Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl – Competitive First Impressions
For games like Nick All-Star Brawl, which I think I’m going to mostly be calling Nick Brawl or Nick All-Stars from here on in, there are often two target audiences: the much larger market of fans of whatever in-game IP who just want to do some kicking with some friends, and the smaller subset of competitive people for whom the game’s fighting and movement mechanics are largely designed. This interesting situation creates a game that’s fun to play as a casual fan but also engaging to learn if you’re playing against people who want to learn what makes the game tick, what strategies are available, what characters are best, and so on.
I know my share of this story, having played Super Smash Bros. Melee in tournaments for the better part of a decade now. It’s been endless fun and an engaging challenge, and this time gives me plenty of perspective on the platform fighter genre.
The developers at Ludosity took what they learned with Slap City and ran with their first chance to develop a platform fighter with an all-star roster, which Smash has rather had a monopoly on since its inception. Instead of fighting with… a giant… platypus… buff… guy… thing and uh… I can’t think of any other Slap City character off the top of my head. Sorry.
The point is this: SpongeBob and the Avatar can WAVEDASH while fighting each other, yo! It’s sweet. Let’s slide and glide around the stages that are suitable for 1v1s and talk about how wild people can go on this platform fighter when the advanced techniques really start getting used. I hope that this serves as a starting point for some looking to either climb the online ladder or join some tournaments, and for others serves as one exhibit in the veritable zoo that is looking into whatever game’s competitive scene. The latter are my people, as someone in whose mind the phrase “crumpet dash” lives rent-free and occasionally makes itself heard by every neuron in my head, even if I’ve never once played competitive Shrek Super Slam. It’s just fun to learn about the wacky advanced techniques in these kinds of games.
Hitboxes and Hurtboxes
Many people call these the same thing, but I think the latter term is a useful one to have in one’s gaming vocabulary 🤓 See, hitboxes hit other boxes that get hurt. In most games with 3D models, both kinds are actually 3D spheroids but “hit-spheroids” isn’t exactly catchy. In both Nick Brawl and Smash Melee, hurtboxes are depicted in debug mode as yellow, except when they’re intangible, in which both games display them as blue. Hitboxes are a classic red. See this video for examples:
The similarities should be visually obvious, and they don’t stop there between the two titles. It’s also no coincidence that blocking in Nick Brawl and shielding in Smash Melee are both represented by the same cyan color or that respawn invincibility in both titles are depicted as green, when hitboxes and hurtboxes are displayed.
And these are the most basic building blocks of fighting games. You put your character model places and perform moves that move your model, collision-box, and hurtbox; you can then cause hitboxes to appear through inputted attacks. Simple. Once you really start being able to visualize these in real matches (and Nick Brawl gives players a head-start on this by allowing for the display of hitboxes and hurtboxes in training mode), competitive players can start feeling like they’re aware of the Matrix all around them.
Once the Matrix is seen, all that remains are the matters of spacing, timing, adaptation, technique, and manipulation of one’s opponent through movement, moves used, and conditioning. Much less simple.
Major Differences from Smash, Both Competitive and Casual
It’s inevitable that Nick All-Star Brawl get compared to Smash, since Smash is the primary inspiration for many the new game’s systems and stages. This will undoubtedly be the longest section, and I won’t even be delving into differences in the grab, block, or Directional Influence mechanics, and I’m sure there are plenty of differences besides even these and those. While Smash players have a leg up on everybody else in the early days of Nick Brawl, newcomers to the platform fighter genre will get by just fine, since this title more than stands up on its own.
Smash is the past, present, and almost certainly future monarch of the platform fighter genre. That roster is just impossible to compete with, with how much money Nintendo has. Not every fighter was recognized or adored by everybody (I hadn’t particularly cared for an addition to Smash Ultimate since Byleth before its final character, Sora, was announced, who I also don’t particularly care for) but it’s absolutely undeniable that all other platform fighters go green with envy for Nintendo’s licensing money. I mean, they resurrected Banjo-Kazooie from license limbo. I didn’t even think it was possible before their trailer dropped.
