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Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii)
Pub: Nintendo/Dev: HAL/Game ARTS
ESRB: T/Players: 1 - 4/Wi-Fi: Yes
W- It's finally out.  That's what first hit my mind when my SSBB package arrived back in early March.  After 3 years of waiting, here it was at last.  After getting back home and starting it up, I quickly found myself completely enthralled with the experience.  Which didn't really surprise me...this is THE game I've wanted for three years, after all.  And I can say, outside of a little nitpicking, that this game is the best out of the Smash Bros. line, an excellent title that is dripping with Nintendo love, and is packed with more content than any other game I've played.  Please note that the following paragraphs will contain spoilers relating to unlockable characters and stages, so if you have been trying to avoid them, you may not want to continue any further.
Smash Bros. Brawl takes all of the improvements Melee added to the series and refines them.  Trophies are back, with more than double the amount that Melee featured.  One issue with the trophies this go-around is the focus on recent games - don't expect to find much on the rich history of the NES through N64 eras, here.  Along with the trophy gathering, you now can also collect stickers and CD's, both of which add art (shame some of it is extremely small) and music, respectively.  The game's music is exceptional.  Pulling together several of gaming's finest composers and letting them go to task with classic Nintendo tunes, the results are more often than not gratifying.  Of course, some will likely annoy you, but thanks to the game's awesome My Music feature, you can turn off tunes that you don't enjoy and raise the frequency of those you do like.  It's a truly wonderful idea, one of the best the game offers.  Now the stages feel even more diverse with a ton of music that varies from match to match.
Part of the thrill of playing Smash Bros. and Melee was how you used the environment you were in to alter and adjust your fighting style, and Brawl pushes that to the extreme.  With 41 stages to pick from, there's more variety than ever before.  10 of those are Melee stages (and ones that I liked, for the most part), while the other 31 offer up tons of new obstacles and tricks that the series hasn't shown us before.  Just about every stage that has been made for Brawl captures its motif perfectly.  And there's a wide array of franchises represented.  Unlike Melee, it's not as balanced as it was before (Mario has 6 stages, while most others have only 1 or 2, for example), but outside of a few duds (personally, I don't care for Rumble Falls at all, I think that the Bridge of Eldin and Mario Circuit could have been a bit more satisfying with a few more variations than what we have here...crazy Zant warps or Blue Shell explosions, anyone?, and that New Pork City is just TOO big), the majority of these are incredible.  Even stages taking preexisting concepts like Port Town (Mute City) and Norfair (Brinstar) twist what you expect into something fresh and exciting.  Sakurai and Co. did some amazing work here.
The character roster is an overall solid lineup of new faces.  New to Brawl are King Dedede and Meta Knight from Kirby, Pit from Kid Icarus, Olimar from Pikmin, Wolf from Star Fox, Lucas from Mother 3, Zero Suit Samus from Metroid Zero Mission, Pokemon Trainer and Lucario from Pokemon, Ike from Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, Wario from the Mario universe, the old NES accessory R.O.B., Diddy Kong from Donkey Kong Country, Toon Link from Zelda: Wind Waker, and of course, third party characters Solid Snake from Metal Gear and Sonic the Hedgehog.  The development team clearly spent a lot more energy into making these new characters stand out from the Melee crowd, and they all feel welcome and offer up many new play challenges.  Snake and Sonic also fit in quite well, but I do have to say that I prefer Snake's covert/explosive moveset over Sonic's speedy/ball-rolling one.  And the reviled "clones" from Melee have been retooled heavily, becoming more of their own character than just merely being a model swap.  The closest to being a straight-up carbon copy is Toon Link, but even he feels a bit different in a way compared to his Twilight Princess counterpart.  Some may want to gripe about the removed characters (Roy, Mewtwo, Pichu, Dr. Mario and Young Link have all bit the dust), or characters that they thought should have been in the game over others, but really, I think the lineup is an achievement.  Despite some characters sharing specials and final smash techniques (which I'll get to in a moment) like the Starfox characters or the two Links, no one character feels EXACTLY like another.  And that is as much a compliment that I could give.
The major gameplay shakeup this time is the addition of Final Smashes.  Every character, given they beat the Smash Ball into submission or are just doing really badly and are reborn with their FS activated, has a powerful super move that grants them punishing maneuvers, transformations of varying kinds, status altering effects or some sort of combination of the three.  Most of these are incredible to watch and fit the character to a t, but some feel half-baked, like something else was planned and had to be trimmed off (examples including Diddy Kong's Peanut Popgun/Rocketbarrel combo, or Zero Suit Samus' simple Power Suit Samus transformation...c'mon, give us a proper Crystal Flash from Super Metroid!), while others just feel off or lazy (Bowser's Giga Bowser is spiffy, sure, but Bowser has so many other good potentials...and don't get me started on the Landmaster trifecta where an Arwing and Wolfen would have made more sense for Falco and Wolf).  Despite that, though, they are a cool addition to the series, and add a new layer of hectic depth to when and where you use it, assuming you manage to get your hands on it in the first place...
