Game Reviews

Smash Bros’ First Real Competition? | “Nickelodeon All Star-Brawl” (2021) Game Review

Super Smash Bros has had a large grip on the gaming community since the late 90s, when the very first, fateful iteration released on the Nintendo 64. 

Over that timeframe, other companies have tried to emulate it. Games such as PlayStation All-Stars and Cartoon Network: Punch Time Explosion tried, but ultimately failed, to threaten Smash’s dominance on the platform fighting crossover niche.

Now we have another contender in the ring: Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. The game came out on October 5th this year, and the post release hype has been pretty real. But once the novelty wears off and the smoke clears, will it hold up as a legitimate contender against Nintendo’s crossover saga?

Let’s talk about it!

Here are somethings the game does well:

Rollback net code

If we’re going to compare this game to Smash, immediately the first thing which should be mentioned is a critical advantage it has over it. To sum it up, Rollback Netcode is basically where the game treats an individual online fight as if it were being played offline locally, and it will attempt to predict what the other player over the internet will do. If it predicts correctly, and it is extremely precise at doing so, gameplay over the internet is incredibly smooth. This means that, unless playing against a player who hacks the game and makes it so their character is doing things they couldn’t ordinarily do, gameplay will always be seamless.

Smash has never had Rollback Netcode, and as a result it’s online experience has historically been incredibly bumpy. From the virtually unplayable online experience of Brawl, to the shaky but workable Smash 4, all the way to the poorly functioning online gameplay of Smash Ultimate, it’s fair to say they would’ve benefitted a lot from Rollback Netcode, and Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a clear exhibit as to why that is.

This game is unbelievably fast paced

Smash Melee has always had a reputation for having a high skill cap, and boasting quick, aggressive gameplay. All-Star Brawl is basically Melee on steroids, and gameplay is extremely fast paced. Most characters were given good mobility, fast attacks, everyone was given heavy gravity and most stages in the game are small, leading to quick engagements all fight long. After all, if this game truly is to compete with Smash, it will have to attract a wide streaming or viewing audience to watch top level players or tournament play. If matches are constantly engaging, it ensures that spectators watching two skilled players going at it won’t be left disappointed.

The roster is mostly very well balanced

With one notable exception that will be discussed later, the roster as-is looks really good and balanced. There haven’t yet been any wickedly overpowered characters to totally dominate the metagame. Moreover, there aren’t any characters who are particularly challenging to learn to play. This means that it is very new-player friendly, as most people (especially those with experience in Smash or similar) will be able to pick this up and become pretty good at it pretty quickly.

Lots of fan service

As this is a crossover, it shouldn’t surprise that quite a lot of fan service has been put into this game. To give an idea, even the Ren & Stimpy Show, which debuted in 1991 before ending off in 1996, was featured in this game. Of course, we have more recognizable characters such as SpongeBob, a couple of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle representatives, Invader Zim, Danny Phantom, and we even got a representative from the Rugrats show. Pretty solid stuff. We also know DLC is on the horizon, so with some popular shows strangely being left out, such as Fairly Oddparents and Jimmy Neutron, the good times will more than likely keep rolling.

Emphasis on casual and competitive play was made

Whereas Smash has constantly danced around the competitive scene, pretending it didn’t exist for the most part until the release of Ultimate, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl has welcomed both casual and competitive players with open arms. For casual players, there are fun items, large chaotic stages and numerous rule tweaks that can make a button mashing experience with friends quite entertaining. For competitive players, there is a mode dedicated to that style of play, simply named ‘competitive’, in which only tournament designed stages may be played, with no items to worry about, and with a simple 3 stock/6 minute setup. This is ideal, as some players want to play to prepare for potential tournament play, where competitive rules are designed to determine who the best player is. With the distinction between casual and competitive being made firm, this game welcomes players of all kinds to enjoy it, instead of skirting over one and acting like it is lesser-than the other.

Nigel Thornberry

Out of all the characters in this game, Nigel has got to be the most well designed. He is fast, has acceptable and effective range, his move set is funny and loose and, like many others, his appearance in the game helps to partially revive a mostly dead franchise in The Wild Thornberrys. ‘Fun’ is always going to be subjective, but I genuinely challenge InReview’s readerbase to find a more fun character to play than Nigel Thornberry.

For as promising as this game is, it’s not perfect. Let’s evaluate what needs work.

The controls

There is no tap jump, and there is also not much in the way of modifying controls used to play the game. As a result, they are quite a bit clunkier than Smash. Perhaps the most egregious example is how jumping and moving through platforms works. For starters, on the PlayStation, the jump button is triangle. On the Nintendo Switch, it is either the Y button on a GameCube remote, or the X button on the Switch console. In order to move through a platform going from the top-down, the player must simultaneously hit both the jump and crouch buttons. This is an incredibly awkward maneuver that can make actually attacking or acting otherwise upon doing so close to impossible. This would be really bad in a situation where the opponent is right underneath you, as they can pretty much afford to just throw out attacks at you endlessly with no risk, all because of the control setup. It would do this game a whole world of good to open up controller modification by a bit, particularly allowing for tap jump.

This game encourages, and even rewards, brainless button mashing

Blocking is the only way to avoid taking damage when someone attacks. Blocking is also really bad and easily exploitable, as you cannot do anything other than jump or take time to drop your block and then attack when blocking.. Attacks in this game come out fast and have very short cool down so, often after using an attack, the character using it can pretty much immediately act before you have the time to undo your block and attack back. This leads to moments where someone can be basically forced to stand there and block numerous attacks, without being able to punish misses or blocked attacks, and generally can’t effectively act until the opponent stops. Moreover, if you try and block an attack while standing near a ledge, your character will be forced out of their block as an animation plays, with them nervously looking over the ledge they’re close to falling down. This gives the opponent all day to simply attack and hit you. This serves to somewhat undermine the game a bit, as brainless button mashing can sometimes be the optimal strategy.

Patrick Star

Where Nigel is very well designed, SpongeBob’s pal Patrick sadly got the other end of the stick. Predictably, Patrick is the heaviest character in the game currently, and he hits very hard while being noticeably slower than mostly everyone else. That type of dynamic has historically proven to be a net loss, but having a heavyweight or two to balance out a roster is pretty customary, so this wouldn’t have been the end of the world. At least, it wouldn’t have been if, on top of being slow and heavy, Patrick didn’t also have horrible effective range to boot. In practice, despite hitting hard, Patrick will have trouble actually landing his harder hitting attacks, and struggles to threaten opponents anywhere near the same as other characters do. Patrick has no real defense against faster characters running and jumping circles around him, as he is simply too slow and has poor range to try and catch up with them. Patrick is easily the worst character in the game, viability wise, and he hopefully receives some substantial buffs in future balance patches. For now, he is easily the game’s most poorly designed character as well. At least he has some funny animations for the attacks he does use, including using his butt to shoot a laser at a nearby opponent, or slamming a phone down as a reminiscent of the immortal “No! This is Patrick!” meme.

And that’s about it.

Overall, this game currently gets a B for a grade, but it has room to improve and could easily jump up quite a bit if some changes are made. I encourage patience for those who buy the game. Fair Play Labs, the development studio, has never made a platform fighting game before, so there were always going to be some kind of growing pains as they learn how best to manage the game. As it is, the game is definitely solid and worth buying, especially with DLC on the horizon.

Does it truly compete with Smash? Realistically, probably not, at least not yet. Smash has had an iron grip on this particular gaming subgenre for a very, very long time, and it will take more than some post-release hype to stand a chance at dethroning, or sharing the spotlight, with it. Still, as a stand-alone game, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is worth buying.

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