Super Smash Brothers Melee
Preview - the best fighting game on the N64, shortly to be released on GameCube
Super Smash Brothers, if you weren't already aware, is Nintendo's beat 'em up. The big cuddly N doesn't usually go in for violent games like Smash unless there's a twist of fun involved, and with Smash the idea was that to take a bunch of Nintendo's favourite franchises, pillage them for the best bits and assemble into a fighting game. And by God, it worked too! After the enormous success of Super Smash Brothers on the N64 (a console which didn't exactly entice beat 'em up fans with open arms), it's hardly surprising that Nintendo and HAL Laboratory have stuck so stringently to the original formula, with a jaw-drop-inducing revisions. For starters, you have your basic set of characters, around twenty including the secret ones, taken from games as diverse as Kirby, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Mario, Starfox, Metroid and Pokemon. You have totally new multiplayer levels for each individual character, which have been enhanced with some truly audacious new power-ups. Character design and visual quality has been enhanced, and there are plenty of new gameplay modes too, including a proper single player mode. This is the most drastic addition. Instead of simply fighting one character in a fairly drab arena, players actually have to work their way through entire levels of side-scrolling but beautifully 3D rendered and lavishly detailed graphics, filled with a host of nasty bad guys appropriate to that character (such as Redeads for Link). Locations have been hand-picked for each character and judging by the screenshots they will blow you away. We're certainly looking forward to them from a purely nostalgic point of view. And that is much of Super Smash Brothers Melee's appeal. It offers so much nostalgia that no Nintendo fan will want to be without it, beat 'em up fan or no. It's similar to Paper Mario in that respect.
The best indication we have of SSBM's worth is in its visuals, which we've seen rather a lot of in the last few months. When we played the game ourselves at The Nintendo Show, we were thrilled to report afterward that it looks just as good when the game is set in motion. Visually the game is very similar to the Nintendo 64 version of Smash Bros, but this time it runs at a stunning 60 frames per second with no apparent slowdown. The quality of the character models has shot up too, with more polygons per character and luscious texturing. The game also benefits from the GameCube's built in anti-aliasing, and like the other GameCube titles we've seen so far looks extremely crisp. It also looks as though SSBM features accurate real-time lighting, reflections and shadows, at least on the main characters. Beyond them, the actual world is surprisingly sparse of detail compared to other GameCube titles. There are some nice touches though. Every level has a specific theme from a Nintendo game, and if you're not bowled over by the detail you certainly will be by the nostalgia. The soundtrack aims to do likewise, featuring classic Nintendo tunes from games like Zelda, Metroid, Mario and Donkey Kong. Stirring themes include the catchy Hyrule tune from Zelda which, like the others, has been fully orchestrated. I only hope they release a CD soundtrack somewhere down the line.
Beyond the premise, the visuals and the sound, you're probably wondering about the actual gameplay. The good news is that Nintendo and HAL haven't shirked their responsibilities to gamers here either. Each character retains his or her moves from the original game (and the new characters get their own line-ups), but each now has a new special move as well. These require a bit more coordination to use than the basic attacks, but they are invariably cool. For instance, word is that Yoshi's special attack is to grab an opponent and chew him… Interestingly, Nintendo have overhauled the defence system rather than going all out with new attacking moves. You can now deflect, block and evade attacks. Each is character-specific in its interpretation - for instance Mario uses his cape to deflect attacks - but this improves the basic level of combat. You can now sidestep attacks too, allowing you to really beat the stuffing out of your confused opponent once he has stumbled past. SSBM's inventory of items is much more impressive than its predecessor's too. There are lots of stage-specific items as before, including things like blocks of ice and a parasol (guess which platform darling wields that). As before, SSBM's staying power comes from its multiplayer modes, and we can foresee this one getting pulled out for just about every occasion, special or not. Thanks to a near-identical control system, just as intuitive as before, players both old and new will have no trouble picking the game up. Once you have grasped the main method of attack - swinging the analogue stick round in an arc and hitting an action button to connect - you should have no trouble getting the hang of things. This bodes well for the tournament mode, which demands a lot of players to truly enjoy.
Make friends and humiliate people
Multiplayer options include Melee, Tournament and Custom Rules. Melee is your basic four-player deathmatch equivalent, with a few variable settings dragged in from the original to add time limits or to make up teams. It also includes two new modes, Coin and Decision. Coin is about collecting loot that pours from the sky by beating your opponents out of the way, and Decision is about using varied attacks and combos to beat your opponent to build up your points score. Tournament mode is the big favourite, with support for anything from two players on up. Any empty spaces can be filled by CPU players if you like, and you can preset the stages or have them randomly selected. In fact, you can set up the tournament any way you like, especially as you can use the Custom Rules option to adjust other settings, changing handicaps, damage ratios, stage selections, items and such, then saving the changes to your memory card for wheeling out in tough tournaments. It would put the fun back into gaming tournaments if organisers recognized that it's more entertaining to have people compete in games like this than Quake III and Counter-Strike. Imagine Super Smash Brothers Melee projected onto a 50-foot screen with teams of players fighting for the ultimate prize. There's enough skill, timing and practice required for it to produce far more varied and interesting competition than anything I've attended this year.
Super Smash Brothers Melee is due out in Japan on November 21st and should follow in America early in December, along with Pikmin. When it does arrive you can be sure it will hit with a bang though. You might as well start saving up for the GameCube's European launch right now, given the number of high quality titles that are likely to be available.