After some rumors in late 2011, on April 27th, 2012, Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale was revealed. And for the past four or five years, everyone on earth has said the same thing about it; “oh, that Sony Smash Bros. ripoff”. It’s easy enough to see why – taking an assortment of characters, weapons and locations from this brand’s entire history and throwing them into an accessible fighting game supporting 4-player free for all matches. That doesn’t mean the game had to be good or bad; in fact, I for one was really pleased with the announcement and followed the game’s development rather closely. Keep in mind this was a while before Super Smash Bos. for Wii U and 3DS, so really I was thinking about just how rarely any decent games in this sort of party-brawler style were made. Just about every official Smash game takes the better part of a decade to see release, and any time someone tries to copycat it, the game usually ends up being low-budget nonsense not worthy of anyone’s attention (because who WOULDN’T want to play Cartoon Network: Punch Time Explosion or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Smash Up?).
But this game was interesting for a few reasons; first off, the Playstation brand has been around since the 90s and is still relevant today. It rarely dabbles in any kind of crossovers, so seeing these kind of characters together sounded really novel and interesting. The game was specifically trying to target the competitive fighting game community in a few ways – people like Marvel vs. Capcom 2 legend Daniel “Clockw0rk” Maniago and Capcom’s former community manager Seth Killian were involved directly in the game’s development, and the team itself (Supertbot Entertainment) was assembled specifically to create this game. It actually sounds like this game would’ve had a tough time failing… So what went wrong? Well, it’s an interesting story.
I’d like to emphasize that I think this game’s problems lie almost 100% in the gameplay itself. I know most people aren’t crazy about the 24 character roster thanks to some glaring omissions, but looking at it from Superbot’s perspective they did the best they could – frankly, a brand new, unproven, American studio has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the rights to use characters like Crash Bandicoot, Solid Snake or Cloud Strife. That aside, every important first-party character from 15+ years of Playstation history was there, on top of some really cool retro characters like Sir Daniel, Spike and PaRappa. The characters’ animations and movesets clearly had a lot of research put into them, and it shows when the game’s in motion. It really looks like just about the entire cast was ripped directly from their games.
The gameplay itself is really interesting in concept! Hitting your opponent fills your meter, which you can use for super attacks, which are the only way to kill your opponents. Your meter builds up to 3 levels, and each level gives you a different attack . You can use a level 1 super which is high risk and not guaranteed to get any kills, but is cheap in terms of meter so you get multiple chances to use it throughout the course of the match. You can also save that meter up for a level 2 that will give you a good shot at killing all 3 opponents, but can be dodged, so you have to be clever and precise with it. Or you could devote the entire match to a level 3, which has the potential to kill all enemies at least once, and even more than that if you’re smart. You can get rid of a chunk of your opponent’s meter by throwing them, the amount they lose being proportionate to how much meter they have. It sounds like a really interesting system that gives the player a lot of options when it comes to how they want to play as their character. Now’s where we get to the bad part.
These super moves, being the only way to score kills, are naturally the biggest part of the gameplay, so you’d hope that the developers would have put as much time as possible into fine-tuning and balancing them as possible. The way I described these moves earlier sounds really simple on paper, but across a cast of 20+ characters, it can understandably be a little bit hard to make each of them unique. Superbot’s solution? Well, to forego the balance entirely and do whatever they thought would be cool.
Sly Cooper’s level 1 summons his friend Murray to slide forward and kill anyone he touches. Even if Sly is attacked during this animation Murray stays out, and the move can be comboed into after a counter or Sly’s stun move. Sir Daniel’s level 1 is a puny lightning bolt that comes out at the most awkward angle possible. PaRappa’s level 2 puts him on a skateboard that lets him quickly go around the stage and usually kill everyone once. Meanwhile, Sweet Tooth’s level 2 is a painfully slow moving guided missile that bursts into the smallest explosion ever. Characters like Kratos and Sweet Tooth get transformation level 3s that turn them into killing machines and last upward of 10 seconds, allowing them to kill everyone at least twice if they use them correctly. Other characters like Spike and Heihachi get “screen clear” level 3s, which essentially play brief cutscenes and wipe out everyone on screen. It sounds nice to get three guaranteed kills without any effort, but when the other side of the cast is coming away with 6+ kills and still has time to earn more meter?
