Every few years, Nintendo rounds up its most popular characters, like Mario, Donkey Kong and Pikachu, and has them beat the daylights out of each other. It's not exactly blood sport — there are no spine-shattering, "Mortal Kombat"-style fatalities, and everyone walks away smiling. Only Nintendo could make bare-knuckle brawling cute.
"Super Smash Bros. for Wii U" (Nintendo, $59.99) continues that bizarre balancing act between adorable and brutal. Like most fighting games, it's a snooze to play alone but a delight to play with friends.
The initial 49-character roster includes familiar challengers like Link and Kirby, new fighters like the "Wii Fit" trainer and Little Mac from "Punch-Out," and even a few non-Nintendo ringers like Pac-Man and Sonic the Hedgehog. You can also fight as your Mii avatar, armed with a gun, a sword or just your fists.
The core brawling is simple enough that anyone can pick up a controller and join in. One button lets you punch opponents or pick up useful items, like a baseball bat or a healing spell. A second button unleashes special attacks that vary by character: Mario can throw fireballs, Link can shoot arrows and Yoshi can inhale enemies and then spit them out in eggs. Once you get the basics down, you can spend hours figuring out which combinations of buttons yield the most damaging attacks.
Each melee takes place on a two-dimensional field of floating platforms, with backgrounds inspired by classic games dating all the way back to "Donkey Kong." The goal of each fight, which lasts just a few minutes, is to weaken your rival enough so your next punch sends him or her flying off the platforms.
The new "Smash Bros." lets up to eight people leap into the fray. I found that a little too chaotic; it's hard to keep track of your own fighter when so many are jumping around. Four-player brawls feel just right, providing enough action to keep everyone busy without making anyone squint.
Nintendo has built in plenty of variations to the core game. Event matches and special orders force you to win brawls with certain restrictions, such as time limits or more aggressive opponents. Smash Tour is a board game in which you collect characters to face off in a final series of fights. You can even build your own battle arenas.
And then there's amiibo ($12.99 each), Nintendo's new line of character figurines. When you place a Mario amiibo, for example, on the Wii U GamePad, you can train him to fight in different styles or boost his stats with equipment won in-game. You don't directly control that character, but you can enlist him to fight by your side.
"Smash Bros." remains one of Nintendo's best party franchises. Sure, you can compete online, but you'll miss out on all the laughter that results from gathering friends for virtual fisticuffs in your living room. Three stars out of four.
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