Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ranking Every Mode In Smash, Part 1

In the first draft of this article, I opened with an explanation of what Super Smash Brothers was. But let’s not kid ourselves here, you already know. And if by some unfathomable miracle you got here without that knowledge, you have an internet right in front of you. I know you can search it faster than I can describe things. You can do it son, I believe in you. The Google was inside you all along.

What does require some explanation is what I define as a mode. There are a lot of menu options in Smash Bros that aren't going to be on this list. Some quick criteria are as follows:

Modes are interactive, so all the options, data, and trophy-viewing sections are out. Sorry to folks who wanted a ranking of the interface for each Sound Test.

Modes have a failure state, which eliminates features like the Stage Builder and Melee's Lottery. These can still be nice to have, but they're hard to rank against more traditional modes which put some test of execution to the player.

Modes are not redundant, meaning if there's not a significant difference in a mode returning between games, it won't get its own entry. For example, Home-run Contest is one entry but there will be multiple Classic mode entries.

Modes can be selected on their own, which eliminates mini-games like Grab the Trophy and Race to the Finish. The way I see it if you can only experience something as part of another mode, than it should be rated as part of that mode.

Modes are not multiplayer rule sets. This is the vaguest criteria and also the bloodiest, as it eliminates every kind of Special Smash, Tournament Mode, Coin/Time/etc matches, and all online modes. Multiplayer in general is hard to evaluate because it's heavily dependent on the people you're playing with. I will be including Smash Run and Smash Tour on this list despite being multiplayer modes, as they feature unique mechanics of play outside the fights themselves.

I think that covers everything. Oh wait…

Modes are not "Masterpieces", because this isn't a ranking of world's stingiest emulator demos.

30 seconds. They let you play the original Donkey Kong, from 1981, for 30 seconds. AND THE DEMO NEEDS TO BE UNLOCKED.

That covers all the mode criteria. One last note before we begin: This list is subjective. I'm no Smash Master of Mass Disaster. My level of expertise is somewhere around "hardcore casual". I dumped a lot of hours in these games, cleared the challenge boards for the last few, and can often beat my friends. This is better than in other fighting games, where my skills are around "damnit that win doesn’t count because Talim is bullshit". I replayed every one of these modes for this article, for what it's worth. If you disagree with this list, that's fine! I'd even be interested to hear why. Just don’t let it spoil your day.

Now enough preamble. It’s time for rankings, worst to best.


21. StreetSmash (3DS)

If your design doc for anything opens with “Like Pogs but”, start over.

And the award for least memorable thing in all of Smash goes to…StreetSmash! For those of you who suspect I just made this up, allow me to explain: StreetSmash is an early 2000s Flash game someone snuck into the official release of Smash 3DS and integrated with StreetPass. You control a circle bumping into other circles, with options for harder bumping, dodge bumping, shield bumping and counter-bumping. It’s a 12-player game on a map the size of a postage stamp, so all those details will immediately be lost in the chaos of everyone flailing about. Like everything related to StreetPass, I’m sure this did better in Japan, where train cars are more person than oxygen and your 3DS is assigned at birth. For the rest of us, it was just some vaguely unsatisfying button-mashing for unlockables.

20. Coin Launcher (Brawl)

All the excitement of a discount carnival game with imaginary prizes and 100x the time sink!

This was the paragraph I initially wrote about Coin Launcher:

“From Melee onwards, Smash has featured short diversions to earn collectibles like trophies, stickers, and custom parts. The worst of these is Melee’s Lottery, a literal random number generator. Given all the hullaballoo I made about what makes a mode, I didn’t feel right including that on the list. Brawl’s Coin Launcher, on the other hand, is interactive enough to scramble for the bottom of the barrel. The game is a shoot-em-up where you can’t move, can’t die, aiming requires slightly tilting the stick at awkward angles, and there are only a dozen different enemy formations*. You’ll see all of its content in a couple minutes and none of it is exactly a thrill ride. I’ll give it credit: It’s nothing offensive and briefly held my attention. But that praise is so faint you need a microscope to see it.”

