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Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is not a videogame-it’s a galaxy

“It began quietly. Mother Nintendo roamed the land, petting her subjects’ heads and handing out gold lollipops. All was peachy. Then, in the year One Thousand Nine Hundred Ninety-Nine, there came a distressing rumble from Mother Nintendo’s womb: Creation. What started as one became many; this was meiosis on mega mushrooms. A loud crack sounded in the air. The earth split in two. Mother Nintendo had exploded, and tiny creatures rained down from above. We the people saw these innocent animals as our own. They belong to us now, we said. We must care for them. Soon we noticed strange habits forming. They want to… hit each other.

And lo, Super Smash Bros. was born.

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If any videogame deserves an origin story the likes of which would grace Scandinavian textbooks, it’s Smash. The four-player fighting game revels in its own insanity. What began as a simple toys-come-to-life childhood fantasy in 1999’s Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 has metastasized into something ungainly and weird. And amazing. The original’s two sequels iterated and beefed up: More characters, more stages, more gloss. This new game, the first version on a portable system and eventual companion to a Wii U version due this holiday, goes beyond mere sequel and approaches parody. It isn’t just Smash anymore. Smash is now all things. Smash is everlasting. Smash is.

Let’s talk about that title: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. That isn’t a description. That is the final name of the game. The creator and director of Smash, Masahiro Sakurai, is not only having some fun here. The decision feels like a self-effacing prank. “Here’s the fourth one,” he seems to say. And with Nintendo’s consistent choice of limiting tentpole titles to a single experience per system, the name not only fits but becomes near-subversive. Other series, Nintendo’s among them, drown in superlative, become white-washed in meaningless adjectives. Nintendo took the first step toward siphoning out the dross by slapping “New” on Super Mario Bros. games. The habit extended to Yoshi’s Island, and even the upcoming upgrade to its own handheld system, dubbed the “New Nintendo 3DS.” Smash Bros. doesn’t need to tell us we’re about to Brawl. Smash Bros. no longer enters into a Melee. Smash is just smash.

Start the game and the central mode is right there. “SMASH,” it says. Click the icon and you’re where you want to be. This is what you remember. Choose your fighter. Choose your stage. Knock the others off. Survive the longest. Smash still works. Smash is still a hell of a lot of fun.

But that’s but one facet of this massive, multi-torsoed beast. Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is so large that the original mode, a single-player journey through a series of matches culminating in a cheeky final boss named Master Hand, in fact a gigantic white glove, is completely buried in a sub-menu called “Games & More.” What was once one half of the game is now condemned to the footnotes. An asterisk. Small print to be read later. You’ve already had your first taste. That was years ago. So why return to battlegrounds already saturated with the blood of the fallen?

Smash Bros. on 3DS is in many ways the same game you played in 1999, or 2001, or 2008, when each subsequent Smash title released. There’s still that pause after a match where the screen goes dark and stays black for a second or two longer than expected. Then you hear it: A siren. A silhouette appears. The memorable text confirms the intrusion: “New Challenger Approaches.”

This has happened in each game. But there’s something about holding the system in your hand when being confronted by a threat. Before, you sat back and twiddled your thumbs. Here, you cradle the very arena in your grasp. You loom over the battleground like the puppeteer you are. Smash Bros. began as a console experience. Yet somehow it feels at home on a portable, where everything is contained within two palms and ten fingers. You’re forced to focus more intently on the battle, the way a high-stakes poker player clutches their cards, or a farmer strokes the family pig’s grizzled face before cooking up bacon the next morning.

Then you hear it: A siren. A silhouette appears. 

The smaller form factor of a portable version has not shrunken Smash down. If anything, the seeming paradox of this tiny gargantua makes its girth more apparent. When you load the game, your 3DS restarts clandestinely. Certain system-level functions are being turned off, the implication being that this version of Super Smash Bros. needs all this power for itself. What should be a nuisance—a longer load time—fuels the anticipation, like an airplane slowly revving its engines before it can break free from gravity. Close the game and a message pops up on your screen: “Please wait.” The screen goes black. In time you’re returned to the home menu and normal functions resume. No other 3DS game does this.

Even with thirty-six separate fighters available when you first turn on the game, you crave unlocking more. That you first have to defeat the new character before controlling them yourself smacks of colonization. Smash becomes a game about controlling territory. The Nintendo Universe is vast. Here it is before you. Can you master everything?

This very compulsion becomes a kind of meta-game within an already very meta game. Sidelines and distractions abound. Pause the game during any battle and manipulate the camera. Zoom in and out, rotate your perspective. Find the perfect angle and take snapshots to view later. The 3D visuals make each a tiny diorama. The Sound Test option compiles over fifty tracks of classic game scores, newly remixed and arranged. Set to “shuffle,” close your 3DS, plug in your headphones and you have the greatest Nintendo mixtape ever conceived.

Rip yourself from the peripheral enticements and be reminded of why Smash Bros. is so renowned. The base mode allows a unique amalgam of gaming’s history. Donkey Kong using the Hammer item, first used against his barrells 33 years ago, is the ultimate in videogame revenge fantasies. Newer additions to the Nintendo canon, those lauded by the majority and mocked by the insular, finally can hit back. Choose the Wii Fit Trainer and lash out with a bevy of mindful poses. Pummel your opponent with a forward yoga strike and the Trainer says to her fallen foe, “Firm up those abs.” Her blank monochromatic face stares ahead, breathing deeply. She is serene. Smash is as meditative as it is violent.

