Thursday, September 27, 2018

Ranking Every Mode in Smash, Part 3

In life, there are three types of people: Winners, losers, and all the other people that don’t fit into those two arbitrary categories. But forget about them, because we’re here to talk about the first group. The best of the battlefield. The finest on final destination. The cream of the character select screen. These are the top five modes across all of Super Smash Brothers.

Normally this is the part where I’d warn that this list is entirely subjective, and that it’s perfectly normal for your opinions to differ from mine. I’d probably even make some joke about you not believing me, rambunctious rapscallion that I am. Sadly, I cannot do that this time. I’ve just received a formal letter from Bill Videogames, president of video games, who has put into law that this list 100% objective. If you don’t like the modes I do, best learn to soon. The International Game Opinion Police forbids the use of lethal force, but not if the officer looks the other way and says “Oops, butterfingers!” to the accompaniment of a laugh track while they pull the trigger. It’s a strange system, but damnit it works.

5. Classic (3DS)

Classic is the only mode in Smash that’s never missed an entry, and it’s been through a lot of changes over the years. So why is it, you might ask, that the most forgotten Smash game has the best Classic mode? In one word: choice. In one sentence: It’s Wii U without 8-player. 3DS Classic gives you three branching paths for each stage. Each path bears the symbol of a certain franchise, and leads to a random fight using that franchise’s stages and characters. You have enough control to reign in the randomness while avoiding the multi-colored massacre that is 8-player Smash.

You may be wondering: Is that it? All it takes to get into the top 5 modes is to have standard matches, a sense of agency and no glaring flaws? Well, yes. Which is why when I reached this point in the list I was forced to admit something.

Smash single-player isn’t great.

Behold! The promised land of “pretty okay”!

It’s not bad! I might even call it great for a fighting game. But great single-player for a fighting game is like being well-loved for a Bayonetta main. Most modes in Smash are fun because Smash is fun. The modes themselves aren’t particularly well designed or interesting, but the base engine and mechanics are so entertaining they don’t need to be. These games are a smashing good time, but no one buys them for their single-player.

This entry point is the turnaround for me. These previous modes went from forgettable to enjoyable, but none of them were what I genuinely looked forward to playing. But the top four?

Smash single-player isn’t great. These modes are.

4. Break the Targets (N64/Melee)

Most entries on this list follow a couple predictable trends. The more content, the higher the ranking. The closer gameplay is to regular battles, the higher the ranking. That’s why the first half of this list is squashed into sub-menus and the second half is fifty variants of Classic. At the end of the day a mini-game is miniature. It takes fewer development resources and less time to play but outputs less fun. But there’s something different about Break the Targets in N64 and Melee. Something that I can’t get anywhere else, in any mode from any Smash game.

In Break the Targets, character choice matters.

No, I’m not just referring to the fact that different characters have different stages. And yes, characters have diverse playstyles that effect gameplay elsewhere. But these simple little mini-games are the only part of the series where you benefit from, or are even required to know exactly how a character’s movement and abilities work. Nowhere else do you have to use Kirby’s stone form to slide past hazards. Nowhere else do you have to time using Jigglypuff’s pound to extend your jumps. Nowhere else do you have to wall jump with Young Link, or use his reverse boomerang to hit something inside a wall.

When I played this as a kid, I didn’t even realize the game had wall jumps. I kept trying to do consecutive bomb jumps for an embarrassing amount of time before I got out of that pit.

And just as many of these obstacles have optional layers to them. In that Young Link example, if you use the reverse boomerang from the right direction and angle, you can destroy extra targets on the other side of the map. There are two targets that are slow to hit in Ness’ 64 stage, but break one with PK Fire and it will fall right into the other. Even characters with no projectiles have to consider which route they can traverse fastest, if certain attacks can hit multiple targets in a single jump, and so on.

Terms I use a lot in this list are ‘degenerate strategy’ or ‘spamming’. Most single player modes have some kind of repetitive tactic that will let you squeeze out a victory. The standard fights are harder to break with one approach, but low-level AI is still exploitable and scoring in modes like Classic is so broken there’s no point trying harder than bare minimum. Break the Targets feels like it tangibly rewards character knowledge, execution, and creative thinking in a way other modes don’t.

