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Twenty three years after its initial release, Super Smash Bros. remains one hell of a flex on Nintendo’s part. “Our roster of characters is so recognizable, and so beloved,” the video gaming giant asserted with the N64 title, “that we’re going to turn them into a massively successful fighting game franchise that doesn’t play in any way, shape, or form like any fighting game you’ve ever seen.” And lo, they were right, to the tune of four sequels, massive tournaments, and a huge new iteration of the fighting game format—one that nobody else has ever really cracked.
Sure, there have been efforts: Indie games like Brawlhalla and Brawlout can scratch that “Knock your enemy into a lethal pit” itch, while manga brand Shonen Jump and kids’ entertainer Nickelodeon have both taken a shot at tossing huge rosters of characters at the edges of the ring and seeing what does or doesn’t stick. But Smash reigns supreme, thanks to a combination of clever, quick gameplay and—again—the best IP in the business.
Now there’s a new competitor in town, courtesy of Warner Bros., and goddamn, but if it isn’t one of the weirdest things we’ve ever seen. There are many things to be said that are positive about MultiVersus, the company’s new Smash Bros. imitator, a game that often improves on the base formula in interesting and engaging ways. But none of them are more attention-grabbing than the fact that this is a video game in which PTSD-afflicted child soldier Arya Stark can stick a knife in PTSD-afflicted child soldier Steven Universe’s back, and then steal his face, while Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and the goddamn Batman watch from the sides.
It is, in fact, extremely easy to let the sheer weirdness of MultiVersus’ almost literal Space Jam 2 approach to character distract from what is, in the closed alpha we’ve been playing, a genuinely cool little fighting game—but, then, we’re not the ones who created a video game where Tom from Tom And Jerry can smack Wonder Woman in the face with Rick Sanchez’s Meeseeks box. (It’s actually kind of shocking that WB has had enough restraint not to include Rick himself as a playable character, although that’s presumably what DLC is for.)
Although there have been derivations in recent years—looking at you, Solid Snake—the various Nintendo characters shoved into Smash Bros. over the years have benefited from all coming from a pretty tight pool of creative impulses; Mario and Kirby may not hang out in their off-hours, but they can at least share a universe without it seeming completely insane. Not so much Finn and Jake from Adventure Time, and, again, Arya fucking Stark, who’s out here making grim quips about “The Many-Faced God” and having a special move that lets her steal her opponent’s faces. (Tragically, this does not turn Arya into the Kirby of MultiVersus, absorbing powers as she goes; it just lets her do a special taunt.)
All of which, again, distracts from the actual experience of playing MultiVersus, which is genuinely pretty neat. The big change developer Player First Games brought to the table was in conceiving the game, from the ground up, as a team-based competition: 2 vs. 2 is the default match mode, and characters are loaded up with plenty of ways to buff both themselves and their partners. The result is something that feels a little less twitchy than garden-variety Smash, allowing the game to carve out something of an identity for itself even as it blatantly rips off the whole “smack someone around until you can knock them off the screen” gameplay.
(Oh, and also take it as read that the free-to-play title is crammed to the gills with Battle Passes, cosmetics, daily quests, alternate currencies, and all the other detritus of the games as service craze. Have you even made a video game in 2022 if you can’t pay digital currency to put Bugs Bunny in a fancy robe?)
It’s to the credit of MultiVersus that, like the game series it so clearly apes, it remains fun to play, and interesting to learn, beyond the base appeal of its IP mash-up silliness. The developers at Player First Games have clearly thought about both how these characters would work in a game like this—Velma from Scooby-Doo is our current favorite, buffing her allies and collecting clues so she can narc to the police to take one of her opponents away—and what makes for fun Smash gameplay. The online play in the alpha was smooth enough (we had a few glitches, but nothing egregious) and different match-ups of characters genuinely play differently, and require different strategies to handle. Which, we guess, is a way of saying that it’s easy to have Arya Stark sink a knife into Steven Universe’s back; it’s a far more clever trick to make it satisfying to do so.