A character that definitely pulled the short straw would be Bioshock’s Big Daddy. His Level 1 is a heavily telegraphed and slow moving attack from a Little Sister with small range, his level 2 transforms him into a state where all of his attacks can kill, and his level 3 floods the stage and allows him to kill everyone twice if he makes the most of his time. His level 2 and level 3 are very expensive and take a good chunk of the match to save up for. Being that the default mode is timed, that means if you don’t get your level 3 or you don’t do well with your level 2, you’ve not really got a chance to win the match. Big Daddy is a heavy, slow moving character, but he doesn’t seem to build meter any faster than the rest of the cast. Why? Well… I don’t know why! I think they MEANT for him to, but since his combo ability is limited compared to a lot of the other characters he just doesn’t. He gets his supers slowly and they aren’t all that effective. On smaller stages his level 2 can be good, but it takes too long to be saved up for and his mobility isn’t improved to a noticeable extent so it’s easy to dodge, and he’s completely vulnerable during this time so any ballsy character with a level 1 stocked up can usually just immediately kill him out of it, making Big Daddy waste the meter he’s been saving up for the entire time. His level 3 is good but it takes way too long to save up for and getting it in the 3 minutes of a timed match is usually either impractical or hardly even worth it when the opponents are racking up kills throughout the whole match.
Our friend Big Daddy is also a good example of why the other aspects of the combat fall flat. Looking at his attacks, he’s got hard hitting attacks that send people flying and spammable projectiles. That sounds like it would be effective enough… in Smash Bros. In this game, his projectiles are pathetically easy to dodge and get him a minuscule amount of meter, and sending people flying is often a bad thing since you usually want to be as close to your opponent as you can be so you can continue hitting them and earning more meter. In this sense, it seems like Big Daddy was designed as a Smash character moreso than an All-Stars character. Then there’s Metal Gear’s Raiden, who has great mobility and speed and a bunch of flashy air combos, which are reminiscent of those you’d see in something like Marvel vs. Capcom. What happens when the two of them fight? One of them is slow, clunky, and has tools that are useless in this game and the other zips all around the screen with great range and long combos.
Raiden’s most basic combos still get him the meter he needs in a matter of seconds most of the time. His level 1 is a breakdance spin that hits all around him and comes out quickly. He can “kill-confirm” into it with ease (more on that later) and it’s also a really good super to just throw out raw since it hits all around him and comes out so fast. You’ll see yourself often getting double, or sometimes triple kills if you’re smart about when you activate it. His level 2 turns his attacks into kills like Big Daddy’s except his freezes you on activation. This super also grants him two unique abilities; the ability to cut up an opponent to earn some meter back during the super itself, and the ability to freeze surrounding opponents… again. If the player is smart it’s ridiculously difficult to get away from him. His level 3 also allows all his attacks to kill but for a much longer duration and with some pointless cardboard box gimmick thrown in, if it’s used properly he’ll get 6 kills easily. Big Daddy has the potential to get those kills with his Level 3 as well, but it’s much less consistent thanks to a slow swimming mechanic and he takes a much longer time to build the meter for it.
Raiden has combos that get him meter quickly, strong mobility, and 3 excellent supers. Big Daddy is slow and punishable but actually gains meter more slowly thanks to his poor combo game, with mediocre supers not worth their cost.
Then you’ve got characters like Sir Dan and Jak who don’t seem to have any distinct playstyle and suck because of it. They’ve got slow attacks and short-range projectiles, so their gameplan is usually to bother the opponent from mid-range. This is normal in other competitive fighters but in a Smash styled game with easy rolling and dodging it’s not very effective. Their physical options are pretty limited, with decent range but not many combo options, meaning they usually get a lucky hit and then retreat back into their mid-range projectile game. Unfortunately, this means their meter gain is a lot slower than combo characters like Kratos or Raiden. On top of this they both have extremely situational level 1s, two of the worst level 2s in the game, and while Jak’s Light Jak transformation is good, Sir Dan’s level 3 is so easy to dodge on larger stages it’s a joke (not to say anything of the glitch that grants you complete invulnerability to the move through its whole duration).
There’s another character with no distinct playstyle, that being Sly Cooper. He can’t dodge or block. It sounds like a pretty crippling weakness, but to make up for this, they gave him what might be the most ridiculous set of tools I’ve ever seen in a fighting game. He has a bomb that messes with your controls for a few seconds, a really fast counter that will literally teleport him to whoever hit him, stun them, and follow up with a meter drain attack, a barrel of dynamite that he can move around in that reflects projectiles (that he can use to infinitely stall in the air via a glitch), a multi directional teleport that goes fast enough to dodge just about anything and allow him to attack right afterward, a superjump, a move that spins around and moves forward that breaks guard if charged for a second, a clock that stuns you in place, and a mine. In what game would a character like this be considered balanced? His level 1 has great range and comes out quickly, and his level 3 is a first person shooter mini-game that almost always takes everyone out twice, so he’s never without options when it comes to scoring kills. How is this character okay? He doesn’t have many combos so he isn’t constantly getting 100 meter at a time like Raiden or Kratos, but he has fast attacks that are hard to punish like his electric roll and his cane uppercut that get him 30-40 meter at a time and get him whatever amount of meter he’s saving for VERY fast.
