To say Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is fighting an uphill battle is an understatement. It wears its Super Smash Bros. inspiration firmly on its sleeve by bringing together a host of beloved characters in a platform fighter, but Nick Brawl does so without the spectacle. While I think it has a lot of heart and is a good fighting game at its core, All-Star Brawl is missing the magic and wonder that Smash Bros. embodies and lacks meaningful casual appeal.
All-Star Brawl brings together different eras of Nickelodeon cartoons to fight on stages based on scenes and locations from various Nicktoons. The roster is not comprehensive, but it is diverse enough and hits several notable eras across its 20 characters. Familiar faces like Ren and Stimpy and Rugrats’ Reptar mix it up with Nigel Thornberry, Zim, and Danny Phantom. Current favorites such as Lincoln and Lucy Loud hold down the fort for newer toons. Still, the cast also has a few notable big names: Spongebob Squarepants and friends, a handful of Ninja Turtles, and the duo of Avatars, Aang and Korra, bring some much-appreciated star power to the mix.
My favorite part of Nick Brawl is how it plays. You have buttons for jumping, attacking, special moves, throws, and blocking. Your goal is to slap around your opponents and increase their damage percentage, making them more likely to fly off the screen when hit with a strong attack. Characters move quickly, which made me worry that I wouldn’t always feel in control, but the snappy and responsive inputs alleviated those worries in practice. Advanced techniques like wavedashing are surprisingly easy to pull off, and thanks to the faster tempo, performing combos on the fly is a cinch.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl's fighting fundamentals make the experience enjoyable, but there's not much to combat aside from the basics. A standard story-free arcade mode and training are the only single-player content on hand. Arcade mode rewards you with unlockable art and music to listen to in the Jukebox, but unlocking that content didn't feel meaningful. You can also take on up to three friends or CPU opponents in custom timed matches or bouts where each player has a set number of lives.
These fights reveal Nick Brawl's biggest drawback, and that's a lack of prominent party content; you won't find items or weapons to use in battle here. Since its gameplay heavily emphasizes fast reflexes and masterful, character-controlling skill, I sorely missed having some outrageous gadgets to level the playing field for new or casual players. Stages provide additional personality from the Nickelodeon licenses and shake up battles. Each stage is set within a Nicktoon's world and contains a range of platforms and moving obstacles to keep players on their toes. These locations look great and provide some much-needed flavor. Some of my favorites include the Hey Arnold-inspired Traffic Jam (which features a great, chill saxy tune) and The Flying Dutchman's Ship from Spongebob.
All-Star Brawl's closest party mechanic is a Sports mode, a mildly fun feature that splits competitors into two teams where the objective is to smack or throw a ball through goals placed around on the stage. Soccer balls only reacts to attacks, the Plankton-themed ball is heavier and moves slower, and a football with a hat on it – a cute nod to the lead of Hey Arnold – interacts exclusively with grab and throw moves. Sports mode isn’t a very exciting diversion from the regular fisticuff fare, but it's there if you want to try something different.
You can take fights online in 1v1 competitive or quick match scenarios, and 12-player lobbies where players can break out into individual 2-4 player matches. The seat for spectating fights is a fantastic addition for tournament organizers or those who want to watch friends scuffle for a while. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl features rollback netcode, which is designed to smooth out animation during online play. However, this implementation is pretty rough. Half of my one-on-one matches had plenty of freezes and stutters outside of the normal range of rollback frames. Sometimes rematches against someone with a great connection resulted in a jittery, slowed-down mess; this happened multiple times when playing online. Four-player brawls brought out the worst of online play, with even more freezing and connection issues. I managed to have quite a few good matches with little-to-no problems, but your mileage may vary online.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a complicated package. Its core combat and attention to character detail are great, but everything around that is bone dry. Playing as these lovable Nicktoons may interest some, but I didn’t want to stick around for the no-frills matches. Hopefully, Ludosity and Fair Play Labs can keep adding to Nick Brawl post-launch and flesh out what's missing while getting Nickelodeon’s full backing to make it a better product for the fans.