…All that said, it’s over so quickly it takes like 0.5% of my playtime. That keeps it from the top of the list, but believe me, it’s a 0.5% that I treasure.

Well, except for Pichu's stage. That can die in a fire.

3. Event (Melee/Brawl/Wii U)

I always liked Event mode, but I didn’t realize how much until I sat down to replay everything. No matter what the game, event matches were always a refreshing change of pace from whatever else I had to slog through. The concept is simple: A long series of matches with special conditions. Things like protecting one CPU from another for a certain span of time or stopping a horde of enemies from landing on a platform. Granted, not all of them are so clever. For every fresh and creative event match there was one “beat character A with character B” and one bout of extreme frustration. So how does a 1/3rd enraging, 1/3rd clever mode become one of the best ways to play single-player? Simple:

Event matches are self-contained.

No matter where you go, Smash modes are rife with random nonsense. There’s always a chance that a bomb spawns in your face, or you’re foiled by a stage hazard, or that sporadic AI choose the wrong time to dog pile. Some modes mitigate it more than others, but none are completely free of it*. You can do your best to roll with the punches, but it’s hard to stem the frustration sometimes. Because in other modes, there are more chances to roll that natural one. In other modes, challenges are in sequence. Event is literally the only mode in any Smash where you experience character-fighting-other-character gameplay one mission at a time.

*Well okay except Home-run contest**, but I’m trying to make a point here.
**Right yes also Break the Targets***, but that’s it.

There was no good place to put this, but the Wii U version of Event mode had bonus rewards and a more open grid progression. These were great, just not different enough for me to justify separate spots.

Brevity and variety also help. Most events run less than a few minutes, and some are even faster than you are to complain about my placement of Coin Launcher. Events can be broken with degenerate strategies, just like other modes. But what breaks one event won’t break the next, and with 40+ in every title you’re sure to switch schemes so often it seldom gets stale. I feel like I need to employ strategy in this mode more than any other. I encounter problems, I get the hang of them, I present solutions. This happens in such rapid succession that frustration is never far from the rush of triumph.

And yet…the frustration is still there. I cleared every event match on hard before this article, and a handful of bad eggs were easily the most enraging thing not ending in “oss Battles”. The most insulting part is there was NO RETRY BUTTON*! Certain events, like Wii U’s Aura Mastery or No Mere Sparring Match, put you in a position where you can be KO’d in seconds. I timed an average round of the latter, and got about 8 seconds of gameplay versus 16 seconds of loading. Half of that loading was bringing me back to event selection, and I spent a few hours on these two events alone. Which means over an hour of my life was spent on loading screens that could’ve been avoided with a common user experience option that THEY ALREADY HAVE IN OTHER MODES.

*There was a retry button in Melee, but Melee lacks difficulty levels, bonus rewards, a usable C-stick, and customizable controls like tap jump. So we'll call it even.

Masahiro Sakurai: Steve, did you cut the retry option from Event Mode?
Supreme Overlord Intern Steve: Maybe.
Sakurai: Is it because we cut all the romance from Subspace Emissary?
Steve: MAYBE!

Dead serious: If several events were improved and a retry button was added, this would be number one. It’s a shame these spikes of violent frustration drag it down, because I love this mode. Even as is, I’d sacrifice anything in the first half of this list for an extra 50 event matches.

2. Smash Run (3DS)

The creator of Super Smash Bros, Masahiro Sakurai, is also the creator of Kirby. Back in 2003 he led development for a Kirby racing game by the name of Kirby Air Ride. The game included features that later made their way to Smash, like an achievement grid that unlocked new content and showed adjacent challenges. Air Ride had three modes, one of which was City Trial. In City Trial players were released into a big open city full of hidden areas and shortcuts. Randomly spread throughout this metropolis were assorted upgrades and new vehicles, and the goal was to collect as many as you could before the timer ran out. Then you’d all compete in a randomly selected mini-game with your new souped-up rides.

