Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Ranking Every Mode in Smash, Part 2

Last time I purchased beam sword insurance, offered equal opportunity to quadriplegic sloths and took a tour of the toilet. This time, we move from the best of the worst to the most maximally medium of modes. Check the first article if you want to see why I'm snubbing Sound Test and other exclusions from the list. Also remember that this is all subjective. So if you find something you personally disagree with, that's fine but there's no reason to come to my house and – you've already skipped to the number rankings haven't you?

13. Home-run Contest (Melee/Brawl/3DS/Wii U)

Have you ever wanted to beat up your friends so badly that their lifeless corpse is ejected across the length of several football stadiums? Well then you should probably seek help, you goddamn psychopath. But fortunately Smash has just the thing to sate your insane, animalistic bloodlust until you start making progress in therapy. In Home-run Contest, you’re given a platform, the far-flinging Baseball Bat item, and 10 seconds with a punching bag. Even better, the punching bag is a living creature, so you can enjoy committing war crimes against something that feels pain!

It’s easy to see why Home-run Contest has been in every game since Melee. It takes minimal development resources for gameplay that gets surprising mileage*. Rounds end quicker than the time it takes to lose interest in StreetSmash, so it’s very low-frustration. Yet since creating custom combos is a major part of Smash, and you can pull a proportionately plentiful amount of playtime puzzling through the best beat-downs for each brawler. A force field was added in Brawl to block weaker attacks, so you can get pretty creative bouncing that poor, poor Sandbag against the walls. The only real disadvantage is that there’s not more on offer. Sure you get more fun than expected from a simple activity, but it’s still a simple activity. Most spend a couple minutes a character working out a good strategy and then never return. Y’know, assuming you’re not absolutely insane.

*Pun extremely intended.

12. Board the Platforms (N64)

HAL Laboratories HQ, 1998. A man is sitting at his cubicle bashing a Link and Samus action figure together while making “bwOOOoosh” noises. He is so engaged in this activity that he doesn’t notice someone approaching behind him.

Masahiro Sakurai: Ahem.

Intern Steve: Wha-OH-uh, hey-yes hello sir. What uh, what’s up?

Sakurai: Steve.

Steve: Yes?

Sakurai: What have you come up with?

Steve: Ah, right. Right! I came up with that thing you asked, which was um, spacing on the word…

Sakurai: A second bonus game. We’ve only got five minutes of single player content at the moment. We’re hoping to hit six.

Steve: Of course! Yes, about that bonus game…

Steve drummed his fingers on his desk with one hand and slid Samus behind his monitor with the other.

Steve: …uh, hey! Just, y’know, out of curiosity: What’s the first bonus game?

Sakurai: Weren’t you at the meeting where we talked about this?

Steve did recall something about a meeting. But he mainly recalled the scene underneath the table where Samus tearfully revealed to Link that she had cheated on him with Captain Falcon.

Steve: …refresh my memory? Sorry, TOTAL space case today.

Sakurai: The first bonus game is Break the Targets. Now come on, what’s your idea?

Steve: Yes, my idea. For the second bonus game. Um. It’s called Breeeaa-uh Board. Board the...Targets?

Steve: I mean platforms. Board the Platforms.

Sakurai: That’s perfect! I’ll get brainstorming with the others, rough up some level designs. Thanks!

Satisfied at a job well done, Steve set to work helping Samus win back Link’s heart.

I hear the beta name was "Control Your Character On-Screen Such That You Jump And Then Land On A Series Of Ten Predetermined Points!"

Board the Platforms was a mode where there were platforms, and you had to board all of them. Riveting. It was basically Break the Targets with an extra step removed, which is a bigger problem than it might seem. With Break the Targets, each character had over a dozen attacks that needed to be considered for optimal play. With that removed and focusing only on movement, Board the Platforms is a strictly inferior version. Inferior but still enjoyable, with stages suited to the physics of each character. It has less opportunities for creative routing or sequence breaking compared to targets, but you can still spend a decent chunk of time optimizing the order you obliterate the obstacle course.

11. Classic (N64)

Aw yeah, look at that Metal Mario. I don't know how any other games will be able to compete with him hogging all the graphics to himself.

When I turned seven years old, I received my first home game console, the Nintendo 64. The first game I plugged in was the just-released Super Smash Bros. I played it with my brother, my friends, and even my dad*. Super Smash Bros formed some of my earliest gaming memories and will always hold a special place in my heart.

*One of the only games I remember playing with him until Wii Sports came around. The fact that we learned how to beat him consistently within weeks is, I’m sure, pure coincidence.

