There is a laundry list of things to love about Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, one of two prongs that make up the fourth generation of Smash Bros. games, and top of the list is the game’s confidence that allows it to cater to anyone who might be interested in its brand of mascot mayhem. This new Smash Bros. is perfect for those who just want to have a good time bopping their favourite mascots over the head with lightsabers while soaking in decades of Nintendo fan service, and it can just as easily appeal to those who wish to get serious about character tiers, metagames, and high-level play. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U has but one thing to say to this crowd: “Show me ya moves!”

This fourth entry of Smash Bros. is actually split across two platforms — Wii U and 3DS — with each version tailored to the strengths and legacy of its platform. On 3DS, Super Smash Bros. was built primarily for on-the-go play, where human opponents or wi-fi connections are an uncertainty. As such, its modes are designed around quick bursts of action that don’t require more people to still be fun (although, the game is certainly enhanced by the presence of one or three). For Wii U, Smash leans into the stationary nature of home console play, where everyone huddles around the same screen — within punching distance of each other — for madcap fisticuffs.

Underneath the thick layers of fan service is a fighting system unlike any other. While a traditional 2D fighter pits combatants in a flat arena trading blows to chip away at their opponent's life bar for a KO, Smash Bros. is more of a platform brawler where victory is awarded to the player that knocks their foes off the stage the most. A player's damage counter increases as hits are suffered, and the higher the counter goes the easier it is to get launched into the stratosphere (literally, in some cases). Throw items, assist characters, and stage hazards into the mix, and you've got yourself some of the best party-gaming on the planet.

Because of its desire to remain a light-hearted fighter, Smash Bros. has had a contentious history with competitive players — most evident in third-game Super Smash Bros. Brawl's measures to dial back the intensity from the tournament-favourite previous game, Melee. Tripping, floaty physics and a slower play speed put off many high-level players from fully migrating away from Melee to Brawl. Now, though, players may finally have a reason to move on. Gone is tripping, the physics are firmer, and play speed has increased — Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is not as fast as the comical pace of Melee, but its brisker speed finds a satisfying middle-ground between the last two home console entries.

The character roster is the same as on the 3DS version, with a total of 50 mascots from Nintendo, Sega, Bandai Namco and Capcom — 52 counting Mii Fighter variations, and 63 considering alt-costume characters like Alph and the Koopalings as well as gender variants — ready to beat the snot out of each other. The new additions to the roster flesh out franchises of recent popularity — no surprise, given how the majority of Nintendo's most iconic characters were already represented — with Fire Emblem and Kid Icarus better represented thanks to successful 3DS entries. Newer mascots such as Mii Fighters, Wii Fit Trainer, and Shulk of Xenoblade Chronicles fame get inducted into the pantheon. Animal Crossing's Villager, Little Mac from Punch-Out!!, and the joyful Duck Hunt fill gaps in the historical line-up.

Characters whose secondary forms came out in special moves — Pokémon Trainer's Charizard, Zelda's Sheik, and Samus' Zero Suit — are now broken out into separate slots on the roster, elevating the legitimacy of their presence while altering the play styles of their former hosts now that they cannot be summoned. A few new clone characters join the mix, and while they don't stand out too much from their sources in terms of play style, they are in essence freebies to the line-up and contenders in their own right.

Third-party characters Sonic, Pac-Man, and Mega Man are also lovingly presented here, treated with a care and reverence that their parent companies seldom extend to their gaming icons nowadays. Pac-Man and Mega Man are more natural fits to the line-up than Snake ever was in Brawl, and we hope that they decide to stick around for future instalments.

The Subspace Emissary mode in Super Smash Bros. Brawl used a disposable sticker concept for boosting character stats, but stickers could only be used in that one mode. This time around, custom characters can be used in any offline mode, equipping gear and and custom move sets to suit (or create) different play styles. Each character can hold up to three pieces to modify their attack, defense and speed capabilities, with some equipment offering bonus attributes, such as taking less damage in the air. Find Link too slow? Strap some winged shoes to the Hylian's feet. Don't like that Down-B bomb attack of his? Switch it out for one of three other options, once you unlock them. Want an early advantage in battles? Start each fight holding a bob-omb, if you dare. Those who want to roll up their sleeves and dive deep into customizing characters may find the simplistic system underwhelming, and all told it's easy to ignore this entire portion of the game. However, the simplicity encourages experimentation, and as each character can have a whole load of configurations, it can be a lot of fun to tweak away. It's an important and natural step forward for the series, even if it proves to be little more than a fun bonus this time around.

