Games 3/12/08: Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Patapon

Super Smash Bros. Brawl
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor)

The bad news? “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” is more of the same.

The good news? It’s a lot more of the same.

For those still playing “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” “Brawl” represents a small step for gameplay and a giant leap for most everything else. It’s still chiefly a fighting game starring Nintendo characters, and the pick-up-and-play sensibilities that buoyed the first two games make the move to “Brawl” with almost no change to the formula. (Case in point: Despite several control schemes involving all manner of Wii controller configurations, the configuration that utilizes the Gamecube outclasses them all.)

Where “Brawl” really shines, more than perhaps any Nintendo game ever, is with content. Six years have passed since “Melee” arrived, and Nintendo pads “Brawl’s” already-loaded roster of characters and stages with a ton of familiar faces and places from the franchises it’s created in that time. The amount of fan service crammed inside sets a mind-boggling new standard that likely won’t be matched until the next “Smash” game arrives, and while “Brawl” isn’t miles prettier than “Melee” was, it’s definitely an upgrade in every facet.

The feature offerings also blow “Melee” away.

Online play makes its debut in the “Smash” universe, and while the clumsy friend code system, occasional dropped connection and lack of voice chat and leaderboards make this a bittersweet debut, it generally works as advertised. The adventure mode — featuring “Smash” characters starring in a mix of sidescrolling and fighting levels — is considerably longer and more story-driven than in “Melee,” and a handful of mini-games and objective-driven stages round out a surprisingly mountainous single-player component.

“Brawl” also engages your creative side for the first time, allowing players to share replays and screenshots and even create their own levels for use in offline (though sadly, not online) matches.

As with “Melee,” “Brawl” also offers a humungous suite of stuff to unlock — trophies, virtual stickers, characters, stages and even a few laughably time-limited demos of classic Nintendo games.

All that said, the best way to enjoy “Melee” — throwing down with friends on the same couch and screen — remains the definitive way to enjoy “Brawl.” Nothing’s changed there.

As such, if you didn’t get into “Smash” before, “Brawl” won’t change your mind. But Nintendo clearly aimed “Brawl” squarely at the same crowd that embraced “Melee,” and the trove of content packed inside should keep fanatics engaged for at least another six years. If you’re a “Smash” fan and you had any doubts, consider them put to rest.

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Patapon
For: Playstation Portable
From: Interlink/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)

Genre-blending is all the rage nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you can mix just any two flavors and expect peanut butter and jelly.

A huge hat off, then, to Interlink, which mixes two wildly different genres (rhythmic gaming and real-time strategy), dresses them in a side-scrolling graphical style that’s almost completely foreign to both, and somehow makes the whole thing not only work, but sing.

In “Patapon,” you command a strange-looking group of creatures (called Patapon) as they march from left to right, encounter hordes of creatures, and complete objectives as dictated by a surprisingly charming storyline. But rather than move your units with a cursor or even just the d-pad, you control their actions with a drum, pressing different combinations of face buttons in time with a beat that plays in the background. One set of button presses advances your troops, for instance, while others prompt them to attack, defend, or perform context-sensitive actions.

At first, it seems wildly simplistic and repetitive, with the first mission asking you to execute the advance command ad nauseam in order to outrun an unstoppable monster. The second mission isn’t much more complicated, prompting fears that “Patapon” never evolves beyond a rote exercise of memorizing button combinations and rhythmically executing them.

With time, though, the game surprises with its depth. The mission structure quickly opens up, forcing you to focus as much on formulating a smart attack strategy as keeping up with the beat. Different Patapon have different abilities and liabilities, and you can manage troops by acquiring new equipment and elements that go toward the creation of new troops. As with any good strategy game, success in “Patapon” comes down to how efficiently you distribute your resources.

None of this is to suggest “Patapon” is for everyone, because it isn’t. The continual focus on rhythmic button presses while also managing an army makes this a demanding game in spite of its implied simplicity, and the reliance on music and lack of in-game pause means this isn’t the easiest game to pull out for a quickie on the bus. Never mind that this combination of two rather niche genres simply isn’t for everyone in the first place.

But those intrigued by what they’ve read are in for an extremely unique treat. “Patapon” deserves major kudos not only for trying something new, but for nailing it on the first go. That the whole thing only costs $20 sure doesn’t hurt, either.