Note. A large number of linked documents used in the making of this article come from Source Gaming, a Nintendo and Super Smash Bros. fansite that translates Japanese articles and interviews about the series. I am a Source Gaming writer; this article is entirely independent from my work there or that of my colleagues. In addition, one of the most important aids for unused content was its “The Definitive List of Unused Fighters in Smash;” I’d recommend going there to learn more about unused content for the series.
This is also, unsurprisingly, very long, and goes into a great deal of minutia about the games. My apologies for the lack of brevity.
Thanks to Lily “Lovely” Bones for edits.
By the late Nineties, the traditional fighting game had hit something of a snag. Arcade cabinets were selling and making far less than they had only a few years ago. It wasn’t that it was a dark age in terms of quality; Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Garou: Mark of the Wolves (both 1999), and Marvel vs Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes (1998) were amongst a number of well regarded games. But money was coming in less on all fronts as home gaming consoles became more ubiquitous and popular. Without any real hold in the console market beyond the overpriced and poorly selling Neo-Geo, arcade publishing champion SNK – who made dozens of fighting games during the Nineties – was in the process of a slow collapse that would culminate with it filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Street Fighter‘s various sub-series, all of which were coming out at overlapping times, mostly stopped before coming back with Street Fighter IV (2009). The genre would recuperate over the next fifteen years, partially from fighting games designed for playing at home, and today old and new games alike live through professional eSports and tournaments. But it was mostly a bad scene, with arcades across the west especially closing in droves.
There were a number of reasons for this. A big one is that home systems became powerful enough to run ports of games that matched their arcade versions and release closer to the arcade versions; cutting into the market left arcade owners and developers in a dramatically worse position to compete. With no kind of strong international tournament scene, high level play was less tantalizing, and the games not able to sell themselves for years through those exhibitions. But one of the biggest problems was the difficulty. Either to keep attention from the hardcore audience, a lack of interest in catering to less skilled players, or something else, developers aggressively chased difficulty and challenge further and further. Street Fighter IV producer Yoshi Ono described the culture of the time as studios trying “to out-complicate each other,” partially a product of the intense rivalries many of these series and companies had. As more of the audience left, there was less interest in pursuing casual players beyond cheap gimmicks and some of the best pixel art of the medium’s history. Instead, fighters looked inward, raising the skill ceiling and floor and adding more complex control schemes. That was the inherent paradox of classic fighting games: they required a regular stream of new players to stay viable but had to incorporate unwieldy combo systems or high difficulty to keep the hardcore audience attached. With less revenue, many needed to keep devotees as attached and for as long as possible. This is not, however, to say fighting games were dead in the water. Without a strong arcade scene – and given that fighting games have often been great tech demos – more of them became geared more towards home systems. Virtua Fighter (arcade, 1993, Saturn ‘94) Tekken (arcade ‘94, PlayStation ‘95), and Dead or Alive (arcade, ‘96, PSX ‘98) were just a few. And consoles would have their own advantages for games, though it was hard to see what, if any, existed at the time.
One of the developers thinking about this was Masahiro Sakurai, a director at the Nintendo partner HAL Laboratories. Sakurai, born in 1970 Musashimurayama, Tokyo, was interested in game design from a young age (he dropped out of an electrical engineering specialist school to enroll back into high school, feeling the latter had the only path to that) and joined HAL soon after his high school graduation. A long time fighting game aficionado, he was interested in making one specifically for the Nintendo 64; I suspect the element he found most exciting was how the base console could allow four-player matches. For an unknown amount of time in the late Nineties, he worked on this project on the side with two staffers: a sound engineer whose identity remains unknown, and Sakurai’s friend and boss, HAL President Satoru Iwata. Inspired by the Japanese marble game ohajiki, the fighting game would replace beating down opponents’ health with knocking them away.
By the Nineties, HAL was in its salad years, with the two men at the center of it. Iwata, a programming wunderkind who eschewed his family work in Sapporo politics to go into game development, helped build HAL, which was founded in 1980, up to become one of Nintendo’s more prized developers. He got promoted to the studio’s presidency as the condition made by Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi for saving the studio from bankruptcy in 1992, and despite his managerial position he kept finding himself working as a developer. That same year, Sakurai, at 19, created the company’s unofficial mascot in Kirby’s Dream Land. The adorable puffball Kirby was a platformer hero for a less skilled audience; he could jump infinitely, inhale every enemy in front of him, and gained extra lives with ease. Within the next four years, Kirby exploded with nine sequels and spinoffs (only two of which, Kirby’s Adventure in 1993 and Kirby Super Star in ‘96, Sakurai directed), making the character one of Nintendo’s unofficial mascots. However, reading between the lines in interviews suggests Sakurai was likely frustrated with HAL’s constant stream of sequels; presumably this fighting game concept was a way to get away from his character.
Occasionally when discussing Super Smash Bros., Sakurai relates an experience he had in an arcade in the late Nineties. He was playing King of Fighters ‘95, crushing a barely reacting opponent with Zanretsuken combos, only to realize after peeking over (the cabinet was presumably partitioned) that the player he was ruthlessly destroying was a young woman who had likely never played a fighting game before. He attempted to play at a lower level for her, then her also unskilled boyfriend after she gave up, but by that point the match was unsalvageable. Kirby games have generally worked to be accessible to less skilled or experienced players, but you can get a sense that with Smash Bros. Sakurai’s tried to push for it far more aggressively. Beyond the Nintendo iconography and the wealth of content, there’s a cheap and pithy psychoanalytical reading few consider: that in one way, it might be a man’s twenty-plus year apology for ruining a couple’s afternoon.
What little we know of Dragon King: the Fighting Game (title isn’t due to any premise; that’s the meaning of the Yamanashi neighborhood where HAL’s office is located), the prototype that would become Super Smash Bros., was that it started off markedly different from fighting games of the time. Instead of having health bars that slowly deplete in a flat plane, characters had damage percentages that increased with every hit. The amount determined how far their opponents’ attacks would send them off a floating platform or building, turning matches into something more akin to “king of the hill” wrestling matches. In addition, the game would up the ante with allowing more than two players; the title used in the project proposal sold a “Four-player Simultaneous Face-off No-Damage Battle Royale Fight.” However, as production started in 1997 Sakurai became frustrated by its visual style. His preliminary, burly character models were too samey, which he felt unappealing for a console audience (he also suspected that recent fighting games had failed partially from having massive rosters of similar looking characters. At least regarding the complaint about size, in 2018 the irony is palpable). However, he struggled to visualize a new roster that would be more fitting for the tone and acrobatic gameplay.
So instead, he and Iwata decided to replace his generic large-chested men with the more easily marketable Nintendo characters, entirely without any knowledge or consent on the corporation’s part. Legendary Nintendo producer Shigeru Miyamoto did sign off on the project in December of 1997 (after rejecting a pitch from Iwata, something Sakurai was ignorant of), after Sakurai and Iwata showed him a build of the game with Mario, Donkey Kong, Metroid’s Samus, and Fox McCloud from Star Fox. After that, the work on the “opponent-based action game” – Sakurai wasn’t entirely comfortable slotting it into the fighting genre – continued; it’d be released a little over a year afterwards. One of the collaborators who’d join the project was Sakurai’s future wife and consistent UI designer Michiko Takahashi, who joined HAL in 1998 and did much of the work building the game’s stages.
Super Smash Bros. (January 21, 1999)
Mechanically, Super Smash Bros. (or Nintendo All-Star! Great Fray Smash Brothers in Japan) carries the bones of the proto-Dragon King plan. As a fighting game, it was still pretty much entirely it’s own thing, though it did have a few similarities to the 1995 Namco game The Outfoxies. You still knock your opponents’ keisters off crazy structures or platforms after racking up damage with regular attacks, throws, and special moves, while attempting to recover back with big jumps. The game, however, feels sizably larger in scope than that admittedly small prototype, and a lot of that has to do with its nature as a crossover.
Smash has eight starting characters (along with four hidden ones), a roster reminiscent of Street Fighter II (1991) and ordered by the year they debuted. They represented what were Nintendo’s most identifiable series of the time: Super Mario (along with two of its sub-series), The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Star Fox, Kirby, and Pokémon. For the most part, the characters were also based on their most iconic (or only) game at the time: Donkey Kong Country and Super Metroid (1994), Kirby Super Star, Super Mario 64, and Pokémon Red & Blue (1996), Yoshi’s Story and Star Fox 64 (1997), and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998). Each fighter was unique in moves and attitude, appropriating the style and flair of their own games. Mario was unsurprisingly the easy to use baseline character; even his three special moves – a fireball, rising uppercut, and spin attack – called to mind the iconic specials of the similarly balanced Ryu from Street Fighter II. Fox and Pikachu were the speedsters, with the Nintendo 64 hero using a blaster and “Reflector” shield and the Pokémon mascot calling down lightning from the sky. On the other end, Samus and Donkey Kong were diametrically opposed heavyweights; the former brought her deep bench of long range power-ups while the latter simply used a brute strength so intense he could carry opponents around. Yoshi could eat enemies and lay them as eggs, while Zelda’s Link used a Boomerang, Bombs, and a Hookshot to snag faraway rivals. And Kirby, in accordance with his own games, could both jump six times instead of the others’ two and inhale opponents and copy their neutral special move (along with a nifty “Kirby Hat”).
The hidden ones are notable in their own right. Mario’s erstwhile brother Luigi was the series’ first clone (Smash would later coin the term “Echo Fighter,” though only with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in 2018), to the point where his voice clips were just sped up versions of Mario’s, though he’d only become more distinct from his brother with each iteration. All four “unlockables” borrowed from one or more of the starters, really, due to the shoestring budget. At least four contenders – Mario and Kirby’s respective archenemies Bowser and King Dedede, Japan-exclusive Fire Emblem hero Marth, and maniacal Pokémon Mewtwo – were disqualified because they’d demand too much work. Instead, Kirby’s floatiness was spun off into the Balloon Pokémon Jigglypuff, whose poor skills were offset by an incredible air game and Rest, a shockingly powerful attack based on its taking a nap. Samus’s high kicks were given to F-Zero’s (1990) Captain Falcon; his iconic and instantly memetic Falcon Punch has kept him Smash royalty even while his own franchise has withered. The weirdest choice, though, was Ness. 1994’s cult JRPG EarthBound hadn’t even been released outside Japan and the U.S., and it had been a flop in the latter. The inclusion of its psychic boy star was likely a result of HAL’s former partnership with APE, Inc. (which would later be the Pokémon affiliate Creatures, Inc., possibly how Sakurai got to use that franchise as well); Iwata notably helped save EarthBound during its strained development. But it was also bizarre, and Ness would start of a tradition of surprising, out there Smash fighters.
Mechanically, one of Smash Bros.’ most positive features was its approach to moves. Every fighting game had unique control layouts for entirely different controls, but in the Nineties they’d frequently have multiple buttons set up for attacks of varying power, and special moves would be performed through a combination of hitting multiple buttons and/or tilting the control stick in specific ways at the same time. While the most successful fighting games had easy or accessible combos, too many had onerous mechanics, and even the best of the bunch failed to totally avoid the excesses of confusing controls and onerous combo systems (this, it should be noted, would eventually include Smash itself at tines with certain characters). Nightmares of pressing multiple unrelated buttons at once, joystick rotations that were hard to even conceptualize, and the realization that you put in a quarter to play a cool martial artist but couldn’t play as them were common points of frustration. It didn’t help that these combos were often character specific, meaning that too few skills and little muscle memory for one character would translate fully to another one. Fighting games made after this period, and especially today, would work greatly to reach out to less skilled players, but it wasn’t exactly a common or well regarded occurrence at the time.
What Smash did was essentially invert Street Fighter’s “six buttons and a joystick” approach; there are only two buttons for attacking, but they get accentuated by the stick. Just pressing A does a generic move, but doing so as you tilt to one side unleashes a new one, often with greater damage, knockback (the measurement of how far it fires its target away), and focus. The same thing works for aerial attacks and specials; the latter just involve hitting B while the stick’s turned up, down, or not at all. Even throws are like that, just grabbing and tossing forward or backwards (adding up and down throws, and even a pummel, only came in the next game). This would be complicated by the series’ signature “Smash Attacks,” in which you press the stick hard at the same moment as hitting A. It is an important feature for the series – the attacks are chargeable and strong, making them great for knocking foes away – but without amenities found in the sequels, it was a bit of a stumbling block for first time players. But overall, this was a system that was accommodating, and even more so universally applicable. Some fighters would have moves or jumps that were really different, but players could jump from one of the twelve to another with relative ease.
This was an evolution of Sakurai’s work on Kirby Super Star and would reach its apex with Kirby Air Ride (2003), where almost every action could be controlled by just the A button. It’s an approach filled with executions he once described as “Kirbyisms,” techniques for building a game so that players of all skill levels can play it satisfactorily. Most new players will almost invariably mostly use special moves; they’re flashy and look cool, plus the up special move for almost every character acts as a “recovery” move, an additional jump for getting back to the platform. Over time, they may start to explore more regular attacks, shields, and grabs. But no matter what, they have access to a number of ways to play at the level they want. At the ideal state, a game will be entirely playable with only one button, though of course that’s not realistic for the vast majority of them.
While not as strong as the fighters, the stages were also wonderful little things, more like simple, messy dioramas than conventional arenas. The main platform of Peach’s Castle turned left to right like an engine pump, and two stoppers and a bumper at the top made it an impromptu pinball machine. The deep, narrow spaces between the towers of Saffron City were as a death pit, and random Pokémon came out of a rooftop elevator to attack. Hyrule Castle was a large plane with a small gazebo, a tall central tower, and a whirlwind that threw players to their deaths. And the game’s secret arena, Mushroom Kingdom, is a truly wonderful oddity. Built by Michiko Takahashi, it was an attempt to directly build a Super Mario Bros. (1985) level within the confines of a fighting game. Players can go through (and get chomped by Piranha Plants hiding inside) warp pipes, hit POW Blocks, and run past the edges to their deaths – the first example of what fans call “walk-off stages.” They’re all pretty unbalanced; in competitive play, the only one considered “fair” is Dream Land, a Kirby arena with flat plane, three small platforms, and some light wind that could gently push fighters left or right. But they’re wild and fresh partially because of how pleasant they are and partially because they feel so far from fighting game conventions.
