Licensed games have a history of being largely a bit pants. There are notable exceptions of course, but for every Goldeneye 007 or SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom there’s fistloads of the likes of M&Ms Kart Racing, Superman 64, and the Wii version of Iron Man. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl tries to buck that trend by getting the developers of Slap City to make it, a game held as one of the few contenders to Super Smash Bros., and we promise that’s the last time we’ll mention that series. Big names from Nickelodeon, a competent developer, it all looks promising on the face of it - but is it worthwhile in practice?
If you didn’t know, Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is classified as a ‘platform fighter’, a genre that has you dealing damage to your opponents in order to make them easier to knock into death planes on all four sides of the screen, popularised by the Super Smash Bros. series (damn it). Each of the 20 fighters have roughly 18 moves they can perform as well as a rudimentary grab, block, and jumping mechanics. 18 moves may sound like a lot at first, but a lot of these are often semi-duplicates that change slightly because they’re performed in the air instead of on the ground, and if 18 seems like a lot then don’t look into a certain Hero in a certain Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (damn it again).
All the moves are easy to perform, and each character’s moveset is unique to them. The movesets on offer aren't as varied or original as we’d like, however. For example Aang from the excellent Avatar: The Last Airbender features moves only suitable for close-quarters, which feels distinctly odd given his favoured fighting techniques in his own media. There’s definitely been some serious consideration to have characters represent their source media, a personal highlight of ours being Ren & Stimpy throwing Log from Blammo!, but many other moves of each fighter feel like they were developed simply because they had slots to fill.
Many of the moves on show are rather simple attacks but some have deeper mechanics at play, all of which are well executed and satisfying to master. What isn’t so satisfying, however, is the explanations of these moves in-game, or more specifically the lack of them. Most moves are self-explanatory, others have a brief explanation that is serviceable, others don’t do a good enough job of explaining things, but worst of all some aren’t listed at all. Toph for example has a down-special that is a front flip with a heavy iron boot, but when in the air she creates a floating platform of earth; the latter is not listed in her moveset list at all.
Presentation is also a mixed bag. For the most part the game looks fine on Switch and runs at a decently stable 60fps on most stages. On a few, however, the framerate seems to really suffer, and it’s not entirely clear as to why. Aside from that a lot of the characters have had to make the transition from 2D to 3D, which can be a difficult ask, but the artists have done a very good job of making that leap, especially for the likes of Nigel Thornberry who looks just as terrifying as you’d want him to.
Other areas are less well-realised, especially in regards to the soundtrack. Some tunes are perfectly fine, but others such as the theme for the Western Air Temple stage are just downright unpleasant, and most have an obvious cut when attempting to loop. Artwork rewards for completing the single-player Arcade mode don’t fill the screen properly and there’s no voice-acting whatsoever; the entire package feels like it’s missing a lot of polish in several areas.
But you’ll notice we’ve not yet talked about the actual gameplay beyond the nitty gritty of movesets, and that’s mostly because we wanted to some grievances out of the way first. In short, when you’re actually fighting the game is excellent; the mechanics are tight, the potential for combos is vast, and each character has distinct strengths and weaknesses. We aren’t going to comment too much on balance as this is something that evolves throughout such a game’s lifetime, but we will say that although some characters do indeed feel ‘higher tier’ than others, this is just as likely due to our personal playing styles.
The game shines its brightest in classic one-on-one bouts against another player, and most pleasingly this is just as much fun online as offline. The target audience is likely to be mostly interested in playing as SpongeBob and beating up Patrick, but there is clearly a drive towards appealing to a completely different set of players. You know, the sort who knows what DACUS stands for. Consideration has been taken to make sure this subset of fighting fans is properly catered to, but without overwhelming the more casual audience. Things can get a bit hectic at times, but that’s part of the fun, and the intentional inclusion of fan-favourite bugs-come-features like wavedashing helps to really give the combat its own unique and slick feel.
Naturally you can also play with four total players, but it has to be said that the frenetic nature of a good fight in this game makes it a bit difficult to properly parse everything that's going on. You can also select between stock and timed battles as well as a few Sports game modes that have you unsurprisingly performing sports-like objectives, such as attacking a ball to land in your opponent's goal hole.
Online boasts custom lobbies, Quick Play to slap you right into the fray with someone else, and Competitive Play that restricts the stages that can be chosen as well as employing a simple ranking system. All except the custom lobbies appear to be restricted to one-on-one bouts, but as we feel we've made abundantly clear this is easily where the game is best; it allows for more stable connections, and we can't imagine many instances where we'd want to play four player with anyone except friends, so we're not complaining. Online matches are also pleasingly smooth with very little in the way of latency. We did experience a single match which seemed to run at about 15 frames a second and removed practically all the particle effects, but that was absolutely the exception to an otherwise joyous online experience.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a solid platform fighter with an awful lot of hidden depth, and also an unfortunate lack of polish outside the fighting. If hardcore gameplay is the number one concern you’ll have a wealth to sink your teeth into here, but expect to be underwhelmed by various elements that surround it. There's a grand old time to be had, but it's no Super Smash Bros. (damn it yet again).