Nintendo’s decision to put Smash Bros. on the 3DS struck me as an exceptionally weird move, even for a company that pressed its beloved characters into mortal combat in the first place. Smash is, after all, an over-the-top social game that’s almost as enjoyable to watch as it is to play. Where’s the fun in hunching over a pair of tiny screens, flicking away at that weird analog stub with aching hands? Well, I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. Super Smash Bros. has KO’d my assumptions and renewed my enthusiasm for the series.

The biggest surprise for me is how unsurprising it is once you start playing. You select your fighter from a roster of up to 49 characters (after unlocking several, of course), choose a stage, and then proceed to beat your opponents up and out of the ring. The cast is a mix of returning favorites and new additions, and overall it’s a well-balanced crew. Once again, Nintendo is stepping beyond its brands, welcoming Pac-Man and Mega Man to the fray. Initially it seems like an incremental upgrade, but there’s a lot more beneath the surface.

Most notably, you can select combat abilities from a list of several options. That expands beyond costumes for your Mii fighters, too. You can choose between a couple of different fireballs for Mario’s attack, for instance, or what happens when you use Donkey Kong’s down special. Maybe you like his hand slap, or perhaps you’d prefer an alternate that generates pillars of flame. It’s up to you, and discovering what works for you – and the characters you’re familiar with already – is rewarding.

The 3DS is also home to a Smash Run mode. Here, you have a limited amount of time to run through a maze, battling enemies and collecting power-ups that increase stats like attack power, speed, and jumping. When time’s up, the players converge in a final challenge that determines the victor. Some are straightforward, like a winner-takes-all battle. Others are more creative, like pitting the characters against one another in an obstacle-laden footrace. It’s a fun diversion from regular smashing, though the local-only multiplayer makes me wonder how frequently people will use it.

Smash Bros. is all about competition, and local and online multiplayer are big parts of that. Online is one of the game’s weak spots. When it works, it works beautifully, with blazing fast matches that rival the best of previous games. Unfortunately, it all comes crumbling down when someone’s connection hiccups. Battles turn into painful slide shows before ultimately stalling out. I battled against Japanese players without any problems, but ran into trouble when I took on GI editors in the same city. None of my co-workers reported connection troubles outside of the game, but it made for a maddeningly inconsistent time.

While the online might be suspect, Nintendo has made a variety of concessions to its more hardcore fanbase. Matches are split into two types: For Fun, in which rules governing things like stages, customized characters, and items can be tweaked and records aren’t kept; and For Glory, which records stats and also eliminates items. For Glory also restricts matches to the Omega variants of each stage, which are based on the Final Destination level from past games. 

Even on my best day, I wouldn’t be confused with a tournament-level Smash player. After shifting my block and throw moves from the shoulder buttons to the face buttons, though, I was playing at the same level I do on Melee or Brawl. I won some matches, I lost a few, and I had a completely great time no matter the score. We all know the Wii U version of Super Smash Bros. is on the horizon, but the 3DS version is more than something to keep you busy until then. It’s a must-play for Smash fans.