Other additions to the fray include Miis. I’ve written previously about Nintendo’s merging of its players with its franchise characters. This is the next step. We’re not dressing up as Nintendo characters anymore. We stand alongside them with moves of our own. And hats. My Mii fighter wears a cowboy hat and wields an arm cannon. Yours can wear devil horns and brandish a katana. Nintendo’s announcement video for Mii’s inclusion in Smash showed both Ice-T and Abraham Lincoln joining the fight. The implications are profound and hilarious: Now anyone can battle on the Smash Bros. stage, from Alf to Jesus to Aunt Judy.

Two other major modes fill out the rest of this bulging package. “Smash Run” considers the training regimen of our favorite fighters. How might Captain Falcon get ready for his battle with Peach and Fox McCloud? Perhaps with five minutes of wandering through a giant labyrinth, pummeling side enemies from numerous Nintendo and non-Nintendo games, who each disintegrate into brightly colored symbols that give you strength.

There is no glory here. At least not for me. Only fun. 

And due to other company’s characters joining the cast, such as Namco’s Pac-Man and Capcom’s Mega Man, we see some surprising ruffians enter from the shadows. Is that … Dig Dug? And why are the spinning plates from Xevious spinning toward me? Survive the gauntlet and be thrown into one of several random challenges. Sometimes you don’t even fight, but compete in a foot race. The uncertainty of this finale belies the confidence Sakurai has in his creation. He’s earned the trust of the players such that they are willing to spend five minutes suiting up for some unknown trial. Cleverly named, Smash Run is perfect for on-the-go mini-bouts, or as, yes, another sideline from the main quest, which is to …

What is the goal, again? There is no big bad, no overaching story. Smash Bros. has become such a fragmented enterprise that the only quantifiable win-state is when you no longer seek victory but a consistent series of conflicts. And, with Smash now in portable form, you no longer have to wait for others to join you. You can take the fight to them.

The real glory of Smash is in the playing with others. This is tricky to do with a pre-release review version. But Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is a fully online experience. Two choices await: “For Fun,” where you play with all items turned on and no records are kept, and “For Glory,” with a simple flat stage and only your moveset at your disposal.

The menu graphics tell the tale. “Glory” shows Link yelling at a helmeted Samus. Choose “Fun” and see Kirby’s wide-eyed marshmallow face awash in a mess of in-game items, like a child swimming in a ball pit.

My connection history proved even more demonstrative of this first-ever portable online Smash. “For Fun” worked every time I tried. “For Glory” failed to connect, resulting in an error message my first two attempts. There is no glory here. At least not for me. Only fun. I know this because there is also a Spectate mode, allowing you to watch others play online. It’s a brilliant work-around to Smash being best when playing with others while holding this very isolated system in your hands. Local multiplayer is possible, yes, but sometimes Smash is even better when watched.

A percentage of my college days was spent not playing Super Smash Bros. 64 but waiting my turn. While doing so, I watched others play. The players would stay quiet, intent on the action. The audience hooted and hollered with every launch and K.O. Others streamed in from the hall to see what was going on.

Now that hallway is the circumference of the earth. And now, like then, I’m amazed at the balletic quality of high-level play, so different than my own erratic flailing. Twitch.tv and Youtube Let’s Plays gain more and more views every day for a reason. Smash’s Spectate mode taps into this very natural desire to watch others do something that, yes, you could do, but they can do better.

And it comes with a twist. You can gamble on the winner, betting coins and doubling-down on a win streak. No real money is involved; you put your in-game currency at stake, the same used to unlock unearned trophies. But the slight risk/reward gives your viewership added meaning. Without any real world relationships to fuel your concern for who wins or loses, the bet turns Smash into something closer to Fantasy Football. Another game laid atop a pre-existing game.

Spectate mode taps into this very natural desire to watch others do something that, yes, you could do, but they can do better. 

Others are watching, too. A World Map constantly updates with tiny yellow dots representing active online players around the globe. Right now there’s a cluster in Japan (where the game is already available) and thin strips along each U.S. coast. But dots are also scattered throughout the plains states, and one even in the Yukon territory. A blue cone emits from one sector: Here is where your next Spectating match takes place, with a preview of each battle in the form of character logos. Maybe a Free-for-All between Mario, Luigi, Peach and Bowser sounds unimpressive. But ooh, a one-on-one bout between Olimar and the Wii Fit Trainer? I need to see that. And throw 10 coins down on the Trainer. Press the A button and you’re watching long-distance Smash. Ready … fight.

Nintendo could split Smash into a dozen pieces and each would still satisfy. I would have been happy with the eShop demo alone, with a measly five characters and single stage locked into two-minute battles. The full game is almost too much. You could play Smash for 1000 hours. People have. More will.

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS is all things. A videogame soundtrack for the ages. A digital hoarder’s dream. A virtual cock-fighting ring. A magnifying glass from space. A do-it-yourself 3D diorama kit. That it’s a fun game too is almost frosting at this point. Once upon a time, had a loving deity attempted to birth such a monstrosity, she might not have lived to tell the tale. But we survived. And by playing, our stories, and all those who Smash, live on.