Diddy Kong, the pint-sized primate who lives to cavort through jungles with his uncle, Donkey Kong, is alone on a black screen. I can make him jump, kick and shield himself with a glowing red orb, but Diddy remains stuck in a blackout.
Twenty minutes later, he is still there, separated from all his pals in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, one of the year's most anticipated titles for Nintendo's little white console, the Wii. The game was released in North America on Sunday and, like its two predecessors in the Super Smash Bros. series, it is Nintendo's love letter to itself. Dozens of the company's stock characters have been collected and thrown into a Teen-rated fighting game. They gaily bash and smite each other in frantic matches that use scenes from Nintendo's extensive back catalogue for background art.
Like so many of the Japan-based firm's crazy creations, Smash Bros. takes a topic endemic to the schoolyard - "Who would win in a fight: Mario, Star Fox or Pikachu the Pokemon?" - and turns it into a franchise that sells millions of copies and garners perfect scores from many reviewers and diehard fans.
It's that reputation and some fond memories of playing the 1999 original on the Nintendo 64 that kept poor little Diddy in the dark for so long. For those 20 minutes, I gave the game's co-creator and current director, Masahiro Sakurai, the benefit of the doubt. I have played games where the lights go out and some combination of buttons or jumps leads you out of the darkness. There was a chance, seeing how thoroughly Brawl mines Nintendo's past, that this was simply a tricky allusion that could be overcome with some effort and research, like any given stanza in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
To make a very long story short, it wasn't. It turns out that Super Smash Bros. Brawl is too much game for some Wiis. It has online play, a stage creator so you can craft your own battlegrounds, short demos of classic games and so much more that it has been printed on a dual-layer disc. Nintendo's support site says that "a small percentage of Wii consoles may have trouble consistently reading data off this large-capacity disc if there is some contamination on the lens of the disc drive." The only way to clean the lens, Nintendo says, is to send the console back to the company. There is an online form to fill out and then you courier the Wii away. This "cleaning" will take about a week and then your Wii will be returned, at no charge.
Now, I would bet all the coins in the Mushroom Kingdom that cleaning is not the only thing that will happen, unless Nintendo is planning on running a never-ending Wii laundromat, but that is the official line.
The Wii being a popular device, it wasn't hard to track down another one, and back into Brawl I went. This time, out of concern for Diddy Kong, I avoided the "adventure" mode, which is new to the series and tells a story called "The Subspace Emissary." It wouldn't be missed - the dialogue-free animation between the missions is fun to watch, but the side-scrolling antics are repetitive in the extreme - and let's face it, most of the people lining up to buy this thing on Sunday were there for the brawling.
As long as those players are fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, the best-selling game on Nintendo's last console, the GameCube, the central action in Brawl will not disappoint. The idea remains the same: Stay on the screen as others try to bump you off, with individual moves and abilities for each of the 37 playable characters, including Sonic the Hedgehog from former Nintendo rival Sega's stable and Solid Snake, the star of the Metal Gear Solid series.
Unlike most fighting games, there aren't long combinations of buttons to press, using perfect timing to pull off outrageous moves. Instead, Brawl uses simplified controls and a long list of power-ups strewn about its well-designed stages to keep the action flowing. Its brilliance is in how the developers have balanced the various characters, allowing fans of the small Pikmin or the pink-loving Princess Peach to express themselves through their playing style and hold their own against the tough guys.
That balance also makes Brawl a game that works best when played by groups rather than singles. But, unlike many of the titles for the Wii, this is not a sure-fire entertainer for a wide range of players, especially not if the Wii is their first game system: Sakurai and his team decided not to use any of the Wii controller's motion-sensing abilities. You can't shake or rattle or point your way to victory, a bizarre omission when you consider how hard Nintendo has worked to draw in new players on the back of those unique control schemes.
In fact, aside from the amount of content included on the disc and changes to the characters and rules aimed at the established playing community, online play is the only thing that truly separates Brawl from being a title the GameCube could handle.
And so far, a lot of players, this one included, can't get the multiplayer portion of Super Smash Bros. Brawl to work at all. We're in the early going - four days of playing as of this writing - but not one of my roughly 50 attempts to get into an online session has been successful. I can watch replays of other people playing using the game's "spectator" feature, but that is neither super nor smashing.
Brawl and Wii Fit, Nintendo's experiment in "exergaming" that is due here in May, are supposed to keep the Wii in the spotlight this year, as they have in Japan, but a few more weeks like this one and that light will need to be sent away for a good cleaning.