The nerds and soccer moms of America, an unlikely combination if there ever was one, assembled the night of March 9 outside of various video game retailers across the country. A single prize was their only commonality: Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the long-anticipated next-gen update of Nintendo's venerable fighting franchise.
It's not often that a video game warrants a midnight release and the accompanying rabid fanboy turnout. The baffling success of the Halo series aside, gaming is still very much a niche market. Children (read: parents) and twentysomethings with disposable income comprise a lucrative demand, but if that wisdom was universally applicable, we'd have a national holiday every time Mountain Dew came out with a new flavor.
Retailers by and large aren't stupid, though, and after Brawl's Japanese pressing sold an estimated 500,000 of its 600,000-copy first run within 24 hours of its release, certain preparations were made. EB/GameStop went so far as to schedule the aforementioned midnight release, as well as an accompanying (and ongoing, as of this writing) nationwide tournament.
Coincidentally, this is why I found myself freezing to death on a Saturday night. God's prankster sense of humor pretty much guarantees that March 9 will be marked as the coldest night of 2008, but did I spend it cozying up to a local snow bunny in one of our many fine social establishments? Oh no. I spent it shivering in line in front of a strip mall in North Knoxville with three dozen suckers like myself—a combination of teenage nerds in various stages of unkemptness, harried parents, and children up way past their bedtimes—waiting to buy a flimsy plastic disc that would allow me to take control of a hyperactive plumber and use him to beat up a yellow mouse.
And no, I didn't even get in the tournament.
But what is it about the game that evokes such a response from its players? With Brawl, the answer lies in a combination of user-friendliness and fan service so effective, it makes Steve Jobs look like a guy in a ratty turtleneck selling knockoff Rolexes from the back of his conversion van.
At its core, Brawl, like its predecessors, is a simple fighter. Each character is limited to two kinds of attack ("regular" and "special"), a throw move, and a "Smash" attack that acts as the main means to each player's end: to send the other guy (or girl, or monster, or anthropomorphic marshmallow) flying off the stage before he does the same to you. No dismemberments here; in a genre rife with the kind of explicit imagery that would make Tipper Gore flee to the relative sunshine-and-lollipops atmosphere of 2 Live Crew, Brawl comes off as an ACME-fueled pillow fight.
Nearly a decade has passed since the first Smash game, and this Spartan setup still has yet to be mimicked. As it did with the other games in the series, this latest version lends itself to user-friendliness in a genre crowded with games in which learning to play effectively is a full-time job. In typical Nintendo fashion, this is a calculated effort. While nobody expects Brawl to be the demographic-smashing success that Wii Sports and its ilk became, Brawl's ease of use and cartoony wholesomeness guarantee it the top spot on the short list of Fighting Games Grandma Might Play.
This isn't to say that Brawl limits itself to broadly appealing simplicity. For a fighter, Brawl is filled with other things to do. Brawl's Adventure campaign, a paradox by its own inclusion, is an hours-long side-scrolling action game reminiscent of developer Masahiro Sakurai's earlier Kirby series. It bogs down near the end, and the plot itself is purposely nonsensical; but as a way to unlock secret characters, it's infinitely preferable to the "grind through 1,000 matches on Ludicrous difficulty" method.
Brawl's Event Mode packs in a series of short challenges that serve as bite-sized distractions for when standard-issue fighting becomes monotonous. When standard-issue battlegrounds become equally so, Brawl's Stage Builder allows players to mix and match set-pieces to create their own stages. Stage Builder's selection is rather sparse, and its insistence on having players jump through hoops to unlock all its pieces gets annoying.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl is a panderer's masterpiece, collecting obscure little tidbits from gaming's last two decades and stuffing them into a shiny, new user-friendly package. From its selection of characters to its music to its levels to the effortlessness with which players can interact with it, Brawl practically oozes nostalgia from every pore, as though it evolved in a lab specifically to engender a response from users who had nothing to do with the reams of gaming trivia they wasted their formative years to collect.
Or had nothing better to do on a Saturday night in March, for that matter.