Version tested: Wii
The other week we joked that if OutRun 2 was fan service, SEGA Superstars Tennis was dinner, dancing, cocktails and fellatio. We'd lose our jobs if we tried to put Super Smash Bros. Brawl on that scale. It's so completely, bonkersly in love with Nintendo that it's hard to imagine how it will be topped. Perhaps if the next Mario game prints money out of the disc slot every time you find a star. And Princess Peach turns out to be Scarlett Johansson, who lives in the box, and needs a backrub.
Like the other Smash Bros. games, this is a side-on beat-'em-up with platform game elements, where the object is to knock the other player (or players) off the side of the arena. Doing lots of damage to the enemy - as indicated by a percentage - means they will be blasted further away, until it's impossible for them to jump back to safety. Depending on the game rules, players are rewarded for knockdowns and penalised for their own trips into the abyss, with the winner usually a logical synthesis of the two. And the winner is always a character from a Nintendo game, or a welcome intruder from a friendly competitor.
The cast is massive to begin with - Kirby, Mario, Link from Zelda, Zelda from Zelda, and lots of other much less obvious ones - but gradually deepens as you progress through the single-player adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, where you meet Ike from Fire Emblem, Pikachu, Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid and others. It's even got Sonic the Hedgehog, who has been welcomed into this orgiastic, Return of the Jedi Endor campfire scene of a game like Darth Vader pulled lovingly from the crumbling Death Star of the broken old-days SEGA, his past attempts to destroy Mario ignored as he dances gaily with Admiral Ackbar and the Ewoks.
That single-player mode encapsulates the fan service. You navigate side-scrolling platform game levels having fights with Game-And-Watch squiggles and armies of ROB the Robot, among dozens of others, as disparate Nintendo properties from incomprehensible alliances in the face of pantomime evil. So you have Link retrieving his sword, Excalibur-like from a rock in the forest before wandering past a sleeping Yoshi and getting into a fight with the Ancient Minister, while miles away Fox McCloud partners up reluctantly with Diddy Kong and Lucas from Earthbound inches through the ruins of a zoo with a bit of help from a Pokmon Trainer.
This is all summarised in occasionally brilliant dialogue-free cut-sequences that almost justify playing through Subspace Emissary alone, but the real incentives are unlocking all the characters you meet for use in competitive multiplayer. The option to play co-operatively with a friend adds a bit more depth, although there are some mild camera issues, and there's a neat sticker-based power-up system that lets you buff your characters between levels using collectibles derived from increasingly obscure Nintendo-related sources, like Electroplankton and Ouendan 2.
And yet Subspace Emissary is basically just extra hugs. Once you've cuddled enough, you can concentrate on the fighting modes, which is where Smash Bros. is strongest. Sometimes dismissed as a bit random and disorientating, it only really is for the first little while, after which the emphasis on special moves, power-ups, environmental awareness and smart movement around platforms establishes itself. KGB-speed reactions to twitching enemy biceps and combo memory aren't the necessities they typically are in beat-'em-ups, although there is room for advanced attack and defence. So it's more accessible than, say, Virtua Fighter, but there's also enough of a hook there if you're a bit hardcore, providing you can put up with all the hopping around.