There are eight of us crammed in the living room, which is now dominated by a rat’s nest of cords. After navigating a few menus, we’re transported from this chaos to someplace different, but familiar: Onett. New players scramble to get their bearings, and even the veterans pause a few moments to figure out exactly who they are on the jam-packed screen. The initial murmurs of confusion quickly give way to trash talk, groans, and hurrahs, as we all do our best to knock everyone else off the screen. It’s over in a few minutes, and we all enthusiastically hit start on our controllers to do it again.

Some of my favorite gaming moments have revolved around the Smash Bros. series, and the latest entry taps into that joy. The series started out as a silly novelty, and while that silliness has remained, the scope of the games has continued to expand. In addition to showing off the “what-ifs” of characters from various games fighting in friendly competition, the Smash series has become an ever-increasing compendium of arcane Nintendo lore. While the roster and other extras have ballooned, there’s at least one consistency: The mix of recognizable characters like Mario and Pikachu (and more obscure choices like Duck Hunt Dog and Mr. Game & Watch) and easy-to-pick-up gameplay make it one of the best party games I’ve played. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U takes that a step forward.

Take the eight-player battles, exclusive to the Wii U iteration. Competitive Smash players might sooner enlist in Call of Duty than choose a stage that’s not flat and item-free, but that’s not the way that most of us play. I always enjoy those moments where you feel like your character’s fate is just barely in your hands, despite the responsive controls. Sometimes you’re only one home-run bat or Falcon Punch away from oblivion. That’s amplified in these massive battles. You can’t pick from the complete list of stages in eight-player mode, but you have plenty of arena available that range from hilariously small to expansive mazes.

While the Wii U and 3DS versions share many of their core components, including customizable move sets, the Wii U pulls ahead in a few ways. In addition to supporting eight players, it features a simplified Mario Party-style board game called Smash Tour. Four players roll a spinner to move around a board, picking up fighters and power-ups that eventually are used in a final battle. It’s a nice change of pace, but I would have liked to see the 3DS’ Smash Run make it over, too. Event Mode can be played alone or with a partner, and it pits your fighters against a variety of challenges. You might have to swat 10 ducks out of the sky before they fly away (while an enemy Falco does his best to help his feathered friends), or take on waves of enemies. For the risk-takers out there, Special Orders lets you take on challenges cooked up by Master Hand and Crazy Hand; the more you accept, the better your rewards, but you’re penalized for failure. Taken as a whole, I appreciate these kinds of diversions (including the returning Target Smash and Home Run challenges), but I find the greatest satisfaction in the game’s main Smash mode. 

The 3DS’ biggest stumble came with its online implementation, and I’m disappointed to say the console release isn’t much better. Like its little brother, it can be great fun, with four-way matches against friends and strangers. That is, it can be fun when the framerate isn’t reduced to a slideshow pace. Nintendo’s insistence on hiding important features doesn’t help; there’s no way to tell before a match begins if you’re playing against someone with a bum connection. It’s frustrating, since your experience is at the mercy of someone else’s technology. That said, a majority of my online matches went off without a hitch. As annoying as those occasional issues can be, Smash is a couch game at heart. For me, playing against faceless strangers online is no substitution for the social, trash-talking thrill of playing in person.

Even if you aren’t able to regularly round up an eight-player posse, there’s more than enough great stuff here to keep you busy – both solo or in traditional four-way matches. I’ve had a great time rekindling old Smash Bros. rivalries from the GameCube era and introducing it to a new generation of players. Its mix of accessibility and deep strategy is remarkable, and it’s an instant lock in my party-game rotation.