But the most interesting part – and where I think the crossover element is overlooked – is its incorporation of items. In a flagrant dismissal of contemporary fighting game logic, items, often taken from games, randomly appeared on the stages during matches to be used by and against fighters. These could be healing potions (Zelda’s Heart Container), melee weapons (a bootleg lightsaber or the Donkey Kong (1981) Hammer), ranged weapons (a Fire Flower that spits flames) to things like proximity mines. Some had multiple purposes, like how the Kirby’s Adventure Star Rod was a battering weapon that could shoot stars, while heavy crates and barrels just contained other items. The most brilliant is the Poké Ball, which randomly summoned one of a set of Pokémon to fight for whoever released it. The concept of items was taken very clearly from Super Mario Kart (1992); it even had shells to throw, and Smash sequels would add Banana Peels, Spiny Shells, and Bullet Bills. You could alter which, how frequently, and whether at all items appear – though only after playing a hundred matches – but the game was definitely made around the idea of them being available. Four player matches riddled with items and up to four Pokémon on screen quickly turned into chaotic rumbles, and it’s that chaos that helped give Super Smash Bros. the style and tone Sakurai wanted from his game. Having an unseen crowd cheer for characters after they pull off a surprising upset accentuated this.
Tonally, the first Smash is weird compared to its five sequels. Part of that was due to the inherent limitations of the Nintendo 64, but it also was that the series’ focuses hadn’t quite come into play. There’s little of the collection element that would become central, or the interest in Nintendo and gaming history. The more mechanically wild characters weren’t quite there either, though Ness and Yoshi were unique. This, combined with the floatiness and very limited abilities of the Nintendo 64, lent the game a somewhat surreal atmosphere. Without much in the way of graphical detailing, characters seem more like ragdolls and the stages’ low resolution backgrounds have this hazy, dreamlike quality. This extends to the series’ universe: the characters are not “real” but dolls, brought to life by a mysterious gloved hand. The game’s only one player mode has a few twists as players smash their way through the starting roster: separate mobs of Yoshis and Kirbies, a giant Donkey Kong, the Mario 64-inspired Metal Mario, and a few gimmicky mini-games like breaking a set of targets in a maze. Eventually, they battle the hand on a dark stage set to a bizarrely funky final boss theme. With only an ambiguous final scene after beating “Master Hand,” players are left to ponder what it it represents. Is he every fan who wants to play with these characters? Is beating him us overcoming that? While every Smash game since has explored the dichotomy and Master Hand has remained the series’ traditional final boss (other than in Ultimate, where he shares the stage with a few other opponents), it’s often gone undiscussed.
The game’s mostly bland score fits within this. Kirby’s Adventure composer Hirokazu Ando’s arrangements are fairly generic, with more “normal” remixes of classic Nintendo themes: the Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda overworlds, “Jungle Hijinx” from Donkey Kong Country, “Gourmet Race” from Kirby Super Star, and others. They’re catchy, but only a few of them feel particularly distinct from the pieces they’re arranging, like the excellent remix of Metroid’s (1986) Brinstar theme. Where the music is most interesting is in its original pieces. The themes for the single player stages Battlefield and Final Destination (arenas that would become multiplayer staples in every subsequent game) are notably off-kilter and jazzy, and Metal Mario’s theme “Meta Crystal” is deeply intense. They only push the surreal sensations, especially as the single player mode goes into more original territory.
As you may have ascertained from “shoestring budget,” the game is very unpolished and raw compared to its sequels. There’s a lot of experimentation in every aspect, with how movement and hitboxes work in this kind of environment. The levels are shaggy, with a lot of janky elements; Saffron City’s thin gaps are a death sentence for Ness, while Peach’s Castle is a fun but incoherent jumble of stuff. Of course, upwards of “40%” of the imagined game, including details like Link’s shield being able to block projectiles and the character selection screen displaying the best times for 1P Mode, was abandoned; many individual parts would only be added in sequels. The biggest of those features was the incorporation of super finishing moves like other fighting games, cut late enough in production that some dialogue was even recorded for it (Ness’s would have used the EarthBound PK Starstorm attack; Fox’s might have involved Team Star Fox randomly firing everywhere). The game is really neat less in spite than because of those limitations, and it’s cool exploring what does and doesn’t work about this odd cocktail of genres and ideas. That’s the appeal of a game this distinct, and it pulls that off nicely. It also features an odd example of localized content changes; the American Ness was rebalanced to be significantly weaker, while Yoshi was buffed dramatically.
Commercially, the game did very well, selling a little under five million copies in Japan (where it released January 21, 1999) and the U.S. (April 26). I suspect much of its success came from the ease of play, the lack of great games coming out on the Nintendo 64 that year (great multiplayer games in particular), and its incorporation of Pokémon content while that series was at the height of its being a fad. It was criticized for its anemic single player content, but it was a perfect party game in a very different way from something like Mario Party (1998), whose sequel also came out that year. Sakurai helped promote it through a Japan-only website he made and operated himself, giving off advice and tips for advanced techniques while answering questions from a wide range of players – many of which were about new characters for a “Smash 2.” The notorious American commercial for it, hosted by trailer legend Don LaFontaine and scored by the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” also helped cement the game’s image as this silly, crude, but very fun party game.
At the time, Smash was largely considered a joke or weird outlier by a lot of the broader fighting game community. A number of players had little idea of what to make of its design or controls, and its emphasis on random items and potentially unfair stages went against the general spirit of fair competition. The concept of a “Nintendo fighting game,” with all the silliness and friendliness that was included, didn’t really fit the style; even its art was far removed from the gorgeous pixel art being produced at the end of the decade. Aside from the whole aspect of being the crossover that it was, I think it may have partially had to do with Smash historically envisioning itself a bit more like a sport than a bloodsport. The losers clap for the winners, the series’ default mode Time has players aggressively competing for who can get the most K.O.s in a matter of minutes, and the four-player structure allows people to build teams. More out there was how it turned the credits into a first-person mini-game where you fired at every person and company involved in the game, playfully mocking its own existence (this is a feature that would return in some fashion with every game in the series). The whole game was a radically different approach that was either very enchanting or bewildering. It really took until Melee for the idea of the game as a competitive work to fully form, and that game has almost singularly defined competitive Smash play. However, there is a small but passionate competitive community focused on just the game typically shortened to Smash (64), finding its style distinct.
Right after Smash’s release, Sakurai’s website made an informal poll, “If There Was a Smash 2.” The results are fascinating from an historical perspective; aside from fun things like James Bond (from Rare’s GoldenEye (1997)) being as popular as Mewtwo, there are votes for so many characters who would eventually become fighters, assist characters, or subjects of serious speculation. I’m not certain how seriously Sakurai actually took his poll, but whatever concerns about sequels he may have had were largely not shared by Nintendo, who were insistent on a follow up. The Nintendo GameCube was well in development by 1999, and the corporation wanted to stave off their commercial issues with the N64 through a slate of big projects available right from the start. While Iwata would provide his technical skills yet again, it was only after he left HAL to join Nintendo’s corporate planning division. The circumstances led to what appears to have been Sakurai’s worst experience of actually making a game in his his life, but also one of his most enduring projects. And the devotion to Super Smash Bros. Melee would end up somewhat at odds with not only Sakurai’s time as its director, but his philosophy on game design as a whole.
Super Smash Bros. Melee (November 21, 2001)
Given it’s a six game series which has mostly built on the second and third, it’s common to view Smash (64) now as a project with its own creative direction. 2001 players didn’t have that have that context, though, and Super Smash Bros. Melee was understandably seen almost as a monstrously expanded remake. Not only did the first game’s cast all return, the roster itself more than doubled with fourteen new characters. The stage count jumped from nine to twenty nine. Several stages had alternate music, from a sumptuous score put together by an orchestra and four separate composers. The adorably chintzy opening of the first game was replaced with a grandiose, mostly FMV intro. The number of items, Pokémon, modes, and even attacks – every fighter now had a fourth special and more throws – increased. The graphics of the Nintendo GameCube allowed the game to develop a distinct visual aesthetic. And with one incredible new feature, the game dramatically ballooned its scope and values. The game’s Japanese name was Great Fray Smash Brothers Deluxe, and and “Deluxe” was a nigh perfect descriptor.
Melee started development soon after Smash Bros. released, to the point where the initial project proposal was submitted in July 5, 1999. Assuming it went gold a month prior to release, given that its development lasted thirteen months, production likely started around September of 2000. In addition, Melee got a plum showing at that year’s E3, with its intro and extensive gameplay footage shown off on May 17, 2001. The same day, Sakurai revealed a second Japanese blog, allowing him to introduce – and sell – new ideas and characters before the game came out. In August, Nintendo hosted the game’s first tournament as advertisement before its release near the end of the year, something they would explore again thirteen years later.
During its production, however, things were far less good. Melee‘s short development time was “grueling” and something of a nightmare, during which Sakurai and his crew worked themselves somewhere close to death. I’m unsure of whether (and if so, how much) this extended to the rest of his HAL team, but at least Sakurai himself committed himself to the project totally; he worked weekends and holidays other than taking two days for New Year’s of 2001, and he sometimes found himself working in the studio alone. In 2010, he claimed to have worked forty hours at a time before sleeping for four, a result of both Nintendo’s tight schedule and his anxieties over what was his biggest project to date by magnitudes of size. In one instance, while trying to match a live orchestra recording with a mental image of the game’s opening cutscene, he actually collapsed and had to be sent to the hospital. Despite the team’s efforts, the game still had huge programming and technical issues even as the release date was fast approaching. At the eleventh hour Iwata, despite no longer actually working at HAL, did the last programming work of his career to perform necessary help with debugging and programming. In about three weeks, he did extensive work fixing bugs and reworking the course code, the final time he would work directly as part of a development team. Thanks to him, the game arrived both on time and in great condition.
The most noticeable shift to see here is the art style. The vast jump in graphical quality between Nintendo 64 and GameCube meant that the series could do much more with visual expression, to say nothing of characters escaping that late Nineties polygonal ghetto. Out went the fuzzy, dreamy backgrounds; Melee introduced the series’ primary visual style of what I’ve taken to describe as “light grit.” Essentially “Mario games with more detailing,” it gave Smash an art style that both brought the styles of its many series together and distinguished itself. One 2000-era Nintendo Power bragged about this especially, that players could see actual denim detailing on Mario’s overalls. This also affected the series’ themes; the cute dolls were replaced with solid, hard trophies, which burst into life at the start of each match. Mostly, the grittiness works, though it also suffers from some palette issues. The game’s main color scheme is a light pastel style of light pinks, blues, and yellows, but things around those can feel dingy and darker. It’s an issue that plagues newcomer Bowser, whose design was slithery and unappealing.
The heavy, terrible Bowser – one of at least three fighters planned for the first game – was one headliner of a robust selection of newcomers. Fellow Mario icon Princess Peach had a unique float, a surprisingly compelling vegetable projectile (both inspired by her playable role in Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988)), and the series’ first counter. Zelda’s eponymous magic wielding princess could change her entire moveset by transforming into Ocarina of Time’s (1998) ninja Sheik; one quirk was that the latter was revealed first, months before Zelda and the transformation mechanic were ever confirmed. Mewtwo was brought in, too, though its exacting unlocking requirements and poorly implemented psychic powers left it to rot on the selection screen. And rounding out the main cast were two surprising retro representatives. The Ice Climbers loosely represented a mediocre 1985 platformer as a mechanically wild two-in-one fighter, with partner Nana helping player controlled Popo beat up foes. Mr. Game & Watch – a kitschy, jittery amalgamation of thirty-plus Nintendo LCD handhelds from the early Eighties – took the opposite approach; his every move was a reference to games like Ball, Fire, Oil Panic, and Turtle Bridge.
Though for westerners, perhaps as odd as Mr. Game & Watch were the swordsmen Marth and Roy. The two hailed from Fire Emblem, a long running series of tactical strategy games that, despite being around since the NES had never been localized overseas. They had untranslated lines and an interesting mechanic: Marth’s sword was much stronger at its tip, and Roy’s at its base, encouraging players to fight in a style reflecting the former’s elegance and the latter’s roughness. And while Marth was the series’ first hero from Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light (1990), Roy actually debuted in Smash itself; he was included to promote The Binding Blade (2002), which due to delays ended up coming out a few months after Melee (it also affected Roy’s characterization; his aggressive and fiery persona reflected a version of the character – initially named “Ike” – from a script that changed after he was put in Smash). With Nintendo of America unsure about how to market these characters, there were plans to remove them; thankfully NoA staff members ended up liking them too much to give them the axe.
This is one of the more important junctures in Smash’s history, because the popularity of these characters – not hurt by Marth’s incredible standing amongst competitive players – ended up convincing Nintendo to start localizing Fire Emblem overseas. The next game, Binding Blade’s prequel The Blazing Blade, was released in the west as simply Fire Emblem; almost every major game in the series has been localized after that. While that did precede a period of the series struggling even in Japan to the point of franchise death, the presence of a western audience was likely a major part of how Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012) revived the series. The series is now one of Nintendo’s biggest, and a not small part of that success was due to Smash specifically. We’ll be getting to Awakening much later, but despite how different the two series are, Marth and Roy did show a direct interest on the part of western players to explore their games. Truthfully, Smash has a reciprocal relationship with every series and every character, but the one it has with Fire Emblem is a different beast. It’s led to Sakurai often being associated with the series in live concerts or interviews (he gave one for an anniversary book and conducted one with the Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon (2008) team for Nintendo), as well as being a target of suspicions of “bias” towards the tactical strategy series by fans.
Marth and Roy are the most famous examples of Smash Bros’ eastern-western exchange, and given the series’ size, it’s somewhat surprising how comparatively few changes there have been between the various releases of each game. As mentioned earlier, regional changes to character strength were fairly common for both Smash (64) and Melee, with a level of specificity that implies programmers were working to keep their favorite characters on top. In terms of content, a couple of the latter’s trophies were cut or redesigned; one example is how the “Topi” enemy from Ice Climber (1985) and Melee’s Adventure Mode was changed from a seal, which were edited in the original game presumably to avoid seal clubbing imagery). It wasn’t all due to content issues; two trophies were offered only at promotional events which were never hosted outside Japan, like with Nintendo’s unreleased e-Reader levels in Super Mario Advance 4 (2003). Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (2014) cut a Japanese vocal song, though it was bizarrely used in the international versions of one 2015 trailer for DLC content. The most upsetting, however, was Ultimate’s redesign of Mr. Game & Watch’s forward smash move that models itself on its origin in Fire Attack, in which he transforms into a Native American caricature to cast his torch (a result of the decision to have all his animations reflect their original game). It’s deeply dispiriting, but it was also very pleasing to hear soon after footage of it came out that Nintendo is preparing a patch to edit out the more offensive parts of the animation.
