I’ve been having a bit of trouble articulating my feelings on Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. I don’t think it’s terrible, but I don’t think it’s good. It does a lot of fun, silly things to make characters who were clearly never meant to be combatants face off against one another, but it also does the bare minimum as it emulates better games like Super Smash Bros. and (yes) PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. While explaining what makes Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl unremarkable in a mechanical sense will likely only interest the most hardcore of Smash Bros. players, I’ve instead fixated on one aspect that sums up my feelings on the game as a whole: the menus.
Generally, video game menus are immaterial to a game’s actual quality (though great ones like Persona 5’s capture its style and substance more succinctly than any other isolated mechanic), but the blandness of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s menus embodies a lot of the game’s larger problems. The game’s menus are communicative, they’ll guide you where you need to go, but they’re also a near lifeless representation of fighters who were once brimming with character and personality in their original cartoons.
Getting to the fights between SpongeBob and Reptar requires moving from one static set of cards to another, while some generic light shines bright in the background. Each is adorned with a random character doing an action pose, but there’s never any dynamic shift from one screen to another. One set of cards replaces the last until you reach the character select screen, which highlights some of the oddities in Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s presentation. For a game that celebrates a cartoon network’s (note the lowercase there) storied history, it doesn’t do anything to actually communicate the origins of its 20 characters or the stages they fight on.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s character selection screen doesn’t present any of the characters’ names as you choose them. The announcer calls them out when you make a selection, but as someone in their late 20’s who isn’t familiar with the more recent fighters, there’s no way for me to identify them. Instead, their names are buried in an Extras menu that details their different move sets. Beyond that? You see names during pre-fight dialogue and on the results screen after fighting.
But it’s not just the lack of names in the character selection that feels off. Nickelodeon All-Stars Brawl doesn’t even mention the shows these characters come from. In comparison, Super Smash Bros. directly names properties and uses logos to differentiate characters from, say, Super Mario and Legend of Zelda. But if I hadn’t recognized Reptar from watching Rugrats for years as a kid, I wouldn’t know who my main is. The Extras section has concept art and renders of different roster members (and a reptilian creature in a crop top and skate pads I had literally have no means of identifying, but was later told is Mondo Gecko from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but they don’t have any label or description that states their history in Nickelodeon’s line-up. Each stage you fight on has a name, but nothing in the game tells you its origin. You’re just expected to know.
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The simplistic production value seeps into other aspects of the game as well, making its vision of these characters feel sterile. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s arcade mode has brief character lines played out in a text box, rather than featuring any voice work for its 20 characters. Instead of hearing SpongeBob’s iconic “I’m ready” as he prepares to punch actual child Helga Pataki, we get a text box that says it instead. Each character feels muted as the game offers bare minimum communication for what’s happening on screen. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl’s characters pantomime their personalities while the game does nothing to draw attention to why people care about them.
Production values like effective menus are how a game advocates for itself. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl has characters and stages that feel like they’re made by people who care about the history they’re presenting, while the rest of the game seems either disinterested in it, or just assumes you already care enough. Its menus are comparable to its actual fighting mechanics: They are serviceable in that they get the job done, but they’re insubstantial in the finer details that elevate to anything beyond functional.