It’s just a shame my heart isn’t writing this article, because Smash 64 is the worst entry in every measurable way.

Obviously that sentence gets an even bigger "just my opinion, man" disclaimer than normal. But playing 64 and Melee back-to-back shows you how many modes, features and quality of life changes were simply missing from the first game in the series. Classic was the only full-fledged single player mode in 64, with Break the Targets and Board the Platforms included as bonus games. Despite being 90% of single player, 64 Classic is the least interesting version of the mode.

The ten rounds are always identical. The stages are the same, the combatants are the same, the order is the same. Three of the stages are against large groups of enemies, which are always less interesting due to increased knockback making it a spam-fest. The 64 era AI doesn’t help. The only things that change are the Targets and Platforms stages, which you’ll note I’m counting separately since you can select both from the main menu. Even Race to the Finish, a bonus game so basic it doesn’t get a menu option, is improved in Melee.

None of this is to say that 64 Classic is a bad mode. It set up the basic formula for future entries to follow: a series of fights, some of them against groups or modified characters (like giant or metal), bonus games to break up the action, and a boss fight at the end. It’s simple but enjoyable, and there aren’t any annoying features that drag it down. So here it sits, firmly in the middle of the list.

10. All-Star (Melee/Brawl/3DS/Wii U)

HAL Laboratories HQ, 2000. A man is sitting at his cubicle engrossed in a word document when someone approaches him.

Masahiro Sakurai: Hey Steve.

Head Intern Steve: Mm.

Sakurai: Steve?

Steve: Mm-hm.

Sakurai: …turn around.

Steve turned from the page on-screen, which currently read: ‘link stopped the kissesing that he an samus was doing insid of the dramatic rain. he winkked and said in his deep sexxxy voice taht he had “why donut we make 2night moar…interest???? and held up a bottel of lube anda mr.saturn.’

Steve: What’s OHHEYuh-hi Mr.Saku-uh-sir! What do you um-

Without breaking eye contact Steve minimized the word document.

Steve: What do you want?

Sakurai: I’m here about the new mode. I know you must be disheartened that we dropped Board the Platforms, but I’m hoping you came up with something equally incredible to fill the void.

Steve: Ahhh yes. Right. That new mode. That I uh. That I made. New mode. For the game. Game mode. New game mode. Mode. It’s called…

Steve’s eye wandered to a box of Smash 64 on the shelf. Since this was Japan and Steve was definitely Japanese, he had no problem reading the Japanese title: "Nintendo All-Star! Great Fray Smash Brothers!".

Steve: …All-Star?

Sakurai: All-Star?

Steve: All-Star, yes. Because…you…because it has all the stars. In the mode.

Sakurai: Brilliant! A mode where you have to survive fighting every character! Steve, you genius, you’ve done it again. I’m off to discuss this with programming!

With a smug smirk, Steve turned back to his computer and re-opened page 583 of his word document titled “The Subspace Emissary”.

Here we have the Melee All-Star rest area, ripped straight from a Windows desktop. I won't hold it against them, since given Melee's schedule they probably spent less hours on this mode than polygons in Metal Mario 64.

All-Star is the simplest of the big single-player modes. Fight through the complete cast a few at a time on one life, with limited healing between matches. As you might expect from such a simple concept, little changes between games. Brawl added fights with more characters that drop in mid-match once there’s space, a necessary addition with the rapidly rising roster. Then Smash 4 added different types of healing items and removed items entirely during battles, which is a fantastic change. Despite this, I don’t think any entry is quite different enough to warrant another spot on this list.

Straightforward fights with regular characters are fun, and the ability to ration healing adds a dash of strategy missing from other modes. That said, having to fight 25 to 58 fighters in a row without dying makes the effects of RNG skyrocket. Even without in-battle items, there’s still a chance to get sniped by stage hazards or a trio of temporarily less stupid AI who all decide at once to get footage for their combo video. The net result is fun, but not fantastic.

9. Adventure (Melee)

When I was a kid, no mode was more exciting than Melee’s Adventure. It wasn’t just some random disconnected sequence of fights! You were travelling throughout the galaxy, navigating sprawling mazes, dodging cars, escaping explosions! It felt just as it was titled, and was clearly the superior way to play the game.
Then I replayed it as an adult, and a thought occurred to me. This is…just rebranded Classic mode. Rebranded 64 Classic mode.
Okay granted, it does make some improvements, or else it wouldn’t be further down the list. It may be a set sequence of fights and events, but certain conditions like finishing quickly can change fights or add another stage to them. And instead of bonus games, we get some nice platforming sections that logically relate to the stage before/after.  But those platforming sections are both brief and mostly uninteresting, with extremely passive enemies and dull level design.