Roy was also a clone character – he had to be; he was added last minute – and far from the only one. With only eight new fighters at the outset, Sakurai wanted to boost the roster substantially. He’s also repeatedly stated that his decision to add six easily made copies of fighters was not at the “expense” of a unique newcomer, and that the time spent on them would not have translated into even a single fully new character. Pokémon Gold & Silver’s (1999) Pichu was Pikachu as a joke; it was faster and slightly stronger, but also pathetically light and constantly damaging itself with its electric shocks. Young Link from Ocarina of Time was a bit shorter and faster than the vanilla flavor, but he also had pitched fire arrows. Dr. Mario was…mostly just a slightly slower and stronger Mario, and Star Fox’s Falco was a more aerially inclined Fox. Ocarina of Time villain Ganondorf also joined, though controversially, as a clone of Captain Falcon. Fans were expecting his cleaver-like sword from the non-playable Zelda Spaceworld 2000 demo used to show off the GameCube’s horsepower, and having him just use punches and kicks upset them. But that was the tone on a general level; fans were frustrated that they weren’t “real” characters. Unsurprisingly, this would be a common refrain for fighters who were perceived as not unique enough, or too current, or any number of other things.
Now that the main franchises had mostly been set in stone, it was easier to expand on their representation. All of the series that had been in Super Smash Bros. got two stages (Super Mario got four), allowing HAL to represent a wider variety of games. The two Legend of Zelda stages, for instance, represent both Majora’s Mask (2000) and surprisingly, the largely maligned Zelda II: Adventure of Link (1987). Two of the Super Mario stages came from 64, with the other two being pixelated recreations of Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2 (1988), the latter copying its remake in Super Mario All-Stars (1993). While there was a focus on more current games with Mario and Zelda – something that would become more of a point over time – those two were really the only ones. Pokémon, for instance, got stages inspired by theme instead of plot: a stadium that transformed its terrain to represent four Pokémon types, and an eternally scrolling parade of giant monster balloons. That kind of “scrolling” stage defined itself here between Poké Floats, the Mario 64 stage Rainbow Cruise, the F-Zero racetrack Big Blue, and the endlessly scrolling (and hated) Icicle Mountain for the Ice Climbers. These were often contentious individually amongst fans, but they gave Melee a very powerful sense of scale and energy. Alongside other stages – a Metroid one where the boss Kraid literally turns the stage around on a 360% angle, one that stuck players in an giant Game & Watch, Zelda II’s huge, multi-layered Temple – these furthered those values Sakurai tried to instill about theatrical, silly fighting. Even when stages weren’t changing mid-match, they still had a sense of grandeur and power, such as the gorgeous Kirby’s Adventure inspired Fountain of Dreams stage.
The jump also extended to modes. The Time and Stock matches of the first game were joined by Coin Battles – in which beating up enemies spouts cash, with the richest player by the end of the match winning – and Stamina matches, which used traditional health points instead. The 1P Mode, rechristened “Classic,” returned (featuring randomized characters in stock match types, with some fighters barred from certain types for some reason), and at higher difficulties Master Hand got aided by his southpaw partner Crazy, but the other modes were more interesting. The mini-games from Smash (64) were expanded into the self-explanatory, character specific Target Test and Board the Platforms. All-Star Mode, unlocked with Mr. Game & Watch (himself only available after unlocking everyone else), pitted players against the entire roster in thirteen random matches with access to only three healing items for all of it; it was taken from Kirby Super Star, complete with a remix of that game’s rest area theme. The training mode from the last game was expanded. The new Home-Run Contest game had players spend ten seconds racking up damage on a sandbag before batting it to see how far they could send it.
However, the strongest of these all revolved around exploring how fights could work. One of the biggest was “Multi-Man Melee,” which pitted players against various numbers of weak, wireframe goons taken from Captain Falcon and Zelda’s models. They could be fought in teams of ten or a hundred, with no enemy cap for three or fifteen minutes (the latter in particular was awful), endlessly until you were K.O.’d, and either against the Fighting Wireframe Team as they were or horrifically buffed ones in “Cruel Melee.” More exciting were fifty-one Event Matches which built custom scenarios like a match on a giant statue of a Super Mario Goomba, a fight again 128 small Marios in reference to an unreleased GameCube prototype, or countering super-strong opponents with an endless stream of Poké Balls containing only legendary Pokémon. Event Matches returned for Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Wii U, but several of the Melee ones remain the most beloved in the series.
The most popular was arguably the new Adventure Mode, which mixed up Classic with some other action and platforming challenges. It starts with a simple Super Mario Bros.-esque level with Goombas and Koopa Troopas before a fight against Mario (or Luigi) and Peach; others include a Zelda dungeon, an escape from Metroid’s Planet Zebes, a race through an F-Zero course, and a climb up a scrolling Icicle Mountain. All of these are peppered with gimmick matches, such as a fight against a gang of Kirbys or tough Donkey Kongs, all before a final battle against Bowser who, if faced on a high enough difficulty, would transform into the gargantuan “Giga Bowser.” It’s clear playing it there were some issues with making all of it to work and that a number of levels were likely phased out during planning or development; seven of the hidden characters don’t even appear. But despite generic level design needed to fit the gameplay, Adventure Mode was incredibly well received. It allowed Smash to use its greater emphasis on jumping and wide spaces to try its hand at a little platforming, and the tiny stories it concocted did justice to the games represented in this series.
One part of the massive increase in content led to Smash’s most important tonal shift. The game had 290 trophies (293 in the Japanese version) of the fighters, stages, what few enemies could be found in Adventure Mode, and a hodgepodge of characters or objects from across Nintendo history. Ones of the fighters are earned by beating the main three modes, others can be gotten through completing undefined tasks, but most can be found lying around on bonus stages in the single player modes. There’s also a bland “Snag the Trophies” mini-game and a Trophy Lottery, in which players spend in-game cash to get a random trophy; spending more gold increased the chances of getting a new one. These were amazing things; they didn’t just have references to iconic characters but cultural oddities and odd moments. Some were items from games, like the Koopa Clown Car from Super Mario World (1990), the mind-controlling bucket from Mario and Wario (1993), or the Chozo Statue from Metroid II (1989). Others were of beloved Nintendo characters: Pit from Kid Icarus (1986), King Dedede from Kirby’s Dream Land (1992), Donkey Kong archenemy King K. Rool, and recurring Star Fox villain Andross in both his 1993 polygonal design or his 1997 3D model are just a few amongst them. And then there’d be references to obscure games or Nintendo properties like 3D Hot Rally (1988), Shin Onigashima (1987), the just-released Pikmin (2001), and Famicom Disk System mascot Diskun. Eagle-eyed Smash fans may notice some familiar names on that list. Dozens and dozens of Melee trophies have stayed in or reentered the franchise in other ways, far more than the small number I mentioned.
Melee also included a bonus system (one was used in Smash (64), but it was far less comprehensive), in which more gold was awarded based on actions in each match: finishing a stage with one second (or 3:33) left, self-K.O.’ing due to an item, only using one type of item, never attacking, getting knocked out via all four sides of the stage in one fight, holding items for longer than the opponent, or any number of 249 bonuses. The item list also expanded; now the “giant,” “small,” and “metal” conditions – alongside invisibility and a poisoning-esque “flower” condition – could be applied to anyone through items, and far more kinds of items existed in general (there were more options for their use, too). The eccentric Mr. Saturn race from EarthBound could be used as a quick but surprisingly versatile throwing item, while the Warp Star from the Kirby games would take a player high into the air before shooting down like a comet. Venusaur was one of several Pokémon initially planned to be used as stage hazards before programming issues made that impossible and they were reworked, now part of a much larger roster of Poké Ball summons.
The best avenue for the game’s increase in size, however, was in its music. Hirokazu Ando returned, joined by three other Nintendo composers: Shogo Sakai, Tadashi Ikegami, and Takuto Kitsuta. It’s Sakai who’s most noteworthy here; he and Ando are the most responsible for making the Melee score, and that along with his substantial work on Brawl means he’s arguably the single most important person for defining how Smash sounds to this day. With a group set up credited as Orchestra Melee, the four developed a sumptuous selection of stage themes. Ando made a triumphant arrangement of “Green Greens” from Kirby’s Dream Land and a sweet version of EarthBound Beginnings’ (1989) beloved “Pollyanna (I Believe in You).” Given he was more involved with the game’s sound effects, Ikegami only contributed two tracks, but his operatic version of that Kirby “Gourmet Race” song is one of the series’ most beloved pieces of music. And while Kitsuta’s remixes of tracks from The Legend of Zelda (1986) and F-Zero are mostly fine, Sakai’s work shines the brightest. Remixes of pieces from Star Fox 64, Dr. Mario (1990), and Metroid are beloved, though his most loved two tracks both play on the Zelda II Temple stage: both the temple theme from the same game and a Fire Emblem medley are typically seen as amongst the best in the entire franchise. These arrangements were performed by the fifty-musician New Japan Philharmonic, making the entire score feel powerful and robust. Greater, richer, and more intense, Melee’s soundtrack would also kick off a history in the series of deeply emphasizing the value of music.
In keeping with its size, the amount of (known) unfinished or abandoned material in this game vastly outweighs that of Smash (64). Plans for allowing eight player matches were quickly dismissed for being functionally impossible. Stages considered, planned, or partially built included one of Fire Emblem’s Kingdom of Akaneia, Pokémon Gold & Silver’s Sprout Tower, and a theoretical summit of the Ice Climber mountain. For various reasons, Ice Climbers themselves were chosen over four other retro fighters, all of whom were from 1984: Bubbles from Clu Clu Land, the eponymous lead of Urban Champion, the default character in Balloon Fight, and the Excitebike racer. Another retro hero to be cut was Ayumi Tachibana from the Japan-only Famicom Tantei Club (1988); though she did have a trophy in the final version, Sakurai didn’t feel she’d “work” as a fighter with an overseas audience. Plans to replace Ness with the next EarthBound protagonist fell through as MOTHER 3, which had been in development hell for years, got temporarily canceled. Mario’s iconic rival Wario from Super Mario Land 2 (1992) was also highly considered before being passed over. The Pokémon Ditto, planned to copy and team up with the fighter who summoned it, was cut so late in development that some strategy guides included references to it. A Poké Ball-esque device that would summon Nintendo characters as helpers was also axed partway through development; one Electronic Gaming Monthly article supposedly claimed one of the planned assistants were the ducks from Duck Hunt (1984), but it’s hard to find that issue. While not “cuts,” per se, there are also a bizarre number of patterns found on fighters and trophies; one of Roy’s textures says “©HAL LABRATORY.INC” (sic), the Ayumi trophy has a small, zoomed-in picture of a cat, and while impossible to see through normal means, the trophy of Mario spinoff princess Daisy has a third eye in the back of her head.
The biggest cuts – though “cuts” is very misleading – however, were from two characters not owned by Nintendo at all. Auteurist game director Hideo Kojima had asked Sakurai to include his character, Metal Gear Solid’s (1998) Solid Snake, but the game was too far into development for him to be implemented. Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) creator Yuji Naka also claimed in 2016 that he asked Sakurai to add Sonic after Melee was shown off at E3 2001; like Snake, that was just far too late. What’s noticeable is that neither were characters with much direct relationship with Nintendo; Snake’s history on Nintendo consoles was largely minor compared to his time on the MSX and especially PlayStation, while Sonic was the mascot of the company’s first direct competitor (though that would end soon after Melee, with SEGA’s hardware side collapsing). Given how extensively the series would end up incorporating third party characters and content, it’s interesting that the topic appears to have been first brought up from other developers asking for Sakurai to include them, not the other way around.
Legal issues also had some wear on Melee, though it’s harder to tell how much impact it had. The biggest was the end of Nintendo’s relationship with Rare, Ltd. (known as Rareware at the time). Nintendo had bought a majority stake in the British studio in 1994, and their Donkey Kong Country reboot of the same year was huge, but the studio’s clout was worsening and Nintendo showed no interest in fully purchasing them. Eventually, Microsoft bought out their shares, taking Rare’s properties outside the Nintendo-owned Donkey Kong material with them. Several supposedly planned trophies were excised from the game, and one item, the Motion-Sensor Bomb, was rebuilt overseas due to its similarity to the version in Rare’s Perfect Dark (2000) (though that was actually due to the game’s M rating; it was redesigned to look like the version from GoldenEye). It seems like Sakurai had noticed the writing on the wall and avoided using their original characters, barely even considering their version of James Bond with the litany of serious logistical problems he carried. Less major was a scrapped decision to include Sukapon, the hero of the Japan-only Mega Man-esque fighting game Joy Mech Fight (1993), as an item due to unspecified legal issues (one rumor at the time was that it was due to Nintendo having lost the license for the game, though that’s never been confirmed).
Melee released on November 21, 2001 to thunderous acclaim and at seven million sales became the most commercially successful GameCube game of all time (it at one point carried a 70% attach rate, fulfilling Sakurai’s goal to sell as many GameCubes as possible). It’s an auspicious date for Nintendo; the 21st was also the release day for the SNES, Nintendo DS, and upwards of two dozen reasonably major games for the company – one of which was another Smash game. The game also, more importantly, became a staple on the tournament circuit. A lot of the online culture and community of Smash Bros. has centered around that, with Smashboards.com, the largest Smash forum around, being very explicitly competitive play first, “casual” second. That split is another pronounced, reductive part of the culture; it ignores how many and varied Smash sub-communities are, with competitive minded people, devotees of certain franchises or elements, players who care mainly about single player content, and especially fans who campaign to other fans on behalf of characters they want to enter the fray. But the competitive play remains a massive part of Smash’s appeal, even for fans with little interest in Nintendo itself. In that community, Melee is king, with players still polishing mostly three to five of the game’s twenty-six character roster. Incredible special techniques like “wavedashing,” many of which were accidental byproducts of the physics, remain beloved by devotees. It’s also unfortunately led to an issue for a number of high level Smash players suffering hand pain and tendonitis from improper or unhealthy training habits. The disparaging “Fox only, no items, Final Destination” meme – mocking competitive-minded players for rules that cut most of the series’ content – is a joke, but it does speak to a mutual passive aggression that plagues much of the Smash community, and not just between more and less skill-minded players.
