At least we got one -OTY out by now!
If you look in the dictionary next to the word “anachronistic,” you’ll find a picture of Super Smash Bros Brawl: a video game where Solid Snake throws grenades at Pikachu and Wario farts on Sonic the Hedgehog, yet takes itself so seriously that its theme song is composed in Latin. But it’s more likely that if you’ve heard any criticism about Brawl, it’s about the game’s competitive viability compared to its predecessor, Super Smash Bros Melee. Imbalance bisects the character roster, with characters like Diddy Kong and Meta Knight being so implausibly powerful that it’s downright silly to play as anybody else. Random pratfalls and floatier controls more or less destroyed Brawl’s competitive scene, with most players still preferring the faster, more balanced Melee.
The Brawl community reacted to this in a number of ways. For some the answer was to hack Brawl and make it more like Super Smash Bros Melee, resulting in the popular Project M mod. For others, the solutions wasn’t going back to Melee, but trying to smooth out the imbalances in Brawl, which brought about the Balanced Brawl and Brawl Plus mods.
For Brawl Minus developer Marc Weidlich (known online by his alias Pin Clock), fixing Brawl wasn’t about competitiveness or balance, but craziness and balls out fun instead.
“The idea for Brawl Minus came about when the other Brawl mods at the time, Brawl+ and Balanced Brawl, focused on balancing the game at around Brawl Diddy Kong’s level and making it more serious and competitive,” Weidlich said. “Realizing this, we imagined what a mod would be like where the bar for power was raised much higher and serious competition was put second to crazy high speed fun.”
It’s clear when you boot up Brawl Minus that it’s a more fun and looser experience than in Brawl Plus or Project M. The menu screens are all purple, and the character select screen looks like it was drawn in MS Paint by an enthusiastic 8-year-old. Weidlich is well aware of the challenges of making a game that’s funny, yet still playable. “Since humor plays an important role in our game, we have to make sure everyone is laughing, even when you’re the one getting hit!”he said.
“The balance between ridiculousness and serious playability of the game is something very delicate that we try not lean to one side on. For example, were we to make everything crazy silly, Minus would lose a lot of its lasting appeal and replay value due to not having depth outside of jokes. However, if we leaned too much towards the serious side, then Brawl Minus loses that special touch that makes playing it a truly unique experience, also hampering lasting appeal and replay value.”
Even aside from the game’s inherent silliness, there’s a certain frantic, fast paced outlandishness that makes the game fit seamlessly into the Super Smash Bros Universe. Pikachu can use one of his aerial moves to literally fly through the air. Bowser refuses to flinch at weak attacks, making the classic villain seem as scary as he should be. Mario can turn metal with a taunt, and Ivysaur can use his Bullet Seed attack to fly up into the air like a helicopter. Part of the charm of Brawl Minus is installing it for the first time and seeing how your favorite characters have changed, and being surprised when your expectations are thrown right out the window.
For Weidlich, designing characters in Brawl Minus is about maximizing fun for the players while still sticking close to the character’s roots. “Minus has always had emphasis on making our characters unique, with changes such as Bowser into a powerful grappler with the moves Royal Rampage and Galactic Crusher, giving Ike the devastating No Sympathy Mode which activated when Ike dealt enough damage to his opponents, Sonic a mobility move in Boost, and many more,” Weidlich said.
“Pichu especially is no exception to having to find a unique role, especially when he was a clone of Pikachu in Melee,” Weidlich said. “Him being in Melee before made us adhere to certain rules, such as his unique mechanic of taking self-damage on electric attacks, which was also a blessing as it let us easily decide to make Pichu a high risk high reward character. Another thing we decided to emphasize on was his speed, making Pichu much faster than his evolved counterpart, which also played with his smaller size, needing the mobility to get in. With this design goal, we then optimized each move to make sure it would not only aid Pichu in battle in a way other moves in his kit wouldn’t, but to also make sure they flow into each other well for the character to feel natural.”
In many ways, Weidlich’s care in redesigning characters feels more reverent of the character’s original games than Brawl. When Charizard uses his Rock Smash attack in Brawl Minus, shards of stone remain floating in the air after the attack, referencing Stealth Rock, an entry hazard move extremely popular in competitive Pokémon play. When Meta Knight throws an opponent, he gives the opponent a Beam Sword, echoing past Kirby games where Meta Knight would give Kirby a sword before a battle, so that their fight could be an honorable one.
“Every single move is designed carefully to make sure they can add to a character in a way another move wouldn’t,” Weidlich said, “and nods to canon are no exception. We make sure that each bonus functions the same as every unique move: Being able to be used well and also played around. We do go out of our way to add canon to our characters, and Stealth Rock is one of my favorites due to not only the irony of Charizard using Stealth Rock, but also that an important move to competitive Pokémon is an important move to Minus Charizard as well!”
If there’s any criticism to be levied against Brawl Minus, it’s that it makes standard Brawl feel boring by comparison. It’s tough to go back to a game where Ganondorf’s Wizard punch doesn’t do 666 damage and shoot a fireball, once you’re accustomed to it. “I remember when I booted up Vanilla Brawl once myself by accident and played a few matches, and it felt like I was playing Minus on Slow-Mo,” Weidlich said.
But with a new Smash Bros game rapidly approaching, Weidlich isn’t concerned that the transition from Brawl Minus to Super Smash Bros will be difficult. “Sakurai and his team at Namco Bandai have really thought of a few things I myself would have done, on top of a lot of other things I’d have never come up with. He and his team have thought outside of the box and beyond this time, and it shows! Speaking of Sakurai, have you noticed the new properties of Zelda’s Din’s Fire and Pikachu’s Thunder? I feel like someone’s watching us!”
It’s clear above all else that Weidlich is proud of his creation, and certain that its legacy will last, even after Brawl fades away. “I feel as if players will still boot up Minus every now and then to relieve the memories of just how much silly fun Minus has to offer. While we won’t be modding the game for a bit after release so players can really get a feel for it, the presence of Minus in Smash 4 might be a possibility a little further down the road.”