Although I adore the games, I never considered myself to be “good” at Super Smash Brothers. After spending a few days with the Xbox Game Preview Program build of Rivals of Aether — a game I’ve previously established is a spot-on pixelated Smash doppelganger — I now realize the situation is much more dire.
Other than training or battling up to three AI bots with adjustable difficulty levels, you won’t find any single-player content here. (There are two single-player modes, but they’re not available in the Preview release.) That means most players are going to hop right into local or online versus modes duke it out as the eight anthropomorphic characters across the seven available stages. After crushing it against mid-level bots for a bit, I had Jill jump in with me, and I promptly kicked her ass in just about every single match we played. But this should be kept in perspective: she hasn’t played Smash Bros. in years and had trouble grokking the GameCube-like button mapping. That being said, it’s been at least a year and a half since I dabbled in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, and many years since I gave up my Super Smash Bros. Melee addiction, so the Cube-style controls threw me off basically the whole time I played too. But I must be at least pretty decent if I can handily win local matches, right? Wrong. So very, very wrong.
Playing Rivals‘ online modes was a lesson in repeated humility. Every single foe I went up against in either ranked or exhibition matches won our best-of-three series without things ever proceeding to the third match. Further, most pummeled me so hard that I practically could have done just as well by just not showing up to fight at all. Rivals of Aether is essentially creator Dan Fornace’s remake of his own demake of Super Smash Bros., the completely free Super Smash Land, only this time it’s sans Nintendo characters, settings and wacky items. Though I won plenty of local Melee matches back in the GameCube days and had my fair share of success smashing things up in the game’s follow-ups, it was always clear that this was partly due to the randomness of comically overpowered but fun items as well the fact that, Nintendo’s online ecosystem being what it is, I mostly played local matches against players who weren’t exactly seriously competitive.
And that was perfectly fine, as the series makes for one of the best party game experiences this side of Mario Kart. Who doesn’t want to bludgeon the crap out of their friends’ Nintendo-themed avatars before sending them flying off the screen? Again, Rivals plays exactly like this, just without the Nintendo stuff and items. Fornace can hardly be blamed for not having a stable of characters and stages as robust and fun as Nintendo, as no developer in the world save Nintendo itself can boast as much. But that doesn’t change the fact that all that nostalgic charm that makes up so much of the fun in Nintendo’s mascot fighter is missing.
And would it kill Fornace to add some crazy items of his own to his game? Yes, a lot of serious Smash players play the games with items turned off, but that always seemed self-defeating to me. These games are supposed to be ridiculous and unbalanced by default, and eliminating that element takes out half the fun. Why would anyone want a game like this to be “serious”? That being said, the basic fighting mechanics that made Smash Bros. a hit franchise are still present and still plenty enjoyable here. It’s difficult to foresee Rivals of Aether grabbing hold of any but the hardest of hardcore for the long haul, though. The single-player modes will undoubtedly add some more staying power upon full release, but without them there isn’t much for your average or below average player to do here.
Top Smash players are going to love the online multiplayer. It’s about as pure of a take on smash fighters — Is that an actual genre? It is now. — as one can get, and the best players will turn in hours upon hours of ranked matches, even with the limited roster and stages. Everyone else is likely to experience what I did: a precipitous fall down the leaderboard and seemingly never-ending search for their first win. But hey, at least I can still have fun beating up local opponents.