A big reason for Melee’s competitive popularity came down to one major change: the game’s speed, which was turned up extensively. This allowed skilled players to make graceful, frenetic movements and actions that were more like dancing. It turned the energy of the game up to eleven, and distinguished it from almost everything on the market in the early Aughts. However, it also had the side effect of making the game substantially more difficult for players who were newer, younger, or simply less skilled (and less able to improve their skills). Sakurai deliberately decided to gear the game to a more skilled or “hardcore” audience with this iteration, and somewhat away from the broader audience he tried to pursue with the first Smash. Many of the extra modes were partially meant as amenities for that, allowing players to have matches that were simply more wild or chaotic. Special Melee, which contained Stamina, Coin, and eight other battle types, could never have the intense kinds of matches a regular Time or Stock could. They often led to wild and over the top fights, with battles that made everyone tiny or huge, invisible, start at 300% damage, or only able to use the control stick and A button. At the same time, this was still a side mode that took a bit longer to access, and playing didn’t even count for a number of statistics. This has retained in the sequels; playing these modes don’t complete challenges (though those are mitigated by the speed being more manageable). It was a great addition and a necessary part of Smash to this day, but in no way was it an adequate substitute.
This was also the time in which rumors, hoaxes, and false claims about the series began to stir, something that would increase at an exponential rate with each successive game. I’m not going to focus on it – this article is too long as it is – but it deserves to be noted. Statements that characters from Melee’s FMV intro like Metroid’s Ridley, Star Fox’s Wolf O’Donnell, and F-Zero’s Samurai Goroh were planned to be in the game were entirely erroneous, as were claims that Pokémon’s Meowth was considered for the first game. One Electronic Gaming Monthly April Fool’s Day prank claimed that getting a near-impossible score in Cruel Melee would unlock Sonic and Tails. A promotional cutscene in Brawl’s story mode led to a theory over whether hidden newcomers could be seen in a group of clouds that appeared for under two seconds, while some fans cited a nonexistent radio interview in which Sakurai claimed to have replaced three characters (humorously enough, all six implicated fighters are all playable in Ultimate). A massive, real leak of Smash for 3DS footage content, likely for the ESRB’s sake, was disputed because the art for one character was believed to be a photoshop of another’s due to their having similar chins. A highly questionable, entirely fake promotional image showing seven new characters for Ultimate led to a massive, harassment-riddled fight within the community itself over whether it was real or not. As much as Smash is a game first, crossover and everything else second, the culture of hype is inexorable from the games themselves.
With Melee finished, Iwata became the first President of Nintendo not from the Yamauchi family after Hiroshi Yamauchi’s retirement in 2002, and Sakurai was stuck making sequels. Nightmare in Dream Land (2002) was a fairly generic Kirby’s Adventure remake, but the far more important project was a spinoff title. Like Melee, the action racing game Kirby Air Ride (2003) was stuffed with mechanics and modes and music, and it emphasized that same glut of content and accessibility, but it seems to have exacerbated a frustration about just making sequels with few chances to work with other people. After Air Ride released, Sakurai tendered his resignation with HAL and went indie. He formed Sora Ltd. in 2005, though not before spending a short time working undercover at a games store to get a feel for what people were purchasing. Sora was (and remains) an odd studio; it’s essentially a firm just for him to work as a freelance director. All but two of the seven games he’s made have been owned by Nintendo; the exception were his first two projects: the cute 24 and The Matrix inspired puzzle action game Meteos and tamagotchi type device Mushiking: The King of Beetle (both 2005). This was also the time he began writing a regular column in the Japanese magazine Famitsu, giving candid opinions on game development. Soon, however, it was back on the sequel train. Iwata falsely told the press at that year’s E3 that Nintendo was making a third Smash Bros. game for Nintendo’s upcoming console, the codenamed “Revolution.” Later that night, he asked a shocked Sakurai, who had spent the afternoon being repeatedly asked about the state of development for a game he didn’t know existed, to direct it. Concerned Nintendo might release a sequel that was just an online-enabled Melee port and feeling peer pressure from other game makers, he accepted the offer.
He started planning while finishing Mushiking, but now Sakurai had no HAL to develop it, not that they were equipped to deal with a project so much larger in size and scope. Instead, he temporarily founded an odd coalition between small publisher Game Arts (partially due to its team’s love of and familiarity with Melee, partially because Sakurai was impressed with Grandia III (2005)) and Monolith Soft, a former Squaresoft and Namco studio Nintendo would purchase in 2007. The team – a hundred full time staffers, though over seven hundred as a whole – worked in an office building Nintendo rented for the purpose of making a new Smash game. After the project plan was submitted on July 7, 2005, development began in that October; recruitment of independent game designers stopped eleven months later. While Nintendo would claim that Smash for Revolution was set at being a launch title in late 2006, that would not be the case at all. Instead, the third Smash game would be a massive, long undertaking. It would also be the most controversial entry in the series.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (January 31, 2008)
You’ll notice little of the actual production behind the third Smash Bros. game has been discussed so far. And that’s because this is the point in the in which the hype cycles of the series would balloon in size and prominence. Part of this was the ease at which internet forums and accessibility was spreading. There was not just a huge audience for not just the competitive play Melee offered (and video sharing sites to show it); subgroups for any specific kind of fan were being easily created and populated. Regardless of the cause, it’s with this game that the fan engagement became a fundamental part of each game’s story. Sakurai had by this point fashioned himself into a top-notch showman, teasing and revealing parts of his games in an over the top manner. In the months after the game’s 2006 reveal, he’d make another weekday blog; this time, though, the “Smash Bros. DOJO!!” would be translated in multiple languages to promote each new and old element. And while we had seen pieces of that during the last two Smash games (the daily blog, the more direct engagement with players), when he revealed Super Smash Bros. Brawl – whose console had also been officially named “Nintendo Wii” – it was on full force.
The game’s official reveal gave audiences a wealth of new ideas on which to speculate. The new theme was a dark operatic piece composed by Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu, with Latin lyrics by Shogo Sakai. The art direction furthered Melee’s light grit aesthetic but with a more washed out, brighter appearance. One unknown item summoned a labrador retriever from nintendogs (2005) to excitedly cover up the screen, while another finally included the axed finishing moves from the first game. These new Final Smashes, accessible only after hitting a neon glowing ball made from the Smash Bros. logo, gave wild attacks: Mario fired a massive double helix of flame, Link slashed opponents trapped in a Zelda Triforce, and Kirby cooked rivals in a giant stew pot straight out of Kirby Super Star (1996). But it was the characters who surprised audiences the most.
The first newcomer was Kirby “rival” Meta Knight, standing atop his Halberd airship from Super Star. Then, he got attacked by Pit from Kid Icarus, now sporting a drastic anime-inspired design with a bow that can split into scimitars. Then, Samus fired her own super attack at the two (highly requested) fighters, but her suit falls off, forcing her to now fight in her “Zero Suit” (a name Smash apparently came up with) catsuit form from the Metroid remake Zero Mission (2004). Then, the beloved Wario appeared…but not in his classic “evil Mario” overalls most fans knew and loved, but the punk biker redesign he got in WarioWare, Inc!: Mega Microgame$ (2003). He even drove that game’s bike and ostensibly ended the trailer with an atomic fart attack, a perfect way to both deflate the intensity of the trailer and confuse fans less familiar with Wario’s more pronounced scatalogical history in Japan. Already the game had gone from well liked fighters to bizarre, out there choices. Except that afterward, there was a stinger of Solid Snake chatting about Smash with Metal Gear supporting character Colonel Campbell, only to reveal the former hiding in one of his notorious cardboard boxes in the pretty, new version of Battlefield. He jumps out, says “showtime!,” and in a matter of seconds changed the game entirely for Smash devotees.
Snake’s appearance was the result of Sakurai’s friendship with Hideo Kojima, the latter of whom finally got his request in. He was announced to a strong mix of excitement – after all, he is an icon, and Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) had just been shown off at the same E3 – and confusion. Snake’s appearances on Nintendo consoles were mostly non-canon sequels like Snake’s Revenge (1990) and Ghost Babel (2000); despite being owned by Konami, he was functionally a mascot of Nintendo’s rival Sony, leading a series that emphasized both PlayStation hardware capabilities and darker themes Nintendo typically eschews. And yet, there he was, giving up his firearms for the (sort of) more family friendly rocket launchers and grenades. He’s a legitimately fascinating character on a mechanical level, but that’ll always be superseded by his presence alone. Anyone, at least if they’re a game character who’s appeared on Nintendo in some capacity, could theoretically make it in. Now, almost every one of this series’ following “guest fighters,” as they’re known, has had a much stronger presence Nintendo than Snake (only one has had a significantly smaller one); it’s not super likely that characters with no connection to the company whatsoever will be picked on the roster. That goes double for ones who are obscure. It didn’t matter. Snake wasn’t Nintendo; he wasn’t even anywhere near the realm of most requested or wanted fighters. But he was there, and he was cool. I suspect having a character like him instead of one Smash fans were more comfortable with made the possibility of third party content so much more exciting and acceptable. If someone like Kojima’s legendary mercenary can make it, so many others might as well.
Metal Gear’s hero was not the only third party character; Sonic the Hedgehog also made it in. The beloved platforming icon and rival to Mario was a titanic get; when he was announced on October 10, the official site crashed for most of the day due to traffic (I imagine that was the “7,150,000” visitors in one week the site has as a statistic). It was also a large strain on Brawl’s development. Sonic was added in 2007, well after the project document, and with it, the roster, were decided upon in June of 2005 (while I don’t think there’s any actual proof, one long standing rumor claims Sakurai initially planned to use him but was turned down by SEGA). It also caused the delays which pushed the game back by several weeks, something which were announced with the character. Judging by internal coding, his inclusion threw off the production order enough to cause at least three other fighters to have been halted and almost cut: Jigglypuff, Toon Link (Young Link’s functional replacement from the cel-shaded The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker (2003)) and Star Fox baddie Wolf O’Donnell. All three were added after most of the other roster, the latter two reuse a number of moves from other characters – Toon Link unsurprisingly draws from Link; Wolf draws from everyone and took “70%” of the effort a normal character would – and all three only show up in the story mode’s post-game content. Sonic himself also showed up only right before the final boss fight, and while many of his attacks draw from SEGA’s Virtua Fighter series, a lot of his animations draw from other Brawl characters.
As for the rest of the newcomers, they mostly seemed to oscillate between filling holes in Melee’s selection, introducing newer characters, and exploring new gameplay ideas, though those weren’t mutually exclusive. Perennial Kirby rival King Dedede (voiced by Sakurai), DK’s popgun-wielding chimp nephew Diddy Kong, Pit, and Wario were classic icons who were mostly wanted and expected. Younger fighters included broadsword battler Ike (who filled an open space on the initial roster set for a new Fire Emblem character) from Path of Radiance (2005), Ness counterpart Lucas from the finally released MOTHER 3 (2006), and Pokémon Diamond & Pearl’s (2006) jackal monk Lucario. Others were there for new mechanics. Zero Suit Samus explored the variability of Final Smashes – Samus’ destroyed her Varia Suit; ZSS’ rebuilt it – though without a reliable way to transform she was, sadly, mostly dead weight. The comically ambitious Pokémon Trainer took the Zelda and Sheik dichotomy to the next level, controlling a Squirtle, Ivysaur, and Charizard and switching one out for the next as need be.
Overall, though, most of the cast fulfilled both interests. Lucario wasn’t just a representative for the newest Pokémon generation; its unique “Aura” mechanic of gaining power from the damage it took made it akin to a tricky SNK final boss. Meta Knight was an unparalleled air fighter from his hyperactive speed and aerial maneuverability, to the point of being swiftly banned on the competitive circuit – the first time that ever happened to a Smash character. Diddy’s Popgun, its edible peanuts, and his banana peels constituted new kinds of projectiles. And the character who most notably served all purposes the most was Olimar from Pikmin, who came from the youngest new series and carried an absurdly complex moveset; he plucked five varieties of Pikmin from the ground (and could have up to six out at once), and they formed the basis of his attacks. In general, the five newcomers show the beginning of a satisfying trend that became much stronger in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U (2014), one in which iconography and newness were explored alongside mechanical diversity and moves that took the gameplay to an extreme.
The concept of newness could be seen beyond the newcomers. Mario’s “Mario Tornado” special was replaced by a move taking advantage of the F.L.U.D.D. super soaker from Super Mario Sunshine (2002), and the game itself got a gorgeous stage based on its hub Delfino Plaza. Link was mostly mechanically the same outside of his trusty boomerang now summoning a small cyclone, but his new Twilight Princess (2006) duds led to him looking even more in line with Brawl’s brighter, drier aesthetic. Ganondorf, Zelda, and Sheik also drew from the same game; the former even got that version’s middle-aged paunch and beard, while the latter was based on concept art by the Zelda team that as far as I can tell was made specifically for Brawl’s sake. As it has in every game, Pikachu became slimmer, following its official artwork, while Fox and Falco looked more like they did in Star Fox: Assault (2005) and Command (2006). This has been fairly consistent from this point in the series onward; Sakurai likes to, in his own words, give characters a “slightly different flavor” for every iteration – and not just in terms of mechanical changes.
Of course, that “flavor” also included Final Smashes, and there was a wonderful amount of invention on that front. Many characters transformed; the Star Fox characters used the series’ floaty Landmaster tanks, while Ganondorf rushed at foes in his Beast Ganon form. Pit and Dedede summoned whole armies as a deluge of quick hazards, though their efficacy was pretty poor. Some used unique mechanics; Snake shot at opponents with a grenade launcher from the front of the screen, while Donkey Kong played bongos set to a quicktime event to make shockwaves. The one Kirby had in the trailer boiled enemies and produced food, and Peach performed a dance to put everyone else on stage to sleep. Pokémon Trainer brought out all his teammates to fire off three attacks at once, and Captain Falcon – who would cause a scene of him running over another fighter with his car – had the only cinematic one in the game. And Luigi’s was just bizarre, as he danced to create a “negative zone” of dark and mysterious energy powered by what the game describes as “the dark side he embraced in his brother’s shadow.” These are the exceptions, and most of them are characters using big blasts, beam attacks, or flurries of weapons. But they were intense and exciting.