The previous game's Adventure mode has been reborn into the Subspace Emissary, a, for lack of a better term, Nintendo orgy of epic proportions.  Seeing all of these characters intermingling with each other in the well-done cinematics is just cool.  And for the most part, the mode is fun, feeling a bit like Kirby Super Star (which is a good thing!), with loads of hidden secrets and some incredible boss fights (the two with Ridley in particular).  But why the lack of other classic Nintendo enemies outside of Mario?  Where's the Like Likes, Metroids, Reapers, Sir Kibbles, Ekans, Topos and Kremlings?  Why give us three bosses that had nothing to do with Nintendo before, when these classic Nintendo games you've taken these fighters from offer up tons upon tons of better ideas?  Was Gohma not as cool as Duon?  What about K.Rool?  Medusa?  Andross's Star Fox 64 form (or Pigma, for that matter)?  Dyna-Blade?  Ashnard?  Deathborn?  Mewtwo?  Even Dr. Eggman or Liquid Snake could have made the leap.  It's a missed opportunity to really turn this into a game mode to  treasure.  For example, the clip where the combined forces of good guys battle that Subspace Freighter was jaw-dropping.  Seeing Samus's Starship, Arwings, the Halberd, the Dragoon and the Dolphin tearing that ship apart was just pure bliss.  Now imagine that scene happening all the time, with more great homages to so much more of Nintendo's history, than what we actually got.  That's what is kind of sad.
All of the other modes from Melee make the leap to Brawl, for the most part.  Target Test is now 5 levels of varying difficulty over having each character have their own stage.  I kind of prefer it like this, because each character can tackle the stage in their own way.  Multi-Man Melee and Home Run Contests have also returned, and they're as fun as always.  I laughed so hard doing the Home Run Contest because of circumstances that should have been in my control, but one thing or another mucked up my plans.  Event mode is a bit shorter than before, but now offers difficulties, which is nice.  All-Star mode is back too, but is a much longer affair than before thanks to the 10 extra slots on top of Melee's 25.  It's not random anymore, either.  In fact, some of the randomness in Melee is gone altogether.  Classic Mode feels much more confined (and a bit dull, too) with its removal of its random encounters.  You'll always fight a Zelda character in Round 1, either Yoshi, Diddy or DK in Round 2, etc.  I miss the variety, and it's making going through Classic and All-Star with everyone more difficult because of it.  And what happened to the score details in Classic mode?  I miss those a lot.  Another knock about randomness - Melee's random function showed you the character in the Character Select screen.  I prefer not fighting two or three of the same character, so this was nice.  Brawl doesn't do that.  It just shows a big question mark, and you won't know until you set foot on stage who it is you're fighting.  It's a maddening design choice.  
An addition I do like is the Challenges section.  There lies a majority of the hidden content, like the hidden stages, special trophies, CD's and stickers, stage builder parts, and masterpieces.  If something is too tough, you get 5 golden hammers to break the reward out of its window (some windows don't break, though).  Speaking of masterpieces, they were a good idea, but are lacking in their execution - I don't see what made F-Zero so special in 30 seconds.  I don't see what made Super Metroid, one of my favorite games ever, so special in the timeframe I was given to try it, to offer contrast.  The lengthiest demo, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, offers you 6 minutes to play, which should have been a standard for most of the other titles.  It's probably too little to get a proper taste of Z:OoT's rich quality, but it would have made my test runs of the various NES and SNES masterpieces a better experience.  I just think that 30 seconds to try a demo is insulting.  What are you going to gleam from a game in 30 seconds?  Not very much.
Anyway, I always play with items on, and the new items mostly do not disappoint.  I miss the Red Shell (despite moaning about them when they appeared in Melee), and Hothead isn't a suitable replacement.  I dislike the Dragoon because it's fairly cheap, so it's always off.  I also don't use the normal Hammer, so I don't use the new Golden alternate.  The other additions though are fun.  I like the Gooey Bombs, Pitfalls, Sandbag and the Soccer Ball a lot, enjoy the Unira, Timer, Superspicy Curry and the Spring, and adore the Assist Trophies.  As someone who isn't a huge fan of Pokemon, I have no qualms replacing a bunch of them with Metroids, Lyn from Fire Emblem, Little Mac from Punch-Out!!, the Advance Wars tanks and soldiers, and Legend of Zelda's Tingle.  They are wonderful, with the other downsides being that only one can be on-screen at a time, and the slight overabundance of Mario assists compared to other franchises (I'm down with Hammer Brother and Lakitu, but I'd rather have just about anyone else over Waluigi...although, I'll admit, he is kinda cool in Brawl).  Some were upset by the number of assist trophies, thinking that more than 27 should have appeared.  I notice that those same people groaned about the reduced count of Pokemon in Pokeballs (32) in Brawl.  I can explain how this happened - Some Pokemon were dropped to make room for Assist Trophies.  They didn't want to drop them all, so a balance was reached between the two.  I will say that it can feel like you are summoning the same Pokemon over and over again compared to Melee, but eh.  I'd rather have Bonsly appear four times in a five minute match while watching Sin & Punishment's Saki blast and slash my foes one moment, while Mr. Resetti from Animal Crossing lecturing us all the next, any day.
