Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a bummer

Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl could have been a contender.

It started with a foolproof pitch. “What if there was a Smash Bros. game starring beloved Nickelodeon characters?” The concept rests perfectly in the middle portion of the “corporate IP flex” and “stuff fans actually want” venn diagram. When Nickelodeon teamed up with developers Ludosity and Fair Play Labs to handle the game, its Smash-contender cred skyrocketed. Ludosity’s small team were Smash Bros. fanatics who had turned out Slap City, a solid platform fighter tuned for high-level play, in 2018.

In an early gameplay trailer, the devs cheekily revealed that its game would have wavedashing. In Smash Bros. Melee, wavedashing was a high-execution technique that let characters glide around at impossible speeds. It was an exploit that became a cornerstone of competitive play. In later Smash games, Nintendo would nerf the heck out of it, and upset a lot of hardcore players in the process. By showing Spongebob scooting around on invisible roller skates, Nickelodeon and Ludosity were signaling that this Smash-like would be the real deal for real fans.

The devs sprinkled some more hardcore catnip when they confirmed All-Star Brawl would have rollback netcode on certain platforms. For those of you who don’t spend your evenings yelling at fighting game developers on Twitter, rollback refers to a set of ingenious techniques that can, under the right conditions, make online fighting game matches feel nearly as responsive as in-person sessions. This was another shot across the bow of Smash Bros., in which online matches can feel like playing by correspondence.

And for the most part, Ludosity and Fair Play Labs have delivered on those promises. All-Star Brawl is mechanically solid, the characters all feel unique in their design and purpose, and the netplay is undeniably better than Nintendo’s offering. I’ve tuned into Twitch streams of competitive Smash players putting it through the paces, praising its speed and responsiveness.

Which is all to say that the devs have done a phenomenal job building the bones of a phenomenal platform fighter that should satisfy the hardcore players Nintendo left behind. So it’s even more of a pity that Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl completely fails to deliver any of the charm, silliness, and cleverness that makes crossover fighters broadly appealing.

It seems like the developers do enjoy working with the Nickelodeon pantheon. Techniques tie nicely into the Brawlers canonical abilities and personalities, and there’s even deep cuts and meme references like Patrick’s ice cream cone attack or the Mocking Spongebob taunt. But it doesn’t feel like enough.

Image: GameMill/Nickelodeon via Polygon

Aesthetically and emotionally, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is inert. The most obvious shortcoming is the complete absence of voice acting— we don’t even get yelps or grunts. With the exception of someone like Reptar, Nickelodeon’s characters are all inexorably linked to their distinct voice acting throughout the years. Their total silence is awkward at best, and uncomfortable at worst. Mobilizing the money and lawyers to get the Billy Wests and Tom Kennys on board may have led to some difficulties on the development side, but if you come at the king, you best not miss.

Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl also lacks any of Nickelodeon’s iconic tunes. Instead, we have stage music loosely inspired by the vibes of the shows. The Bikini Bottom stage has some ripping slide-guitar solos, and the AAHHH!! Real Monsters stage features a chopped and screwed Howie Scream. But while there are definitely some bangers here, you won’t hear a single nostalgic melody.

One of the great joys of Super Smash Bros. is seeing characters from different worlds collide in clever and silly ways. Kirby’s copy ability was a gold mine of cute and funny gags. Snake’s codec conversations in Brawl treated you to the Colonel marveling at Wario’s farting prowess. Watching Kazuya Mishima dump the Smash roster off his favorite patricide cliff was so good. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl never once gets to revel in the possibilities of its crossover premise.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=lojFEQUXhJc%3Frel%3D0

It’s especially evident in the game’s arcade mode. Combatants exchange words in a rudimentary text box at the beginning of each battle. It’s a simple system that has potential for fun little moments, even without voice acting: What would Avatar’s glib Earthbender Toph make of the flamboyant Powdered Toast Man? Unfortunately, the game whiffs on this opportunity too. The one-liners aren’t personalized at all. Each character just cycles through a tiny handful of dull quips, regardless of where they are or who they’re up against.

She’s always saying this!
GameMill/Nickelodeon via Polygon

All-Star Brawl feels like a licensed game that’s constantly being undercut by the very company that licensed it. Ludosity’s platform fighting game chops are on full display here, but in this space, every ounce of fanfare matters. Nickelodeon authorized the use of the characters, but it was apparently unable or unwilling to provide the access to voice actors, music, and writers that could bring the crossover fantasy to life. It feels like a small studio doing the best with what it’s got, when it should have been given a whole lot more.

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