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"Super Smash Bros. Brawl" is a love letter from Nintendo to itself, with everything from levels to characters to music celebrating the company's vast gaming library.

It's a huge nostalgia trip, and fans of Nintendo will get the most out of it — "Brawl" would look like a nonsensical, chaotic mess to someone unfamiliar with the company's games and characters.

Like previous "Smash" games, it's best played as a party game with a group of friends, but the single-player mode has been given a formidable boost compared with "Super Smash Bros. Melee" on the GameCube. Anyone can pick up a controller and have a lot of fun, even if he or she isn't a huge fan.

The game play is simple. Up to four combatants throw down on arenas drawn from Nintendo universes, from "Metroid" to "Super Mario" to "F-Zero." There's one battleground based on the "WarioWare" games and another modeled after the Nintendo DS' built-in Pictochat feature.

Once fighting, the goal is to knock other players out of the arena. As a fighter takes damage, he, she or it becomes easier to knock away, but a skilled player can stay in the ring even at a high damage percentage. Each character has normal attacks, more powerful smash attacks, defensive maneuvers and four special moves.

There's also a new move type, the Final Smash, an extremely powerful attack granted by a glowing icon that floats onto the screen now and then, usually prompting a mad dash to claim it first.

The characters range from returning mascots like Mario and Link to lesser-known folks. Gamers who were around when the Nintendo Entertainment System was first released will recognize R.O.B. in the fighter lineup. There are even a couple of guest characters.

The initial roster of fighters is large, and additional characters can be unlocked; some are old favorites, some are new. Most returning characters have been tweaked a little, and others have been tweaked a lot. Some fighters are very similar to each other, but with more than 30 fighters, there should be enough variety for anyone.

The series' standard single-player mode has the player select a character and fight through a series of semi-random battles. But new to this installment is the adventure mode, called Subspace Emissary.

Subspace Emissary features a map with a number of stages that are unlocked as the plot progresses and that can be replayed at any time.

"Brawl" marks the first time the series has offered online play. Gamers can take part in four-person pickup battles, view and bet coins on other people's matches or set up a match with people they know, which requires an exchange of Friend Codes. The Friend Code system is still an annoying aspect of Wii online play, and it can be tough to get a pickup match going, but when the brawl is on, such problems are forgotten. If only there were a built-in voice chat feature.

Finally, there are four control methods: the Wii Remote plus Nunchuk, the Remote alone, the Classic Controller add-on or a GameCube controller (or the wireless Wavebird). Avoid using the solo Remote if possible — it's awkward.

— Justin Hoeger, The Sacramento Bee
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