*Half of which are the same formation from the opposite direction.

Shortly after writing this, something unexpected happened. I was browsing the Smash subreddit and I came across a post asking for Coin Launcher toappear in the next game. It had thousands of upvotes and hundreds of comments, all talking about how great the mode was and how it was so much better than other modes and how anyone who puts it at the bottom of a mode ranking will be tracked down and disemboweled with a beam sword. Maybe I imagined that last one. The point is, it was a tremendous outpouring of support for a mode I thought people tolerated at best.

I found this mildly terrifying.

Not because I’m afraid of people having different opinions on the internet, mind you. That’s a perfectly normal thing to happen*. It’s more the realization that stating strong opinions towards a series this massive is going to ignite a seething inferno of rage no matter what I do.

*Unless you’re a fan of Final Fantasy X-2.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Internet, please respect my different opinion about this video game.

…I’m gonna' need to buy beam sword insurance.

19. Target Blast (3DS/Wii U)

This is totally a good substitute for Break the Targets, right guys? Guys?

It’s worth noting that this list isn’t a linear progression. There are entries I could see jumping half a dozen spots, whereas I’d rather play 100 rounds of Target Blast than touch StreetSmash again. That said, this ain’t exactly the cream of the crop. It’s essentially a fusion of Home-run Contest and Angry Birds. You beat a bomb a bunch, hit it towards a field of debris and hope for the best. The key word really is hope.

The thing that makes Target Blast worse than Home-run Contest is that the goal is less clear. In Home-run, you just need to unravel the best combo to rack up damage in a limited time. In Target Blast, whether you do well is not just about how much damage you deal to the bomb, but the trajectory of the final blow. Also how much time the bomb has left to blow on liftoff. And whether it hits other bomb blocks for chain reactions. Plus where all the random debris get blown about, and if they’re moving fast enough to break other debris, and if the debris activates any of the bomb blocks, and since you get two shots the fallout of the first affects the second and…look, it’s just a mess. I’m sure there’s some super genius out there who’s watched enough Rick and Morty to consistently succeed in Target Blast. For Target Blast plebs like me? It’s simply too random to feel satisfying.

18. Trophy Rush (3DS/Wii U)

I've got a fever, and the only prescription is mashing up-tilt.

After a literal slot machine and a soothing snore-em-up, trophy mini-games had nowhere to go but up, and Trophy Rush rose to the occasion. It rose like someone snagging an assistant manager position at McDonald's, but it rose nonetheless. On a stage in the middle of nowhere, boxes shower from the sky. If the peak of these packages piles too high, the platform will plummet and so will the player. So smash the boxes as they fall, sounds simple right? But they come in different shapes, some are sturdier than others, some explode, some blast in one direction, and some give bonus points. When your score rises high enough the boxes are swapped for a rain of riches for a limited time. Throw in balls of electricity that fall when you stand still too long and it keeps things pretty hectic.

If there’s a downside to Trophy Rush, it’s not very complex. Sure different characters have different attacks to clear boxes with, but the game plays mostly the same with all of them. There’s enough going on to keep things interesting for a bit. But the key word is a bit, because Smash wants you to play these trophy games until the heat death of the universe and/or next F-Zero release. I say they do away with collectible farming entirely and just let us buy all non-unique unlocks with in-game currency. At least then completionists can spend their ten thousand hours however they like.

17. Break the Targets (Brawl)

The best type of obstacle course is one anyone can do with no effort!

Break the Targets is a reoccurring bonus game in Smash where you run an obstacle course filled with targets and…do something to them. Not sure what, further research is required. Despite being the last time this was its own mode, Brawl is easily the worst version. The reason is simple: There are only five stages. In Smash 64 and Melee, Break the Targets stages were unique to each character, so they could be specifically designed to make use of their abilities and movement properties. In Brawl, the five stages are ordered by difficulty and the same across the entire cast.

