Now we wait for Garfield
I feel a little sorry for Nickelodeon Star Brawl. After his big reveal over the summer, he’s had several solid weeks of anticipation and hype as the world caught a glimpse of a platform fighter who looked legitimately good, highlighting featured characters from some of the shows most of us grew up with. People were really excited about it. And then, on the day of its release, Nintendo decided to make its final Great Smash Bros. Ultimate sing and dance and reveal Kingdom Hearts‘Sora as the last DLC character in the game. After that, there wasn’t a single glance at Star Brawl on social networks.
It’s a shame because, despite all the obstacles, he’s actually a pretty good fighter.
Nickelodeon Star Brawl (PC, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S)
Developer: Ludosity, Fair Play Labs
Publisher: GameMill Entertainment
Released: October 5, 2021
MSRP: $ 49.99
In a sense, Nickelodeon Star Brawl defy the odds. Here is a licensed game, released by GameMill Entertainment, of the platform fighter genre that has seen many titles come and go over the past two decades. Everybody wants a piece of Smash Bros. pie, but very few had the discipline and tenacity to justify a share. With any other developer, this could have been just another forgettable GameMill title that your grandma bought you for the holidays. But with slap the city Developer Ludosity at the helm, assisted by Fair Play Labs, it’s worth paying attention to.
Nickelodeon Star Brawl brings together 20 characters from around 30 years of Nickelodeon history to compete on battlefields inspired by their respective shows. It’s a dream come true for a certain subset of fans who finally get the chance to see Ren and Stimpy fight with Reptar, Sandy Cheeks, and whoever Lincoln Loud is. As is the norm for the genre, the goal isn’t to lower your opponent’s health bar but rather to do enough damage that you can knock them off the screen.
The actual combat mechanics here are very easy to learn. Each character has weak, strong, and special attacks that vary depending on whether you press up or down – the jump is mapped to the X button, as it should – as well as whether you run, jump, or stand still. In total, each character has around 17 different attack inputs, as well as block, taunt, grab, and overhead dash abilities. A big difference with Smash is that you are not assured of an easy combo with your general weak attack. Some characters, like Sandy, have a little combo if you keep pressing the button. Others, like Patrick and Danny Phantom, don’t.
I learned this the hard way, immediately playing arcade mode on its second highest difficulty thinking that I would just dominate this game with my 20+ years. Smash experience. It wasn’t because I really had to get in there and study these characters. I’ve found some that I love (April O’Neil, Helga Pataki, Sandy Cheeks) and some that I haven’t been able to match yet (Danny Phantom, Zim). With 20 characters available, most players should be able to find one that matches their playstyle. If you like them strong and slow, Reptar is a good choice. If you prefer them skinny and supple, Aang is your man. Or, if you just want to be cheap like most people I’ve fought with online, choose Catdog.
If you’re really into combat and want to improve your skills, there are options for you to get there. While there isn’t a good tutorial to show you each character’s moves outside of a drop-down list, you can access the training mode here and see the attacks in action frame by frame. You can even activate the hitbox indicator to show you the range and scale of each attack. Yes Nickelodeon Star Brawl is to be an esports-worthy platform fighter, having a feature like this will help make that happen.
In fact, I can’t help but think that Star Brawl aims to be a kind of Melee alternative, something that can be played in Evo without broken controllers or the fear that Nintendo will send the lawyers to stop it. And I think that’s an admirable goal if that’s the case here. But by targeting the more competitive side of the platform fighter community, Star Brawl left behind the more laid-back board game scene.
Don’t forget whatever happens Smash is today, it was a return party game on Nintendo 64. It was the combat version of Mario kart. Although I know there is the stereotype that Smash players are all “No Items, Fox Only, Final Destination”, whenever I have people to play, we activate all items and play the most ridiculously large stages available. It’s just how we ride.
Star Brawl has a few great stages and you can play with up to three other people locally, but that’s the extent it reaches in terms of board game. There aren’t any items or weapons here, the collectibles you get are lousy, and even the single-player arcade mode limits you to 1v1 fights. There are no special battles against a giant Nigel Thornberry or a Metal Powdered Toast Man or anything like that that would add variety to the packaging. There are also no additional single player challenges here, so you will only be doing fights. You can play sports mode, where you compete against other players to hit or throw a ball through a goal, but you probably won’t do that after the first few times.
With such a good combat system in place, it’s a shame that everything around it is preventing the game from playing to its true potential. And this is something that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is still a game funded by GameMill Entertainment. There are going to be some cut corners, like with the lack of voice acting, something that didn’t become an issue for me until the game insisted on characters having a chat before every fight. Some of the other omissions are quite questionable. For example, there are no alternative colors when several people choose the same character. All you have is the icon above the head of the opponent you are supposed to be following.
I also have to question the hitboxes of some of these characters. As I discovered from the start, some fighters like April O’Neil and Patrick can hit people with their weak basic attack even when they are hitting in the opposite direction. I know there are some characters with moves that are supposed to hit left and right, but I don’t think a forward jab should hit someone behind you just because your foot is stepping back.
While I hope it can work out with the updates, a place where I am very happy with Braw All-StarI am at the scene selection. There are 20 stages in total, one for each character, and a few of them are deep cuts. Seeing Showdown at Teeter Totter Gulch making it on Reptar’s roster was an absolute delight for this lifetime Rugrats fan. I even love the layout of Powdered Toast Trouble with its frying pan danger and milk bowl deaths. Some of the stage layouts are direct rips of what you can find in Ultimate smash, but I think the developers have done a good job forging their own way for most of them.
Except for Space Madness. This one is just awful.
If there is an area where Star Brawl stands head and shoulders above Ultimate smash, it’s in his online game. Granted, there isn’t much here in terms of options. You have fast play mode, ranked mode, and a custom lobby system that I still couldn’t find anyone in. are the most “Smash-like ”in their design. This last point can be disappointing, but it is negligible when online play is this good.
Even with a wireless connection to my router – which, remember, is the only option for people playing this on a Switch Lite – I’d bet around 85% of my matches online were incredibly smooth and responsive. Yes, I had a few spray sessions when playing against people with terrible connections, but overall, Star Brawl ‘s online works better than anything I have ever experienced with the Smash series.
Nickelodeon Star Brawl obviously isn’t in a position to take the platform fighter throne right now, but I think the teams at Ludosity and Fair Play Labs have created a really good plan for what could be a really big franchise. Yes Super Smash Bros. is a celebration of all things Nintendo, I don’t see why a Star Fight 2 couldn’t be a celebration of all things Nickelodeon. I think it can be done with the right amount of time and money, and I hope this game is successful enough to convince GameMill to invest in a sequel that could be truly spectacular.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]