My thumbs are sore, my eyes hurt, and my pupils are so dilated they look like something from the closing scene of 2001. I, dear reader, have spent too much time exploring the more sedate fare that gaming can throw up; bowling, golf, darts, Civ. And oh dear, doesn’t it show. I’ve been playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl for four hours, and I already feel like I should be drawing a pension; I need to steal the brain of a 12-year old, I need a Joe 90-style re-boot. I am too old for this: damn you mind, shape up or ship out.
This game sold 800,000 copies in one day when it launched in America. The copy that dropped into the Den of Geek office on Thursday morning – the one I had to produce the saddest pair of doe-eyes you ever saw to get my mitts on – was probably something close to the 5 millionth in circulation. This is a bigger game for Nintendo than any other right now, or ever, really. Its arrival was announced before people knew the Wii was the Wii – people have been waiting three years for this game – or the seven years since Melee murdered anything else that emerged for the Gamecube.
This begged a question in my mind, a simple one… Why? Starting out, you’re convinced – no matter what anyone tells you – that this is a Tekken-esque button smasher. No bad thing and, as such, destined to be loved by young and old, geek and non-geek, Nintendo fan boys and the by-the-numbers 2.4 game owning Wiister (this, for many, will be the third I’d wager). To begin with, if you don’t understand what you’re doing, it really doesn’t matter ‘cause the game appears bereft of virtually anything resembling subtlety and very little in the way of actual battle tactics. The battle controls have been simplified to the point of lobotomy, but then you realise that there are skills to be mastered beyond standing and fighting. Based on the concept of ‘ring outs’ over ‘knock outs’, Brawl’s fights ensure that you must, at the very least, quickly master the jumping and movement physics to make anything of the arenas. However, in those first moments, when things really get going, I defy anyone to tell you they’re responding to on-screen action rather than just going into a spasmodic flurry of twitches. It seems just too quick, too bright, too dazzling a spectacle for anyone without an invisible alien friend helping them to deal with. And then…
Once you get beyond the – admittedly pretty cool – premise of rolling 20 years of a company’s glorious gaming history into one rock-‘em sock-‘em rumble, there seems little else that you need to know. Certainly, I’d implore you not to try and attach too much logic to what’s going on, you’ll just end up with the same Japanuerism I’m currently suffering from. A beautiful, beguiling, Technicolor time warp of a headache; the same glorious feeling I once got staggering away from Space Harrier, or Afterburner, R-Type, Sonic, WipeOut or virtually any incarnation of Mario, ever. A little game play reveals that Brawl speaks with dulcet tones, but in a language you don’t initially understand. Like many of the great, addictive gaming experiences – certainly those which robbed you of cash in arcades – it requires your fingers to speak in tongues. For your body to reach the beautiful point where the connection between your eyes and hands short-circuit – taking your pesky, questioning brain out of the equation altogether. Like I said: don’t try to work it out. This game is not at all interested in what your discerning mind thinks of it. It knows it’s great, and doesn’t give a shit if you don’t. All you have to do is trust it.
Why do we love Nintendo? Because they don’t make games like anyone else, quite simply. And don’t be fooled here, Brawl may look like an arena fighting game, but it turns out to be the central premise of such an experience turned into something else. The closest I can come to describing it, is as a Jackson Pollack painting. Colour splashes across the screen, the past the present and the future collide, you stare at it for hours, impressed, confused, enraptured, lost. You try to move on, but afterwards everything else just seems, well… boring, plain and pedestrian. Your appreciation of what canvas and paint are for will never be quite the same.
Smash Brothers doesn’t do anything funky with the Wii-mote, because it doesn’t need to. If you need gimmicks, go elsewhere. This is classic arcade gaming, taken to a fairground, filled with candyfloss, artificial sweeteners, carbonated drinks, caffeine and all the E numbers it can deal with, then put on the waltzers and left to throw up all over the big wheel. It could only be the product of a collaborative effort between software designers, ‘cause any mind shattered enough to marry together the disparate elements that roll across the screen here would’ve been committed years before. Scream if you wanna go faster!
So I will play, and play and play. I’ll search for the Rosetta Stone. Live in the wilderness of lost battles and thrown controllers until my hands understand, ‘til I release Solid Snake, and find Sonic. I will play because I want to, I will play because Nintendo are so damn charming they deserve my attention, because they love what they do and deserve reciprocity. Nintendo want you, ‘cause they’ve already go me… I‘ll play until I have the ludicrous stickers and trophies this game rewards you with, coming out of my whazoo: ’til I’ve fought and won with them all, seen every cut scene and conquered the lot – at least that’s how I feel right now. Then, after I’ve done that, I’ll go online and get my arse kicked royally by some 8-year old from Chester-le-Street who finished the game in three days flat and whose malleable brain has been altered forever by it’s synapse splitting density. Such is life.
I can feel it already, the odd moment when I understand, when what’s left of my mind fires correctly and the odd manoeuvre emerges from the mayhem; a block, a recovery, a Super Smash… I look into the abstract and pull out a shape, a feeling, a combo. A single word recognised amongst the pages of code. At least I think I feel it, I certainly get a similar feeling from this games as moments I remember from every game I’ve ever loved, every game I’ve ever rejected initially and then still found myself playing six months later. That’s why I haven’t played this game in six hours now, and I miss it.
For many, this will simply be a purchase dictated by the presence of a small Italian plumber and his mates, or the bow and arrow wielding elf, sword wielding princess, a headband wearing secret agent or blue hedgehog. They’re all here; but then so is the kind of brilliance that has made 25 years of gaming so much fun. Hey, I’m old, but I’m not dead… Yet.