficulty settings. All-Star and Classic single-player modes make a return, alongside the lengthy—but not necessarily terrific—Subspace Emissary campaign.

Perhaps this is just my hype deflating, but aside from some stellar CG sequences, the Subspace campaign is perhaps Brawl's most limited aspect; working the Smash Bros. experience into a side-scrolling affair just doesn't click for me. The floods of enemies, while creative and pleasing to the eye, are limited in number and tend to repeat often, and some levels actually feature some degree of backtracking—et tu, Nintendo? Graciously, the inclusion of a second player makes it a little more interesting, but I don't suspect it's a mode that many gamers will return to after the first go-round. Thus far, Subspace Emissary is possibly the only downside to an otherwise brilliant and insanely ambitious effort.

I still haven't had a chance to play around with level creation, trophies, online play, and—good lord, there's a lot. I can't overstate just how much content surrounds what is, essentially, a very basic gameplay concept: Put a bunch of iconic gaming characters together and let them beat the snot out of one another. Built around that concept, however, is essentially a playable encyclopedia of Nintendo, a manifestation of over 25 years of gaming history into a single cohesive experience. Even just nine hours in, it's profoundly clear that this is one game that will have a lengthy, lengthy shelf-life.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl will be available at North American retailers on Sunday, March 9.