Well, every platform fighter but Nick Brawl* goes green with envy for those sweet Nintendo licenses. Most other competitors with Smash, Slap City obviously included, have relied on original characters, and all the legal ones I can think of at present certainly have. Nick All-Stars comes at us with characters from SpongeBob, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Danny Phantom, and… uh… shows that other people watched and I didn’t. That’s fine by me. I’ll do nasty combos with Aang, play this grappler iteration of Patrick, and stomp on people’s heads as Korra all day long. I used Danny’s strong down-air once and decided he was not for me. I’ll also occasionally wavedash as SpongeBob because, as my one friend so eloquently put it, “This game was made for Melee players to SoyFace at.”
I mean, come on, how could we not? They gave Powdered Toast Man a “shine.” In Melee, we call doing multiple of these together, each of them jump-canceled, “multi-shining.” I hope the Nick Brawl crowd come to call the same thing “the multigrain.”
On that note, competitive lingo is going to be a big difference between the two crowds, though there is overlap. The developers are clearly aware of this overlap, but the lingo used in their pre-release videos is often a little clunky.
I think it only makes sense, in competitive contexts, to try and use language which is as clear and concise as possible when referring to the game’s general move-set, taking into account what the developers used for their character showcases. Three light attacks and three strong attacks both on the ground and in the air, three special attacks, and two running attacks. See, they call it “dashing” but everyone has one singular, digital gear for speed in this game, and a “dash” is usually only the start of a “run” so two “running” attacks would be more accurate, but whatever; I’m going to keep calling them “dash attacks” due to the Smash precedent and developer comments. I’ll just be saying “light” or “strong” to differentiate the two.
A bit confusing, maybe, but bear with me here. Any competitive game requires competitive lingo, so players, content creators, and stream commentators have words for what the heck is happening on the screen. So, I propose, as a nerd with an English degree and a frankly embarrassing number of hours on Nick Brawl already, who hopes this linguistic exercise is helpful to fellow nerds and is at least interesting to the normal people out there, the following “words” as vocal stand-ins for the moves in this new platform fighter:
- Light Dash Attack
- Strong Dash Attack
- Neutral Light actually isn’t so catchy so let’s go with “Jab” (neutral / sideways + light attack)
- “Uplight” (up + light attack)
- D-Light (you get the picture)
- Neutral Strong (three syllables is a little much but oh well – maybe someone else has something better but it works for now)
- Downstrong / D-Strong
Smash players are going to call special moves up- down- and neutral-B, because B is the vanilla special move button in Smash with a GameCube controller, which funny enough works right out of the box with a GameCube adapter on a PC… but not for the Nintendo Switch version, where GameCube controller users cannot use analogue trigger inputs or bind a taunt button if they want to have every other bound action available.
Getting a little off-track, sorry. Essay writer DNA. Regardless of that odd fact about how a Nintendo product works better with the non-Nintendo version of the game, this Smash player who’s also pushing a bunch of experimental gibberish at you is going to keep saying “B” as shorthand for “special move” for Nick Brawl, because I use the B button for specials here too. Many of my fellow Smash players have taken to calling Nick Brawl’s grounded light attacks “tilts” and strong attacks “Smashes.” Of course, how hard you move the stick has nothing to do with anything in Nick All-Star Brawl, so this doesn’t quite work outside of being a point of reference for seasoned competitive Smashers. The aerials are where this reference really falls apart, since many Smashers are not specifying whether certain aerials are light or strong. I propose, instead of saying merely “nair” (neutral-aerial) or the two other Smash-borrowed terms:
- Light Nair / Upair / Dair
- Strong Nair / Upair / Dair
Simple, clean, effective communication for competitive Nick All-Star Brawl weirdos. My people. I’m open to change if the community coalesces around a different vocabulary, of course, but I’m just trying to help out here as the game emerges from its infancy into a tournament scene with developer support, and the longer time goes on, the more I think Nick Brawl is going to grow, both in terms of content and player-base, so I want to do my part in talking about the basic foundations of its gameplay. I’m the type of writer who loves to think about language and write words about words, if that was not already obvious from my author page.
