Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl 2 Review

It’s nothing short of a miracle that a sequel as well-made as Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl 2 managed to arrive just two years after the original. Developer Fair Play Labs’ second attempt at a Nickelodeon-based platform fighter is a massive leap forward from the first, with a more polished feel, more vibrant characters, and the coup de grace: its envelope-pushing Slime meter. It took me a minute to get comfortable with its slightly buffered movement and wildly expressive Slime mechanics, but after a handful of late nights with friends – both online and off – I couldn’t put it down. While comparisons to the Super Smash Bros. series can cast an obnoxious shadow over this genre, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the only other platform-fighting sequel to improve, rework, and refine what came before it to this impressive degree was the legendary Super Smash Bros. Melee itself.

I’ve spent literally thousands of hours in platform fighters like Super Smash Bros. and Rivals of Aether, and classic Nickelodeon cartoons like Spongebob SquarePants and Avatar: The Last Airbender are some of my all-time favorite shows – so I was very disappointed by how much I didn’t like the original All-Star Brawl in 2021. It had the usual platform-fighting structure of damaging up your opponent before knocking them off the screen for a kill, but the animations and sound design were flat, it didn’t seem particularly polished, and most of the characters felt the same. Deeper than that, I found it mechanically unrewarding, with poorly tuned movement that prioritized hollow speed over precision. Instead of weaving a combo together based on my opponent’s damage, the attacks at my disposal, and my position on the stage, I felt more incentivized to string together the same busted attack over and over again until I could spike my poor opponent into the blast zone.

It’s incredible, then, that All-Star Brawl 2 takes nearly every frustration and complaint I had with the first one and inverts them. Combos are deeper and more fleshed out thanks to multiple revamped mechanics, hits feel more substantial and satisfying thanks to beefed up sound design and improved animations, and movement strikes a much better balance between speed and precision. And perhaps most exciting of all, its excellent cast of characters shine thanks to their updated, more cartoony models and well-acted voice lines delivered by many of their original voice actors.

Every animation cleverly references something from the cartoons.

Fanservice and nostalgia are often wielded with all the tact of an ill-fated Krabby Patty secret formula attempt – using them as seasoning, rather than the main ingredient, is almost always important. Not so in a crossover fighting game, however. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom and Super Smash Bros. rightly revel in nostalgia, and All-Star Brawl 2 similarly dives straight into the deep end. Every animation and attack for every single character cleverly references something from the original cartoon shows. For example, SpongeBob’s neutral weak aerial is a pose he does during the radical Goofy Goober Rock scene from The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Ren and Stimpy throw out the iconic Log from their show’s parody commercials, and Aang rides around on his signature ball of air.

But these referential movesets aren’t just hollow, with most characters having different gameplans, specialized meters, and other bespoke mechanics that add a fun, necessary level of diversity. SpongeBob, All-Star Brawl 2’s all-around character, is pretty good at everything, but isn’t especially strong at one particular thing more than any other fighter, and he’s a bit floatier in his movement. Compare that to the devastating damage and heavy-hitting combos of Reptar and the difference is clear, with momentum-based movement that feels like controlling a hulking dinosaur should – but that raw power means you won’t have a prayer when you’re trying to get back on the stage. Meanwhile, Garfield has a decent combo game, but doesn’t have many reliable options for killing until his lasagna meter (yes, you read that correctly) gets filled up and he becomes faster and stronger.

This is the kind of cast that puts a fighting game into the next stratosphere.

It’s hard for me to talk about the different ways characters function without going on an overexcited rant about each and every one because they all offer something unique and interesting. Where it took me forever to pick a main in the previous game because I just couldn’t find a character that stood out to me, it’s taken me a long time to find one in All-Star Brawl 2 because I like so much of its cast. After putting every fighter through the motions in the single-player Arcade mode, I found myself excited to explore a whopping half of its 26 characters further. I can’t remember the last time I was this torn and this excited to spend time playing as such a wide swath of different characters in a platform fighter.

