When Eurogamer asked me if I'd be interested in sampling the new Super Smash Bros, my response was a resounding yes. I've always approached the series with a more casual mentality than most other fighting games, not because I don't appreciate the technical nuances of L-cancelling and wave-dashing in Super Smash Bros Melee, but because Smash has always been something I've enjoyed with a broad range of friends. When you take a game like Street Fighter to a certain level, you invariably reach a point where similarly skilled opponents are the only way to go - either that or wear a blindfold and pick random.
There's a part of me that's reluctant to walk that path with the new Smash. It's the kind of game that's going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The Smash community holds Melee in high regard because of how much freedom the fighting system offers, while Brawl, a comparatively more scripted fighting game, is a celebration of all things Nintendo and the only standalone fighting game to sell over 10 million copies. For the new Smash to please everyone would be nothing short of miraculous, but if there's one thing that's sure to displease many, it's that the 3DS version is landing before the Wii U.
When I first heard about this, I was adamant that I'd wait for the home console release. Anyone who's played a four-player Smash battle on one of the larger stages - be it Melee's Temple or Brawl's New Pork City - knows how hectic the game can be. Smash is all about bouncing across the screen at a blistering pace and the thought of shrinking that momentum down to the 3DS screen just doesn't sit right. Thankfully, the reality is much more forgiving. It would be a stretch to call Super Smash Bros a natural fit for the 3DS, but I suspect that even if the Wii U version had been on hand for a direction comparison (it wasn't), this portable brawler wouldn't have felt superfluous.
With the 3DS standing in place of the favoured GameCube controller, it's fair to say that advanced techniques will be a little harder to replicate. But so long as you never relied too much of the C-stick for your directional smashes (which remain the best way to knock an opponent off the stage) it shouldn't take too long to get back into the swing of things. By default, the shoulder buttons cater for shield and grab while the face buttons take care of attack, special and jump, but if you feel like using the analogue stick to jump, you can change the configuration accordingly.
Searching through the menu screen turned up a wide variety of modes to choose from. All-Star mode pits you against different generations of Nintendo characters in an arcade-style gauntlet, Training mode lets you tap the lower screen to instantly spawn an item and Multi-Man mode lets you battle against the AI with up to three other players. It's essentially a 2D horde mode with everything from StreetPass Quest ghosts and Earthbound Starmen to Donkey Kong Kremlings and Robotnik robots. The classic Home-Run Contest and Target Blast modes also make a welcome return.
With only a couple of hours to work with, I resisted the temptation to play as Samus or Sheik and instead focused my attention on the new faces and features. Shulk joins the likes of Link and Marth as a hard-hitting blade master. He can use the long reach of the Monado to batter his foes at a distance and his special moves include a tricky counterattack, a lunging overhead slash and a temporary buff to one of his attributes. This last one is what makes Shulk stand out from the other sword wielders. It's all about maximising his offensive and defensive capabilities by using the right buff for the right situation.
If switching between five different buffs mid-match sounds like a fairly complicated ordeal then you might want to steer clear of Robin. Unlike Shulk, this Fire Emblem representative has some long range options thanks to his chargeable lightning and fire pillar specials. He can also absorb an opponent's health by temporarily trapping them in a swirling vortex. But what really marks Robin out as an advanced character is the way he holds a different spell book during (and after) each special. If the spell book runs out, you can't perform that special move anymore. You also have to be mindful that Robin's normal moves are partially determined by the spell book he's currently holding.
The best thing about the 12 new characters we've seen so far is that almost all of them offer something genuinely different. Little Mac has a power gauge that gives him access to a one-hit KO when fully charged, the Wii Fit Trainer can heal his (or her) self with a breathing exercise and Pac-Man can spawn a fire hydrant that shoots jets of water. The explosion of all things Nintendo doesn't end at the select screen, either, as not only do we get new stages inspired by Mega Man, Xenoblade and Nintendogs (the latter of which is a 3DS-exclusive), each one can be littered with lots of new items.
The miniature Steel Diver submarine acts as a mobile torpedo launcher, the Master Ball unleashes a legendary Pokémon, the Boss Galaga can force an opponent off the screen and the Cucco does the angry birds routine whenever you lob it like a Frisbee. That doesn't mean you can't turn all the items off and pick Final Destination for some one-on-one action, but it's good to see that Masahiro Sakurai and his team are plundering the depths of the Nintendo toy box even further. The same is also true of the new Mii Fighters.
The character customisation options aren't anywhere near as deep as the RPG equivalent, but for a handheld fighting game, the new Smash is no slouch. The three classes on offer are Brawler, Sword Fighter and Gunner, and after kitting out your Mii with a hat and outfit - more of which become available as you play the game - you can tinker around with their special moves. My Sword Fighter could throw a shuriken made out of light, pull off the classic Master Sword spin, surge forwards with an overhead lash and parry a strike like Marth and Ike.
This combination of power and speed proved useful when I ventured into the new Smash Run mode. As a 3DS-exclusuve, Smash Run is an interesting fusion of single and multiplayer elements. You start off on a massive map full of enemies, chests and simple missions, and by working your way through each of them, you earn power-ups that permanently enhance your speed, jump, attack, special, arms and defence attributes. You only have five minutes to collect as many of these power-ups as you can, and then once the time is up, all the competing players are brought together for a final battle.
This could be anything from a standard free-for-all or a challenge to see who can kill the most enemies to a race to the finish or a vertical wall climb. This mode comes off as more of a novelty when weighed against the classic stock battles - particularly as you have no idea which final battle the game will choose. I spent one round of Smash Run collecting as many attack power-ups as I could find after narrowly losing a previous match. But when the final battle turned out to be a race, my low speed and jump attributes nearly bought me a last place finish. The only reason I dodged the wooden spoon was because one of the AI opponents got stuck behind me on the final straight and refused to leap frog over.
With Super Smash Bros launching in Japan late last week, there's a sense that Nintendo has played much of its hand already. There's still a chance that a few secret characters will pop up down the line, but for the most part, the new Smash is looking like a mechanical refinement that's packed full of new content. It's not as fast as Melee, but at the same time, it feels less rigid than Brawl, and although I still long to play the Wii U version in all its high-definition glory, two hours was enough to convince me that swinging the Home-Run Bat on the go can still be pretty damn smashing.