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Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Review: Is this a challenger approaching or an old-hand retiring?

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Disappointments? The stages, slightly. Visually? No complaints. Whether weaving through intergalactic dogfights or soaking up the cool ambiance of Animal Crossing, these are artistic delights.

It's the lack of sizeable or 'concept' arenas that irks - like Melee's rotating Brinstar Depths or the Big Blue. In fact, Sakurai's inclusion of such original Melee stages only draws your attention to the lack of innovation elsewhere.

A clump of three platforms floating through Ninty sights may please the fanboy in us; the fact that stage-specific tactics pay the price worries the Smash fanatic in us.

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And then there's the roster. The 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach to development pays off brilliantly elsewhere, but has left a bloated cast that struggles to hide the basic character types each fighter boils down to.

Signature moves aside, it's hard to see where Dedede differs from Bowser, and if Link, Ike and Pit weren't programmed by the same guy, we'll eat our sword flurry.

In fairness, a few neat hybrids impress. Pit combines the ferocity of Link with Peach's awesome flight range, and between his three 'mon the Pokémon Trainer delivers the greatest hits of Kirby, Bowser and Yoshi.

The arrival, too, of a few wildcards equally baffle and delight - we have no idea if Olimar is the best thing since sliced Pikmin or a total crash-landing of a character. Shame, though, to find the ranks of hard-fought-for secret characters populated by clones, or for the Melee faces that didn't make the Brawl cut.

A perfect formula?

Moan, moan, moan, eh? Don't get us wrong, from our very first fight we knew that Brawl was the Wii's premier multiplayer - it reveals just how much crap we've been taking from Mario Strikers all this time - but we wanted to see if it could be more.

Something different. Repetition is Brawl's only real crime, but this is the curse of Smash Bros. After all, how do you revolutionise what is, arguably, a perfect formula? The answer is beyond us, and it would seem, slightly beyond Sakurai.

If you were going to make the mother of all changes, surely they would arrive on the console that is the mother of all hardware changes? Instead we find Smash Bros stubbornly sitting on Wii, only really making use of enhanced graphical power and a handful of Wi-Fi options.

Wi-Fi has so far eluded us; the humble Wii throwing a fit every time we try to squeeze a Japanese link-up through the USB dongle. We managed to boot up the spectator mode - where you watch another online game and bet on the outcome - but were put off when our 'sure thing' Samus got well and truly pwned by Olimar. What a gyp.

In your hands

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Controls are an issue, too. Vertical remote is no substitute for classic controller or - our pad of choice - the GameCube pad. The D-pad is no match for an analogue stick and the button-starved design means that no matter how you calibrate, a key action will be relegated to the unreachable minus button.

The nunchuk and remote are button-friendlier, but the lack of a second analogue stick removes quick access to smash attacks - powerful hits performed with a quick directional jab paired with the attack button, wisely mapped onto the C-stick in Melee. And maybe it's the muscle memory from playing Melee, but for the first time on Wii, hands apart just doesn't feel right.

Hardware aside, the grandest innovation is undoubtedly the Subspace Emissary - a standalone single player experience. Ever seen Cannonball Run? In it, 15 then-famous actors dash across the US.

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