Version tested: GameCube
As the Melee part of the title suggests, Super Smash Bros. Melee is one of those games which really has to be played with others. It's a multiplayer fighter, but much more than a simple beat 'em up, or even just an update to its predecessor on the N64. SSBM is a dramatic reworking of the formula which now offers more of everything, providing a much more varied and enjoyable experience.
The game is a contest of might between two to four players, some of whom can be computer-controlled, and the objective is simply to batter your opponent and then knock him off the edge of the arena while he's vulnerable. The key to shunting your opponent into the ether is to batter him with attacks, take advantage of the level designs, which differ wildly from one stage to the next, and to make use of the power-ups and items that are strewn about the place. Instead of a health bar players have a percentage of damage which begins at zero and can go all the way up to 300 percent. Anything over the 100 mark leaves the player susceptible to being thumped into the stratosphere, so games tend to move back and forth, with one player on the defensive looking for an opportunity to strike and the other rampantly pummelling the pad in the hope of landing that decisive blow.
At the end of the round your various feats are totted up and the match is decided on points, with funky scoring categories to muse over before moving on. And that really is it. The joy of SSBM though is in the sheer variety of things you can get up to and the strategic elements of the game, not to mention all the minutiae and nuances you can feasibly imagine lurking just beneath the surface, and of course a boatload of memorable Nintendo characters to fight with.
Cute Yet Fearsome
Your control system is as simple as the game's premise. The A and B buttons are your main attacks, with an option to make A the only attack command - perfect for nippers. Using the analogue stick and these buttons in conjunction you can perform all the moves in the game, even charged special attacks and other nonsensica, but none of them is essential to victory.
You can still lose quite easily to a newcomer if you overdo it in an attempt to flaunt your skills, but the accessibility of the game really does count in its favour - it's the perfect party game, for example, with wacky characters and bright colours for drunken people, and options geared towards après-pub players who want some alternative to bouts of arm-wrestling. A quick and handy training mode will guide you through the basics if you don't trust your intuition, and there is a fully-fledged single player adventure game aspect to help you hone your skills.
Experienced players can introduce a degree of subtlety to proceedings by using the pad's three shoulder buttons, which help you to perform evasive manoeuvres and protect yourself from enemy onslaughts. You can also take advantage of the game's 31 odd power-ups and items, which can be anything from harmless to deadly. Some super-size you, whilst others endow you with little more than a humble fan. However, any given power-up literally has the potential to blow up in your face, adding a factor of risk to the whole shebang.
Players can take up the mantle of fourteen of Nintendo's most popular characters, and with a bit of effort another eleven may be unlocked to supplement that total. Characters are wondrously designed in typical Nintendo fashion, and although many come from games with extremely different artistic styles, they all seem to fit together nicely.
Stages are thoroughly detailed with a tremendous amount going on. Sometimes you can fall prey to environmental hazards, with Donkey Kong's riverhouse sinking 'neath the surging water now and then, and many levels feature rotating platforms, traps and sometimes just an awkward layout. The Star Fox stage atop an Arwing is a superb level, with players leaping between the wings and sometimes coming unstuck from below, or hopping onto nearby speeders, and the F-Zero track-based level is also a hoot. Many of these will have you rubbing tears of nostalgia from your eyes.
Variations on the simple multiplayer game help to extend SSBM's lifespan, although I had actually been playing the game with a few friends for hours before we even tried them - it's addictive in no small way, so make sure you don't overlook anything! Turbo mode is a bit of a laugh, if only because it's practically uncontrollable, while Sudden Death mode is a nerve-wracking experience. As you will soon learn, the game has no trouble recording all of your feats and mishaps, with leaderboards and statistical readouts stored on the memory card for up to 30 players, so make sure you protect yourself from lunatic rounds with completely uncertain outcomes!
Fiddle With Me
It's not just varied multiplayer modes either; you can customize virtually every aspect of the playing experience. You can limit the amount of power-ups in play or turn them off altogether; you can choose health limits and whatnot and tinker with the play mechanics until the game barely even resembles itself. And if you're a man (or woman) of ambition, you can fight to win some of the two hundred or so awards on offer, try to collect trophies throughout the game, or even head to the mini-game stadium and win some points that way.
As you can probably tell, this is one of the deepest and most vibrant examples of a beat 'em up for many years, highly deserving of its countless awards and sterling sales record. It looks great and moves swiftly, has a huge soundtrack of classic Nintendo tunes, and although the PAL version lacks a 60Hz mode it runs at virtually full screen. You can be as good or as bad at it as you can be bothered to be, and you'll still be able to play competitively with newcomers or cope with seasoned opponents. I've also yet to meet somebody who doesn't like it…
Overall it's an exotic cocktail of entertainment for Nintendo fans, who will slurp up every last drop, and if you want to talk about longevity, I've had this game on import for about six months and I still haven't finished it. People talk about killer apps and games that sell systems, and if you can put aside any preconceptions of this as a kiddie title or a game for beat 'em up virgins only, then you will have one of the finest videogames ever to issue forth from the caring hands of a developer. One to be remembered, and definitely one to own.
10 / 10