No game exists in a vacuum. When we talk about games, we talk about them in the context of the hundreds of thousands of other games out there, and often in the context of every other comparable piece of media. For example, when I talk about Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, I need to talk about Street Fighter, Kirby, competitive gaming, the nature of game reviews, and of course, Super Smash Bros. for WiiU. There’s a certain futility in reviewing Smash Bros. 3DS the way I see it. Smash Bros. appeals to such a varied audience that wants so many different things from the game, and this version is, well, weird. There are the hardcore, competitive Smash players, the Nintendo die-hards who just want another game, and the dyed-in-the-brawl Smash Bros. fans who want an upgrade. On the other hand, don’t necessarily fall cleanly into any of those three camps I identified, and beyond even that, I’m pretty sure anyone who knows about this game enough to read a review knows whether they want to buy it or not. And on another set of hands, attached to some other dude hanging out over there, this game will be obsolete in two months.
If a review’s purpose is as a consumer guide, then what help am I to the consumers who already know what they want out of this game? It’s been out in Japan for a month, I certainly can’t offer any new information. The reviews that have already come out have been savaged and praised in equal measures, even though few of the commenters have actually played the game. People are looking to justify their purchasing decision, and while that’s nothing new, it’s the first time I’ve had to come across it while reviewing something, so allow me the second of experimental musing. You know if you want this game already, and vice versa. If you are mad about a positive review, or hating on a negative one, you’re in the same camp. You have little-to-no experience with the game, but you know what you want. There’s nothing wrong with that. You know what Smash Bros. is. I’ll be the first to say that SSB3DS is not that different. From a casual fan’s perspective, it’s very similar to Brawl, which was fairly similar to Melee, which was pretty close to 64. So if you’ll excuse the experiment, I’d like to try splitting this review into three sections, one for each player I mentioned above. Each section is going to have the information I think is most pertinent to you and your decisions related to this game. Then, we’re all going to meet back up at the end, and I’ll see what we learned. Think of it as a choose your own adventure, unless you read everything, in which case you’re a cheater. A wonderful person, but a cheater nonetheless.
For the Competitive Smasher:
You’ve been playing Smash Bros. on a Gamecube pad for years, and you’re going to notice a pretty significant dip in performance. I got used to it relatively quickly and you might not, but I’d still rather play with a Gamecube pad, and there’s no getting around that. No matter how much time I put in, I’ll never erase the muscle memory of playing on a Gamecube pad, and I’m willing to bet you won’t either.
You'll try the online, and find it insufficient for competitive causes. It's not atrocious by any means- I found that while playing other North American players in one on one mode, it lagged about as much as I expect any fighting game to. It's good enough for regular play, but a competitive player is going to notice the few frames of lag. Playing against Japanese players however was untenable. One-on-one fights lagged like four-player matches against North American players did, and four-player matches with even one Japanese player often stopped to buffer a little whenever too much was happening on screen. That'll matter less when the game is out in North America, and there are more players nearby than across an ocean, but I found myself leaving lobbies when my opponents' names were in Japanese.
On the other hand, you’ll probably appreciate the few gestures made towards the ways you like to play the game. Every stage features an Omega Mode, a flat, Final Destination-styled version of the source stage. You'll probably like this because Final Destination is one of the few tournament legal stages in the game, and having more variations on it will make tournaments a hell of a lot less boring to look at. You'll probably wonder why every stage doesn't also have an Alpha mode, to reconfigure it into tournament mainstay Battlefield, but if you have an ounce of cynicism and a tablespoon of hope, you'll assume that's DLC down the line.
In terms of control accuracy and opportunities to practice, this might not be the game for you. However, it does offer a glimpse into the mechanics and styles of the game that may become something of a tournament staple. For you, Smash Bros. 3DS might just be a gym, a training session for the main event.
For the Nintendo die-hard:
You’ll notice the game feels scaled back in a lot of ways. Brawl was Nintendo's Smithsonian. It was packed to the gills with tributes, everything from assist trophies of forgotten characters like Barbara Bat and the Ray MKIII, to 300+ songs from across Nintendo's weird history. Smash Bros. for 3DS though, is your local museum. It has some cool things, there's an entire stage where you play through different areas of the original Kirby's Dream Land in proper Gameboy-style pea-soup green, and in terms of music, there are 100 songs to keep you company on the stages, but the feeling that there's less is inescapable. Understandable sure, but it doesn't change what's there. Content-wise, it’s more comparable to Melee.
