Writing about Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a challenge. On the one hand, you have people who play Melee and Project M religiously, who have been waiting for their chance to dissect Super Smash Bros. for 3DS’s mechanics (it’s a lot like Brawl, but distinctly faster and with totally reworked ledge mechanics and other tweaks), and on the other, the people who are just excited because it’s Nintendo fanservice (the characters and music are great, but the presentation is pretty barebones compared to the amazing reveal trailers and a lot of the new stages feel pretty underwhelming).
It’s hard to serve both audiences in a single writeup, so I’m just going to share my experience as a 15-year Smash Bros. fan.
One Chance to Make a First Impression
A number of things about Super Smash Bros. for 3DS took me aback when I started playing. For one thing, I never expected that a game with ornately animated character reveal trailers would be the first Smash Bros. not to have an intro sequence. You turn the game on and you’re plopped onto the title screen, with your roster of unlocked characters scrolling by on the bottom screen. Wait a while and you’ll get a brief tutorial, but that’s it.
There’s just something wrong about the presentation. Even unlocking characters lacks the punch of previous games. The requirements to unlock a character feel arbitrary, and while there are some amazing characters to unlock (especially if you haven’t spoiled yourself yet), the text introducing them is merely “__________ has joined the battle!” None of the silly stuff from the trailers made it over, and that’s a bummer.
Of course, more so than the game’s presentation, the biggest initial hurdle is the 3DS itself.
Coming from 15 years of Smash Bros. on consoles with proper analog sticks and decent sized TV screens, playing on the 3DS with its finicky Circle Pad is incredibly jarring. My hands longed for the sweet embrace of the GameCube controller every time I used a smash attack instead of a tilt, and the tweaked rolling mechanics that can leave you looking the way you roll simply messed with my play style and frustrated me. Everything seemed so imprecise, and I knew I was better than that.
It almost felt like playing on a friend’s busted third-party GameCube controller. I could kind of do what I wanted, but I felt like I was tripping over my own hands. At first I was worried that I’d made a mistake by playing Smash for 3DS—that I’d opened my presents too early, before I could really enjoy them. Maybe I should have waited to play the Wii U version instead…
But about 5 hours in, the controls clicked.
My thumbs began to distinguish what constituted a tilt and what constituted a smash. I could fight in the air again, roll properly, and bring the pain with more people than just my longtime mainstay Kirby. The game isn’t Melee with its delightfully broken cancels and crackfiend movement, but it’s a lot faster than Brawl and, while this has been harped upon again and again, a lack of tripping makes moving around a hell of a lot more enjoyable. The higher speed and weightier gravity also makes every smash attack feel stronger, and a little bolt of electricity that bursts from your foe when you land the blow that confirms their KO just makes it feel that much better.
When combined with how good the game looks, it almost seems as though they put all of the presentation budget they didn’t use on the stuff surrounding combat into the moment-to-moment combat itself.
The new characters are largely fantastic. Little Mac is incredibly fast and can KO opponents in several different ways. However, as soon as he loses the ground under his feet, he’s dead, which makes for an interesting dichotomy. Rosalina allows you to attack an enemy safely from a distance and live out your Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fantasies using the Luma as a stand. Pac-Man and Mega Man also manage to avoid playing like anyone who’s been in Smash before. Mega Man’s good at controlling enemies from mid-range and Pac-Man is shockingly mobile for character who spends most of his time locked in mazes (his up-B has him create a trampoline that bounces him higher with each bounce, this is dangerous, but has great vertical recovery).
The stages on the other hand just feel a bit half-hearted. Many of them scroll or change pattern partway through, and the ones brought back from Brawl feel dull. Fortunately, they look pretty good, which makes their Final Destination versions worthwhile, even if their regular versions aren’t.
Keeping Yourself Entertained
To test everyone out, I’d run them through Classic mode, which is somewhat ironically titled, since it’s different from any single-player mode that’s ever been in a Smash Bros. game before. This mode gives you two lives per stage and branching paths with marginally different difficulty levels to choose from. These paths have with slightly randomized battles (you might fight giant Captain Falcon with a team one round and Metal Pikachu the next), and choosing harder ones will net you more trophies, gold, and customization items. You’ll then fight one team (typically of Miis taken from your 3DS’s Mii Maker), and then a boss.
Now, Smash Bros. bosses have ranged from enjoyable but predictable (like Master Hand and Crazy Hand), to absolute “I’m never playing that again” bullshit (Tabuu in Brawl’s Subspace Emissary), but Smash for 3DS adds a boss whose pattern shifts depending on the level you’re playing on. He’s not too far removed from your standard pattern-recognition bosses in Smash, but he’s a gauntlet of new patterns that you need to clear in two lives. He can be ridiculous and frustrating, but victory is rewarding and it’s cool to see the fight shift as you clear the game on higher and higher difficulties. It makes replays worthwhile, because you feel yourself getting better as you take down more and more complex versions of the same boss.
After a few run-throughs of Classic mode, I’d unlocked just about every character and was feeling a little bit underwhelmed by the lack of gametypes on display. Having sampled the various multi-man brawls, Angry Birds-inspired Target Blast minigame, and the surprisingly addictive box-destroying Trophy Rush, I figured I’d just about exhausted everything the game had to show me.
I’d played the 3DS exclusive Smash Rush mode early on and wrote it off as a worse version of Brawl’s Subspace Emissary with some additional enemies taken from Namco, Capcom and Sega’s rosters.
The thing is, Smash Run is really just a Trojan horse to get you to customize your characters. Because the mode only really shines if you apply mode-specific items to your character that will temporarily boost certain stats or destroy onscreen enemies, which allows you to pick up more stat boosts across the randomly shifting map. Deviously, custom character moves are in the same menu, encouraging you to spice up the characters that you have the abilities for. Winning the stat-boosted fights in Smash Run really doesn’t matter as much as picking up new custom abilities and trophies as you explore and chasing the events that pop up on the fly. The items and abilities you pick up in Smash Run are encouragement enough to jump right back in.
Character customization is a cool bonus, too. Being able to choose from three versions of every directional B move to build a character from is fun, even if unlocking those moves can take a long time with their random appearances across the game’s different modes. Characters like Mega Man are practically unrecognizable with a few tweaks, and some characters can become a lot more lethal. I’m just as excited to use my custom characters against my friends as I am the defaults, and that’s coming from someone that thought customization was going to be a waste of time.
While I love what Super Smash Bros. for 3DS has in store for me as I play more, it’s still kind of hard to shake the feeling that this isn’t the main event. The presentation does a disservice to the combat on display, the stages feel cobbled together, and I have a feeling that as soon as I can play the game on a GameCube pad, I’m going to drop this version. The bonus modes feel appropriate for 3DS, but they’re a step down from the insanity and breadth that Brawl and Melee had. This feels like an appetizer—a delicious one that I’m glad to have, but it feels like it’s just prepping me for the main course.