In Defense of “Adventure Mode”

In Defense of “Adventure Mode”: A Smash Bros. Essay

by RisanF

If there’s one thing that’s controversial among the various Smash Bros. communities, it’s the Adventure Mode in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. The defining feature of Brawl, “The Subspace Emissary” has been derided as shallow, extraneous, and just not suited for the fighting/party game Smash Bros. purports to be. Yet in recent years, Adventure Mode in general has become a hot topic for the Smash Bros. message boards, due to the conspicuous lack of one in the 3DS and Wii U versions. I’m going to address some common criticisms of Adventure Mode, offer my opinion in favor of them, and discuss the possibility of Adventure Mode in future Smash games.

First of all, why have an Adventure Mode in Smash Bros. anyway? After all, isn’t Smash just a fighting game, for fighting game fans? Well, not exactly. It’s well-known that Smash director Masahiro Sakurai considered the Smash series an “enjoyable party game,” and not so much a tactical fighting experience. Hardcore Smash fans defend the series’ fighting credentials, citing the more technically-oriented Smash Bros. Melee as Exhibit A. Although this is valid, I want to concentrate on a side-effect of Sakurai’s construction of his party fighter, in that it’s become something of a jack-of-all-trades. It’s not just a fighting game; it’s a hybrid of many different types of games.

For one thing, it’s partially a brawler. Smash Bros. combatants are designed to handle multiple enemies at once, with sweeping attacks, crouch moves that strike in two directions, and various specials designed to get you out of a tight spot. It’s also something of a platformer, with key mechanics revolving around your height in relation to other fighters, your wide variety of aerial attacks, and your various ways of scrambling back to the main platform after getting launched. Several additional modes cater to these two facets of Smash, including Multi Man fights for the brawler aspect, and Board the Platforms for the platforming aspect.

All this leads up to Super Smash Bros. Melee, and its Adventure Mode. When not participating in Smash bouts, players can take platforming veterans like Mario and Donkey Kong back into their native environment, along with characters like Fox and Ness that belong to different genres, giving each of them the freedom to move about and clobber Goombas and Koopas at their leisure. True, Adventure Mode was a bit short and threadbare, but it nonetheless set the foundation for a Smash series that would continue to branch out into other genres.

Enter “The Subspace Emissary.”

In a stunning surprise for Smash fans, the big feature of 2008’s Super Smash Bros Brawl was not new stages or new characters (although there were plenty of both), but a robust expansion of Melee’s Adventure Mode. Yes, Smash Bros. had gone full action-platformer with SSE, featuring full stages with forests and fields, an onslaught of enemy armies, bosses ranging from Ridley to original foes, and a variety of trophies and collectibles exclusive to that mode. Moreover, it featured a full cinematic story with all your favorite Nintendo characters (plus Sonic and Snake) thrown into Sakurai’s “Smash World,” teaming up to take down a foe bigger than all of them. It was the Smash Bros. game I always wanted, and it offered me many hours of enjoyment.

Before I continue, I need to disclose something about me personally: I am not primarily a fighting game fan. I am not skilled at pulling off combos and special moves, I don’t really care about fighting game cred, and I get bored easily when confined to a small arena fighting a singular opponent. No, I prefer large environments to traverse, beating on hoards of minions with my character’s cool moves. “The Subspace Emissary” features all this, and lets you experience it with the main lineup of Nintendo characters, featuring new skills to make them more combat-ready.

Because of my position, this probably leads to a disconnect of sorts, as the Smash Bros. community at large was not as receptive to “Subspace Emissary” as I would’ve hoped. Many smashers love the series for its competitive fighting, and Adventure Mode was not on their list for most requested Smash features. And hey, what was with this mindless, shallow beat-em-up anyway, with its clunky platforming and bland backgrounds? Why do I have to play it to unlock all the characters? Why didn’t they spend all that effort into making a better competitive fighter? And why isn’t Ridley a playable character?

“The Subspace Emissary” is not perfect, and has the kinds of general problems intrinsic to platformers. Still, I don’t believe that SSE is the tumor on Smash that some of its detractors label it as. I’m going to tackle some of the more common arguments against “The Subspace Emissary,” one by one, and offer my own perspective and counter-arguments. Here we go!