Apart from just being less content, this does a lot to damage the design of the stages. If one character is a quadriplegic sloth with the airtime of a lead brick and the range of a reserved hug they still need to be able to beat the stage. So everyone else has little to challenge them at all, and certainly not anything that uses their unique abilities. The base concept of running an obstacle course is still a fun idea that suits this style of platformer/fighting game hybrid, but that can only take it so far.

16. Boss Battles (Brawl)

I had trouble placing this one, because my time with it alternated between “hey this is pretty fun” and “every single moment of joy I have ever felt from this franchise is not worth Brawl Boss Battles”. We’ll call this a compromise.

This mode is an example of the ever-popular* boss rush. You barrel through the eight big baddies of the single-player story, alongside our glovely old standbys Master and Crazy Hand. Much like the most dangerous game, life, you only have one shot. Across the ten random fights you’re given three healing items, which cure everything except the hernia you create playing. Because boss battles is brutally busted, and I’m going to explain why.

*Since it takes no effort to produce.

It all comes down to consistency. Some bosses couldn’t kill the care bears and others will make you wonder if you’ve died and gone to hitbox hell. For some attacks bosses mail you an RSVP by pony express and others are so fast you’re dead before you hear “shindeiru”. It’s frustrating because you could do better simply because a boss decided not to use their quarter-second death blow. To make things worse, foes fought closer to the end are stronger, hardier and faster.

That last point is particularly putrid. I’m not opposed to difficult content. I’ve beaten every Dark Souls game including DLC without help*. The problem is that harder games need to be very, very careful about whether things feel fair. Inconsistency runs directly counter to this. In a game like Dark Souls, attacks are clearly telegraphed and the timing is always the same. In Brawl Boss Battles, the difficulty level, how many bosses in you are, and how low health the boss is can all effect how fast they move. Throw in some attacks that do massive damage and have next-to-zero telegraphing, and it’s enraging to the point that it spoils the whole thing.

*If your response to this is “Pbbth those are baby games for babies if you want a REAL challenge try…” you may be missing the point. And also aren’t very fun at parties.

"It's easy to follow his telegraphs! If he splays his legs at a 34 degree angle and scratches his left nostril, he instant kills everything on the right side of the screen. If he splays his legs at a 34 degree angle and scratches his RIGHT nostril…"

Boss Battles on Intense is the only challenge in Smash I never completed, even now. I beat the last boss on Intense in story mode and reached him multiple times in Boss Battles, but after hours of failure I realized making myself miserable wasn’t worth the Gamer Cred(tm). Maybe you’ll claim this ranking is just me being salty. And yes. Yes it is. But even if I weren’t, it’s still just a thrown together mishmash of recycled content.

As long as I’m ranting, here’s a petty nitpick that nonetheless bugged me: the music. In Boss Battles mode, most of the battle themes are replaced with this generic song. Even if they wanted to replace the unique music for some reason, they’ve already got a general boss theme, and it’s absolutely god damn SWEET. I can’t fathom why they used a sterile lullaby of MIDI horns when they already had intense songs like that, Brawl Final Destination and Mona Pizza.

Anyway, Boss Battles is alright when it isn’t a garbage fire. C- out of 10.

15. Smash Tour (Wii U)

Smash Tour is a mode that gets this far mostly on the merit of potential. The concept is essentially Smash Bros Mario Party, where a board game is broken up with traditional brawls/melees/kerfuffles. Though both are party games, Mario Party is known for being a horrifically random yet strangely alluring friendship ender. So in theory Smash Bros’ still casual-friendly yet more skill-based gameplay was a great way to smooth off those rough edges. What we got was the opposite, a crowded mess of mechanics that was somehow even more random and less tactical than the king of casual play.