This is the kind of diverse cast that puts a fighting game into the next stratosphere. Zim is a puppet character now and has the ability to control Gir with greater accuracy, the Angry Beavers work less like Ice Climbers and more like a team from a tag-based 2D fighter with moves that may remind you of some well-known assists from games like Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Plankton is a weird mix between a grappler and a zoner with ranged grabs and wonky projectiles.

That cast hasn’t come without sacrifices, though. Not only have a handful of favorites from the previous game been cut, including CatDog and Toph Beifong, but it’s a little weird to see main characters from their own series not show up. Grandma Gertie and Gerald from Hey, Arnold! are playable, for example, but Arnold himself is nowhere to be seen. The same goes for Reptar standing in for any of the Rugrats. While I can understand why that might frustrate some, these choosier omissions leave room for All-Star Brawl 2’s cast to have more diverse playstyles. Reptar is one of the game’s few heavy characters, and both Grandma Gertie and Gerald’s movesets bring a lot of distinct, cool flair to the cast in a way that feels worth the trade-off.

While new characters may get the spotlight, even the returning cast brings something fresh and new to the brawl. Fair Play Labs has fully rebuilt every aspect of this sequel, so no character is the same as they were in the previous game. This huge rework may sound like overkill, but it’s a necessary step in making every fighter work with the new Slime mechanic, All-Star Brawl 2’s greatest innovation.

The Slime mechanic is versatile, easy to manage, and well-balanced.

I cannot overstate how much style and finesse Slime adds to this game. With just a single button press and a sufficiently filled Slime meter, you can add extra power to any of your special moves, boost your air dodge, cancel out of freefall after using your recovery, boost that recovery further, cancel out of any move’s ending animations, and even escape enemy combos. Versatile, easy to manage, and well-balanced, Slime is an effective tool no matter what character you’re playing or how good you are at All-Star Brawl 2.

Slime also grants characters the ability to do a beefy ultimate attack, complete with goofy mini-cutscenes like what you might expect from a Final Smash. Cool as they are, these cutscenes do sometimes pierce the veil of All-Star Brawl 2’s otherwise strong art style. Maybe it’s the PC I’m playing on, but models and animations seem to take a dip in quality during some of these Slime attacks compared to normal gameplay. It’s not present across the board, but Aang’s super, for example, brings his model close enough to cover a good chunk of the screen. At that scale, it has a pixelated, grainy look that comes off especially rough compared to when he’s airbending across the stage. It looks like the models used for fighting are the same ones that appear in these cutscenes, but some of them don’t seem like they were designed to be seen that up-close and personal.

Slime’s wide range of uses may sound overwhelming, but this mechanic blends naturally into the ebb and flow of All-Star Brawl 2’s combat, and adds an ocean of depth to the other ways it already improved combat in doing so. Mapped to one specific button, Slime takes the mechanical complexity granted by special meters that you might find in Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, and combines them with the approachability of Super Smash Bros. Heck, Slime cancels add in a little bit of the nuance that more complicated cancels bring to more traditional fighting games, but you can do them by pressing just one button. The same goes for Ex specials in a game like Street Fighter, but again, with the simpler input system found in platform fighters.

This addition and its implementation are ingenious, not only as a means of adding a distinct mechanic not found in other platform fighters, but also as a way of doing so without alienating the party game ethos at the beating heart of this genre. I can confidently hand a controller to my roommate — whose last-played video game was Skyrim — and tell him that he can use Slime to beef up his special attacks confident that he’ll be able to pull it off. It slots so naturally into not just All-Star Brawl 2, but the genre as a whole, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see imitators crop up in the next few years.

Mastering Slime is a gripping push-pull I’ve never seen in a game like this.