Custom characters can be copied in either direction between Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, so that perfect Pikachu build never has to be benched. Pieces of equipment, attacks, or outfits cannot be individually transferred, but will carry over if attached to a custom fighter. The process of moving characters over can be obtuse: the Wii U interface takes precedence over the 3DS once the consoles find each other, which is a confusing switch. Just one character can be transferred at a time — a lack of bulk transfer isn't a major problem for solo players but is a bottleneck when more than one person wants to move custom characters around before playing.

Just as impressive as the character roster is the arena line-up, with 48 beautifully crafted stages on which to duke it out. Where the 3DS version pulled great inspiration for its new stages from portable titles, the selection here is based heavily on home console titles — some of which that haven't even been released yet, in the case of Yoshi's Woolly World. Smash Bros. has always excelled at capturing the essence of the franchises from which it pulls, and the new stages here do so in phenomenal fashion. Mario Galaxy's convex majesty is stunning in its presentation and competitive in its design, and Pac-Land looks like an Amiga fan's dream come true.

These arenas are built for fighting, and in some cases the arenas will fight back. Moving hazards in stages have been with the series since the magma first crept up in Norfair on the original game, and their dynamism is designed still to keep combatants on their toes. On Wii U these hazards now extend to a few stage-specific boss battles: Xenoblade's Metal Face chews the scenery on Gaur Plain, and Metroid's Ridley swoops in on Pyrosphere, for example. These baddies stick to pre-set patterns that change the flow of battle, instead of roaming with the freedom of a fifth player. Player danger is increased by their attacks and occupation of real estate, as well as their potential for destroying segments of the stage at a time — first instinct is to pummel them off the stage, and after a sufficient beat-down the bosses will indeed be defeated (unlike an Assist Trophy or Pokeball, which stick around for a pre-set time). Yet there are plenty of strategic reasons to keep them in play, if only to make it more difficult for everyone else, and their presence becomes an event in itself.

While each stage is structurally unique, there is the occasional odd double-dip in inspiration. Why there are two Mario Circuit stages, for example — one new, one returning — is unclear considering the wealth of Mario Kart tracks to pull from. Then there's the occasional repletion of a traversal gimmick across multiple stages that blurs the identities of those arenas, despite settings in different game worlds. Omega versions of each stage knock the terrain down to one big Final Destination-style platform, which allows competitive players a change of scenery from that ol' chestnut's space opera tomfoolery.

The Wii U and 3DS versions of Super Smash Bros. differ in more ways than just stage selection, some ways more subtle than others. Simpler modes like Smash and Home Run Challenge remain largely the same, whereas Target Challenge increases the stage count from one to three on home console. Classic Mode still offers players a choice in who they fight but doesn't rely on constantly confronting forks in the road — instead, players slide their character over to the clump of character trophies on a board to pick a fight. Classic also introduces rivals who want nothing more than to attack you, eight-fighter battles, and other intriguing match variations. All-Star on Wii U flips the chronology of the 3DS version all sneaky-like, sending players through the roster gauntlet in order of most recent to earliest first appearance.

Familiar series modes absent from the 3DS version are rolled back into the mix here. Coin Battle crowns the winner as whoever grabs the most currency that bursts out after each blow; Special Smash allows special rules to be set, allowing players to tinker with aspects such as gravity, play speed, or stamina, to name a few options; then Event Mode's plethora of scenarios provide a welcome change of pace from plain ol' boppin'.

Brand-new to Wii U is Smash Tour and Special Orders, two modes of varying quality. Smash Tour is a board game-style mode that takes the place of 3DS's Smash Run, having players run around one of three boards collecting power-ups and amassing a small army of fighters to ultimately battle it out in a ballyhooed final match. All players spin the wheel and move at the same time, which encourages mad dashes to reach desirable pick-ups before anyone else. Brawls ensue when two or more players collide on the same space or when somebody lands on a battle tile, and each player dukes it out as the fighter atop their pile.

Smash Tour is good for a few rounds but doesn't hold up for much longer. Moving around a board to collect tiles simply isn't all that compelling, and on the Big map size it can take several turns between fights. Smash Tour can take anywhere from 15-30 minutes depending on how many turns are played, which feels about 10-20 minutes longer than it needs to be. This is the weakest mode in a game flush with multiplayer options, and as such is easily forgotten.

