Smash Bros. Brawl and the biggest game tournament ever

If the round, pink fluff of softness that is Kirby gives you nightmare visions of cuddly ponies and cute little bears, you'll be pleased to hear that the freshly released Super Smash Bros. Brawl gives you the chance to pummel the cuteness out of this anime abomination. Better yet, you can embrace the horror by playing as Kirby!

Kirby, along with his video game friends Mario, Pikachu, Link, and even Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series, are ready for some good ol’ brawling fun in the latest version of Nintendo's fighting game.

The game was released in Japan earlier this year, and sold well more than 1 million copies by the end of January. Brawl quickly garnered both player and industry acclaim, including a prestigious perfect score from respected Japanese gaming magazine, Famitsu. GameSpot’s Lark Anderson praised its accessibility, and gave the game a 9.5 score and an Editor’s Choice award. IGN’s Matt Casamassina also scored it 9.5 but noted issues that included a long loading time and graphics that lack detail in some areas.

Nintendo is certainly not pulling any punches with this latest Wii salvo in the North American market. Along with midnight launches on March 8 at more than 2,500 locations, retailer GameStop hosted a nationwide Brawl tournament with $5,000 cash and other Wii goodies on the line.

The little GameStop store at Village Plaza on Tatum and Cactus was abuzz with anticipation on Saturday at 9:30 p.m. with a good-size crowd gathering — competitors, families and fans simply there to collect on their pre-orders. The 10 p.m. tournament would allow players to finally get their very first taste of Brawl since the game was first announced in 2005. How highly anticipated is this game? Check this fan's handiwork and judge for yourself.

“Brawl will be huge!” enthused Dave Cottrell, 23, a self-proclaimed “Nintendo fan boy.” “I’ll be playing Sheik later; she’s the fastest and I’ve been practicing a lot with her on Melee [the previous version of the game] for this tournament.”

Unfortunately, as the first two competitors realized when they stepped into the store to play on the sole Wii setup, the tournament format didn’t allow a choice of characters. Players were randomly assigned characters in the beginning and played as those characters for the rest of the tournament.

The disappointment quickly rippled through the line of players waiting for their turns outside, but seasoned brawlers ran through the moves of the various characters in their heads to prepare.

Like its highly successful predecessors in 1999 and 2001, Brawl banks on players’ nostalgia for characters and settings by bringing iconic characters from various games together in a single fighting game. Much to the delight of any gamer, Nintendo has expanded the 35-character line-up to include Brawl newcomers Sonic the Hedgehog and Solid Snake, who are non-Nintendo characters.

“This game will make it a bigger frustration for people wanting to get a Wii now,” commented Chris Rivera. The 20-year-old console fan, who plays on an extensive range of systems from the Playstation Portable to the Xbox 360, may have a point there. In Japan, the game definitely contributed to the Nintendo platform outselling Sony’s Playstation 3 by 4-to-1 and Microsoft’s 360 by a staggering 23-to-1 in February.

What exactly is the appeal of this game that could finally make console fence-sitters join the Wii bandwagon?

“It’s easy to pick up, unlike other fighting games that require complicated button sequences, but the game play is layered enough to appeal to hardcore gamers as well,” explained Nick Rynearson, 17. “Having familiar characters and online play definitely adds to the fun! You’ll see me in the top ranks online.”

Competitors battled in brutal one-minute rounds, with seemingly awkward Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers. The game supports three other control schemes: the Wii Remote alone, the classic Wii controller, and the GameCube controller.

Some players were not impressed with the lack of controller choice at the tournament. “A minute is hardly enough time to get used to the Nunchuk; match outcomes really come down to luck,” said one. Most agreed that the GameCube controller would have been a better choice, since 2001's Melee was played on that controller.

Gameplay was fast and furious, with brawlers frantically trying to knock each other off the floating stage. Pick-up items spawned amidst combat to provide power-ups and special moves. Of particular note were Smash Balls that let fighters pull off spectacular character-specific maneuvers known as Final Smashes. For Saturday night though, only one player — Nick Rynearson — managed to pull off a Final Smash with Captain Olimar. The character blasted off in a rocket and crash-landed on his opponent, winning that match for Nick.

“The game feels smoother and the graphics look better than the earlier versions,” said Nick, whose final which saw his Captain Olimar squaring off against Yoshi the dinosaur, controlled by Ron Ferguson, 18.

Despite having his right hand in a cast — “I broke it while skateboarding” — Ron literally rolled through the tournament with Yoshi’s signature Egg Roll move.

“I’ve played the Smash series since I was 10!” said Ron. “I think this version is smooth and absolutely flawless!”

Besides winning a trophy that declared the obvious fan the “Local Legend of Wreckage,” he will move on to the District Finals at Mesa Grand on March 15. Waving his copy of the game and the strategy guide just past midnight, Ron beamed, “My cast will be off by then.”