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My hands are cramped and my eyes are squinted, but I simply can't stop playing Super Smash Bros. for 3DS. The latest version of Nintendo's flagship fighting game makes the action portable for the first time, packing in nostalgic, well-crafted arenas, a massive cast of iconic characters and tons of unlockables.
This $40 pocket-size brawler's tight gameplay and wide range of content make it worthy of the Smash name, but do the 3DS' hardware limitations keep it from being a complete knockout?
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A Smashing good time
Beating up your best friends in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is as simple and satisfying as Smash has ever been. You pick from a colorful assortment of Nintendo (and some non-Nintendo) characters from all the company's major games (The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros.), enter an equally colorful arena and do your damndest to knock your opponents into oblivion.
As with previous Smash games, the core of the action consists of four-player battles between you and your buddies (or CPU-controlled opponents). There are a few single-player modes present, but you'll likely spend most of your time in contained competitions, which can be played out as 1-on-1, team or every-man-for-himself contests. Characters and stages unlock as you fight more, and every battle earns you gold for buying the game's addictively alluring digital trophies.
You dole out pain by using the Attack and Special buttons, which dish out different moves based on which direction you're holding the analog stick. There's a surprising amount of depth under the game's simplicity, as you'll be combining attacks and specials with well-timed blocks, grabs and dodges in order to rack up damage and hurl your enemies off of the stage.
As the series' first handheld entry, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS plays wonderfully. The action is fast and fluid, and felt responsive whether I was dodging attacks, shooting Mega Man's missiles or slicing up multiple opponents at once with Link's sword.
The pocket brawler's only gameplay weakness comes from the 3DS hardware itself. Smash vets that are used to using a Nintendo GameCube controller for the series' previous installments will be disappointed by the system's shallow analog stick, which doesn't always allow for extra-precise movement. I also found my hands (particularly my left) cramping up often after long sessions on a standard Nintendo 3DS.
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Packing more than 36 characters that span decades' worth of Nintendo history (with a few special guests), Super Smash Bros. for 3DS has one of the most diverse and iconic rosters in any fighting game. Returning fighters such as Mario, Link and Sonic are joined by gaming stalwarts such as Mega Man, Pac-Man and even Little Mac from Punch Out, allowing you to create all-out brawls between the medium's most recognizable heroes.
The best newcomers include Fire Emblem's Robin, who casts a devastating array of spells, and Greninja, a nimble, amphibianlike Pokémon that can teleport, toss water shurikens and use its tongue as a ninja scarf. There's also the seemingly cute, but actually terrifying, Villager from Animal Crossing, who bludgeons the opposition with household objects and stuffs enemy projectiles in his or her pocket like it's no big deal.
There's one more big new character: you. Or, Mii, rather. You can create custom characters out of your system's Mii avatars, with plenty of unlockable outfits and abilities for making your fighter look and play how you want.
Being able to play as yourself for the first time in a Smash game is a great touch, though I kept coming back to the game's excellent default roster. You can also customize the existing cast in terms of powers and special moves, and any custom characters you create can be transferred to the upcoming Wii U version of the game.
Keeping with series tradition, Nintendo has provided a slew of modes for you to whack around its cutesy characters in. Smash mode is the go-to battle mode, allowing you to engage in free-for-all or team battles against friends or the CPU. You can customize every imaginable parameter of your fights, from winning conditions to whether or not Pokéballs, beam swords and giant hammers are allowed to appear on the battlefield.
New to the franchise is the 3DS-exclusive Smash Run mode, which has you and your opponents wade through a massive side-scrolling labyrinth filled with enemies and power-ups. Once you've done this for five minutes, you'll take your collected boosts into a random final contest, which can be anything from a standard free-for-all to a hazard-filled race. I found Smash Run to be a fun diversion every now and then, but it won't satisfy players who were hoping for a true side-scrolling adventure mode in the vein of Subspace Emissary from Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
The rest of the modes are pretty standard; Classic and All-Star mode run you through an arcade-style gauntlet, while Multi-Man Smash has you take on big chunks of enemies at a time. If you've got a mini-game itch to scratch, returning favorites like Target Blast and Home Run Contest as well as the new Trophy Rush will do the trick.
Taking on the world
For many, a fighting game is only as worthwhile as its multiplayer options. Fortunately, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS has one of the most robust online modes around.
Casual smashers can choose For Fun mode, which consists of unranked battles with all items and arenas enabled. Tournament players will veer toward For Glory mode, where items are off, stages are always flat and symmetrical, plus wins and losses count. Once you pick a play style, you'll be able to engage in one-on-one, free-for-all or team battles with anyone in the world.
I played the bulk of my online Smash matches against players in Japan (where the game is already out), and my experience was largely a smooth one. Save for a few lag hiccups, there were many matches in which I forgot I was playing online at all. Playing over local wireless with a friend in the office felt similarly solid, though there were one or two matches with strange instances of slowdown.
Graphics and sound
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a great-looking game -- when the action is zoomed in, at least. Character models are packed with detail, from the iconic markings of Link's shield to the golden embroidery on Palutena's dress, and the entire game beams with the type of candy-like color palette that Nintendo is famous for.
Things get a bit messy when four warriors are spread across the battlefield, however. The 3DS display is simply too small to handle far-reaching battles, as the game's beautifully rendered fighters practically become stick figures with the camera zoomed all the way out. You'll have a bit less trouble with this if you're playing on a 3DS XL, but characters can become pretty small across both models.
With stages that mostly call back to Nintendo's portable hits, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS' level selection is as vibrant and imaginative as its character roster. Arenas transform in the midst of battle, and I couldn't help but look away from the action every time my fighters hovered over Mario Kart's Rainbow Road or soared around Pokémon's Prism Tower. I especially loved 8-bit stages like the famed Pac-Maze, as they create a striking level of contrast with the game's 3D character designs.
Equally satisfying is the game's soundtrack, which consists largely of remixes of classic video game themes and older Smash tunes. You can even listen to the soundtrack with the 3DS in sleep mode, which is a great way to kick back and enjoy the amount of care that went into these nostalgic reworkings.
Hardware issues aside, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a great-looking, great-playing version of Smash that you can put in your pocket. Tournament purists might be turned off by the system's shallow analog stick and small screen, but the game outshines these shortcomings by offering smooth combat, solid online play and enough unlockables to keep you playing for hours on end.
If you have a Wii U and would rather wait until later this year to play Super Smash Bros. in full HD on your TV, feel free to skip this version. However, if you're clamoring for some Smash action right now, or just want a way to practice on the go, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS is a worthy addition to Nintendo's storied fighting franchise.
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Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.