As my Brawl week of impressions draws to a close, I wanted to talk about some of the things that I don't like about Brawl. Because the game is so good, and because most of the time when Sakurai puts his time into something it turns out amazing, what I displeases me about Brawl like skips right past the bad and lands somewhere among "the ugly."
Items... oh no.
Many say that items, including smash balls, were designed to be a "casual" gamers lucky dice roll that may turn the tides of a battle in their favor. I object to such a statement because I don't believe there is such a thing as casual game design. This topic is difficult to approach because of the many different ways casual and hardcore can be defined. I choose to clarify things by looking at the evolution of a gamer. We're all "casuals" to some game or genre at some point before becoming "hardcore." Though most gamers and "journalists" in the industry privilege the hardcore gamer as as someone to be respected, catered to, and held in esteem, to me, being a hardcore gamer means becoming a gamer that ignores all the shortcomings that a game may have because of their unquestioning devotion. Hardcore gamers even go as far as preferring elements and features in a game when they do nothing else but detract from the primary function of the game and, from a design standpoint, its ultimate quality. When the "hardcore" elements of a game are broken down and analyzed by what true function they have and how they shape gameplay, many commonly thought of "hardcore" game design elements are actually casual. RPG stats, leveling up, difficulty settings, voice acting, voice chat, combos, measuring games by how many hours it takes to beat it, open world games, more likely than not make games more casual by allowing the player to ignore a games rules and the mechanics of a game or becoming distracted from the game.
In Melee, holding an item took away the players ability to grab. Grabbing is one of the cornerstones of Smash Brother's balance. Without it, you have a gapping hole in your options. Because of this design feature, obtaining items can change up the strategies of the battle on the fly. Further more, items had the least amount of priority in the game. So even when someone threw a home run bat at you, you could block it by using any attack in your arsenal (even Kirby's neutral air attack). Beyond these measures, some of the more powerful items had draw backs built right in. Hammers could lose their heads leaving the wielder a sitting duck. All of these features made item use in Melee quite balanced.
Items have been designed and implemented so poorly in Brawl that, when looking at the entire scope of the game, the limitations of having a single mind guiding the vision of a project such as Masahiro Sakurai become apparent. He admits to being a prankster at heart, and it really shows. Random explosions and from randomly spawning creates, containers, and items were bad enough in Melee. Honestly, it's not hard to design a feature that gives the player a little warning before something so dangerous randomly enters the match. Now in Brawl, not only has this problem persisted, but items have in a way gotten worse. Pokeballs and Assist trophies are only interesting to a point. When these items are unleashed the majority of the creatures and characters are invulnerable to damage. In my mind, this was a big mistake. It would only be cooler to go toe to toe with an assist trophy in order to stop it or even slow it from causing so much chaos on the field. Instead, these erratic additions reek havok leaving the defending player with limited options.
In Brawl, more items don't have counters. These items include most of the Pokemon that come out of Pokeballs, and most of the assist trophy characters. Activating an item that is essentially an invincible character, greatly favors the first player to get to and use that item. This unfortunately makes the randomly dropped items a wild card favoring fate and the player with the the greatest charge of kismet. This feature could be thought of as giving the casual or less skilled players a chance at winning a match, however, from what I can gather about Sakurai's personality, dreams, and intent with Brawl, he has a soft spot for four player free for alls that are filled with as much pomp and romp as can fit on a single TV screen. Seriously, the online free for all battles are so hectic and confusing, that they, at times, provide little entertainment beyond the colors and sound that the TV projects. Sakurai was set on this vision of smash play that he limited the online play mode "With Anyone" to four player battles even to the extent of adding in CPU characters to fill in the missing spaces to the sacrifice the battle's latency.
I can understand switching a person's place with a CPU if they drop out of a match so droppers don't discourage anyone from playing the game who might be overly sensitive or new to online play. But dropping in a CPU when nobody asked for one in a human v. human match is going too far. Would it have hurt to ask the players if they wanted a CPU character as well? Sakurai did many things to stream like Brawls options and presentation so that as many different types of people could use it with ease. But honestly, if someone is playing a videogame, they're probably smart enough to answer a yes or no question every now and then. Instead of giving the player a choice, Sakurai shoe horned us into all playing a mode that isn't as varied or flexible as the game he created.
Having no option for 1v1 "With Anyone" Brawls is another mistake. Decisions like this lend me to think that Sakurai really doesn't like it when people take his prank filled game too seriously. It could have been as simple as clicking off the last two player slots when selecting your character so that the game only filters for people looking for one more opponent to fight. Even if four players was the ideal way to play, adding more people into an online match means adding more connections. This inevitably means, the more people you add, the greater the chances of a bad or unplayable connection to occur. This is why I think the decision to only include four player "With Anyone" matches is a mistake. With very few changes, we could have had options that would still fit within the casual friendly model that was adopted for the game.