Lowering the barrier of entry on those more complex techniques while also adding depth makes the impossible suddenly feel possible. I’ve been playing platform fighters since before I could read, and from the moment I became good enough at them to scrape together a basic combo, I’ve always chased those tricky combo options that seem like they should work, but lie tantalizingly just out of reach. In that regard, Slime is my childhood wish fulfilled. The more time I put into All-Star Brawl 2, the more I find myself searching for the next rule I can use it to break. It’s a gripping push-and-pull that I’ve never experienced in a game like this.

Slime isn’t the only new addition, though. As if to further tout its illustrious voice cast, All-Star Brawl 2 also has a Campaign mode that features even more voice actors reprising their iconic roles. The story itself isn’t much more than connective tissue written so that our favorite Nicktoons can crossover with one another thanks to Clockwork from Danny Phantom, but it does make for some fun moments. Most of the interactions I’ve found feature characters from SpongeBob encountering each other in the course of a run through this roguelite mode, but there are other surprises too. I think my favorite is an interaction where Clockwork and SpongeBob talk about whether or not Patrick has a brain. It all has the same energy you’d expect from a crossover episode during a Saturday morning cartoon block.

This is where All-Star Brawl 2 takes the most direct cues from Smash Bros., incorporating themed battles and events based on the characters and stages available. Each run does a good job of rotating between different game modes to keep you on your toes and prevent even highly experienced platform-fighting fans from floating through its fights. You’ll encounter platforming challenges, fights with teams of minions, and bouts against mind-controlled members of the cast. After completing enough levels, passing through the occasional shop or upgrade area along the way (each with special guests like Hugh Neutron, Powdered Toast Man, or the cabbage vendor from Avatar), you’ll take on a boss fight against an iconic villain like Shredder or The Flying Dutchman.

The campaign is no Hades, but it is a servicable roguelite mode.

Like most of the other challenges found in its Campaign mode, boss fights aren’t anything too novel compared to what we’ve seen in similar games, but they’re still fun. And the upgrade systems and randomly generated nature of it help to keep things fresher than they would be otherwise. Unfortunately, this is no Hades or Slay The Spire. Running through a series of diverse challenges that put your mastery of different gameplay elements and mechanics to the test makes for a completely serviceable roguelite, but there isn’t much compelling beyond what’s already fun about All-Star Brawl 2 elsewhere. I never felt the gambling sensation that comes from balancing risk against reward in a good roguelike, where making a desperate play to get ahead might just cut a good run short. Nor did I ever get that nagging “one more time” feeling compelling me to pick away at the itchy scab left by a run gone wrong.

Other single-player options include an Arcade mode, which uses the same challenge level types found in the Campaign and mashes them up with specially-themed fights, like teaming up with SpongeBob to fight Plankton. It’s a big improvement on the original All-Star Brawl’s much shorter, less curated Arcade Mode – I just wish it had more going on to distinguish it from the very comparable Campaign mode.

Surprisingly, the Training mode is far and away the crown jewel of All-Star Brawl 2’s single-player options. This is probably the best training mode I’ve seen implemented in a platform fighter that doesn’t require hacking your Switch, with impressive options I’d usually expect to see in fan-made mods for training modes in other games. That includes hitbox visualization, knockback trajectories, an input display, and even frame data. It’s still years behind the training modes found in traditional fighting games that feature character-specific trials and tutorials, but it’s quite impressive for this genre.

Online play is another competitive feather in All-Star Brawl 2’s cap. I haven’t been able to find any ranked matches during the pre-release review period, but online lobbies with both friends and strangers work really well thanks to its buttery-smooth rollback netcode; a must for any contemporary fighting game. I had a few problems when playing online with friends who weren’t updated to the same game version as me, and while it boggles my mind that there weren’t fail-safes for that kind of thing, it was the only issue I ran into with online play. After patching and hopping back into the fray, the gap from Chicago to Los Angeles suddenly closed and it felt so smooth that my friend might as well have been on the couch next to me.

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