The Delfino Plaza stage also signified an interest in newness for the stages. Smash used many for inspiration: the two GameCube Zelda games, Diamond & Pearl, WarioWare, Metroid Prime (2002), Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat (2004), Luigi’s Mansion (2001), F-Zero GX (2003), Electroplankton (2005), and even the Nintendo DS’s Pictochat app. It wasn’t exclusively so; two came from Yoshi’s Island (1995) and Kirby Super Star (specifically, Meta Knight’s Halberd in the latter’s case), SNES classics whose absence had been notable. And Sonic’s made sure to be a recreation of the first level from the first Sonic the Hedgehog. But there was a definite sense of need to look forward, likely because, well, most of Nintendo’s most iconic past games – or at least those that could be easily worked into stages – had already been referenced. Interestingly, this didn’t extend to new items, which drew more from older games like Super Mario World, Ocarina of Time, Kirby’s Dream Land, and Clu Clu Land. Stages were also mostly designed to be easier to manage and navigate; while there were still scrolling stages (as well as all new “touring stages,” which would fly players to different locales in one space), they were often slower or clearer.
In general, Brawl was a game of expansion: of content, ideas, and experiments. The game’s Japanese name was Great Fray Smash Brothers X, and like the series’ “cross in a circle” logo, that represented ideas coming together. But it went beyond fighters or companies; the team tried adding as many and varied ideas as they possibly could. Counting the Pokémon Trainer as three, the game’s eighteen newcomers were the largest addition in the series thus far (Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U would beat it with twenty-one, but only when including DLC fighters; the base game had seventeen), though five Melee newcomers were cut. It was the only game in the series to not have any explicit “clone” characters; while several fighters were very similar, they were more unique than the clones of past games, and a returning Falco and Ganondorf were redesigned to be more separate from Fox and Falcon. Many fighters got changes; Kirby got a new breakdancing attack, Marth an altered Shield Breaker, Bowser a special suplex move, and Luigi finally received voice clips that weren’t just sped up versions of barks Mario said in Smash or Mario 64. Everyone got three taunts, and Snake could use his on the Metal Gear Solid stage to take part in a silly Codec conversation about his opponents. Outside of fighters, Sakurai brought in something from Air Ride: an Advent calendar-looking board where beating challenges would award prizes – trophies, music, even a couple stages – and reveal the conditions for beating the ones next to it. There was also a rudimentary stage builder, though players mostly made gimmick stages, a popular style being a factor to help farm CDs for collectable music.
That last part’s important, as Brawl’s score rocketed exponentially in size. Sakurai felt having only one or two songs play on each stage was too limiting, especially given that many players would have their own histories with Nintendo’s famous music. So he decided to include 258 songs for stages (not counting music like victory jingles; the “real” number is 313), an extreme increase over the forty stage themes in Melee. In the new My Music option, players could determine a song’s likeliness of being played, with some stages having more than ten pieces. To adequately account for this jump, he brought in a massive group of game composers, along with most of the Melee tracks and numerous pieces ripped directly from games. Street Fighter II and Kingdom Hearts composer Yoko Shimomura arranged a remix of the classic Game Boy Tetris (1989) Theme A and one of her own pieces from Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (2005). Masafumi Takada switched gears from his darker killer7 (2005) tunes for an adorable arrangement of the Yoshi’s Story (1997) ending theme, a Russian dance inspired version of Tetris’ Theme B, and a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll interpretation of a WarioWare: Touched! (2004) song. A returning Shogo Sakai wrote a sweet version of a route theme in Pokémon Diamond & Pearl, an orchestral Fire Emblem series theme complete with Latin lyrics, the bombastic “Porky’s Theme” from MOTHER 3 (2006), and a dramatic remix of “The Legendary Air Ride Machine” from Kirby Air Ride. Even legendary Nintendo composers Koji Kondo and “Hip” Tanaka” each contributed, respectively providing a piano arrangement of the Super Mario Bros. theme and a techno reimagining of Donkey Kong’s (1981). Dozens of composers from decades of the Japanese gaming scene added songs referencing a wealth of Nintendo history, and Sakurai started making blog posts just about individual tracks as another form of promotion. Brawl was a game of many ideas, a good number of them positive, but its best would have to be My Music.
The increase also led to one of the series’ most liked and contentious items (and the one from which that Nintendog came), the Assist Trophy. While the game could only include so many fighters of the hundreds clamored for by fans, this new item – a stand of an obscured Smash trophy – would randomly summon one of over two dozen Nintendo characters as a temporary sidekick. As an evolution of the Poké Ball concept (which of course also grew in number), it allowed other characters, some of who couldn’t quite make the roster, to be part of the battle. Longtime Mario spinoff heel Waluigi would assault opponents with stomps and tennis swings, while one of the eponymous facehuggers from Metroid (1986) would chase after a character to slurp on their head. Sometimes they would carry different art styles; Star Fox baddie Andross spat geometric doom from his 1993 polygonal body, Excitebike (1984) racers and Advance Wars (2001) soldiers were done up in sprites, and chaos causing Zelda oddball Tingle rocked his cel shaded design from The Wind Waker. Some of them were iconic, like Sonic’s inexplicably popular rival Shadow the Hedgehog; others not, like the toothbrush mustachioed Dr. Wright from the 1991 SNES version of SimCity, who catapulted foes skyward by summoning skyscrapers. The item was well received, though it was (and still is) a target of frustration that many of these characters, such as Sin & Punishment (2000) gunner Saki Amamiya or Golden Sun (2001) magical adept Isaac, were or are not playable.
Other items were far less important, but still interesting. There was a bomb that functioned like the Halo (2001) Sticky Grenade, an unwieldy cannon that shot firecrackers, and an Air Ride vehicle that had to be built from three parts before turning into a one-shot attack. Others affected the fighters, such as the EarthBound series’ auto-reflecting Franklin Badge and painfully fiery curry from Kirby’s Dream Land which made the eater breath fire uncontrollably. Other items, like an Unira from Clu Clu Land or a jack from Donkey Kong, were made to control space, some were traps like the Animal Crossing (2001) Pitfall, and one item, a banana peel, simply made players who walked into it trip on the ground.
The concept of tripping was a sticking point for Smash fans. In Sakurai’s interest in making the game at a more accessible, casual level (due to both how high the skill floor was in Melee and the Wii’s significantly larger and more casual audience), he instituted a number of changes, including removing some of the last game’s higher level techniques, to make the game more “fair.” The biggest change was that the speed was slowed, an overcorrection from Melee’s hyperactive pace that made the game sluggish and floaty. Many of the stages were seen as blatantly unsuited for competitive play, though in reality that’s been the case with every iteration. But the frustration over those changes coalesced around the loathed new mechanic in which players could randomly trip, especially if they were just starting to run. While a legitimate irritant that was thankfully removed in the next iteration, it wasn’t really the biggest issue with Brawl’s gameplay. It was more an easy shorthand for the game’s various moves towards something closer to Mario Kart. It led to the development of Project M, an unlicensed Brawl mod that removed most of the random elements, reworked the physics, and made a number of other changes to make it copy the design of Melee as much as physically possible – it even made the menus darker and edgier.
In the Brawl era especially, hardcore Melee fans saw Sakurai’s move towards more casual play as an affront, a man angrily turning against his own masterpiece. Truthfully, that’s never really been his attitude, nor is it the case that the arduous experience of making Melee turned him off it (both Smash for 3DS & Wii U and Ultimate made a number of moves to be stronger competitive environments). He is proud of his creation; he just regrets that despite wanting his game to combat the hardcore-exclusivity of fighting games, he ended up aiming it and gearing it specifically towards that same hardcore audience and away from a greater breadth of players. He doesn’t want to replicate that. Note that it’s not just a case of “casual” versus “competitive,” as there are numerous levels within those, they all interplay, and he wants to ensure all are able to get as much as possible from the experience. This is especially important given Smash is an over the top crossover with a wide array of demographics; it’s inevitable most players will have neither ability nor inclination to play at anywhere near the level you see at tournaments like EVO. Over the years, he’s repeatedly stated his suspicion that Smash would likely not be as popular now had the series relentlessly pursued and pushed further in Melee’s direction, and he’s likely not wrong. I’ll confess to being partially biased here, though; I can’t actually physically play Melee at all but the absolute lowest level of difficulty due to its speed.
It’s also the era in which Sakurai himself became a distinctly and intensely controversial figure for how much the series follows his auteurist vision. There are the competitive fans frustrated at how forcefully he moved the series from Melee’s pacing (and a much smaller but still existing set of casually minded fans upset at any of his attempts to offer competitive players an olive branch), but the intensity of character-specific subgroups have slowly drowned them out. There are swaths of fans angry their favorite character wasn’t added. There are fans angry their favorite character was, but not in the way they wanted. There are fans angry at too much representation of new games, fans angry when one series gets too many characters, fans angry at any new Pokémon content at all, fans angry there are too many third party series, and fans who have taken to harassing and threatening Sakurai as way of campaigning for Waluigi. To many Smash lovers, “Mashpotato Samurai” is a wicked Santa whose sleigh is a ceaseless “hype train,” capriciously destroying his games or showering fans in surprise gifts whenever the mood suits him. That’s also led to him being lauded as this over the top figure, something admittedly not helped by his tendency to try to make each project as gigantic as humanly possible Of course, this isn’t old, as for years he was the bizarre (and likely unaware) target of hate for at least one person: the writer of the crossover comics in Germany’s Club Nintendo magazine, who repeatedly demeaned Kirby in the comic out of a stated but unexplained hatred of Sakurai and his character.
The art direction was a product of this more broadly minded approach. Brawl upped the grittiness from Melee, but it also upped the intensity of the lighting, giving the game a washed out, slightly dry look. It was inspired by the sky – coincidentally, “Sora” comes from the kanji for “sky” – in the interest of presenting a world vast, open, and friendly. In many respects it looks much nicer than the darker Melee; the colors are brighter and softer (one of the biggest beneficiaries is Brawl’s Yoshi’s Island stage, which mimics the pastel art of Super Mario World 2 (1995); it’s not something that could’ve been done in the last two games). However, the lighting, the softer colors, and the extra emphasis on visual detailing like fur and cloth has the unfortunate effect of making the game seem a bit dirty and rough. It wasn’t really seen as suited for Nintendo characters, and unfortunately the raise in graphics often didn’t extend to as many facial expressions, particularly of characters like Link. To a certain extent, the characters themselves also still kept that Melee look, or even got a darker version of it. Aside from the main theme, which was seen as overdramatic, one of the more popular targets of criticism was Mushroomy Kingdom, which reimagined the iconic World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. as a long dead wasteland.
It should be stated, however, that there were a few stages in which much more artistically diverse – and interesting – environments did exist. Like how Smash (64) and Melee copied 8- and 16-bit games, Brawl had a stage copying the mediocre, 1983 NES port of Donkey Kong. The oppressive Mario Bros., meanwhile, didn’t copy that ‘83 arcade classic’s pixels, but it slavishly recreated them, then filled it with pixelated enemies from the arcade. The elevator of WarioWare, Inc. sent players through a bevy of challenges from WarioWare games, each one drawn up in the beautifully crude drawings of their original games. One of the final stages, Pirate Ship, recreated The Wind Waker’s gorgeous cel shading; it’s one of the most loved Brawl stages, and probably partially because of its look. And the emphasis on stronger lighting lead to some visually dynamic stages; of the two new Metroid ones, the lava-filled Norfair pulses with deep reds while the lights of the spooky, derelict Frigate Orpheon flicker off constantly.
Another element that escaped the gritty brush were the game’s pristine menus. In sharp contrast to the strong lines and darker imagery of Smash (64)’s and Melee’s menus, Michiko Takahashi’s emphasized larger colors and off-white backgrounds. It’s another thing for which Sakurai is deeply passionate, either because he’s married to his UI Director or because he’s just an eccentric gaming weirdo. Both their focuses are on making menus visually engaging, but also as easy to navigate as possible. Every button should have an effect (and, if possible, a small audiovisual reaction), menu items should bigger or smaller in accordance with their importance, more hardcore features should be tucked away a little deeper, text should be easy for even non-players, and in general it should be usable even by those who don’t know the language or the game at all. Today, the Brawl menus are typically (and not unfairly) seen asa bit bland, even antiseptic; while they were reasonably liked in their heyday, they were a bit of an extension of the Wii’s sterile color scheme. Takahashi’s menus in later Smash games would be far more colorful in their backgrounds, with big bold colors for each option and oscillating waves of background color that made them far more dynamic. However, those menus still mostly built off of this design. The spatial relationship between the larger and smaller buttons, the way pages changed as you moved in and out of them, all that has been retained and explored much further.
The interest in appealing outside the “core” demographic came up in a number of modes. There was a coin-operated arcade shooter to snag trophies, a returning All-Star Mode (now based around fighting characters by their franchise’s year of debut, which unfortunately caused massive difficulty spikes), and multiple short demos of games that could be purchased on the Wii’s online Virtual Console. One odd feature was the “Chronicle;” it was just a list of games Nintendo published, but since specific titles were only added after the player collected a specific goodie, it slowly became a Biblical rundown of almost every game Nintendo ever made. But the biggest was definitely its overhaul of Melee’s Adventure Mode. The Subspace Emissary was a massive platforming action game, filled with cutscenes, long levels, a nonlinear story with multiple character perspectives, and bosses. It told a story of the world of Smash under siege by a mysterious army, ripping up chunks of terra firma with giant interdimensional bombs. Some fighters chased after a hijacked Halberd, others went to rescue their comrades, others still escaped captivity, but all made alliances with those they met along the way. It even featured honest-to-god character development; Lucas learned how to stand up for himself, Pikachu and Samus rescued each other from danger (and the latter’s archenemy Ridley, who showed up as two unique boss fights), and Meta Knight eventually accepted the help of new friends in retaking his ship. The greatest onus for the story, though, was placed in surprise newcomer R.O.B. the Robot, a notorious Nintendo peripheral from 1985 who was the primary antagonist. It was an odd place to be for a character with little fan support or easily readable expressions, but it mostly worked.