So yes, the main problem with the balance is that characters don’t even seem like they were designed for the same game. They all feel very unique and loyal to their home game, which is a huge plus, but this results in the balance being embarrassingly bad. One of the most crippling features to this game’s balance would be the “kill-confirms”, or moves that allow you to instantly combo into a super and get a kill, mostly with your level 1. This defeats the entire purpose of the level 1 being high-risk and gives these characters no excuse to use any other super. You have certain level 1s that you can only get by being tricky and trying to read the opponent like PaRappa, Sir Dan, Jak, and Spike, but then another huge chunk of the cast can land their level 1s with minimal effort by mashing whatever move they can combo into their level 1 with afterward. Raiden just has to mash forward square, Fat Princess and Sweet Tooth have to throw out attacks from the air until they get a lucky hit, Zeus has to spam his charged teleport attack, Evil Cole has a punch that can carry a charge until he dies (super armor included, of course), Ratchet just has to grab you and go to a corner, Cole just has to freeze you up-close, it’s ridiculous!
It’s not easy to balance a game where some of the cast can get a guaranteed follow-up into an inexpensive kill and some of them can’t. You might think “well, the characters without any kill-confirms should have the best level 2s and level 3s”, but most of the time that isn’t the case. Sir Daniel’s options outside of his puny level 1 include a barely functional barrage of homing energy balls and the worst transformation super in the game. Jak’s awkward level 1 is complimented by a slightly less awkward level 2 and an admittedly really good transformation level 3. Spike’s level 1 and 2 are both inconsistent and weak and his level 3 is just a screen clear.
The premise of this game sounds interesting if you assume that every character has a reason to use all three of their supers, leading to unpredictable and exciting fights. Look at Raiden – a ridiculous level 1, one of the best level 2s in the game, and a great level 3 to boot. But a character like Evil Cole will never go for his underwhelming level 2 or 3 when he’s guaranteed a kill just by landing his braindead charge punch. Sly Cooper has no reason to use his awkward jetpack level 2 when he can get quick and unpredictable kills with his level 1 or rack up 6 at a time with his level 3. Fat Princess has no reason to save up for her inconsistent level 3 when she can get guaranteed kills with her level 1. It’s not the players’ fault for not using these moves, it’s Superbot’s for encouraging the player to only use these characters in a single way. If Fat Princess has an iffy level 2 and a garbage level 3 but has a level 1 loaded with easy confirms, what is she expected to do? If Evil Cole’s level 2 and 3 are both below average but you can easily land his level 1 off of his charge punch, why wouldn’t he just use that super every time? And of course there’s a handful of characters like the mighty Sir Daniel, who barely seem to have a use for any of their three supers.
Another problem is the stage design! The element of one game mashing up with another is really clever and results in some cool stuff but after the first time you’ll stop being impressed by it and become more annoyed. There are some really good and fun stages like Dojo, San Francisco, Stowaways, and Hades, but the majority of them suffer from generally obnoxious design. Some recurring elements are stages being WAY too big for their own good or having platforms placed in really awkward spots that make fighting really difficult. My personal least favorite would be Jak and Daxter’s Sandover Village due to the strange terrain, the obnoxious fish constantly patrolling the water, the awkward stack of platforms on the right side, and the annoying raining golf ball hazard. An honorable mention goes to Killzone’s Invasion due to a really strange and awkward opening segment and a layout that allows you to run away for the entire second half of the match relatively easily.
All this said I can enjoy the game offline with friends where it’s easier to laugh at the flaws and enjoy the chaotic, party-like nature of the game, but online or (God forbid) in a competitive environment the game sometimes reaches levels of unplayable. Even in a casual offline setting, if one person knows what they’re doing (combos that quickly fill their meter, kill-confirm attacks) then they’ll quickly ruin the fun for anyone else. This is a game that was full of good ideas, and it’s clear a lot of time was put into researching and designing these characters and their movesets. The execution, however, resulted in one of the least balanced fighters I’ve ever seen, with characters that literally do not stand a chance against each other. Saying the designers didn’t have a cohesive vision for the game is putting it lightly.
Disclaimer: This piece was written largely from memory, and certain examples of glitches, exploits, or broken moves may no longer be accurate due to a number of balance patches.