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Super Smash Bros. Brawl

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

Recently questioned about his Smash philosophy by Ninty pres Iwata, Sakurai explained that he approaches each new instalment as if it were the last. Sounds like glum fatalism, doesn't it?

Thankfully Sakurai is no glass-half-empty fellow; he simply takes this as motivation to make his declaration of Ninty-love as potent as possible. If he's going out, he's going out with a bang, and if he's going out with Brawl, he's going out with the mother of all bangs.

An empty arena. Four fighters enter. They bash one another to ramp up damage. The greater the damage, the further they fly when hit. Hitting them from the arena wins the fight. That's Smash Bros.

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Has been since the N64 original. It's a fighting game unlike any other: where the focus isn't on panicked health depletion, but a spiralling of damage; where you're as able to hide as fight; where you're only ever dead for four seconds before you're back in the fray; where everyone who's had their ass handed to them by Street Fighter can come and feel safe.

Or rather, feel safe if they want to feel safe. Want to tackle Brawl as a technical fighter? You're more than welcome to. Shields, evasive rolls, smash attacks and all manner of items add layer upon layer to potential strategies, until you're left with an experience just as suited to championship level play as your Soul Caliburs and Tekkens.

With each new instalment come a few tweaks here and there, putting the devout Smash fans on edge as they prey for no game-breaking additions. Deep sigh of relief, then.

Brawl is a nippy experience. Any one second can see Fox McCloud firing across the screen as Peach leaves light trails with a searing beam sword, and Pikachu and Mario arc off your telly after a close encounter with an enraged Bob-Omb.

Close your eyes for a second - an unwise strategic choice - and when you open them you'll see Fox struck with a Peach-lobbed sword, while she gobbles up health restoring snacks, oblivious to the lightning strike a respawned Pikachu is about to release on her.

Snap, crackle and pop

Hectic? Absolutely. But it's more visual clutter than unneeded gameplay fat, with blame resting mainly on new items. Take the smart bomb, for example. Creating an ever-growing flaming orb - great for group attacks - it can frazzle unwitting fighters before they even know its been lobbed.

Then there's the cracker launcher - the first Smash Bros weapon you can manually aim. Firing flowering fireworks, it can be hard to see what's hitting what, but it's no great price for pursuing a flying foe with a stream of aimed hits.

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Interestingly, what looked to be a guaranteed game-muddler in Sakurai's website write-ups has turned out to be great focusing device: the final smashes. Yes, in action these uber-attacks are complete visual bullies - the camera zooms in to your flaming form to indicate that the 'you show' is just beginning and, for the other three players tuning in, a whole world of pain awaits.

Pikachu turning into a screaming electro-ball or Fox driving the Landmaster Tank not only show off Brawl's most extravagant visual excesses, but see even experienced players buffeted around like a kitten in a tumble dryer. How, then, do these moves tighten things up?

It's all in the chase. A final smash is yours for breaking the final smash icon: catnip for Brawlers. So beneficial are these moves that all fighters gun for them. Dash, leap, pummel, throw, kick; whatever you do, get to it first.

It's as close to an in-game objective as Smash Bros has ever had, and the results are comic brilliance. A heaving pile of Nintendo mascots chasing such an innocuous item reminds us of madcap Looney Tunes; and with a heavy shunt dislodging the icon out of the successful grabber, the silliness doesn't abate until the move is activated and a 15ft Bowser or super-charged Diddy Kong are tearing everyone a new one.

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