Special Orders is essentially a procedurally generated Event Mode where players fork over coins to take on assorted feats of combat, called tickets. There are two variants of this. For Master Orders, each ticket can be attempted separately, and a win yields a prize. Tickets vary in cost depending on the difficulty, and a loss simply means that no prize is awarded. On the other hand is Crazy Orders, a gamble of endurance and skill with a hefty price of admission — either lots of gold or a rare Crazy Orders Pass acquired in other modes. Players have a total of 10 minutes to take on as many tickets as they choose and then defeat Crazy Hand in an intense Health Point-based battle. All ticket prizes go into a pool, and a single loss at any time will decimate the winnings — oh, and end the game, too. Damage carries over between tickets, and higher accumulated damage will translate into more Health points when going into the Crazy Hand fight. Crazy Orders really puts a fire under you, and with stakes so high it can be an incredibly satisfying mode to conquer.

Due to the smaller screen, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS played best on more compact stages. On Wii U, which lives in the realm of 60" HDTVs, size is no matter. Certain stages shared between the 3DS and Wii U versions, such as Gaur Plains, go from annoyingly open to happily spacious on a larger screen. Nowhere is this size advantage more evident than in the series' first 8-Player Smash mode (which evidently dazzles the game itself, judging by the little "wow!" in the in-game description). The novelty factor is high in this mode, but with this many players the game starts to tear at the seams — Free-For-All is incredibly chaotic, made slightly more manageable by breaking out into teams. We found the competitive sweet-spot for jumbo groups to be six players — any more and you'll struggle to keep your feet on the ground. However, for a rowdy group of people who are more interested in not waiting for controllers to open up than Serious Smash Bros. Business, there is plenty of fun to be had.

Fewer than half of the Normal stages can accommodate mega parties, although the count rises significantly when opting for Omega variants; of course, you can also create as many jumbo-sized (or medium, or small) stages as you wish with Stage Builder. Instead of picking individual elements from a menu and placing them on a grid, Super Smash Bros for Wii U allows builders to simply draw terrain on the GamePad. Now, custom levels can appear far more organic than Brawl's sterile grids, with slopes and waves and circles littered about however you see fit — and if more rigid layouts are desired, switching on the design grid will keep lines straight and edges sharp. Moving platforms, cannons, magma, and the like can be strategically placed to create nightmare scenarios, as well.

A Smash-ready magnum opus can be built in a fraction of the time on Wii U, but to polish it is to deal with Stage Builder's ham-fisted annoyances. Once terrain is doodled into place, it can't be moved — the only option is to erase the offending chunk and re-draw it elsewhere. Similarly, the eraser can't be used to fine-tune terrain in case of an erratic edge, only obliterate the whole chunk from the grid. Once you do have a masterpiece saved, meanwhile, stages cannot be easily shared — there's nowhere to upload them, and nary a QR code to export. Locking stages to the console on which they were created is a needless, confusing restriction.

The GamePad is a natural fit for Stage Builder, but is otherwise an afterthought to the action. By default, the small screen displays damage counters during battles and mirrors the main screen in menus. However, the menus are not touch-compatible, despite their chunky-button design being perfect for finger navigation. One neat touch is the ability to doodle on in-game snapshots, opening up all sorts of goofy new possibilities for Miiverse (oddly, snapshots can only be saved to an SD card and not the console's internal storage nor an external hard drive — a minor annoyance). Off-TV play is supported, and any controller is compatible when played this way.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is compatible with a dizzying array of controllers, in fact. The GamePad, Pro Controller, Wii Remote and optional Nunchuk, Classic Controller — pretty much any input with buttons recognized by a Wii U is compatible, which now includes GameCube pads thanks to a sold-separately USB adapter. Even a 3DS with a copy of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS running can be connected — hell, connect multiple 3DSes like that, see if Smash Bros. cares. It's totally functional and thoroughly bizarre, albeit limited to certain modes with that portable option.

Launching alongside Smash Bros. is amiibo, Nintendo's new range of NFC-enabled figures. Tap a figurine against the GamePad's NFC reader to bring them in as a partner character, customize its stats, and fight with or against it. Amiibo gain experience the more they fight and can go up to level 50; the level scale is not 1:1 against CPU difficulty — our amiibo Mazza wasn't able to hold its own against three maxed-out level-9 CPU opponents until it approached level 25. Wins became steadier by level 35, and come level 45 Mazza's dexterity and tactics became downright fiendish. Amiibo can pose a welcome challenge for those who wipe the floor with CPU opponents on the regular.