The goal is to wander a board collecting fighters and power-ups. After enough rounds are up, there’s a single match where four players pit all their fighters against each other one after another. Every turn the game just hands out a free consumable item to each player, with effects like randomizing fighters, changing die rolls, or teleportation. Everyone activates their items simultaneously, often right after they got them, and you can only carry a few at a time. So we’ve already completely destroyed most of the strategy and planning a board game brings in favor of suddenly-I’m-winning RNG comebacks.

Next, everyone rolls at once, then everyone moves at once. Though this certainly speeds up the game, it turns each round into a cluttered scramble of activity where you can’t possibly follow what the other players are doing. Since you move at the same time it encourages sprinting right away so someone doesn’t beat you to a prize. This leads to frustration when you miss a key detail or send yourself down the wrong walkway since plenty of them are at weird angles. If you bump into someone you start a battle, but only if one of you is standing still, leading to even more misjudged movement.

Behold: The world's most easy to understand screenshot. The future of UI design is here, and it's spelled

Before each battle you can use certain consumable items, which range from barely-an-advantage (heal 50% if you’re already over 100%) to everyone-is-about-to-hate-me (start with a Hammer on Final Destination). The battles have a wide variety of random conditions, usually related to a type of item that frequently spawns, like explosives. It’s similar to the final battles of Smash Run on the 3DS, but without the running/climbing obstacle courses or monster horde battles. This is a shame, as those provided some much needed variety. But hey, you can end up in competitive Target Blast! Joy!

Random nonsense is the name of the game. Or maybe it’s Smash Tour, let me check the header a few paragraphs up…yup it’s Smash Tour. But random nonsense is the figurative name of the game, you pedant. And that randomness is so frequent and game-changing that it doesn’t feel like you can fight it. Even though games like Mario Party are ultimately random, most of the time you feel like you have some agency over your actions. It also has better board design and a pace everyone can follow. Smash Tour has none of that. And so for all its good ideas and short-lived entertainment value, it only gets a tour of the toilet.

14. Multi-man Melee (Melee/Brawl/3DS/Wii U)

The Multi-man mode might be a mite muddled since it’s actually a multitude of modes. But they’re all under the same menu option and play with the same concept: Assault an army of off-brand opponents. The fundamental issues remain the same throughout each sub-mode. Y’see fighting six foes of average skill level would be a bloodbath every time, as on average, the average player skill level is…you get the idea. So Smash compensates by making large teams both weaker and dumber. Statistically weaker enemies make specific moves (those with high base knockback) disproportionately good, so the key to victory is spamming those moves*. And bad Smash AI is just normal Smash AI that stops to ponder its life choices 75% of the time, so victory can be highly dependent on when your enemies feel like engaging.

*I recommend up-tilts, dash attacks, and mashing Donkey Kong’s down+B.

Minutes of mindless mashing mixed with seconds of "ow jeez when did you decide to start trying???"

The various sub-modes don’t make much difference. 10-man Smash is so short that it’s both insultingly easy and even more dependent on the whims of AI than normal. 100-man Smash and 3-minute Smash are basically the same idea repackaged. Endless Smash sets itself apart with a focus on survival rather than speedy execution. Rival Smash is just competitive Endless Smash. Cruel Smash flips the script with over-powered foes, but this just makes the AI Russian roulette all the more excruciating. With a power gap bigger than the average Dragon Ball fight it inevitably devolves into camping the ledge waiting for someone to accidentally fall off.

All that said, it can be briefly engaging to figure out which combination of moves mash the men to mulch most efficiently. And swatting swabs of soldiers to the stratosphere always has a visceral thrill to it. So even though none of it is great, Multi-man can be a fun distraction.


If any of you readers out there are master detectives, you may have noticed this article started with the title "Part 1". Well I'm about to throw you keen intellectuals a curve ball, because surprise: That's because there will be other parts! This list was too massive to put in one place, but if you want more wrong opinions to yell at you won't have to wait long. Part 2 will be up by Wednesday morning and the finale by Friday morning. There'll be corresponding posts on r/smashbros if you want to call me a stupid loser in a more comfortable locale. See ya then!

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