The Strange Serenity of Competitive Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2018
With Super Smash Bros. Ultimate just around the corner, Nintendo fans are preparing to throw away the previous game, the poorly named Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, into the dustbin. Players will keep playing the 2001 classic Super Smash Bros. Melee, however, seemingly forever. Lost in the mix, is 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Brawl is ironically perhaps the biggest entry in the series. The long-awaited follow-up to Melee, it sold a massive amount of copies, yet as a fighting game, it’s often been a punchline. There’s good reason for that. The game was designed in many ways to counteract the technical play that now defines Melee, and the result was a game that felt downright incomplete on a competitive level.
Melee players could airdodge into the ground to do a quick move called a “wavedash”, so Brawl removed directional air dodging. Melee players would run quickly back and forth, timing their turns along with dash animations in order to bait attacks, approach and position themselves, so Brawl added random tripping to its gameplay. The entire game was slowed down considerably, and hitstun, essentially the thing that allows combos to happen, was practically removed entirely by allowing characters to cancel out of them.
Characters in Brawl compete by playing defensively, and by having high priority moves, speed, and good aerial mobility. Meta Knight had all of those things, with few weaknesses. The characters that succeeded behind him were capable of chain-grabs and other less than exciting mechanics. All of this made for a competitive scene that was less lively and exciting than Melee, and one that was eclipsed by its own mod before being absolutely destroyed by the release of its sequel. Brawl is kind of a cautionary tale of what happens when a competitive game is developed antagonistically towards its own technical skills. The mechanics that dominated Brawl were whatever was left over from what got taken out of Melee. This isn’t to say it wasn’t technical, but its techniques like glide tossing, infinite chain-grabs and DACUS seem alien ten years removed, a diversion from the series’ evolution.
Yet, that doesn’t matter all too much anymore. Nobody has to play Brawl in 2019, so indeed, most people don’t. Some people, myself included, can look back at it fondly, but we don’t have to deal with its inconveniences, its lopsided tier list, its sluggish controls, anymore. For myself personally, the mod Project M has eclipsed my memory of the original game. Still, I’m getting into watching Brawl now that the game is in an undead state.
Watching it is almost peaceful. Games of Melee are lightning fast. Players constantly invade each others space, play complex mind games, press what seem like dozens of inputs in a second and generally act with extreme precision and aggression. Games of Smash 4, meanwhile, are deeply tense. The game found its Meta Knight in Bayonetta, a character who juggles the entire cast easily, leading to a lot of infighting in the community, and the game’s two-stock nature and damage-boosting rage options, along with its reliance on combos that work every time make it a dynamic but also defensive, frustrating, and cautious game.
While Smash 4 and Melee have been played over the past years in majors, supermajors, locals and regionals regularly, Brawl is a game that gets trotted out for special events only in general. Even the original Super Smash Brothers has a more lively competitive scene than Brawl today, despite the efforts of some passionate, talented players who’ve stuck with the game.
Yet, I’ve found myself attracted to these small tournament games. While Melee has a strong grassroots support base, those who choose to continue to play Brawl are essentially acting in a vacuum. Maybe this is strange to say for a game that sold over 13 million copies, but Brawl players have no glamor motivating them. The best players have either moved on to Smash 4, or back to Melee by now. The game’s meta is static and can still often be dull to watch, even when the oppressive Meta Knight and Ice Climbers are often banned from tournaments. It’s the only Smash game where commentators speak of the entire game, even as it unfolds in front of them, in past tense. It’s solved. It’s over.
Many people playing at contemporary Brawl tournaments don’t even practice the game. They play Smash 4 and just hope that that experience will translate backwards. It often does, but it also leads to less efficient gameplay than in the game’s campy hayday. The most casual smash game has nestled into a stasis as the series’ most casually played competitive game.
Of course the game is dominated by cheap, dull tactics like chain grabs, rolls, and, due to its tripping mechanic, pure luck. It’s a game that’s lower level of depth nonetheless lead to a lot of interesting play out of unexpected characters like Zero Suit Samus and Snake. While Smash 4 had many of its movement exploits patched out and Smash Ultimate seeks to work with them while regulating their strength, Brawl has never been updated by its developer. The game, then, runs the gamut from dull to inspired, depending on the match. The drama has largely fallen off, and what remains is something chill and friendly, at least from my perspective as a viewer.
Brawl commentators will happily dump on the game, joke through matches, and it’s not hugely annoying because there’s not a lot of action going on anyway. Competitive Brawl, then, has become the hangout sitcom of fighting games. Endlessly approachable and disposable, perfect to put on while I cook a meal, do the dishes or fall asleep. I cooked the best grilled cheese of my life while watching Brawl.
It had its good and bad moments back in the day, but now Brawl seems content to cruise along in the background as its audience fades away. This admittedly sucks for the hardcore players who remain loyal, but perhaps it’s inevitable. With Smash 4 ready to fade out into the same ether where Brawl went before it, it feels comfy to return to this game, warts and all. In a world that continue to expand what games can be considered competitively, from retro Sailor Moon fighters, to Shrek Superslam, why can’t Brawl be valid too?
It seems like a lot of people have been talking about Brawl again lately. Besides the Kotaku article linked here, I recommend watching MeleeitonMe's Tafo Talks video on the subject as well for a larger look at the game in retrospective.