These zombies strike slower than the actually deceased.

The unique stages peter out halfway through the adventure, which makes me think it was a victim of Melee’s infamously tight development schedule. Out of 11 stages only 1, 3, 4 and 6 have platforming sections, and the latter two are quite short. The other stages are straightforward fights with little interesting about them. Also, Giga Bowser is the worst final boss.

You can cram yourself up his backside and mash buttons to win, or enjoy getting one-shot on the other side of the stage! He’s basically a Dark Souls boss.

So was Melee Adventure mode a world-spanning journey of epic proportions? No. It was a mild improvement on the mechanics and framing of what we got in the first game. A mild improvement is still an improvement, and I enjoyed playing Adventure mode. But what I really wanted it to be was a certain mode further down the list…

8. Classic (Wii U)

Pro-tip: If there are so many bodies you can't see the stage? Avoid that stage.

There are people who despise Classic mode in Smash Wii U, and there are good reasons for that. But there are also things the mode does right that go overlooked. In Wii U Classic, you start by choosing a difficulty anywhere from 0.1 to 9.0 Intensity. Higher difficulties earn more rewards, but also cost more to enter. When you game over you can keep playing at the price of some prizes and dropping -0.5 Intensity. I think this system is an improvement because it offers finer customization and gives losing stakes, but not stakes so dire that it’s never worth it to keep going. If you’re aiming to win at a certain Intensity you can start 0.5 higher for each continue you want. Of course this doesn’t work for some challenges…but more on that later.

The best thing about Wii U Classic is choice. For four of the six rounds you choose from several different fights, able to see the exact stage and characters you’ll be fighting in advance. If it’s a team battle, you even get to choose your partner out of previously defeated duelists. This is a fantastic feature that greatly alleviates the feeling of random chance that plagues single-player Smash. A little bit of agency makes a mountain of difference, and it feels great to be able to avoid troublesome stages or characters. That being said, it is a limited agency, and there’s a certain style of battle in Wii U Classic that no amount of choice will protect you from. The battle that almost kills this mode:

8-Player Smash.

Everyone is here! At once! And maybe shouldn’t be!

8-Player Smash was a new feature added exclusively for Wii U. It’s an excellent addition for parties or large groups of friends, and there are a handful of stages that work great for it. But you aren’t playing with your friends in single-player, and for every great 8-player stage there are two questionably cramped ones. No doubt wanting to flex the feature, every other fight in Wii U Classic is an 8-player match, to the point where you almost have to do one in each run of the mode. It’s not always a problem, but the decreased elbow room and increased chance for random items or dog piles can lead to some frustrating run-killers.

Another reason Wii U Classic gets flak that people might not consider is because of the game’s highly demanding challenge board. Some of its tasks include beating the mode at 9.0 Intensity without losing a life, 9.0 Intensity in under 12 minutes with Marth, and 7.0 Intensity with all 51 characters. If you went into previous Classic modes with equivalent difficulty levels, it would be just as infuriating. But those games never ask you to. This isn’t to say that you’re wrong for disliking Wii U Classic. I just think there are a lot of appealing things about the mode buried beneath the rage, enough for me personally to score it higher on the list.

7. Classic (Melee/Brawl)

Classic in Melee/Brawl is the most “standard” of all single-player modes. It follows a similar format to Smash 64, but rather than set fights your opponents and stages are randomized. This is a big enough change to separate it from its predecessor, as that replay value really makes a difference. The type of match is still set, for example stage 2 of Melee will always be a team battle. But there's still enough random variance for variety's sake, and there are a less gimmicky multi-character battles than in 64. It's fun, it's inoffensive, but there's not much else to say about it.
"Fun, inoffensive, nothing to say about it." Ain't exactly a quote for the back of the box.
So instead, let's talk about what changes from Melee to Brawl. Most of it is minor, which is why they're combined on the list. Stuff like changing how stages are randomized and ditching the convoluted bonus scoring conditions. The biggest difference is in the bonus games, where Melee wins hands down. Brawl just had you do two runs of its lackluster Break the Targets. Meanwhile Melee has Break the Targets, Grab the Trophy and Race to the Finish. Granted, Grab the Trophy is an insultingly basic game that would even lose to StreetSmash if it made the list. But Race to the Finish is more interesting thanks to branching paths and a bunch of different end points, which mean you're constantly evaluating whether you can make the dash to the next exit. As for Melee Break the Targets? Well, maybe stay tuned.