Unlike similar smart figures for Skylanders and Disney Infinity, amiibo don't need a constant connection on the NFC reader. Simply tap once to load their data, and when you're done playing, tap again to save. The process is straightforward but imperfect — you can't shake using the GamePad, so if you're playing with any other controller you'll still have to keep the oversized controller within reach. And — this is something of a nitpick — the GamePad slopes just enough to make resting amiibo on top of it a pain. It's possible to keep it there, but relies on awkwardly placing the figure half on the D-Pad.

Smash Bros. has a lot of flashy elements that impress, but a change with the greatest potential impact for long-term play is in the game's structure. Previous games used a spoke model, with Smash matches at the centre out of which all other modes grew in their own direction. Progression in the Subspace Emissary or All-Star, for example, had little influence on each other. For this new generation of Smash, each bell and whistle keeps the flywheel spinning around the economy of brawling. The result is a satisfying meta-progression where you are always moving forward, no matter how you choose to do battle.

Pick a fight, any fight, and by the end of it you’ll earn coins. In past Smash Bros. titles these coins served a minor purpose — gamble for collectible Trophies, be it through a virtual capsule machine or a bizarre Coin Launcher table; bet on fights in online Spectator Mode; or perhaps hand over a few to continue after a loss in All-Star Mode. Coins play a far more substantive role nowadays. Sure, they are still used to acquire Trophies (off a shelf this time!), but coins also act as the price of admission in many modes. The cost of Classic depends on the selected difficulty, with higher levels unreachable without a fat stack of cheddar on the line; in Trophy Rush coins buy time and the increased likelihood for reward; and the all-new Crazy Orders mode is reserved for only the wealthiest of players.

The more invested in a mode, the greater the reward, be it in the form of additional coins, Trophies, equipment, or attacks. If modes grow tiresome from repeat play, a quick glance at the new Challenges grid offers a new objective or five to complete, which in turn sends players back into battle with new purpose, spending coins to play and winning more coins to keep playing. No matter what, Super Smash Bros for Wii U keeps players moving forward to the next challenge or trinket. There are no dead ends here, and no shortage of paths to take to get there.

Smash Bros. is revered for its local multiplayer, a mode likely responsible for forming just as many friendships as it has destroyed over the years. This Wii U entry proudly continues that in-room tradition, and also greatly extends its shenanigans with a robust online mode — one that actually functions well. Now your friends don't have to be in the same room to hate your character choices.

The series took its first steps online with Brawl, but its poor connectivity forced players to endure slideshow-level framerates for far-away battles. By and large, lag is no issue here — matches remain playable no matter how intense the action gets. Sure, some stutter still creeps in — player connectivity and proximity will always be a factor for any title — but in our time online we never had to surrender due to game inertia. In that sense, For Wii U is a massive step forward for the series' online future, finally bringing it into the realm of "playable."

Even better, this online has any and all play styles covered. Playing with friends or strangers is a snap, with games found quickly in any mode. There are three ways to play online, suitable for any audience and mood. For Fun brings in all the items and action-packed stages that the series is known for, while For Glory strips away the extras for pure battles of skill, with no items and Final Destination-style Omega stages. Battle records are tracked in For Glory and not in For Fun, while like in the 3DS version you can opt for individual or team fights. Finally, if you just want to watch others duke it out, Spectator will stream a random match to you that you can place bets on and win prizes. Future updates will bring online Tourneys, which have the potential to add a great deal, but these aren't available at launch

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is more than happy to help you play however you want, and with now-functioning online modes lets you play whoever you want as well.

Conclusion

In many ways, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U feels like a direct response to criticisms of its party-friendly aspirations. Nintendo’s crossover fighter series had its innocuous start as a goofy game with a playground spirit, allowing players to finally see who would win in a fight between the world’s two most famous Italian plumbers and some of their friends. Subsequent entries continued this theme, only with more figurines in the toy box to choose from and more playgrounds in which to do battle.

All that fantastic fan service is still here and more polished than ever — and now, the gloves are off. Super Smash Bros. finally embraces its hyper-competitive side, all the while still managing to deliver one of the most enjoyable party games in years. This is a smarter, more focused blast of fighting mayhem, confident in its ability to appeal to any audience willing to give it a chance. Online play is robust and reliable, enabling players to quickly and easily get in a silly or competitive match — and stay there, to boot, with series-best performance. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is an expertly crafted, deep fighter that is a pure joy to play no matter your skill level.