Critical reception to Kirby Air Ride was mediocre, but just about everyone liked City Trial, and resolved never to play the main racing mode again except to listen to Checker Knights. The focus on exploration and building yourself up was inherently satisfying and prevented anyone from feeling like they were lagging behind. Randomized spawns, events and mini-games meant every round felt unique. It was also just a different type of multiplayer from anything else on the market, which was exciting to see. To this day, fans wish for a Kirby Air Ride sequel just so they can get more City Trial.

Over a decade later, Sakurai finally gave us more City Trial.

Huh, Kirby Air Ride 2 looks different than I expected.

Not only is Smash Run more City Trial, but in many ways it’s actually an improvement. Rewards are gained not just from chests but enemies with different attacks and movement patterns. The level is littered with bonus doors that lead to miniature challenges for loot. You can start with a wide variety of collectible powers like healing, invincibility, giant lasers and so on. It even lets you customize what music plays during the run, so you can jam out every round to brutally hardcore tunes like Nintendogs Bath Time. It is, without a doubt, one of the best modes in Smash.

Downsides are mostly minor. You can’t customize the time or CPU difficulty, there are less secret rooms and shortcuts across the map, and you choose your fighter at the start so there’s no equivalent to collecting vehicles. A bigger bummer is that players can’t see each other until the mini-game at the end. This prevents tons of cool interactions like competing for treasure, temporary alliances or good ol’ fashioned screwing with your friends. But speaking of friends, even instanced gameplay wouldn’t completely kill this mode. Here’s what did:

Smash Run is a local multiplayer only 3DS exclusive.

“You guys wanna play some Smash Run?”
“Can we build my new computer or co-ordinate a 12-player D&D campaign instead? It’d be easier to set up.”

Smash 4 was split between a game on the 3DS and the Wii U. The only way to play Smash Run with friends is in person, but if you’re in person everyone wants to play Wii U. Wii U has a dozen more stages than 3DS. Wii U has prettier visuals and drastically improved resolution. Wii U has a wider variety of available controllers, many of them seen as superior to the 3DS. Wii U allows a maximum of 8 players rather than 4, a crucial difference at the large-scale gatherings where I’m told “normal humans” often interact. Wii U only needs one copy of the game, whereas 3DS requires every participant to bring their own console AND game. No matter which way you slice it, the Wii U version is clearly superior for playing at the same location. And so it was that this wonderful mode was basically dead on arrival.

I played Smash Run exclusively by myself with a bunch of dumb computers I couldn’t even see, and I still had a pretty good time. I’d kill Luigi for an improved version on home consoles. Or would if he weren’t already dead.

1. The Subspace Emissary (Brawl)

“What do you guys think number one will be? I’m betting he changes his mind and includes Grab the Trophy after all.”

It’s the world’s least surprising conclusion, but things almost didn’t happen this way. Make no mistake, Brawl’s lengthy single-player campaign is filled with flaws and annoyances. If anyone else made this list they could drop Subspace back five entries and I’d understand. But at the end of the day, there was just too much good here to ignore.

The Subspace Emissary is a roughly 7 hours long action platformer where you jump and fight through levels using all 30+ members of Brawl’s cast. The game constantly tosses out new mechanics to keep the platforming fresh. Moving platforms, swinging platforms, breakable platforms, scrolling stages, windy stages, non-linear stages, crushing ceilings, safety switches, descending debris, blasting barrels, manic mine-carts and more. It’s like a greatest hits of the world’s most generic platformer hazards. But even though they’re nothing too creative, these mechanics keep every stage distinct and engaging in a way I appreciate.

Just about every one of these stages has a unique mechanic. They're not GREAT mechanics, but hey, it's something.

Another thing that keeps stages interesting is optional bonuses. Often times these are stowed away in hidden side rooms with their own miniature puzzles. These are a great addition! Unfortunately, also a frustrating one. Y’see most levels in Subspace Emissary are completely linear. You go from point A to point B and once you're past B you have to go to C. Even worse is that bonus rewards and side rooms are often stuck in the middle of an auto-scrolling sequence. So if you’re shooting for 100% completion and suffer an unfortunate item spawn or get caught in an enemy combo at the wrong time, you’ll have to do the whole level again from start-to-finish.