Ultimately, though, what makes Brawl so great is its continuance of great control.  If this was lacking, all of the above would be meaningless.  Thankfully, the game feels smoother than ever.  And now you can customize your controls (and turn off those annoying tap jumps!), making life so much easier.  You may still careen off the side on mistake, or pull off the wrong move in your haste, but most of these are your mistake, not the game's.  Smashing and tilting the stick for their different strikes work better here than in Melee, and some new abilities like swimming, ladder climbing, crawling, wall sticking, moving while shooting certain items, footstool jumps (leaping off of an opponent's head) and the final smashes all feel well integrated into the Smash Bros. repertoire.  Spacing is more vital than ever, with some characters (Wolf, Sheik and Marth come to mind) needing a certain space to really nail some of their techniques.  Tether recovery is more common in Brawl, with more characters being able to do it compared to the two Links and Samus in Melee.  Olimar, Lucas, Zero Suit Samus, Sheik, and Ivysaur can also use the technique, some of them requiring it as their only method of returning to the stage.  And as you might expect, most of the returning characters have been tweaked in one way or another since Melee.  Of course, the newcomers tend to steal away the spotlight from wanting to use, say, Mario again, but those who return to the original Melee cast will find many new nuances to fiddle with.
You'll notice I've spent little text on mentioning what the Smash Bros. series prides itself on - the multiplayer aspect.  That has seen tremendous growth.  Practically every mode is co-op now (only Classic mode sticks with the 1-player only tag), the game can go Wi-Fi for online battling, and thanks to the high amount of stages (including custom built ones, which is another great addition), there's more multiplayer goodness than ever before.  Alas, I have lost my old Melee compatriots to the ever-marching aspect of time, and they have moved away.  I have no broadband connection, and despite my best efforts to make it engaging, 2littlegirls can't tolerate playing it with me for very long.  So...I can't really comment too much on hanging with friends and beating the tar out of them with Home Run Bats and Green Shells.  What I've played solo has been a lot of fun, though.
A final thought on the game's look - I've read WAY too many times that Brawl is not too much removed from Melee in terms of its visuals.  I won't say that there is a gigantic leap from one to the other (like say, Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn to Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast), but there is a noticeable improvement to them.  Look at Link from Melee to Brawl.  He's much more textured than his Melee model, and since he's based off of his Twilight Princess garb, he has more detail in his outfit (i.e. chain mail, stitches, etc.)  Look at Samus.  Her beam effects look better, and when she jumps, a jet fires out of her back.  She also has a more metallic look than Melee.  Peach's dress is much more intricate.  Marth is a lot more detailed in his attire than Melee's.  The models and animation both look much better than Melee's.  And the stages are pushing more effects than they were in Melee.  Compare Mute City to Port Town.  Rainbow Bridge to the Halberd.  Brinstar to Norfair.  Icicle Mountain to Rumble Falls.  Pokemon Stadium 2 to the original.  Lylat Cruise to Melee's Venom and Corneria.  There's a lot more being thrown at you visually in Brawl, and I feel sorry for those who can't seemingly see it.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl is not perfect.  I don't think it ever claimed to be (despite fans grumbling about "this not being in there at all when I think it really should of!, and, why did they put in this lame character over that cool character?!?, and, I hate Sakurai for ruining Brawl for me!," and so on, really making it sound that way).  While it does have a few quirky design flubs and some missed chances to really send this crossover  over the top, Brawl is indeed exceptional.  It is a game that caters to the Nintendo fan base, and does it quite well.  It's rich in unlockable content, moreso than any other game.  It has a phenomenal soundtrack, a huge stage count, lots of fun characters to play as, and controls better than the series ever has.  It is a game that has made me very glad that I own it.  It's one that left me feeling fuzzy when I finish playing it for the day.  And it's one that is just...well, good, good fun.  For those who happen to be into Nintendo's characters and history, there's not much that can top the chaotic joy that is Smash Bros. Brawl.
Oh, and one last thing - these screens are all taken by me and converted with a special program.  I never took pictures in Melee, but being able to use Brawl's on my site is an awesome, awesome thing. ^_^