I'm sitting at my computer right now while, in the other room, my wife and her sister kick each other's virtual butts across the screen in Smash Bros. Brawl. This is something of an oddity. Morgan (my wife) is a casual gamer, but often shies away from the more hardcore games. Ruth (her sister) is a gamer, but is usually found playing RPGs, strategy games, and other less action-oriented games on her DS. Even I'm not the hard-fun type of gamer who would get into Brawl. A couple of years ago I probably wouldn't have even bought the game. How did this come to pass?
I think it has something to do with the Wii being a social gaming machine. I bought the game because I like having things to play when other people are around. It's the same reason I bought Mario Party 8. I like being able to throw people into games and let them have some fun. I figured that I know enough gaming people that there would be challenge for the hardcore among us and crazy-cute fun for the casual. I'd probably have the tar beaten out of me, but we'd all get a good laugh. I've so far not had the chance to have a 4-person brawl, and yet I've played a lot with the game, and this surprises me.
I think that we've enjoyed it as much as we have because Nintendo did some very subtle things to make playing enjoyable for everyone.
Beefy Single Player
Making the Subspace Emissary a primary and detailed part of the game is the core to giving Smash Bros. a wider appeal. Firstly, it gives more solitary players like myself something to do. This is good because a game made solely of the Classic Mode, Brawls and Events would have been shelved 24 hours after purchase out of sheer boredom. I can handle a few hours of tedium, and I will probably work my way through Classic, All-Star, Boss, Stadium, and Event modes with most or all of the characters eventually. I'll do this out of a desire to unlock more of the statues and strive for 100% completion (which I'll probably never achieve). I will not do this because it interests or stimulates me. It will take months, and I'll probably lose interest. If I had to do that kind of thing to unlock the extra characters, it would have broken the game for me. Playing through the Subspace Emissary was a treat, and it unlocked all but a handful of characters and get me interested in playing more of the game. It acts the hook.
Secondly, it introduces just about all of the characters. Brawl has a wide range of characters, may of them obscure. Now the Subspace Emissary doesn't explain back story or origin, but it does tell us who they are, and allow us to play a little bit with each. We get a better feel for them without the stress of the brawl-style 2-minute combat. This leads into the third thing, which is that playing the single player game allows you to get better at playing. I improved by leaps and bounds. I'm not a master player (and will never be), but I don't just fall off the level any time I play anymore, either. Lastly, the Subspace Emissary gives you a low risk way to introduce other players to the game style and controls with a lot less of the frustration.
My first experience with Brawl was the last version, on the Gamecube. I hated it because I didn't know what I was doing, how to do any of it, and I usually spent most of my turns playing dead or dying. This is because I was introduced to it in a crowd situation against people who already knew how to play. Very conducive to frustration, and not much else. But by providing a mode where one or two players can explore how the game works in a lower-stress, but still engaging way (practice and training modes are bad at this), you can hook people into playing. That's what I did. I showed them the basic controls, and then let them play in the game.
They've moved on to brawling (usually each other, and some moderate CPUs). They don't really care if they win or lose (I don't either). I can join in, and I can even handicap myself a little by playing with a more difficult control scheme (WiiMote Only - gah!). It is pure fun. And because the game has enough cute and funny elements, it remains amusing over time. Morgan and Ruth played a whole session with Ruth trying each character and Morgan playing Kirby to see what Kirby looked like transformed into each character. Verdict: Kirby is cute.
The best thing is that they are both getting better at playing the game. I've watched over the past few days as they've battled, and even as I've joined in. They are having less difficulty with the moves, and with getting the characters to do what they want. For a game that initially lends itself to players with a desire to master controls, challenge themselves to complete difficult tasks, and generally throw themselves against game shaped walls, Smash Bros. has enough casual hooks to get a lot more people playing.
I think that it also helps that you can unlock a lot of the core game stuff (characters and levels) just by playing through. You don't have to be a master of anything.