6. Special Orders (Wii U)

This might be a controversial one.

Special Orders is actually a pair of modes, Master Orders and Crazy Orders. In Master Orders, you choose between three fights with randomized conditions. The stages, combatants, modifications like giant or metal battles, and even minute menu options like gravity or knockback can change. You pay a one-time fee for these fights, then get randomized rewards if you win. But once you’ve mastered Master Orders, you’ll find Crazy Orders is a bit more…crrrrredibly intimidating. Also crazy.

In Crazy Orders, you have 10 minutes to clear as many randomized fights as you can. Each round you can choose from three like in Master Orders, though advanced rule changes are removed to keep things from getting totally unfair. You only recover a fraction of the damage you take each round, and if you die you lose half of all rewards you’ve gained so far. Once you’re ready to finish, you start a still-timed boss fight with Crazy Hand for the last batch of prizes.

What I love about Crazy Orders is how dynamic it is compared to other modes. How long it lasts is a risk-reward relationship entirely up to the player. There’s a clear element of strategy not just in when to opt out, but picking your battles along the way. Maybe you need an easier fight to try and snag some healing, or maybe you go with something high-risk but fast. Perhaps your character excels at a certain matchup, or you know a way to exploit the AI on a particular stage. You’re always weighing options, and the consequences of your decisions last for more than one stage. It’s tense, it’s strategic, and even when I lose, I often feel it’s because I made a bad call. And that’s awesome!

What a unique, interesting and well-thought mode! I’m glad there aren’t any caveats to that statement!

Hi there, I’m the second half of this entry, how’s it going? Crazy Orders sucks. The ticking timer encourages you to go for the most degenerate quick wins possible, pushing every match towards an unsatisfying AI exploit or agonizing death with no in-between. A choice of randomized matches is still random, and the abundance of 8-player and giant matches ensures a high rate of runs end to unfortunately timed bouts of AI aggression.

Speaking of randomness, did you know there’s still items in this mode? There are still items in this mode. WHY ARE THERE STILL ITEMS IN THIS MODE?! You could be running hot on a 20-fight streak of flawlessly executed inputs and run up against one of Smash 4’s many itemized death sentences. The Beetle, Galaga Ship, Gust Bellows, Drill, Smash Balls, Dragoon Parts and Daybreak Parts can all lead to instant kills. Bombs and exploding containers can spawn right in front of you mid-attack. Poke balls and Assist Trophies can create massive fields of difficult-to-dodge projectiles. And all of this is on top of the regular randomness of AI and stage hazards!

Let’s say you’re fine with all that. You have the patience/pain tolerance of a saint/Ganondorf main, and are prepared to headbutt this brick wall until it breaks. So you struggle through your concussion until you’re rewarded with a cascade of construction materials, and on the other side of that wall you find your reward: One square of a 1000-piece puzzle set.

Let’s talk about custom parts.

Whereas previous games were satisfied with you collecting several hundred unique trophies and songs, that wasn’t enough for Smash 4. Modes in Smash 4 could also reward stat-altering equipment, costume parts for Mii characters, and custom moves. Custom moves were altered special attacks you could equip to each character, and there were 376 in total. Unlike trophies, an insane goal for the world’s most dedicated completionists, people actually wanted to snag every custom move. There was also a spot on the Smash 4 challenge board for unlocking every custom move and costume. And the fastest way to earn these rewards was Crazy Orders. See the problem?

Hey, this doesn't seem so bad! Only 187 more of these images and we're all done!

Rewards from Crazy Orders were random, could provide duplicate items, and half exploded in front of you when you failed. Throw in several hundred collectibles people felt they had to have and the frustration of this mode became unbearable. It eradicated any positive memories people had for it with ruthless precision. I think Crazy Hands is an exciting, compellingly designed mode that feels genuinely different from the rest of single-player. I’d love to see it return in a more tolerable form. But to anyone who hates it: I get it. You might be willing to eat a delicious burger in a stale bun, but eat twenty like it and all you’ll remember is how some asshole got away with serving you twenty stale buns.


So my weary web wanderers, how are you holding up? Nodding your heads in agreement, or preparing to crash a Dragoon through my window? I'll ask the latter group to keep items on low for a moment, because I only need a couple days to cap off this collection of contentious opinions. By Friday we reach our final destination, where we'll find the fate of our five last fighters in the arena of some guy on the internet's random list. I'll see you all there, hopefully not in the brief moments before an air strike.

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