Subspace was the ambition and struggle of Brawl in microcosm, with only some of its triumphs. The biggest issue is that it’s not particularly fun as a platform game. Its often giant levels had to account for the speed and aerial mobility of thirty-nine characters, leading to exploration with a very low difficulty curve. They’re organized haphazardly, largely because they try to add a surprisingly wide variety of platforming mechanics. Some are nonlinear mazes, others are just one of a number of boss fights (most against Nintendo villains like Mario Sunshine monster Petey Piranha and MOTHER 3 child despot Porky Minch) and some have long fight and platforming sequences leading into each other. It really does go all out, and having Kirby Super Star style co-op is cool, but the bland platforming does kneecap it. The nadir is the Great Maze, the final environment in which massive chunks of each level are strung together in an incoherent series of corridors. It’s a very blatant attempt at reusing material while also allowing players to use characters they didn’t get to try (though you can replay levels anyway), and kills pretty much all the narrative push. When Sonic shows up at the last minute to fight big bad Tabuu – his lack of appearance certainly the result of those delays – it’s a relief. Many fans were frustrated that the villains were original creations, but personally I found them fine; certainly they weren’t the problems of the mode by any means.
At the same time, the actual mode is pretty staggering, especially given that it’s just one (admittedly mammoth) part of the game. It featured the series’ first attempt at character customization; stickers of official character art from Nintendo games could be applied to characters’ “trophy stands,” with players having to organize them in a way where they all fit together (the more powerful the upgrade, the larger the sticker’s size). There was an entire mechanic for turning enemies and even bosses into trophies, Poké Ball style. The attempt at giving every character at least a couple cutscenes and plot relevance – Sonic, Jigglypuff, Toon Link, and Wolf excepted, of course – was a laudable effort to ensure everyone’s favorite fighter got to have some role. And those cutscenes were an absolute delight; seeing Diddy Kong irritate Fox and Falco, Dedede screwing over everyone he came across, or Lucario turn the tables on Snake’s long-infamous tactic of box disguises was wonderful in a way Smash functionally can’t be.
This ambition is marked by a plethora of unused content, such as dropped plans to employ battle damage and movement animations for Pokémon Trainer, cut music including The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening’s (1993) “Ballad of the Wind Fish” and EarthBound’s “Eight Melodies,” and multiple Subspace Emissary scenes that would have been shown part of the larger plot. The most interesting, though, involves characters. A few cut animations suggest Fox’s Blaster was planned to occasionally misfire, presumably removed because it made it too unreliable. The Animal Crossing player avatar was considered but discarded due to being too pacifistic, though the series did get a stage. The same was partially used to dismiss Miis, the avatars for Nintendo’s Wii brand (alongside that they could facilitate online bullying and weren’t compelling on their own). Wolf was chosen over Star Fox Adventure’s (2002) Krystal due to ease of making him, while Squirtle replaced its final evolution Blastoise to distinguish the Water-type partner more and show the stages of Pokémon evolution. Sakurai also considered – albeit likely only momentarily – the Super Mario RPG (1996) puppet warrior Geno, inadvertently matching an surge of popularity the otherwise unknown character got from the Smash community. And Diddy was originally planned to fight alongside his Donkey Kong Country 2 (1995) girlfriend Dixie Kong with a tag team mechanic before complications arose and the mechanic, and her along with it, was cut from the roster.
For many fans, the most compelling element is data within the game’s coding for six planned additional characters alongside Dixie, though it’s hard to tell how much work was even done on them. At least Mewtwo, Roy, and Dr. Mario were all planned to return but were cut for time or space or the effect of Sonic’s inclusion, or something else entirely. There were also plans for a Toon Zelda, and a “Toon Sheik” – a character who’s never actually existed – to go along with her. But the weirdest is “pra_mai,” a file for an entirely unknown character. It’s often assumed to be Pokémon Ruby & Sapphire’s (2002) cheer team of Plusle and Minun, though that goes against Smash’s internal coding (which labels characters with official romanizations, not phonetic spelling), or an early version of the already existing “Random” character choice. It’s remained one of the series’ biggest, entirely unanswered questions.
For all of these factors, Brawl is the most contentious game in the series by a wide margin. It has minuscule tournament representation, to the point where Smashboards.com places it below every other game in the series (which are otherwise organized by release date), as though it’s a public shame to be erased. And its problems are very clear. The random elements, important to the series as they are, did get out of control. The balancing is totally out of whack; alongside Meta Knight’s dominance, accidental by products of the engine made some characters or mechanics grossly overpowered. On the opposite end, Pokémon Trainer was saddled with two awful mechanics; Stamina made the Pokémon weaker the longer they stayed out (by extension forcing switching characters), and a type chart screwed up the balance. The three monsters took much more or less knockback in relation to their classic weaknesses, but since Ivysaur and Squirtle were the only fighters using Grass or Water-type moves, the former was exceptionally weak to the many, many fighters that incorporated fire into their attacks. Outside of characters, Subspace’s amazing cutscenes did little to mollify terrible level design, and the Stage Builder was limited. Some of the stages were visually cool but painfully gimmicky and not particularly fun, like the irritating Electroplankton stage or that Donkey Kong recreation.
But in general, I think it gets a bad rap. The forced attempts to make the game more casually minded failed, and Subspace could have been scaled down just a bit in its size and scope and been much better for it. But I also don’t doubt that the huge casual audience that came out for it had fun with it…probably more than Melee with its higher skill floor. The best parts of the game – its great newcomer cast, the wonderful score – have influenced the rest of the series in ways that aren’t fully noticed. And it did a huge amount to bring out the spectator element that had been in the series since the original Smash Bros., especially thanks to an incredibly fun camera functionality which encouraged players to make cool or goofy poses. It was ambitious in a way no other game in the series has been. Every Smash game is ambitious, to be clear, but Brawl really tried to chase not just the core gameplay, but more unique and disparate ideas than its counterparts. It had a story, it had demos of other games, it even made weirdly compelling mini-game out of clerical work. After the game’s release, the size and expectations of following Smash games would limit a lot of the innovation the series could make beyond actual battles and fighters. Smash for Wii U, one half of the next iteration of the series, is fantastic and much better of a game, but it is far safer. And as for the less safe half of that iteration, that one would ultimately be the series’ weakest entry.
But enough of that for right now. Regardless of its many problems, the game sold almost thirteen million copies; it stands now as the most successful iteration in the series. With his game released to universal critical acclaim (like fellow 2008 blockbusters Grand Theft Auto IV, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Fallout 3, Brawl’s strong critical rep didn’t mimic its mixed fan response), Sakurai married Michiko Takahashi, who has been his UI Director for all his games since. A few years later, Iwata showed him the prototype of Nintendo’s newest handheld, a supercharged Nintendo DS upgrade that allowed users to enjoy stereoscopic 3D (which had become a fad, as it does every few decades, a year after Brawl with the release of the film Avatar (2009)) without needing lenses. After initially considering other Nintendo properties like Star Fox – he felt the 3D was best suited to a flying game – Sakurai decided to go with the series he brought back for his last game. The result, Kid Icarus: Uprising (2012), was a brawler-SHMUP hybrid as ambitious as Brawl but with only one feature that made it even more mixed in result: the controls were painfully unsuited for a handheld device. Getting around the 3DS’ small size and Circle Pad was bad enough that some regions bundled new copies of the game with special stands to make playing easier.
Uprising, however, was neither fluke nor failure, and it is incredibly important for the development of Smash. Alongside a huge plot with twenty-five massive levels and almost as many unique bosses, the game featured robust systems for players to play their way. And while much of that came from the dozens of unique weapons Pit collected, many with randomly generated stats, it was most important in the “Fiend’s Cauldron.” The game’s difficulty system was essentially a bet: players put up some currency, and the more money put into the pot raised the difficulty. Finishing levels at higher levels granted bigger payouts and better weapons, while dying set you back half a level and with some of the cash lost. It’s difficulty as insurance, with some incentives – the game had not one but three of those Challenge boards, here called “Treasure Hunts” – pushing players to explore the game at higher levels of challenge. It was also an outlet for Sakurai’s cinematic inspiration (and love of shows and films like Star Wars), with Pit and his goddess Palutena navigating a massive, multi-part war driven by eccentric gods.
Uprising finished in late March of 2012, Project Sora (which was built just to make the game) was closed, and soon after release Sakurai went back to work on Smash. As with last time, this came a year after Satoru Iwata would announce a Smash Bros. game without an actual plan in the hopes of drumming up interest. The difference is that this time, it would actually be two games: Smash would theoretically come to both the 3DS and Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U home console. While Sakurai would state in late 2011 that there was no “concrete plan” for the unnamed Smash 4, he was definitely thinking over ideas. As Uprising neared going gold, he talked about looking at the Brawl Dojo on Twitter; in March, he and Michiko looked for a new residence to live in during development.
It’s not clear when pre-production started, but on April 26 2012, Sakurai sent in his proposal (with an edited version coming in May). What little we know of the plan mostly revolved two major ideas: emphasizing character customization and exploring the idea of an iteration on two separate systems. While not stated in the documents we know, the one idea that had to have been stated was that the roster of both games needed to be the same, in order to facilitate transferring of customized characters between copies of the game. There’s actually not a huge amount of material about development compared to the previous games; I suspect it’s due to the fact that going by many accounts, things went more smoothly than prior games in the series. However, there was one deeply negative element that reached the public: Sakurai’s personal health. At some point during development, he developed a bad case of calcific tendinitis in his right shoulder, an apparent result of his extensive game playing, researching, and testing. In an interview this year Nintendo of America executive Bill Trinen has stated that Sakurai’s health has improved, but for some time during development he had to restrict all his work to just his left hand.
Beyond that, the game showed no major signs of issues from a public perspective. This time gaming giant Bandai Namco (known as Namco Bandai between the two companies’ 2006 merger and 2014) would be handling development; given the final product, it was a good fit. Namco got a bit of friendly preferential treatment; the iconic Special Flag from Rally-X (1980) and Boss Galaga from Galaga (1981) were items, a variety of medleys from their arcade history were incorporated, and most importantly arcade icon Pac-Man joined as a fighter. Miyamoto had actually requested the latter for Brawl, but Sakurai had trouble envisioning him at the time beyond the “pizza without a slice” body he had in the original Pac-Man (1980). By 2012 the latter wanted a character from Namco, and while at least Heihachi from Tekken was briefly considered (it’s unknown if anyone else was), he went with the arcade icon. His status as a retro figure was emphasized, to the point where Sakurai considered dropping him if Namco had demanded he use the design from the then-recent cartoon Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures (2013). Pac-Man also got two stages, making Namco’s involvement feel more collaborative than simply being an agent of Sakurai’s or Nintendo’s will.
By the time of the game’s official reveal at June 11 at E3 2013, the climate around the game had changed dramatically. Nintendo’s newest console, the Wii U, had released the previous holiday season to little acclaim and atrocious sales. The reveal of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U (often shortened to Smash For when discussing them, which I’ll typically be using) was one of their few public bright spots. Sakurai stated some details months before its first trailer: there wouldn’t be a story mode – various reasons have been given, the most notorious being that he felt they were less of a reward if they were easily accessible online – random tripping was removed, and that there would be a more extensive implementation of character customization. However, the details on the latter would have to wait until mid-2014.
The official reveal – one announcement trailer, then two character specific ones, and afterwards a developer conference for Sakurai to discuss the game – kicked off a project that repeatedly played with Smash fans’ expectations. The first one was fairly normal: shots of the game running on 3DS and Wii U, a selection of series staples, and a quick introduction of the first newcomer. The Villager from Animal Crossing represented Nintendo’s biggest series not yet represented, and their quirky, item themed moveset was appealing. The second trailer was different, instead only focusing on new third party icon Mega Man. The character was beloved and long demanded, and his gimmick of every single move being some weapon from his games (with the greatest emphasis on Mega Man 2 (1988), typically the fan favorite) was intriguing. But then there was the third trailer, for the trainer character from Wii Fit (2007). This was someone seemingly no one wanted; she was barely a character at all. There were reasons for including her (for one thing, the Wii brand in general was massive and important), but she was unsurprisingly seen as a bizarre, pointless choice.
These trailers showed a few specific, important changes to the series’ formula. Firstly, there would be even more of an emphasis on characters, especially newcomers. Instead of putting the CGI budget to an opening or narrative cutscenes, the money went to flashy trailers showing off each new fighter. With the only mode shown being some odd, vaguely open space, attention had to go to these new characters. But they were also odd in design: Mega Man’s devotion to his Variable Weapons System meant half his attacks were easily deflectable projectiles, Villager’s design was lazy and floaty, and Wii Fit Trainer only fought with yoga poses. And the latter was an entirely unexpected presence, not a character with any real fandom. Odd and unexpected choices of all sorts, even though they were not made or executed for the specific purpose of being unexpected, would soon become far more of a commonality. The day after the trailers came out, Sakurai started a “Director’s Room,” another weekday blog in Nintendo’s silly, now defunct social media app Miiverse. It was initially intended to be much less work intensive, only to balloon in size and scope as the team used it to introduce a litany of material. And from that began the road to the next games.
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U (September 13 (3DS), November 21 (Wii U), 2014)
Two Smash games, one for handheld and one for home, is what drove and partially defined the series’ fourth iteration. The two versions weren’t exactly ports, but they weren’t independent, either. They shared the engine, the same roster, the same attributes for each fighter (minus a few snafus), the same assist characters, and a few of the same stages and modes. But beyond that, they’re entirely different, with mostly unique stages between the two and features to get the most out the benefits and limitations of each platform. Smash for 3DS & Wii U is a compelling study because of everything it tries to do, and the ways in which it both succeeds and struggles. And that means we have to look at what they are as a conjoined unit, because that is the centerpiece of the game. It influenced the roster, it dictated the modes, and it directed the imagery. The attempt to cater to both casual and competitive audiences, as well as highlight the versatility of the games, led to them adopting a “red vs blue” motif. Red, representing fire and the speed of Melee, was used for Smash for 3DS; blue, for Brawl’s interest in sky and breadth, coated Smash for Wii U. The incrementally improved online service provided “For Fun” and “For Glory” rooms for people seeking different kinds of fights. To ensure that people only playing the latter got to enjoy more levels and music, all stages had an “Omega” form turning them into a Final Destination copy. Even the games’ Final Destination itself had a “fire and ice” design, with even a red and blue planet circling each other in the background of the Wii U one.