Combining these moves together works decently well for an initial release. Light attacks are relatively easy with most characters, but setting up into a final blow with a strong attack takes precision, timing, and knowledge, which seems very healthy for competitive play in Nick All-Star Brawl. However, my biggest detraction right now is that a lot of characters combo in very similar ways, with punishes which are more damaging than those in Smash Ultimate, but which are also a lot less interesting. SpongeBob and many, many other characters can chain light nair into itself over and over, or light upair into itself over and over, or some combination of the two, and then can either go for a strong attack as a follow-up (which may not necessarily be a “true,” in-hitstun-the-whole-way combo), or simply chain several light dairs together into the blast-zone. There’s very little combo depth compared to Smash; the rhythm of a Nick All-Star Brawl combo simply lacks the same myriad variations of timings that you would find in Smash, with most current Nick combos having pretty much the same frenetic tempo as you jam as many light attacks together as possible while looking for a chance to KO with something stronger. I hope the devs make possible more interesting combinations of attacks, from allowing for “meteors” like Korra’s strong dair to combo more often (for now, strong “meteors” only combo a disappointingly rare proportion of the time) to incorporating more special moves as combo tools to some wacky Nickelodeon stuff I don’t yet know about. One character who seems to differ from the usual combo tree is Lucy Loud (who to my delight can use her D-Light to get some nasty strings), but even she often just chains numerous light up-attacks together. In part, this homogeneity of character combo routes is a consequence of the more limited move-pools. Attacks also generally have less hitstun than the first two Smash titles. And another part is a lack of moves that have multiple properties, which are combo finishers early in the early active frames and combo starters or extenders in the later frames. Korra does have tapped or held versions of her Strong attacks, with the uncharged variants having some combos, but not enough to write home about. My point in this titanic paragraph is that there lies a lot of untapped potential among the cast to allow for much more than just chaining light attacks together, the possibility of making combo rhythms more dynamic, more possibly syncopated.
Regardless of what you think of the character designs or combo game – I do think that an argument could easily be made that this “homogeneity” is actually a point in favor of move-set cohesiveness, broader accessibility, and the ease of “picking up” characters – having a solid grasp of the lingo for these moves enables talking about other strategies, such as the invaluable equivalent to “fastfalling” from Smash. In Nick Brawl, as in Smash, all characters can “short-hop” or “full-hop,” two different jump heights depending on whether the jump button is tapped or held. Unlike in Smash, however, Nick All-Stars will not let players fall faster by merely pressing down on the left stick near the peak of their jump. Instead, all aerials can be combined with an airdash during the move, but only downward, allowing for frantically fast-paced movement and all sorts of disgusting combos. This is a foundational technique for competitive play, just as the “SHFFL” (shorthop fastfall L-cancel, pronounced like “shuffle”) is in Melee. I’ve as such taken to calling the first technique in this great video by Leffen “Shuffling” one’s aerials in Nick Brawl, but who knows if that’ll catch on?
Whatever people call that particular technique, naming the basics is a very important first step for any competitive community, and being able to “fastfall” your aerials is absolutely crucial both for neutral game and for combos.
And once you move beyond language and start to think in terms of characters moves and motions, then the real game can start to be played. Nick All-Stars is crazy fast, even faster than Melee, the fastest Smash game. Whether faster is better is open to interpretation, and movement doesn’t feel quite as good here in my opinion, but it’s still very fun to do. The airdash of kusoge fame has made its way to the platform fighter genre in style. This tool allows players to put their character pretty much wherever they want very quickly, gliding over platforms, running up and then sliding back, the aforementioned Shuffle, tried-and-true airdashes followed by an aerial, and so on. The applications seem nearly endless, and that’s a great sign for a competitive tool.