Speaking of enemies, they’re…a mixed bag. There’s certainly a wide variety of foes, but disappointingly few come from established games like our crossover cast. Plenty of them fight in different and interesting ways, like dive-bombing birds you can throw as projectiles, or flat foes that try to slide under and lift you to the top of the screen, or sleeping behemoths that wake when they hear a punch. There are lots of mechanical differences between them and encounters are kept engaging by mixing and matching. Some enemies even have clearly telegraphed attack patterns you can react and respond to. Some of them.

And if some of them are fair, that must mean all of them are fair! Yaaaay!

Unfortunately, it’s not always reasonable to react to the quicker attacks, especially when there are large groups of enemies all swinging at once. This is especially noticeable on higher difficulties, where opponents are so obnoxiously aggressive and take so little hitstun it’s best to just spam fast moves to stunlock or run past the whole lot. Bosses fare a bit better. They're more manageable than in Boss Battles mode due to having consistent timings, the ability to continue immediately if you fail, and the player having multiple lives/characters to topple them.

That brings up another fun part of Subspace: Collecting characters! The story sets specific fighters on a date with destruction, but you can return to stages in search for secrets with any combo of characters you’ve previously used. This comes to a head in The Great Maze, the last quarter of the game. On one hand, the whole thing is a big mush of recycled level segments. On the other hand you can select any characters you want, it's non-linear and loaded with bonuses, it's interspersed with one-on-one character fights for much needed variety, and they kept the maze manageable with save points, warps and a map. It was easily my favorite part of Subspace gameplay-wise and if we get another story mode I hope we get more stages in its Metroidvania-esque style.

Man, now I want a Metroidvania mode in Smash Ultimate. I mean we've got both halves of the title covered…

At this point Subspace seems sometimes silly but still solid. But is that enough to top the list? No. If this was just a competent platformer with a cavalcade of crossover characters, it wouldn’t quite hit numero uno*. So what makes the difference? What is it that lets Subspace Emissary reign supreme? Well let’s can the hypotheticals and stop pretending you don’t already know: It’s fanservice.

*Translator’s note: Numero uno means number one.

When most people hear fanservice, it brings to mind beach episodes, panty shots or generic teens inexplicably popular with the opposite sex. Unfortunately for King Dedede fans, none of those are in The Subspace Emissary. What Subspace does have is the other type of fanservice: Iconic characters from different universes joining forces to be rad together. Sometimes they're goofy, sometimes they’re badass, but they’re all packed with personality and wonder. This makes it easy to forget that they have absolutely zero substance.

"Peach is casually walking past laser explosions!"
"Neat, but I really don't know what narrative purpose-"
"Now Sheik ninja-flipped 100 feet in the air and punched through Fox's windshield!!"
"Okay, but in terms of the larger plot-"

Subspace is an excuse plot. Characters shuffle around the world mostly at random, crossing paths and fighting against a great big evil thing with no clear motivation or character. There’s no dialogue, no development, no world-building. It’s fluff, it’s disposable, it’s lavishly animated fanfiction top to bottom. But it knows that. And that makes it an endearingly sincere celebration of gaming history, just like Smash Bros as a whole. Whatever flaws the gameplay has, whatever substance the story lacks, the Subspace Emissary is having fun. So it's easy for me to do the same.


After reading this definitive list of modes that is absolutely objective and inarguable, you might be wondering what the future will hold. Smash Ultimate is only a few months away and will bring with it a fresh batch of juicy new modes. Classic is the only confirmed alumni, taking the approach of set fights that are different for every character. Though I’ll miss the choice of stage from Wii U, it’ll at least be consistent enough to plan around. Besides, about seventy unique campaigns is a hell of a way to have variety.

I’m sure the other old standbys will make an appearance. Multi-man Melee and Home-run Contest will show up with a new coat of paint. All-star will be longer than ever. Event mode will find new and interesting ways to break the Geneva Convention with those few infamous matches. Beyond that, who knows! We could get another Subspace Emissary! We could get another StreetSmash! We could get another StreetSmash the length of Subspace Emissary! Maybe a decade from now, I’ll write Ranking Every Mode in Smash Post-Lizardman Uprising. But until that day comes, it’s been a pleasure. I appreciate every single person who enjoyed reading, and even those who didn't.

Though if the second group could tell me where to find the antidote, that'd be swell.

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