I’m watching three grains of rice jump around a screen smaller than a credit card, squinting and trying to figure out which one is mine. I’m playing Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 3DS and it makes me feel like David Lynch talking about watching movies on a smartphone. Even if the content is the same, something this big and epic can’t help but feel diminished when it’s crammed into such a small screen. There’s a reason I don’t watch Lawrence of Arabia on my Galaxy S.
Smash Bros games are already busy enough to disrupt my focus, with multiple fighters blitzing across the screen and power-ups falling everywhere and the computer randomly pumping out additional characters through assist trophies. Things I stand on suddenly drop away, new things to stand on appear as I plummet to another momentary death, and even on a TV I want it to maybe calm down just a tiny bit. When it’s on the original 3DS, the only 3DS I own, the screen is so small that I completely lose track of the action at least once per game. Is that hyperactive crumb my character, or am I controlling the slightly smushed ant that just fell off the side of the talking animal’s outer space plane?
It seems odd that Nintendo’s finest would gather to do battle on such a small scale. Smash Bros is supposed to be huge. It has always cast Nintendo’s history as largely as possible, plowing through the past and hurling it all up on my television screen as an indiscriminating testament to the very concept of videogames. It’s more than just a cathedral to nostalgia, though, powerfully recontextualizing these references into a cohesive tableau that encompasses the company’s entire videogame history. It makes the thought of Mario, Link and Samus occupying the same world, something that once felt impossible and unnecessary, feel as natural and even thrilling as some of their own individual adventures. Now it even makes nods to such notable non-Nintendo outliers as Pac-Man, Sonic and Mega Man, widening its already massive scope from Nintendo to the entire root system of Japanese videogames. It does this all perfectly well on the large television in my living room, the one big enough for friends to sit around and stare at while collectively brutalizing each other, the one whose constantly shifting colors turn those friends’ faces into a kaleidoscope of masks when the lights are out.
The scope of the screen matters. The TV is a more natural home for bro smashing than the 3DS. I expect Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo Wii U to prove that whenever it arrives. For now I have the 3DS version, and as well as it translates the sensation of Smash Bros on a mechanical and textual level, it’s still too small, too diminished, to truly love. And as violent as this game is, with its constant button-mashing and Mario-bashing, it’s still a game that’s built on love, powered by love, that enlivens the love we feel inside for Nintendo and our friends.
That fundamental power might be weaker, but it still exists in this 3DS version. The dozens of fighters, a killer’s row of Nintendo heroes and villains from the iconic to the obscure, represent a broader sampling of games than ever before. The new additions fit in seamlessly, from the Wii Fit Trainer to Shulk from Xenoblade Chronicles, each one calibrated to fill slight variations on familiar Smash Bros roles. At least one new fighter makes me reconsider my traditional approach to Smash Bros, as the Animal Crossing Villager’s useful pocket move and three-stage tree-chopping assault (which is both a shield and a deadly attack) don’t closely resemble any other preexisting move. The Villager is the fighter to bet on. People have long claimed that strategy is actually possible in this game, but I never believed them until I played the Villager.
When I’m able to focus on my Villager flying around the screen, or my Pac-Man gobbling up Pokémon like ghosts, the size issue recedes into the background and I lose myself in the rush of a Smash Bros game at full pitch. I press buttons and punish beloved childhood mascots, picking up weapons and trophies and dealing damage like a pro. When I’m on I can send them hurtling into the abyss time and again. When I can look past the size of the screen this is entirely, 100% Smash Bros.
Unfortunately I can’t speak to the multiplayer, which is the heart of these games. I have no local friends with advance copies or 3DSes and couldn’t connect with anybody on the game’s online servers, which might not have been running before the game was officially released in the States. Obviously it will hurt this game if online play is hindered by lag or an inability to connect. That will be a much bigger blow for most than the small screen. As a man of a certain age the game’s wireless connections basically need to work for me to ever properly enjoy a multiplayer Smash Bros game, unless I want to ask my friends if their kids would want to play videogames with me. It’s not hard getting my friends, parents that they are, to play multiplayer console games live and in person, but if it requires them all owning their own 3DS (as the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros obviously does), that means I’ll be exclusively playing others across the Internet and not in person.
Playing alone and without an internet connection means taking on two or three computer-controlled opponents at once. It means exploring the game’s secondary modes, from the “classic” fighting game structure that inevitably builds to a fight with a giant, disembodied hand, to the new “Smash Run” mode that puts me in a platforming quest for power-ups before ending in a four-player Smash match. Instead of the malformed mutant of Super Smash Bros Brawl’s “Subspace Emissary” adventure mode, Smash Run is brief and challenging enough for me to actually play it. There’s a lot of single-player business to explore, but it can’t match the appeal of a functional multiplayer. By the time this review runs, we’ll know how well this new Smash Bros handles the internet.
Even if playing with friends online is as smooth as a GameCube copy of Melee with four WaveBirds, Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 3DS will make my eyes ache. I’ll have to stare so tightly and intently that I’ll look like Michael Shannon, that I’ll look absolutely enraged no matter how much fun I’m having. If I turned the 3D on my eyes would probably burrow back inside my brain and disappear forever. I can’t argue with the logic behind a handheld Smash Bros—people will buy it, people will love it, Nintendo will make money and everybody will be happy—but I might have to wait for the upcoming Wii U version, where even the secondary screen that I hold in my hands will be significantly bigger than the one on the 3DS. It’s not the game’s fault, of course. The game is big. It’s the picture that got small.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.