Too many nestled functions
Items are now easier to pick up than ever before. Doing an attack near an item automatically grabs it. But it's not just attacking, air dodging through an item, hitting the grab button in the air, and the A button on the ground also picks up items. This is where I draw the line for the acceptable amount of contextual functions in a control scheme. Do I really need all these buttons to grab an item? What options do I have if I want to attack without grabbing an item? It seems that I'm suck with this annoyance. I'm not sure why an option in the detailed controller customization wasn't included to remedy such an issue. Furthermore, I don't need the grab button to perform an air dodge when I'm in the air. I have a perfectly good shield button for that. It seems that such functions are so closely layered together that they have started to get in each others way.
Too many unlockables
After reading the 1up interview with Nintendo about Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, I'm convinced that it is the best and my favorite Advance Wars game not only because of how they refined the gameplay and the style of the game, but how they reduced the clutter. By taking out the hard mode, unlockable content, an RPG like leveling up feature, and a myriad of other side modes and options that players have come to expect from each installment of the Advance Wars series, Days of Ruin has been completely cleaned up. Not only is the game focused with deeper gameplay, it is easier to pick up and play for veterans and new comers. This makes the game flexible to the type of player and their life style by providing different amounts of the core experience no matter how much time one has to devote to the game. I have 117 hours clocked in on my Brawl file alone, and I still haven't unlocked all the characters. What kind of monster has Sakurai created? There have been jokes that someone could play this game forever, but do we really want to be unlocking content forever as well. After playing 100 hours of any game, I almost feel like the developers should just give me all the hidden content. Though I don't want to take away the freedom to prolong, conceal, and reward the player with content over time, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is making me think there's a better way.
Too much time on the fringe elements
I'm not going to pretend like I know how the resources were distributed throughout the development of Brawl, but I will say that the gameplay and options for the online and offline Brawl versus modes could have used some more attention. I'm still in the middle of the Subspace Emissary adventure mode. Though I'm enjoying the adventure, the majority of my time and focus is on learning the complexities of the fighting system and training myself for future tournaments. I know there are some players who aren't interested in going to tournaments or training themselves. Some people bought the game just because of the "fan service" or for the single player modes. Though I appreciate these, what I call, fringe elements, at the end of the day, Brawl is a fighter, and versus mode is where fighters live. The coin launcher is neat but, there are some things that have slipped through that greatly affect the most important part of the game, and I can only think of what minor element could have been sacrificed to have fixed the major problems. So unless Sakurai has secretly tucked away a way of patching the game via online downloads, then I can only be slightly disappointed. Why design a game where the save file of over 100 blocks that can't be transfered, unless some of that space was reserved for game patches? They can start by taking out Dedede's chain throw and adding double elimination to the tournament mode.
Knowing that Sakurai is not fond of making sequels to his games in the least bit, it's a miracle he came back to make Brawl. However, it is for this same reason that I think Brawl was held back. Having the same guy work on his sequels is a great way for him to give it a second try and fix whatever went wrong with the previous installments. However, this usually means that they won't bring fresh ideas to the project. Sakurai was sadden with Melee's release that he couldn't put more work into the single player adventure mode. So what does he do with Brawl? He goes all out making the Subspace Emissary. While this mode is fun at times, game design wise, it's not very good. Actually it borders on bad. If the Subspace Emissary was all there was to Brawl, I'd give the game a "D". So much of the development energy was put into this mode, and in the end, the gameplay in this mode is mostly forgettable. The cinematic scenes are priceless, but the remind me of a different game that I would love to play that someone like Miyamoto would have to design. Remember that cutscenes provide a wonderful view into a world and of action that you'll never get to play. It's true for other games, and it's true for the Subspace Emissary mode.
Are you Trippin'?
I tried to defend tripping. I fought the battle no one else wanted to fight. It saddens me to say that I think tripping just randomly happens after dashing with your character. I can't believe anyone would actually implement such an egregious mechanic into their game. Sakurai's pranks have gone too far. How can he encourage playing the game which includes dashing around, using dash attacks, and pivot grabs from dashes if dashing becomes increasingly risky and frustrating the more a player does it and the more times they trip? He put so many random prankster elements into the game already, did he really have to add tripping. Moving, attacking, and controlling our characters were the last sure thing we had in the game, and now that's been tampered with. If tripping is truly random, then I have lost respect for Sakurai.
Sakurai came onto the Brawl project with a vision. That vision didn't include improving item play. Looking back on things now, I would give up so many features to have a better versus mode. I appreciate all that Sakurai has done for Smash. But I believe that he has accomplished his vision for the game. Hopefully next time, if there is a next time, someone with a more critical perspective will be on board.
One can only hope.