  1. It’s Repetitive

It may come as a strange thing to say, but a certain degree of repetition is fine, even necessary, for any sort of brawler, or really videogames in general. Fans of the much derided Dynasty Warriors series love those games for the visceral, mindless appeal of being a one-man army against the hoards of evil (or hoards of good guys, as the case may be). It’s a kind of high that’s achieved when the gameplay really gets into the proper flow of hacking and slashing. In fact, I would say that a game can even falter if it’s not repetitive enough.

One of my complaints with the recent entries in the Kirby series is that it mixes up its gameplay way too much. One minute, you’re grooving along leaving a swath of destruction with your Copy abilities, then you’re suddenly at a swimming segment and can’t use them, or you’re solving some sort of puzzle, or tilting a gyro-controller to operate some contraption, or using a Super Ability or Hyper Nova. Too much variation detracts from the core concept of Kirby; using your favorite ability to kick some cutesy butt. The same kind of problem is present in the Playstation 2 title Jak 3, which kept you driving a bunch of vehicles instead of using your collection of awesome firearms.

“The Subspace Emissary” follows the same design blueprint as Kirby Super Star, with its ladders, barrel cannons, mine cart rides, and emphasis on combat. However, “Subspace” sticks closely to the combat aspect, and I think it’s all the better for it. There a few gizmos here and there, like keys, breakable blocks. switch-flipping, mazes, and such. But just like in Super Star, the actual fun doesn’t come from the gizmos lying about, but from the abilities at your disposal.

“Subspace Emissary” offers the opportunity to bring Kid Icarus frontman Pit back into the fray, not only with laser light arrows, but a pair of short swords as well. You can once again play as Mario, but with the option of giving him a lightsaber to slash up Goombas and Koopas. With the addition of the Sticker feature that grants additional abilities and items, “Subspace Emissary” is like throwing all your action figures into a pile and going nuts with them. It already has the variety it needs, without straying from the central conceits of action-platformers: the action and platforming.

  1. It’s Bland

Some common criticisms of “The Subspace Emissary” are its level design and enemy assortment. The stages are mostly simple fields and forests, and the enemies are primarily a bunch of nobodies with no connection to any existing Nintendo franchise, save for the odd Mushroom Kingdom baddie here and there. I can see the merit to these complaints, but I don’t think these are quite deal breakers. True, they could’ve added a bit more variety to the stages, like maybe some urban areas or recognizable Nintendo locales, but they still serve their purpose in facilitating action-platformer combat. When you think about it, most of the intricate designs for Brawl were probably saved for the arenas in the main game, so the programmers had to cut corners somewhere, considering how long some SSE stages are. It’s true they could have benefited from a more cheerful color palette (Brawl adheres to the “Twilight Princess School of Low-Saturation”), but I think there’s enough variety in the forests, caves, castles, and factories to hold up a decent action-platformer, especially with all the rest SSE has going for it.

The other point levied at Brawl, that concerning the bland Subspace Army, is a bit different. They could definitely have used some more traditional enemies for SSE cannon fodder, especially since the Mario baddies did make an appearance. Even so, the Subspace Army isn’t a total washout. They may be a little indistinct and colorless, but there’s certainly a wide enough variety of them. The primids make for great common foot-soldiers to beat up on, with sword, gun, boomerang, and giant variations. And really, that’s what the Subspace Army is all about; a band of grunts to test your awesome moves on.

3: It’s Cheap and Clunky

“The Subspace Emissary” has the standard snags of platform gameplay, along with elements intrinsic to Smash’s launching system. Certain groups of enemies and traps can get the drop on you, and send you bouncing all over the place before you have a chance to reorient yourself. Depending on which character you choose, platforming can be easy or hard, and Smash controls are generally not as free-flowing as something like Mario. And you won’t see me defending the Giant Fake Diddy Kong fought in The Swamp.

However, all platformers have their cheap moments, and it doesn’t necessarily make them irredeemable. Ninja Gaiden is full of one-hit insta-deaths where you’re knocked off a cliff by a materializing falcon. Mega Man has its disappearing platforms and precarious perches, along with enemy placement where you’re almost forced to take a hit. Even Kirby’s Adventure is not immune to the concept of clunky level design and poor enemy placement (and good luck chasing an Ability Star when you’ve been burned, shocked, or frozen!)