The technical limitations of Smash for 3DS became apparent rather quickly. With far more limited processing power, it got more sluggish and less consistent than prior games. Melee and Brawl had issues with any characters with multiple model changes, such as Sheik and Zelda, the Ice Climbers, and Olimar, but the 3DS took them to a new level. Olimar was redesigned to only use three Pikmin at once; even then, the strain on the system made him barely usable on 3DS. (also, the Pikmins’ newly added AI, allowing them to pick up items on their own, appeared to have been cut for 3DS – one of the only mechanical differences between versions). Sheik, Zelda, and both Samuses were simply split into unique characters, though that had the positive benefit of making all four more distinct; only Charizard was retained from the Pokémon Trainer, likely for the same reason. As for the Ice Climbers, despite being playable on the Wii U, after removing “as many joints as [the team] could” and even disabling their gravity, they still couldn’t function on 3DS and were cut. Swimming, which was added in Brawl, can only be found in the Wii U version, possibly due to hardware issues. The stages also had to be much smaller, though that wasn’t bad; more compact ones like Find Mii (from the 3DS’ Streetpass application), Prism Tower (Pokémon X & Y (2013)), and Gerudo Valley (Ocarina of Time), were pleasures. That one, by contrast, had more of the larger stages, such as a mammoth Palutena’s Temple and the Star Fox Assault (2005) themed Orbital Gate Assault; the latter was a scrolling stage so large and over complicated it took a year to actually make.
The difference in systems also led to a difference in modes; while both versions had the staples of Classic, All-Star, Multi-Man Smash, Training, and Home-Run Contest, there were only two new modes they shared. The hilarious, frenetic Trophy Rush forced players to evade and destroy an endless array of falling blocks to earn tons of trophies, while the bland Target Blast was an Angry Birds clone that involved smashing a bomb to destroy a giant assortment of obstacles. Other than that, Smash for 3DS had only two real modes to its own: the anemic and instantly forgettable Street Smash, and the much greater, larger Smash Run. The latter was wonderfully compelling: four players are stranded on separate versions of a massive island and have five minutes to build up their strength for a short final match. To do this, they fight dozens enemies that cover the island, as each one defeated gives up boosts for speed, jump distance, different kinds of damage, or defense. Enemies include Subspace baddies, classic gaming foes (the Donkey Kong Country Kritters, the Twilight Princess Darknut), more obscure oddities (the Devil Car from EarthBound Beginnings), and whatever 3D models could be ported over (a glut of enemies from Kirby, Mario, and Uprising). There were also occasional randomized events like enemies giving bigger boosts or wind pushing fighters around, as well as small bonus mini-games for breaking targets, avoiding one-hit kill foes, and destroying crystals. After the five minutes, the four players battle in one of many gimmick matches: timed matches where everyone has 300% damage, races, fighting an endless array of enemies or fighters.
Smash Run is a very clear attempt to get as much out of the portable nature of the 3DS as possible. It was reasonably short, only a bit longer than about two Time matches, so it was great for, say, playing on public transit. Having more platforming stuff was less of a hassle here than in Brawl, partially since you could go wherever fit your or your character best. And by being a mode that’s very single character forced, it was a compromise in which players played on their own before going up against friends (or CPU counterparts, which is how I assume most people played it). It’s also very shaggy compared to the series’ generally more polished modes; balancing is pretty terrible, the mini-boss enemies are frustratingly difficult, and it’s rare that players get to really use all the power they’ve acquired. The length also exacerbates the biggest issue with the 3DS version, which is ultimately that it’s on 3DS. The machine’s Circle Pad was a terrible substitute for the Joystick used in every other iteration, the small size of the screen gave players too small a space, and both those problems made playing over longer periods of time more difficult.
And, of course, Smash for 3DS affected Smash for Wii U (and vice versa) by the virtue of them splitting the development. The stage listing for both the games’ stages goes into the eighties, but you can’t play on them all with one game, so lacking one version cuts off a huge amount of content. Smash Run was fun, but geared much more for single players. The Smash for Wii U equivalent was Smash Tour, a middling Mario Party party ripoff where players went around boards to compete for the same stat bonuses Smash Run used. One new mode, Special Orders (in which Master and Crazy Hand provided randomized challenges to unlock bonuses), was fun, but mileage varied given they were just randomly generated matches. Even Classic lost most of its energy. Smash for 3DS had a neat idea about letting players choose their paths to Master Hand that altered difficulty or types of fights, but Smash for Wii U instead reduced it to a series of generic rumbles. Fortunately, All-Star Mode reached its best form; there were simply seven matches representing a few years in gaming history, with every fighter who debuted within that period ganging up on the player. You went from arcade classics to new icons on the 3DS, reverse on the Wii U version, and both versions provided co-op – something also true of Smash for Wii U’s Classic Mode.
Despite the issues on the 3DS version, and how the bifurcation hurt its Wii U counterpart, the game fans colloquially call Smash For is still strong enough for it – or at least Smash for Wii U – to have been the strongest entry in the series by the time it came out. The biggest reason is that its cast of newcomers is great, the best in the series’ history (and since “8-Player Smash” was finally implemented, you could now explore them twice as “efficiently” or chaotically). By the time Brawl had come out, virtually all the most iconic Nintendo characters, give or take a couple Pokémon, had joined the roster. As such, a new change was needed; instead of chasing the remaining “biggest” characters for diminished power, Smash For emphasized a number of qualities to make its newcomers stand out: newness, customization, new opportunities for variability, and pleasing mechanical gimmickry. Newness is the most overt standout here; of the eighteen newcomers (that number discounts the three Mii Fighters, as they’re original to Smash), half come from just from late 2007 onward – well after Brawl started development. Statements from Sakurai has never stated this, but it’s easy to at least assume chasing the biggest Nintendo stars had lost some appeal with almost every A-lister already playable. Looking more to the future seems to have given the game a noticeable energy, and the characters of Nintendo’s late 2000s and early 2010s period got to build an identity comparable to the NES and N64 love Smash has often employed.
It also helped that the new characters distinguished themselves wonderfully. Pokémon X & Y frog shinobi Greninja countered using Substitute dolls, summoned water swords and shurikens, and teleported through its own shadow. Cosmic traveler Rosalina from Super Mario Galaxy (2007) partnered with one of her baby Lumas to put a spin on both the Ice Climbers’ and Olimar’s gimmicks; the Luma was a puppet that’d mimic her moves and allow wild combos. Wii Fit Trainer’s bizarre yoga pose fighting style gave her confusing hitboxes and made her an unpredictable fighter. And many of the old characters got satisfying new moves from modern games. Three of Pit’s specials (and his Final Smash) were reimagined to incorporate weapons or mechanics from Uprising, Luigi and King Dedede’s hilarious but useless Final Smashes got replaced with ones that drew from Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013) and various Kirby games, and Lucario and Charizard could transform into their snazzy X & Y Mega Evolutions.
There was also a clear interest in having the characters distinguish themselves through distinct styles and giant mechanical shifts. Shulk from Xenoblade Chronicles (2010) – a game made by Brawl collaborator Monolith Soft – could choose to take one of five “stances” at a time, buffing and debuffing unique stats to suit different styles. Bowser’s annoying son Bowser Jr. used his Junior Clown Car from the New Super Mario Bros. (2006 – 2012) sub-series in more ways than one; he takes more damage than other fighters, but his car less, so opponents need to emphasize aiming for his noggin. Little Mac from Punch-Out!! (who had been promoted over an Assist Trophy position in the last game) had an intense all-punching moveset, a slowly powering K.O. meter, and a comically horrendous air game to compensate for both. Fire Emblem: Awakening (2012) tactician Robin split their attacks between swords and magic tomes, all of which were temporarily degradable.
The latter’s important partially because they pushed out the game’s actual protagonist, Chrom, to be playable. Wanting to include a character from Awakening – which had saved its series from commercial death – Sakurai quickly preferred Robin’s more unique and variable moveset over a hero he felt was too in between Marth and Ike. Meanwhile, the game’s deuteragonist (and Chrom’s daughter) Lucina was originally intended as an alternate costume for Marth, before he decided to make her a separate fighter. She, along with Dark Pit from Uprising and a returning Dr. Mario, were the first clones the series had since Melee. All three were initially alternate outfits; all were split off for different reasons. In the order they were remade, Sakurai liked the idea of Lucina being an “easier” Marth without the sweetspot or sourspot, felt “de-making” Doc was a disservice to his fans, and thought it’d be odd for Dark Pit to use Uprising’s Three Sacred Treasures as a Final Smash. Plus, in the case of the latter the developers had built a separate “Electroshock Arm” for Pit to have as a possible custom move, so he had a bit to differentiate him.
Robin was also a character with male and female alternate versions, a carryover from their own game where they’re a customizable avatar. They weren’t the only one with this; the same was true of Villager, Wii Fit Trainer, and Bowser Jr. (due to having Wendy O. Koopa, along with the other six Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) Koopalings, as his costumes). While part of this likely just came as a result of Sakurai finding these specific characters more interesting to use, it’s fair to assume there was an interest on his part in working with fighters who were designed partially for the purpose of inclusivity. There were noticeably more female newcomers this time around as well, further suggesting he was interested in reaching out.
That interest in self-expression manifested itself most strongly in the inclusion of actual custom moves, a first for the series. Each fighter had three variations on each special move that modified it: Mario’s fireballs could be small and fast or powerful but painfully slow, Ganondorf’s Warlock Punch could (finally, for many fans) turn into a sword stab, Charizard’s new Flare Blitz attack could be even stronger and inflict more self-damage or safer, and Pac-Man’s Fire Hydrant could shoot water, fire, or just explode. The concept was promoted by Palutena from Kid Icarus; she was the only regular fighter whose Uprising inspired specials were all widely unique, and the only one whose were all unlocked from the start. But it was most used through the inclusion of Mii Fighters. Note that they weren’t representatives of Miis themselves; their moves are independent of any of Nintendo’s Wii branded games. They’re Smash original characters, made to allow “anyone” – or at least, anyone who would make sense fighting with their fists, a sword, or a laser cannon – to join the battle. They each had twelve unique custom specials, could be faster or stronger depending on how large the Mii was, and had many goofy costumes.
In addition, the game provided a metric ton of custom gear. While many pieces of equipment provided unique abilities or buffs, they all were organized into a dichotomy: gear that strengthened attack lowered defense, defense lowered speed, and speed attack. They were organized into a plethora of different groups (Samus, Mega Man, and R.O.B. could only equip Boosters to increase their speed, for instance, while Rosalina used Pumps), and the strength of equipment was rated on three levels of rarity. But the biggest feature was that every piece, outside of those found from challenges, was entirely random. All Decadent Lollipops would jack Kirby’s attack (and lower his defense) more than Delicious or Yummy ones, but all of them were randomly generated for both how big the stat changes were and what, if any, bonuses they had. This element was taken directly from Uprising, which for rewards and drops doled out weapons whose stats were randomly generated. It’s a cool premise – everyone gets their own unique experiences – though the lack of consistency may have been part of why customization was soon ignored by players. Truthfully, it probably wasn’t the reason; there were a host of others: you couldn’t use them online (presumably since players couldn’t know what they were up against), they weren’t usable in a number of modes, and most people simply liked the characters as they were. But ultimately, it led to a massive new feature in the game and a big step for the series not being particularly valued, and understandably so.
It’s a problem Palutena suffered in particular; she had great specials, but her default ones – i.e. the only ones you could use for most game modes – were the most bland and generic among them. Though it was easier to use them (they could be selected in normal modes, albeit without the custom gear affecting the matches), Mii Fighters rarely saw much use, and most Smash For tournaments ban them for various reasons. The incorporation of customized moves was an inevitable route for Smash to explore, but ultimately, the series’ best forms of it have been organic. Robin and Shulk and Rosalina already allowed a wide variety of playstyles without the aid of explicit new moves. Self-expression was still strong with multipurpose moves and compelling styles, and the strongest forms of “artificial” customization were simply the unique costumes. The moves, for the most part, were really only secondary to that.
Going back to the clones, though, they also symbolized one last aspect of Smash For’s roster, which are its choices that eschewed fan expectations and demands. Mega Man was one of the most strongly fan requested characters, many were iconic or important enough to make sense, but the interest in newer and more unique characters also meant that few “fan favorites” made it in. Rosalina get in over more established Mario characters, like the more prominent Princess Daisy and Waluigi, presumably for her unique moveset. Including Greninja – who was already a popular Pokémon, but still less than a year old and ignored by Smash fans before its reveal – over older Pokémon characters (or Mewtwo, who had been expected to return) was seen as ludicrous. Chrom’s disconfirmation and Lucina’s inclusion were both frustrating for fans, who expected and wanted the former. Lucina was hated in particular for “bringing back” clone characters, with the only Melee veteran to be brought back from unplayable limbo being the super similar Dr. Mario. The cherry on top of all that was that the final character, discovered through a leak a month before Smash for 3DS game out, was the notorious, trolling dog and duck from Duck Hunt (1984). Duck Hunt’s a great choice; they’re historically important, iconic, and by teaming up with a mysterious, offscreen NES Zapper shooter explore projectiles in a fun way. But that was not what anyone was looking for, especially given that Snake, the Ice Climbers, and several well liked Brawl fighters also got the axe.
Given the controversy surrounding each new roster, it might be good to discuss how Sakurai decides upon and makes fighters. At least since Brawl, he has often used four criteria: personality, something unique to that character, developmental difficulties, and (to a lesser extent) franchise distribution. Fighters should be distinct, engaging, fun to use and fight, and help represent Nintendo’s history. In addition, there is a certain degree of preference given to characters or series that “have a future” over those that don’t. Not all, or even most of these requirements need be met. We’ll never get another Duck Hunt game, but it carried “surprising notoriety” and iconography in the West due to being packaged in with the NES. Bowser Jr. was almost cut from Smash For, I’d guess due to difficulties making the Koopalings proportioned, but all eight still managed to make it. Even clones can feel like their own through some flair, a few differences, or something as simple as a unique victory jingle. It’s a guide, but like many things in this series, open to experimentation. Typically, characters are defined with a short phrase (Snake’s was “heavy weapons specialist,” Rosalina’s “puppet fighter”) akin to a marketing slogan. After that, Sakurai builds movesets using posable Microman action figures, and the team researches the games to get an idea about their movements. But through it all, there’s a devotion to making the fighters feel right. In a 1999 interview with EarthBound creator Shigesato Itoi, Iwata mentioned Sakurai’s insistence on talking with the creators of the characters he was using, making sure he was never deviating from their visions. For all that the fighters are always treated as fighters first and references second, there’s a sense of obligation on Sakurai’s part to the wants of both players and colleagues. It’s part of why he believes it important to promote the characters and series he gets to use through Smash.