One detractor, however, is hand pain. I saw one Twitch chat post in some stream that went something like “this game gives you Melee hands faster than Melee lol” and I have to agree, random person whose username I forget. The frenetic motions of Shuffling are terrible for your hands, and I have to take breaks even more often when playing Nick Brawl for a little bit than I do when I enter Melee tournaments that go on for hours. I think they should literally enforce mandatory hand-stretch breaks for players who play somewhere between 5-10 online matches in a row, if they’re going to make fundamental techniques like Shuffling so hard on the hands. Or at least have a tutorial somewhere for how to properly stretch them, which may sound a little extreme, but it’s better than a bunch of players destroying their hands for SpongeBob combos.
Heading back to pure gameplay before we wrap up this section… unlike later Smash titles, Nick Brawl follows Melee and Smash 64 in allowing characters to “edge-cancel,” effectively cancelling the lag of an aerial attack by sliding off the edge of a platform or stage during the frames in which the character would normally be in lag. This allows for combos that would normally not happen and can be a great bait to get your opponent to approach you, giving you a wide opening when you surprisingly don’t have any lag.
These advanced techniques are all signs of developers who are not afraid to let good players be good, and welcome signs at that, in the age of shorter combos in fighting games and easier games generally. But it never strays too far in this usually positive direction, which can result in a loss of accessibility. No, Nick Brawl is competitively easy to learn, and yet seems quite difficult to master. Sounds like the sweet-spot to me. It may have vastly more simple combo trees that feel less satisfying to pull off than something like Melee or even the original Smash title, but Nick Brawl still has a ton of depth in its movement and combo mechanics that will be enjoyable for competitive players to explore.
It Is Perfectly Fine to Be a Casual
I used to be a real stickler about how cool it was to be a part of the competitive scene for my game and ooh I like to play mindgames through sophisticated movement and this that and the other ego story. Whatever, now. Nick Brawl works just fine as a casual game, which I feel the need to step back and say now that I’ve linguistically pontificated for a while. It doesn’t work anywhere nearly as well casually as Smash, mind you, since there are no items or anything more random than Powdered Toast Man’s weak nair, and the casual stages are more often boring than hazardous. It is annoying for the competitive Nick All-Star Brawl crowd to only have four stages at launch to play on, but I know they’ll add more of both kinds of stages over time.
I do hope that the characters eventually receive voiceovers, even if just recycled grunts and groans from the shows, because they feel quite lifeless right now, not befitting Nickelodeon’s massive brand recognition. Us PC players have access to mods, which will have to do for now.
Regardless of what stages are in here or whether the characters are voiced, if I were a kid who loved The Loud House, a show I literally hadn’t heard of before Nick All-Star Brawl was released, or the other Nickelodeon shows on display in this roster, I would simply adore this game. I was the same way when I saw Mario, Bowser, Pikachu, and Link all fighting on the cover of Melee – astounded, and so excited. And I feel that same feeling when playing as Aang or Toph, being reminded of how much I love Avatar: The Last Airbender. I keep coming back to the all-star roster of Nick All-Star Brawl even in this piece that’s supposed to be purely about competitive play because, in my mind, the two are interlinked. These games are so fun to play competitively in part because they have that mass casual appeal.
There’s something special, in other words, about how Smash can pit fighters from so many different gaming IPs together, and how Nick Brawl lets the Avatar and Toph fight SpongeBob and CatDog. Maybe not quite as cool in the latter, but could be if you’re a superfan of Nickelodeon. I’m not, but I still think it’s cool. That coolness pushes me and other competitors to try and break this game.
It’s fun to consciously get better, even at something your subconscious mostly handles despite your best efforts to stay focused. My hands are starting to get used to Shuffling for combos, my mind starting to see the possible patterns of movement my opponents can take. And so, if you feel yourself called to learn the same, all it takes is watching a few videos and practicing a few simple techniques.