I don’t think a bit of minor frustration invalidates the merits of Smash Brothers. Very rarely does “Subspace Emissary” reach “NES hard” levels of difficulty, and the mode is pretty standard for the platforming genre.

4: It Detracts from the Competitive Part of Smash

This one is a bit disingenuous, in my mind. The idea that development for SSE took away from development for regular Smash seems weak to me when you consider that Brawl still features a wealth of characters, stages, and items, even without the Adventure Mode. Granted, attaching unlockables to SSE could be an impediment to those who only enjoy normal Smash, but most everything can also be unlocked via the main game. Other issues in Brawl, like “tripping” and floaty physics, don’t have anything to do with SSE. Smash thrives on its variety of gameplay modes, and there’s room for both platforming fans and competitive players.

 

In the end, I think “The Subspace Emissary” more than pulls its weight. It’s a interesting, fitting addition to the world of Smash, and offers great value for beat-em-up fans. Moreover, it adds that crucial element that even a regular fighting game needs: a dedicated, robust single-player-mode for solitary gamers who are also into Smash.

Which leads us to Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS and Wii U.

One of the first things we heard from Sakurai about these two versions of Smash was that they would NOT feature a traditional Adventure Mode like “Subspace Emissary.” Citing the fact that SSE cutscenes were leaked online as a reason to hold back, Sakurai instead experimented with new gameplay modes and a bevy of supplementary extras, like amiibo compatibility, power-up badges, custom special moves, and content exclusive to either the 3DS or Wii U versions. But Adventure Mode shouldn’t be missed, right? After all, Sakurai is now concentrating on servicing the competitive Smash players with tighter mechanics and meta-play. Who cares about SSE?

More than you might think.

As of the time of this writing, Adventure Mode has become a more popular concept to discuss on the Internet Smash forums. Casual and hardcore Smashers alike claim Smash for Wii U has no meaningful single-player content, and that they lose some interest in the game as a result. Why does the lack of an Adventure Mode sting so hard for Smash fans? Well. let’s explore what Super Smash Brothers for the 3DS and Wii U does offer.

A mode exclusive to the 3DS version is Smash Run, and it’s the closest thing these two games have for an Adventure Mode. Combatants are dumped into a maze for five minutes, batting Nintendo baddies to build up stats for a one-minute final brawl, with abilities, trophies, and other swag doled out during gameplay. Already, this shows promise; the lack of recognizable enemies was a detriment to “The Subspace Emissary,” and it’s good fun to take on anything from Octoroks, to Stalfos, to Dig Dug’s Pooka monster. Sadly, you’re restricted to just a five-minute run, so the fun tends to end just when you’re getting into it. You’re also given only one maze, so the scope of Smash Run definitely feels smaller when compared to SSE. Still, it’s an inspired mode, and I’d put it on par with Super Smash Bros. Melee’s Adventure Mode.

The Wii U version is a different story. The crown jewel of Smash for the Wii U is allegedly Smash Tour, a board game where players roll the dice and collect power-up stats, getting into Smash matches along the way. However, Smash Tour is not on par with Adventure Mode, and many feel it’s inadequate as a selling point. All the players roll the dice at the exact same time, making the game very hectic very quickly. Text and icons are small on both the screen and the Wii U gamepad, and new information is flashed at you before you have a chance to digest it. The fighters available to you at any given point are almost completely random, and you are often stuck with using some weak character that you’re not good with. Though this adheres to Sakurai’s concept of Smash as “haphazard,” (and some indeed like the kind of chaotic turnabouts that Smash Tour engenders) Smashers tend to treat it as unwelcome as Brawl’s tripping mechanic.

What else to talk about with Smash for 3DS/ Wii U? Well, there’s 8-Player Smash, exclusive to the Wii U, and a logical upgrade for Smash variation. There’s Target Blast, which takes away Smash variation by eliminating a core component from Break the Targets. There’s a whole slew of clone and semi clone characters, who have been savaged on the message forums for being a waste of programming. Sakurai bites back at this criticism, wondering why fans bother complaining about content strictly meant as extras.

