Review by Derek Zoolander
"Great depth, brilliant fun--a party game with substance"
Back in 1999, Nintendo and HAL presented us with an unexpected gem of a game called Super Smash Brothers: an insanely fun, innovative 2D fighter involving a dozen Nintendo mascots as combatants. A sequel seemed a good idea to all, and HAL belatedly obliged, with Super Smash Bros. Melee appearing as one of the big near-launch titles for the GameCube. The two-and-a-half year wait was a long one for anxious fans the dearth of other fighters on the Nintendo 64 saw to that but Melee has made up for lost time. Building carefully, seamlessly on the original, Melee retains its basic gameplay but fills in a few inconspicuous cracks, and more importantly it adds plenty of depth -- if not mind-blowing innovation. Oh, and it's still plenty fun.
As before, a crew of famous characters fights it out in arenas of various makes and models. Our fighters use their trademark attacks, garnered from two decades of Nintendom, to inflict damage on their opponents. The more damage characters have, the farther they'll be launched when you hit them with a powerful attack. You defeat opponents by hitting them off the arena and stifling their attempts to jump or fly back on.
This isn't as gory as other games, perhaps, but Melee's fighting lends itself to interesting movesets. Instead of the regulation kicks and punches characters can use anything from headbutts to yoyos, swords to tennis racquets, swung in comical but convincing manner. Items like boomerangs, bow & arrows, and even turnips (Peach) can be chucked to serve as long range projectiles.
Although motley and at times flashy, the moves are as effective as those of any other fighter, and characters are well balanced for their sheer variety. Link is a swordsman who moves about slowly, hits hard and packs an intimidating arsenal of bombs and arrows. He's the all-purpose character, the type veterans sneer at. They favour Marth, a lithe swordsman who relies solely on his fast, elegant slashes. Bowser and Donkey Kong are the well-armoured heavyweights, powerful but capable of bogging down your controller with their slow response; while mercurial speedster Fox is so fast and nimble that you're almost afraid to run him at full tilt. Then there are characters like two-dimensional Mr Game & Watch and lightweight, floating Peach (complete with Toad as a move-countering servant) who don't fit into any fighting game categories at all.
Unorthodox maybe, but all save a handful of characters have a deep moveset and plenty of ways to use it. Because Melee doesn't employ the standard health bar, the emphasis when fighting is on setting up well-thought juggles to increase damage and keep opponents in your control, rather than just batter them into submission. A series of deft little hits can put opponents into the right position where you can smash them with a potent attack before they can recover.
It wouldn't seem like you could milk a cogent comboing system from moves that involve butt-bashing and tornado whirls, but HAL somehow manage just that. In fact, they've deepened the fighting since the original. New moves like mid-air dodging, quick-recovers and smart shielding appear, fostering more balanced characters and preventing cheap tactics. Melee in general is faster than before, yet its moves now require even more precision in timing. Even in the fluid heat of battle there's no degree of randomness.
And the genius of it all is that every move, every manoeuvre in the game is executed through a simple flick of the control stick and a tap on a button. The strength and duration of your jerk on the stick and the impact of the button tap dictate what move is performed. You'll never have to worry about quarter-circle-forwards or other complex button sequences that need memorising. Even juggles and combos are intuitive once you get the hang of things. Melee lets you fight as you like.
Mind you, many who play this game don't realise half of this depth and just biff and bash each other, hence Melee's reputation as a party game. A few elements of the game do lend themselves to out-and-out brawling. Items fall out of the sky to affect the action and screw up whatever semblance of balance the fight may have had. They're amusing, but it can be annoying for your huge juggle to be broken up by and this could only happen in Nintendomain a giant Pokemon. No worries though, as you can turn them off for those times when you're not having a party.
The kicker, the real complement to Melee's great fighting, comes in the form of twenty-odd fighting stages which deliver gameplay hijinx as well as visual thrills. Like everything else, these stages are inspired by Nintendo history. Mr Game & Watch's home stage is, not surprisingly, the interior of a watch, recreated in its tiny flattened-sprite form. Link and company call Hyrule Temple home, a huge stage with beautiful gazebos and temples sitting atop a maze of passages and caves. You can choose to hide in those caves, forcing your opponent to come to you, or you can use the open ground at the top of the stage to lend yourself mobility and free up your aerial game.
Most other stages also encourage innovative strategies in their layouts. Players in Brinstar can be singed by the sea of acid that ebbs and flows around the stage, which itself shakes and splits. Brinstar Depths takes this one step further as our old buddy Kraid angrily torments the stage, rotating it completely! Captain Falcon's racetrack, the dock from Majora's Mask and a bunch of floating Pokemon balloons all feature, and seeing each stage for the first time is genuinely fun.
Watching your beloved mascots fight in these vibrant environments is at once nostalgic and stirring. Deep blue skies, jagged rock formations and well-lit, mammoth caves are the backdrops to Link's earnest efforts, Mario's flamboyance, Roy's fiery swordsmanship, Kirby's endearing huffing and puffing and whatever else. Add three other players and the atmosphere is just brilliant.
And just to top things off HAL throw in some finely arranged stage music. Mostly remixes of themes from games past, the audio might just be Melee's best aspect. In Onett plays an upbeat, synthesised jingle that halfway through gives way to a rousing chorus. Brinstar Depths has a menacing synth track to accompany Kraid's tumult; and Kirby's famous Gourmet Race theme a light staccato melody carried by trumpets and flutes is reborn as a glorious orchestral overture. It starts off with a gentle flute and clarinet prelude, and then strings and piano roll in. The flutes and trumpets again take the melody but this time it's more majestic, almost march-like in tempo. Piccolo flourishes and an intricate flute-clarinet duet round out the song.
All this time, the surreal surroundings of the Fountain of Dreams background fireworks, dreamy, rainbow-hued mist, shimmering reflective pools deluge your senses even more, enough to lead to embarrassing defeats if you're too distracted!
To have a well-balanced fighter is one thing, and HAL could be excused for just adding some characters and tweaking the engine slightly. But they've gone out of their way to include lovely visuals, superb audio and some genuine depth and variations into the game. At its best, Melee is a four-player fighter like none other, fast and stylish and entertaining. Of course, the game does hinge on having three friends to battle with, and no one denies this. In spite of its decent single player quests and side games, Melee will always be a multiplayer game: the centre of attention at a party, or an organised tourney for that matter. Buy three extra controllers and recognise that the GameCube still has its merits.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 10/01/02, Updated 08/30/06
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