Report Card: Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl

I grew up during the 90s, the heyday of Nickelodeon. I spent many a summer day watching “Nicktoons” from the time I finished my Cocoa Pebbles until my parents would reach their breaking points. I also enjoy Super Smash Bros. On paper, I am firmly in the middle of the target demographic for Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. But there’s a problem. One side effect of my growing up in the era developers Ludosity and Fair Play Labs are aiming at, is I have a pretty healthy skepticism when it comes to licensed games. Am I right to have my doubts, or can Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl teach me to trust?

I told myself when I agreed to review Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl that I wouldn’t mention Super Smash Brothers. It seemed like an easy, lazy comparison, and I considered myself above it. I’ve since come to realize that Super Smash Bros. is an essential piece of context for Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is king of the platform fighting castle, and Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl has been pretty transparent from day one that it seeks to court a portion of that audience. One of the earliest bits of gameplay to get the internet’s attention was a clip of Spongebob Squarepants wavedashing. You either just nodded your head or got very confused, but I’m not going to do an in-depth explanation on why that clip was significant. Just know that footage of that one maneuver made it clear that Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl was intentionally  aiming for the attention of a specific subset of Smash Bros. players.

…you ok, Spongebob?

After spending some time with All-Star Brawl, I can say that the game is largely successful in fulfilling its promise for fast, responsive gameplay reminiscent of Smash games past. The movement speed is high, but not so high as to make the game hard to keep up with. Attacks come out quickly, but powerful moves still have enough of a build-up to feel avoidable (if you aren’t getting comboed, anyway). Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl has a strong understanding of fighting game fundamentals, and it can be a real joy to play once you get acclimated to its quirks.

There are two main attack buttons in Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl, light and heavy. Each button has a different attack based on whether your character is standing still, running, jumping, or crouching. There’s a special attack button as well, but special attacks are more about which direction the analog stick is in when the  button is pressed than where your character is in space or what they are doing at the time. It’s a system that certainly gets the job done, the act of fighting is initially simple, buti with room for some complexity once you start to pick up on the nuances of your character of choice. That said, I do find the movesets to be just a little bit too rigid for me to get into a good flow.

Movesets vary pretty wildly from character to character, and that’s where almost all of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s gameplay diversity comes from. The roster is pretty impressive, spanning over 20 years of Nickelodeon programs from the 1990s to the mid-2010s. It’s a brilliant approach that brings old farts like me who remember shows like Catdog and Rugrats together with our children who know Nickelodeon for shows like The Loud House and Avatar. Popular properties like Spongebob Squarepants naturally have more representatives than their less popular siblings, but no one show dominates the roster. The characters also play very differently from one another, with a few characters having some real stand-out mechanics, namely Catdog’s moves changing depending on if Cat or Dog is taking the lead and Ren and Stimpy acting together as a single unit. The roster is the one feature of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl that I honestly have no major complaints about.

I’m familiar with two of these three, but my son knows the other one.

The stages, on the other hand, are more of a mixed bag. There are a few stages that have interesting features like moving platforms and environmental hazards, but most of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s arenas are straightforward to the point of being dull. There are several stages I would describe as entirely too large, which can cause matches to drag on despite the game’s relatively high movement speed. The levels are also wildly inconsistent from a graphical standpoint, with some stages looking just fine while others resemble something from a couple of console generations ago. There are honestly only a few stages I will willingly play more than once in a sitting.

The stages are just the beginning of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s biggest problem: presentation. The game contains absolutely NO character voices. Aside from the occasional quip from the announcer, matches are just a barrage of quiet sound effects laid over some background music. In the single-player arcade mode, each character speaks a random line from their source material but this is done entirely through text and, more often than not, the line ends up feeling entirely out of place. I expected a liscensed Nickelodeon game to be oozing with the personality that made their programming stand the test of time, but almost none of that charm is present in All-Star Brawl

The music is another sticking point for me. Stages do feature musical tracks, but as far as I can tell none of those tracks are actual music from the show they stage represents. The music that does play does its best to imitate the sound of the source material’s music, but it just ends up feeling like a knockoff. The music ends up residing in an uncanny valley that served to distract me, but I doubt that most players will share in that.

This stage is too big. Not New Pork City big, but too big nonetheless.

Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl really drops the ball when it comes to presentation and personality, but one area the game excels at (aside from its solid gameplay) is online multiplayer. All-Star Brawl has some absolutely divine netcode. I played several online matches and never experienced so much as a stutter. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the baseline performance seems to be excellent.

There is this idea online that gameplay is the most important aspect of a video game. I understand where this idea comes from, and I even agree with it to a certain extent. But never before has a game really tested that idea of “gameplay supremacy” for me more than Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. I enjoy the act of playing the game, be it alone or with my son or even online, but the complete and total lack of personality and charm makes it hard for me to want to come back after I close the game. All-Star Brawl has the foundation of a damn good fighting game with its gameplay and roster, but it totally drops the ball when it comes to almost every other aspect. If you’re a die-hard, old school Nickelodeon fan that just so happens to think that Melee is the best Super Smash Bros. game, then by all means buy Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. If that doesn’t describe you, however, it’s harder for me to recommend the game.

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