I have a theory on why people are complaining about extras: it’s because there’s a lack of real meat to these two games. It’s all sizzle and no steak, with tons of DLC, Mii Costumes, Event matches, and Masterpiece demos, but no single-player content to hold it all together. No matter what they say, Adventure Mode had become an integral part of the Smash Bros. series, and its absence is clearly missed. Taking away such a core component hit about as hard as the slip-shod battle mode featured in Mario Kart 8, which has been redone in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch.

On the subject of Switch, rumors are circulating about a port of this latest Smash game for Nintendo’s new portable/console hybrid system, in order to give it a boost after the relative failure of the Wii U. There is a lot of speculation about what new content should be included in this version, whether it be Inklings, Daisy, Bandanna Dee, or more Fire Emblem swordsmen (joke!) And it needs new content, make no mistake about that. There’s practically no reason to buy another version of this Smash Bros. game without new content, when many customers already have either the 3DS or Wii U versions.

I submit to you this proposal: give Smash Switch an Adventure Mode. Really, it’s the most obvious choice. All the rest of the content in the fourth Smash game, including graphics, characters, and extras, is fine, but it needs that dedicated single-player-mode it’s missing. Even  a straight-up port of “The Subspace Emissary” would offer value (Giant Fake Diddy Kong and all), although I imagine that fans would rather prefer something new filled with familiar Nintendo foes. In the end, it’s Adventure Mode that will be the linchpin to justify a new Smash purchase.

Think of the possibilities! With Mega Man as a playable character, the Adventure Mode could be a stand-in for the new Mega Man game fans have been waiting for. Speaking of shooting games, someone playing Bayonetta could have a field day filling up an assortment of enemies with white-hot lead. The pre-existing Badge system of Smash for 3DS/ Wii U could work well as an alternative to the Sticker system of Brawl, so very little would have to be changed in order to accommodate an Adventure Mode. And I think it’s worth every penny to be able to play as Little Mac, Ryu, and Cloud Strife in a proper action-platformer. Right now, these characters are only available for Adventure Mode through hacks and exploits of the original SSE, but if Nintendo and Sakurai pull through, the future of Adventure Mode in Super Smash Bros. could be very bright indeed.

And would someone please add Ridley to Smash? Let’s take that big dragon into Adventure Mode!

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2 comments

  1. “Still, it’s an inspired mode, and I’d put it on par with Super Smash Bros. Melee’s Adventure Mode.”

    Really? Comparing an actual complete mode to something that was blatantly rushed out the door? Melee’s Adventure mode doesn’t deserve credit for what it TRIED to do when it failed to actually do it. Only 5 of the stages have “adventure” sections and only 2 of those are fleshed out to a reasonable degree. It’s basically an alpha demo with mostly placeholder content. Aside from nostalgia and it being the historic origin of “Adventure Mode”, there’s too little there for it to even have much baring on this discussion.

    Anyway, the biggest problem is that an Adventure mode requires a TON of time and resources from the developers. Sakurai has stated that SSE was supposed to be developed by an entire outside team, and in the case of Melee they clearly bit off more than they could chew. It’s a matter of opportunity cost. If SSE either wasn’t in Brawl, or was trimmed down, there’s no telling how much other content the team could’ve put in the game–including other single-player content. With Smash 4, the focus on two games probably made anything like SSE an impossibility on multiple levels. Conversely, that’s why Sakurai’s “extra” content isn’t worthy of scorn–it’s so easy to throw in it can’t possibly have taken the place of anything substantive. Sadly, most people only think about content that’s either present or conspicuously absent, and not at the big picture of what goes into including that content in the first place.

    That’s not to say there couldn’t be a single-player mode that’s designed more efficiently (perhaps some sort of roguelike or other game structure that promotes replay value). But it needn’t be like past entries just for the sake of it, especially when those entries focused so heavily on spectacle over design. The moment-to-moment gameplay of Smash Run–traversing a large space with non-fighter enemies–is all you need at the core. Tradition for its own sake isn’t needed any more that experimental modes like Smash Tour.

  2. I would also enjoy seeing a new Adventure Mode for the next installment of Smash Brothers. I think it adds a lot of value to players who enjoy this kind of thing, and I imagine some new creative elements could be wrapped into the experience. I’ll look forward to seeing what they come up with.

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