The Smash Run mode might be more up your alley, but it doesn’t seem to have a place outside of Japanese subway trains where you can have the kind of quick, hassle-free pick-up matches the mode needs. There’s a busload of Nintendo references and enemies strewn across the Smash Run dungeon, but it all feels very perfunctory, like they need to be there for justifications’ sake. You’ll get a kick out of seeing stuff like Rhythm Heaven’s Sneaky Spirits though.
You won't however, care much for any of the other single-player modes. Classic mode now has a feature that lets you select the difficulty of your next level, along with a more general difficulty system called "intensity", lifted straight out of Kid Icarus: Uprising. It doesn't feature anything like Melee's Adventure mode, which strung together various Nintendo references into a set of levels to conquer, or even Brawl's Subspace Emissary mode, which, while actually atrocious, had a level of goofy charm to its cutscenes and references that it made feel cooler than it was, at least for a little bit.
The WiiU version promises more trophies, more stages, and presumably, character DLC down the line. It holds the potential of having more music, references, and modes than Brawl did. Smash Bros. for WiiU is a museum of potential, while Smash Bros. 3DS is a museum you've been to before, with a few new exhibits. It's worth checking out once, but you won't stay there too long.
The Smash Bros. Superfan:
You’re the most interesting. You’re not necessarily a huge fan of Nintendo, though you probably have some love for them somewhere in your heart. What you do care about though, is Smash Bros. Not Smash Bros. as a crossover game, not Smash Bros. as a fighting game, but Smash Bros. as a game, in and of itself.
You, like the competitive people, are likely going to be iffy about the controls. Maybe you'll get used to them, maybe you won't. If you're playing on a smaller model 3DS, the squared bezel might piss you off, but that's nothing new. You're used to that if you have a 3DS and normal-sized hands. On that same note, you'll also find the single-player modes to be dissatisfying., just like the people more interested in Nintendo than in Smash Bros.. Collecting trophies and customization parts isn't quite your bag, so the unlocking grind most modes offer up will probably leave you cold.
You probably won't play this for those two months when it's the only version of the new Smash Bros.. You want the promise of bigger and better things. You want multiplayer on one console, with a TV, so you can get better at a new game and prove dominance again. Or maybe you you want the better controls, or better single-player modes. It's hard to say. You aren't necessarily interested in the various things Smash Bros. offers as a hybrid game. You're not particularly interested in it as a whole package either. You're interested in the local multiplayer, the party game aspect. In which case, this game is definitely not for you, unless you happen to be living in Tokyo and riding the train with dozens of other 3DS owners every day.
And as for me, I fall somewhere between the last two camps. I'm genuinely bad at Smash Bros., despite my love of fighting games and platformers. I love the display and celebration of Nintendo history, but I also love having a great game to play with my friends when they're over. That happens less and less these days though, and I don't think the portability of the 3DS version will change that, considering even my 3DS-owning friends aren't nearby, and Smash Bros. loses some of that party-game charm online. But I can't deny that I've been having a lot of fun with this game. I've been playing it a lot. I'm the kind of person who spends time in training mode, messing around with combos and move properties. I'm the kind of person who wants to throw himself at CPU opponents during my hour-long commute. I don't mind the controls, and I love the core gameplay. I'm having a great time with it, because it's still a great game to play. But, it’s a great game to play for two months, and then presumably, very rarely afterwards.
Smash Bros for 3DS is an appetizer, and it's a damn good one, but that's all it's ever going to be. It's an amuse-bouche, a way to tide yourself over for the entree. There's about two months until its big brother comes out, and for those two months, if you need your Smash Bros. fix, there's very little to complain about with the 3DS version. But, know that if you're that kind of person, you're almost certainly going to be buying a better version of it when it comes out. If you, like me, have the cash to drop and the time to spare, go ahead. You'll have a great time. I know I certainly am.
UPDATE: It's been a few weeks, and while the game itself hasn't changed, the situation around it has. Super Smash Bros for Wii U is out, and going by our very own review, it's a significantly better product than the 3DS version. The 3DS version was an appetizer to the Wii U version's feast, and there's no sense filling yourself up on h'ors d'oeuvres now that you know what the main course is like. There's no need to own both versions, and we'd say the Wii U version is definitely the one to get. It renders the 3DS game obsolete, and thus, our verdict must be changed.
[Note: Formerly a thumbs up, before the release of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.]