The idea of a Super Smash Bros.-style platform fighter that brings together some of Nickelodeon’s most beloved cartoons across multiple generations is one that just makes so much sense, and it’s kind of a wonder that it’s taken this long for something like Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl to come around. But despite Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s clear inspirations, developer Ludosity has made a notable effort to differentiate its mechanics and the overall flow of combat from Smash Bros., resulting in a fighter that is way faster than any Smash game has been since Melee in 2001. This puts All-Star Brawl in a great spot as an alternative to Smash Ultimate that’s available on practically every platform – but its subpar use of its wealth of source material, along with a general lack of polish and a few irksome mechanics, does mean it’s not a recommendation that comes without a few significant caveats.
The first thing that comes across while playing All-Star Brawl is that this feels like a game made on a pretty tight budget. The character models and backgrounds lack detail, the original themes made for each level are extremely generic, there’s just one barebones single-player arcade mode, a barely worth mentioning Sports Mode, and zero meaningful unlockables or progression rewards outside of some images and songs in a jukebox. But perhaps the most damning thing of all is that, despite being a game all about celebrating Nickelodeon’s finest, there’s very little Nickelodeon charm that comes through. There’s no voice acting, no remixes of any themes from the many cartoons featured, and while the stages are littered with fun Easter eggs for fans to discover, it all just feels kind of soulless.
It’s an impressive come-from-behind victory, then, that All-Star Brawl is still really fun to actually play. It follows the same basic formula as other platform fighters by removing life bars in favor of damage percentages: the more you get hit, the higher your damage percentage and the further you’ll go flying from every hit until you’re KO’d by an opponent knocking you off the stage (unless you turn on critical KOs). This means two key things: you can potentially be killed after taking hardly any damage, or you could survive even after taking an enormous amount of punishment. It’s a really exciting style of action where it feels like you always have a chance to make a miraculous comeback even if you’re down multiple lives.
This style of fighting game really comes alive in a party environment with up to three friends, and All-Star Brawl is no different. It’s super easy to pick up, be given minimal instructions on how to play, and have a good time regardless of your experience level. That said, the developers are clearly huge Smash fans themselves, because they’ve designed the deeper mechanics behind that approachable coat of paint with more hardcore fans of those games in mind.
Where All-Star Brawl sets itself apart is primarily in its movement. It’s exceptionally fast-paced, facilitated by high run speeds, speedy recoveries on most attacks, and its unique air dash that functions as a recovery option, a wavedash, and a fastfall all in one. The air dash allows you to dash left and right for a quick, substantial boost of horizontal momentum that you can still perform actions out of, or in any direction downwards for an even larger burst of speed. The downside is that it’s specifically an air dash, and not an air dodge, which means that there’s no invulnerability frames during it.
It’s a trade-off worth making though. I love the extra mobility given to every character thanks to this unique take on the traditional air-dodge mechanic. It allows for unpredictable approaches, greatly aids characters who would otherwise struggle immensely with their recoveries when trying to get back to the stage after a big hit, and works as a great tool to play mind games with your opponent and keep them guessing at what you might do.
There are also a number of smaller mechanical differences that help further establish All-Star Brawl’s identity in the platform fighter genre. There’s no rolling or spot dodging, so the only way to avoid taking damage when you are hit is by blocking or negating the attack with one of your own; instead of Smash attacks, there are strong attacks which can be performed in the air; and every character has a throw that allows them to pick their opponent up and move them around before tossing them (unless the opponent is able to mash out of their grasp).
While I appreciate most of the ways All-Star Brawl tries to be different, I’m not a fan of all of its mechanics. I especially don’t like that all characters have basically the same throw, nor do I really like the throw mechanics in general. It looks janky, it’s too easy to mash out of at low percentages, and feels like a cheap KO at high percentages. But worst of all, not giving unique animations for each character on their throws feels like a missed opportunity to add some more personality to each movelist, while also further diversifying their playstyles. .
There’s No Toon Like a Nicktoon
They may not look quite good enough to really flood my brain with nostalgia chemicals, but All-Star Brawl’s cast of characters is largely great from a design point of view. It’s a healthy mix of some obvious “must haves” and interesting oddballs that might not immediately spring to mind when you think of iconic Nicktoons, but end up being pretty inspired choices – like Nigel Thornberry, whose eccentric moveset involves him mimicking attacks and poses of various animals to hilarious effect.
There are definitely some glaring omissions, like any characters from Rocko’s Modern Life, Angry Beavers, or the Fairly Oddparents just to name a few, but all-in-all, this is a fairly admirable starting roster of 20 characters that primarily covers a decent spread of Nicktoons from the ‘90s to the early 2000s. There are classics like Rugrats and Hey Arnold, megahits from the 2000s like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and then The Loud House as the sole representative of modern Nicktoons.
Each fighter plays just like you’d expect they would. My personal favorite, Avatar’s Aang, has weak overall power, but can chain his light airbending attacks together at pretty much any percentage and becomes an absolute combo machine. Reptar plays the role of the Bowser-like beast with slow attacks that can send you packing with just one or two strong attacks close to the edge. Meanwhile, Lucy Loud changes into either a vampire or ghost form whenever she connects with her bite attack, which alters the properties of some of her moves. I do wish that not every character had a spike move on their aerial light-down attack since – it’s such a powerful finisher that giving it to characters who are already super strong feels like overkill – and some characters have moves that are eyebrow-raisingly close to what’s found in Smash Bros. – but aside from those issues everybody on the roster feels quite distinct from one another.
What doesn’t feel distinct is when multiple people pick the same character. For whatever reason, there are no alternate colors or costumes for any of the characters. If you’re playing with four Reptars, the only thing that distinguishes you from your opponents is the small icon above each one, which can make it hard to figure who you are at an immediate glance, especially in larger stages.
Each character comes with their own stage, a total of 20 in all, which is a pretty decent number of arenas… except when you consider that the number of stages you’ll actually want to visit is probably much lower than that. Whether you’re playing competitively or casually, most of the gimmicky stages just aren’t fun to fight on. You’re often going up against the stage more than you’re going up against your friends as you try to keep up with rapidly moving tiny platforms in the Space Madness stage or avoid roller coaster cars on the two solid bits of land in the Glove World stage, just to name two frustrating examples. These types of levels aren’t anything new, but they don’t have the kind of visual spectacle that makes that sort of sacrifice worth it.
The handful of stages that are worth playing on are the ones you’ve probably come to expect. Relatively flat and straightforward stand-ins for Smash’s iconic Final Destination, Battlefield, Smashville, and so on. That said, while most of the gimmick levels are a nightmare, there are a few that can be pretty fun given the right circumstances. The Showdown at Teeter Totter Gulch level from Rugrats is a personal favorite of mine because its teetering central platform isn’t too intrusive and provides a nice change of pace. And even though it’s a little too hard to get kills on because of its enormous size, the Powdered Toast Trouble level is packed with fun interactables and Ren and Stimpy Easter eggs.
Perhaps the secret weapon of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is its online play with rollback netcode, which in my experience has been relatively smooth for the most part. There certainly have been bad matches, especially on certain levels like the Rooftop Rumble stage, which I’ve had numerous issues with while playing online, but the vast majority of my online matches have been without any issues. It’s definitely no Guilty Gear Strive in terms of the quality of its netcode, but at the very least, it’s good enough where I can comfortably say that this is the one area where All-Star Brawl has a clear advantage over Smash Ultimate.