The barrier to entry from casual players to Smash competitors can seem near-impenetrable. I didn’t win my first set of competitive Melee for several months into playing the game, and it was with a massive character matchup advantage against someone I never saw at a tournament again. Nick Brawl is young, the advanced techniques generally easier, the movesets all smaller, the playing field more even, the single-player content unfortunately lacking.
The time is ripe to invent a new metagame, post videos, write blogposts, fight opponents… if you want to step out of Quick Play and want to focus on how to climb that Competitive ladder, or even decide to enter tournaments online or perhaps even in-person as coronavirus restrictions are increasingly lifted. With developer and publisher support of the competitive scene, as seems to be a priority with Nick All-Star Brawl, we might just end up seeing a great game adored by casual players, Twitch viewers, and competitive players alike.
And I think that kind of game is just magical, bringing so many beings together to share one passion, expressed in different ways.
Tempting as it is to end on that above line, I do just have to mention that I’m a little sad the doubles metagame always seems to be an afterthought in any game where singles is also an option. The bonds formed among competitive players are wonderful things, and I’ve met many close friends through Smash tournaments. Playing in regularly scheduled tournaments with the same player over and over can really bring the two of you together (shoutouts to “Stro,” my longtime Melee teammate and a dear friend) and team chemistry creates some incredible moments in Smash. There are very few viable 2v2 esports, and so I love that platform fighters can emulate tennis in allowing for both 1v1 battles of wills and 2v2 exhibitions of team strategies.
Nick Brawl’s devs don’t seem to share the same passion, since doubles barely work in the game’s current state. Smash color-coded its characters not because Sakurai Masahiro thought it would be hilarious to give Pikachu a cowboy hat and turn the poor thing a sickly green (even though that stupid color still cracks me up all these years later) but because it’s important for the teams to be distinct visually so that any of the players know what on Earth is going on in the match.
The importance of color-coded teams became so apparent to me by playing a singular match of doubles in Nick Brawl with a group of Melee buddies. Yikes! It can be extremely hard to tell who’s with who in scramble situations. The stocks and player icons are sometimes (and are clearly intended to be) the color of your team, but more often, everybody’s were the same color. I hope this is a glitch that gets fixed in an update released very soon, and that the devs add a colored outline to each character or something, as was done in Smash Ultimate’s doubles mode.
By extension, it can even be hard to tell your virtual self from the opponent’s when you’re both the same character in Nick Brawl. There’s only one model, one color job for each of them. Just imagine how confusing it would get in a four-player match with everyone on one character. Probably a licensing thing; Pac-Man and Sonic were allowed to be included in Smash with varying terms – Sonic could be different shades of blue, but Pac-Man’s costumes could not change his classic yellow hue at all. But even these characters have been given visually distinct alternate costumes, which aid in doubles, “ditto” / “mirror matches,” and free-for-all brawls tremendously.
Whether casual or competitive, it’s cool to run teams of players into each other, a great way to have fun as four people. It just doesn’t work right now in this game. A shame.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s Competitive Future
That detraction aside, the future does look bright for this title. A promising starting roster of 20 characters will soon bloom into one with many more classic Nicktoons. The devs at Ludosity clearly care a lot about the metagame and will be observing how competitive players use the tools which they’ve given us and I’ve tried to label here. It’s up to players, content creators, and tournament organizers to now innovate and create the kind of art in motion that is high-level platform fighter play. Nick Brawl does look a little wonky for now, games go by way too quickly for three-stock matches to be the tournament standard (in my opinion, tournament organizers should run four or even five stocks), and most characters feel a bit too similar, but all of these are certainly subject to change.
Is Nick All-Star Brawl quite as tight as that of something like competitive Melee, an all-time classic esport? No, certainly not at this point in time. But this title has a lot of promise, and I’ve had a blast with it as I’ve started to learn the advanced techniques and combo trees. I’m looking forward to the months and years ahead of playing yet another platform fighter for children as an adult looking to “break the game” in their spare time.