In the age of day-one patches and promised roadmaps, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a stellar example of a game that could someday be really good – possibly even great. Someday being the operant word here. Whether it falls back to the unfortunately-named publisher, GameMill Entertainment, pushing developer duo Ludosity & Fair Play Labs or contractual expectations by Nickelodeon, this game was jettisoned into the 2021 holiday window. Even though this review envelopes a healthy share of criticisms, there's also something to be said about the fun buried deep beneath.
What if Super Smash Bros. but with Nickelodeon characters? That's the entire premise behind Brawl, and these developers aren't ashamed to admit it. If you've played any of the platform fighters in that series then this should seem familiar: you're dropped on a specially-themed 2.5D battle arena, the goal is to blast any opponents off the map, and the higher their damage meter climbs the easier that task becomes. Just like in its inspiration, the dopamine-inducing sights and sounds upon finishing someone remains consistently satisfying. I never get enough of it.
The baseline satisfaction is maintained, but what's been done to make this a worthwhile distraction? A diverse roster is a good way to start. Although there are some notable blind spots (currently), credit to the devs for plucking from various 90s, 00s, and 10s Nick shows with an even hand. Part of this subgenre's fun stems back to how each character diverges from one another. In Brawl's case, how does a venerated Avatar compare to a Ninja Turtle? The little idiosyncrasies found within each fighter's move list feel appropriate and worth experimenting with.
The various character traits extend into the lively animations and their respective locales too. There are so many expressive little animations that click for these characters. Granted, I'm of the era where the nostalgia wave hits me square in the chest, but my appreciation is more than skin-deep. There's this invisible-yet-tangible exuberance baked into each fighter's style, be it aggressive specials or taunts, that succinctly marry with that personality. Even though a couple of maps have dumb gimmicks, there's a fervor to make every level go beyond a static backdrop (like Brawlhalla). It's like these teams felt genuinely honored to rifle through this toybox.
These qualities can be associated with many games emulating Smash Bros. when it’s all said and done. Where Brawl shuffles away from 1:1 comparisons is in its unexpected mechanical complexity – relatively speaking. Going beyond light/heavy/special move sets, surprising extras like 8-directional air dashes, strafing, hidden mechanics for select fighters, OTG (off-the-ground) combos, and more caught me by surprise. And since you can grab opponents off of ledges or in the air, fighting on any map's edge has a different energy. Credit is due to these teams not Xeroxing the most popular kid's style to a tee.
Eras-Worth Of Potential
For as fun as this variety seems – and is to a great extent, it only takes a half-hour to spot the favorites. I say this without hyperbole: the advantages given to CatDog and Oblina compared to Toph (i.e. Founder of Metal-bending) are insane. Of course, imbalances and potential exploits tend to be quickly discovered post-launch; moreover, these devs are making strides to ameliorate such concerns. There's already been a modest post-launch patch. But when looking at this sub-genre from a wider lens, fighter imbalances come part and parcel. It's just that Brawl tilts those concerns too far, making several of my nostalgic characters be stale pushovers.
The amount of launch modes dawdles the line between too lean and modest. Arcade acts as a single-player gauntlet run against various CPU fighters, but there’s sadly no special boss for the finale. Regardless of the selected difficulty, winning nets a few superfluous trinkets for your characters, such as gallery art or music tracks. Emphasizing more co-op interactions, Battle splits off into a couple of options:
• Stock: the go-to mode where up to 4 fighters (CPU or local co-op) can fight solo or on teams.
• Timed: Similar to Stock, but with an emphasis on a ticking clock versus remaining lives to assess winners.
• Sports: the ultimate winner is determined by the number of goals you (or your team) scored instead of the number of knockouts. There are various balls to select that slightly change the dynamic of each match too.
Topping off these options is a rudimentary online infrastructure: competitive, quickplay, and online sessions. Aside from tweaking your online profile picture or view potential online lobbies, there's currently nothing beyond 1v1 matches. It’s simply a bulimic online launch.
Allergic To Polish
To its credit, the skeleton of a worthwhile light-hearted fighter is there. That's what makes it so tough to spell out so many issues. The one aspect where it’s overflowing is in surplus annoyances.
The first glut of problems stems back to production values. Brawl may be 2021's exemplar of how valuable visuals and soundscapes can be for this sub-genre. Although I'm not as much of a heckler against the decent backdrops, transplanting the modern-era Nickelodeon aesthetic doesn't go well with most characters. It's one of the most aesthetically bland options at their disposal. Also, who thought it was a good idea to launch this game without any voice acting? Every fighter's entrance into the arena is preamble with a terse quip and nothing else. Even the soundtrack is incredibly basic. There's a level of... flavorlessness permeating everything seen and heard.
The general lack of expected features also causes me to question if it's even finished. One of the most prominent examples is the lack of any alternate character outfits or color swaps. The only way to differentiate your brawler in mirror matches is a colored outline and username. That's an insane expectation during hectic bouts. This is compounded by general sound simplicity, making it tougher to aurally gauge stuns or delineate between different types of successful hits. Though less important to me, the lack of dense stats (whether for online or local) is another weird gameplay cut for launch.
Beyond the slim options, online is frustrating to grade. On the one hand, it and Guilty Gear -Strive- are among the few 2021-released fighters to have rollback netcode; on the other hand, it's tougher to appreciate that when it's haphazardly implemented and I’d often be removed from a session anyways. It was a coin toss – a literal 50/50 chance – whether I'd actually join an online match or get booted back to the home screen. The most succinct summation of Brawl's netcode would be this tautology: "it works when it works." When I see a ping status hovering around or below 50ms it ran as smooth as butter; conversely, the occasional higher-ping fights or one notorious map where framerate takes a nosedive were terrible experiences. If you’re still interested in trying this out, develop a routine like praying to Allfather before trying online matches.
KO'd By The Asking Price
No matter how much I appreciate those previously-stated positives, the retailed $50 price is exorbitant with this many concerns. Even gameplay annoyances like wonky hitboxes for some fighters and annoying bugs are exacerbated by its limited content. It's one thing for a middle-market game with a content roadmap to be lean at launch; it's something else entirely when said title is so far removed from the word "polished" as well. It's through these considerations that I'm so torn on what still feels like a labor of love.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl might be 2021's most kneecapped game. An odd Kid's Choice Award to hand out, but it captures the essence of an otherwise sincere effort being damaged by slimy timeline & pricing expectations. It's an over-priced game that was unfit to launch like this while also having a solid foundation to build upon. Its current state leaves me in two disparate states of mind: one emphasizing the silly fun these teams successfully crafted and the other reeling over such a messy launch. For now? Block your wallet until you find a better opening.
TechRaptor reviewed Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl on Xbox Series X with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It is also available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
- A Nuanced, Fun Gameplay Foundation
- Successfully Taps Into Nick Fans' Nostalgia
- Rollback Netcode Is Nice...
- ...When It Works Or I'm Not Auto-Kicked From Game
- Lack Of Polish
- Some Incredibly Wonky Character Imbalances
- Overinflated Price Point