But in general, Smash For appears to have also had the goal of pushing expectations for what a Smash Bros. character could be, and it paid off. The newcomers were wild, shocking, and incredibly dynamic. Even the Assist Trophies seemed to get weirder as a consequence. Neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima’s polygonal head from Brain Age (2005) summoned explosive math equations. Meanwhile, two games from Nintendo’s largely ignored pre-Donkey Kong history were represented: the Sheriff from Sheriff (1978) (who was a normal trophy in Melee), and Color TV-Game 15, Nintendo’s Pong ripoff machine from 1977. Mother Brain from Metroid and the Mario series Chain Chomp were more bizarre obstacles than opponents, as were the Ghosts from Pac-Man.
The interest in newness and energy also showed itself through a massive number of stages overall. While a few – Little Mac’s Boxing Ring, Mega Man 2’s Wily Castle – were shared between the two versions, the majority were exclusive to one of them. Generally, Smash for 3DS emphasized handheld games and Wii U home console, creating a lineup that represented a fairly wide swath of games. The 3DS version got stages from The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009), Pokémon Black & White (2010), Super Mario 3D Land and nintendogs + cats (both 2011), Animal Crossing: New Leaf (2012), and a retro Game Boy stage for Kirby’s Dream Land. The Wii U one boasted ones from Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011), Pikmin 3 and Game & Wario (both 2013), Mario Kart 8 (2014), and Metroid: Other M (2010). The latter was notably contentious, as Ridley, having been the most wanted character amongst the Smash community since Sonic, had been relegated to a stage hazard on Other M’s busy Pyrosphere. The focus on newness got to the point where a stage based on Yoshi’s Woolly World (2015, half a year after Smash for Wii U) was so far off from that game’s release that the original theme song ripped from the game’s 2014 E3 build is different from the one that’s actually used in final version of Woolly World. And for the most part, they burst with color and energy, especially given that Smash for Wii U finally enabled the series to use high definition graphics. Colors were deep and bold, textures more complex, and facial animations were taken to a whole new level.
Those stages were also interesting for how many of them simply copied the art style of their original games directly, far more than what Melee or Brawl did. Stages based on Duck Hunt, F-Zero, and Balloon Fight simply ripped the sprites of their original games, and others tried hard to mimic the art style of their original games. That’s not bad by any means, but it did represent how Smash For was trying to avoid developing its own interpretations. The dingy Melee and washed out Brawl grittiness were now replaced by a bolder, brighter art style that more directly copied the characters and worlds of the various series. On a gut level, it’s gorgeous and incredibly visually pleasing. However, it does mean that some of its own identity was muted, even more subservient to those other games and series. It can even be seen in the (fun but still kinda bland) main theme, which feels like an attempt at course correcting Brawl’s over the top Latin aria that went too far.
One of the game’s strongest features was another thing Sakurai stole from his last game. The Fiend’s Scale replaced the Fiend’s Cauldron from Uprising, letting players bet on their performance in Classic Mode with the in-game money they earn just by playing the game. It allowed difficulty to be defined in a specific way, with higher levels leading to more loot (and potentially custom parts and music CDs) and potentially a more exciting final boss fight. This time around, Master Hand – when faced on a high enough difficulty – would explode into a insect swarm-like cloud on defeat, taking on more forms the tougher the fight got. Depending on the difficulty, “Master Core” could turn into a copy of the fighter, a hideous wolf like scorpion, a collection of swords, a titan too big for the screen to hold, and in the Wii U version, a giant, acidic body the player has to invade to destroy weak points. It does a lot to stave off the issues with the games’ Classic Modes, and makes the possibility of playing on higher difficulties exciting just to catch a glimpse of what additional grotesquerie will confront you.
This iteration was also the one in which Nintendo started making limited strides to meet the competitive community. They’ve never re-released Melee, making it more and more difficult for new players to join that scene (though the Melee scene’s emphasis on only a few characters has started to limit it as well), but they’ve worked at pushing Smash for Wii U, which has become a new staple of fighting game tournaments. They’ve even started making their own, with invitational tournaments at the E3s of 2014 and 2018 being used to advertise Smash For and Ultimate. The Smash for Wii U’s competitive scene is notably dominated by the shadow of Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios, a professional player of every game in the series whose unbelievable fifty-six consecutive winning streak in Wii U made him the strongest player in the game before his retirement (from Smash For, not other entries) in January of 2018.
The 3DS version came out a few months first, to reasonably positive reception. While it sold more than Melee (due to simply how many more people owned 3DS’s), its technical limitations made it a bit of a pain for both casual and competitive fans. The bigger issue was the lack of that spectator factor, a feature that has helped make Smash as big as it is. The inherent single player focus of a handheld couldn’t support that, and Smash Run, fun as it was, didn’t adequately account for it. It took a few months for Smash for Wii U to come out, to much greater acclaim and much lower sales (due to releasing on one of Nintendo’s biggest commercial failures). While that game was mostly just as anemic in terms of additional gameplay modes, it still managed a sizable glut of content. The Masterpieces section from the last game came back, as did a more robust stage builder that exploited the Wii U’s GamePad to draw levels directly.
Smash for Wii U’s release also came with the series’ first serious attempt at merchandising, the amiibo. Nintendo secretly added within the Wii U a device allowing communication with certain toys, allowing players who bought them to unlock secret bonuses or entirely unique gear. Smash ended up the flagship for the entire amiibo brand; players could use figures of any Smash For fighter to acquire and train a “Figure Player” alongside them. This premise holds a number of similarities to a feature in Uprising that allowed players to scan collectible cards to summon characters from that game to fight each other, but it expands on it significantly. Truthfully, the appeal was fairly limited beyond turning one FP into an overpowered monster, but the generally good quality of the amiibo and the occasionally neat gimmicks have made them an enduring part of Nintendo’s ecosystem.
Of course, the score built on what Brawl did with a track list not far from five hundred, though it was less exciting by virtue of not being as massive a jump. Many of the new tracks were just straight rips from other games, though some of them – both Super Mario Galaxy games (2007 and 2010), for instance – hardly needed remixes. Sadly, a couple of them, as well as Melee’s “DK Rap,” were actually cut down in length. While many of the composers from the last game returned to contribute, a few new ones joined as well. Xenoblade musician team ACE did a rockin’ remix of Mega Man 3’s (1993) “Spark Man Stage” and a Latin interpretation of the Mario World boss theme. Future The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) composer Manaka Kataoka did a great, dramatic remix of the final boss music from Pokémon Diamond & Pearl, and longtime SHMUP musician Namiki did medleys for Duck Hunt and Wrecking Crew (1985). IDOLM@STER and Tekken composer Taku Inoue came up with two great medleys of his own: an acoustic guitar one for The Legend of Zelda, and a fittingly funny and eccentric one for Mario Paint. We Love Katamari’s (2005) Yoshihito Yano came up with the peppy Kirby’s Adventure medley “Ice Cream Island.” Medleys were a common choice in this iteration, for some reason or another, though it worked.
The size of the undertaking means Smash for 3DS & Wii U is filled with unused content and ideas. A Kirby’s Dream Land stage set inside a Game Boy was planned to be from Super Mario Land (1989) but was changed due to there being so many Mario stages (and no Kirby ones) as it were. Another Kirby stage, this one based on Kirby’s Epic Yarn (2010), was reworked into the mammoth Great Cave Offensive from Super Star in order to not crowd out the newer Woolly World stage. To a lesser extent, the jacked Flying Men of the EarthBound Beginnings (1989) Magicant stage initially had 3D models before being worked into their much more pleasing 16-bit sprites from EarthBound for ease of processing power. Datamining suggests that at least at one point in time, stages for Dr. Mario (complete with the multi-colored viruses as bosses), Brain Age, and Nintendo’s messaging app Swapnote (2011) were all in at least some stage of development – though how far and for which of the two games is unclear (other than the Dr. Mario one being on Wii U). Smash Run was also planned to allow co-op play; it was cut due to hardware limitations. In addition, it had to cut a number of more complicated enemy models for time and ease, leading to the team relying so much on copied enemies from recent 3DS games
As for characters, it’s a bit harder to discern aside from Chrom, Heihachi – who was dismissed over logistical concerns for implementing his moveset – and the Ice Climbers. Akin to Ike in Brawl, Greninja filled a slot reserved for a new Pokémon after most of the other fighters had been decided. Sakurai imagined its entire fighting style using models likely before X & Y was announced in January of 2013, going solely by concept art of the monster. In the planning stages, Takamaru from top-down action game The Mysterious Murasame Castle (1986) was dropped for his utter lack of western recognition, though he made it in as an Assist Trophy. Alph from Pikmin 3 (2013) was considered for being made into a clone character; he instead was used as one of Olimar’s costumes. Fan requests to include real life Nintendo personalities like Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime were quickly dismissed. Ridley was chosen to be a hazard due to Sakurai not feeling he could change the character’s size and proportions in a way that was both suitable for a fighter and representative of his personality. The biggest question, though, has to do with a file in the section for character icons (as in, the logos used to represent series, like the Mario Mushroom or Zelda Triforce). It has no image, just the word “rhythm.” Most fans understandably leapt to the conclusion that this must have been planned for a cut fighter from Nintendo’s Rhythm Heaven music games. It wasn’t a big leap; the Sneaky Spirits from Rhythm Heaven (2006) are the only Smash Run enemy to not represent a series with characters (other than Pooka from Dig Dug (1982), who functioned as the requisite Pac-Man enemy), and one of the more enduring rumors pegged the series’ Chorus Kids as newcomers.
Even with the entire roster having been revealed with the release of Smash for 3DS, fans didn’t even have until the second part of Smash For was out to lose their minds once more over speculation. A Nintendo Direct highlighting content specific to Smash for Wii U ended by revealing a returning Mewtwo as a free bonus for players who bought both games, the series’ first instance of downloadable content. Suddenly, the limits of game development seemed effortless to break, with fans debating whether there’d be ten or twelve additional fighters (there were seven). It only got more extreme, though, during an April 1, 2015 Direct. Along with providing details on Mewtwo (it’d be released two weeks later, with other players able to purchase it soon after that point) and revealing an also-returning Lucas, Satoru Iwata announced the “Smash Bros. Fighter Ballot,” a form that allowed any person to write to Nintendo about choosing which game character they wanted to see join Smash.
The Ballot was not the first time Nintendo has asked fans to weigh in on the fighters they’d like most. While Melee was in production, There was that “if there was a Smash 2” poll right after the first game came out; Nintendo also did one before Brawl was revealed. Nintendo also didn’t really claim that the “winner” would be made into a character, and given the Smash community’s tendency to coalesce around characters like Donkey Kong 64’s (1999) Lanky Kong or Dragon Ball Z (1989) anime hero Goku, that’s probably a good thing. The Ballot itself was a bit of a sham all along, at least when it came to this game. Of the downloadable fighters, four – Mewtwo, Lucas, the also returning Roy, and Street Fighter’s fighting game king Ryu – had to have been in development long before the Ballot itself started. But datamining shows that the team began work on at least two of its three latecomers, Final Fantasy VII’s (1997) hero Cloud and the eponymous protagonist of Bayonetta (2009), as early as two weeks after the ballot itself. Plus, as third party characters, Nintendo would have had rights negotiations with Square Enix and SEGA, their respective owners, well in advance. And as for the last character, Corrin from Fire Emblem Fates (2015) was added more to represent games that came out after Smash for 3DS & Wii U (with Fates releasing overseas after the fighter was added to the game).
The nature of the ballot ensured acrimony and frustration. Cloud is one of gaming’s most beloved icons – he’s practically a mascot for Japanese Role-Playing Games – and Bayonetta had been a popular request since Nintendo funded Bayonetta 2 (2014) for the Wii U and saved the franchise. At the same time, the prevailing assumption was that this was for “the fans,” and the loudest and strongest demands were often for Nintendo characters who peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s: King K. Rool, Isaac, and Banjo-Kazooie (from their game of the same name, 1998). That newcomers who were less “iconic” as Nintendo characters got in was upsetting. Most of the anger, though, was targeted at Corrin, a character both so young that “no one” voted for them and the sixth fighter from Fire Emblem soon after Roy – who did get a lovely soft redesign, but wasn’t seen as especially “needed” – got brought back. In a number of ways, Corrin made the most sense as the DLC character to represent games after Smash, especially given Fates’ commercial and critical success. Plus, their moveset of partially shapeshifting parts of their body into dragon appendages led to some cool attacks, and they were pleasingly another character with a male and female version. But they were instantly viewed as one more symbol of Sakurai’s apparent bias towards Fire Emblem.
Nintendo did release some additional content. There were nine stages (two of which were exclusive to Smash for Wii U, and one for each of the third party characters), fairly evenly distributed between old and new. The two most interesting were one based on Super Mario Maker (2015) that was (maybe?) procedurally generated, and a Battlefield copy based on the now-defunct Miiverse. On the latter, players could ostensibly write comments in support of their favorite characters but would mostly just make swiftly deleted racist memes. All of the new third party fighters got stages, though Cloud’s, Midgar, is notable for having only the bare minimum of two songs from Final Fantasy VII. Alongside a few smaller things in Smash For and Ultimate, it’s fairly clear Square exerts a hold on its property in Smash other companies don’t, giving out precious little of its material. The only other things sold were additional Mii costumes. Some were of Assist Trophies (Takamaru, Isabelle from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Ashley from WarioWare: Touched!). Some were parts of stages (Viridi from Uprising, a Flying Man using that original, unused 3D model). Many were of characters from companies who supplied guest fighters (Gil from Tower of Druaga (1984), Rathalos from Monster Hunter (2004), a polygonal Akira from Virtua Fighter (1993)). Some, like Chrom and Heihachi, had been considered for the roster. Three were promotional costumes for three early to mid-2015 games: Splatoon, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, and Majora’s Mask 3D. Others were highly requested fighters (Geno, King K. Rool from Donkey Kong Country, Toad from Super Mario Bros.). And some were just for fun, like full body fursuits or a Smash Bros. brand hoodie. But these were largely incidental, far less exciting for fans.
It was midway through this period that Smash Bros. suffered its greatest loss when, after having fought a year-long battle against a bile duct growth, Satoru Iwata passed away on July 11, 2015. His last major public appearance was at a somewhat disappointing showing from Nintendo at the year’s E3; his last statement to the public was an apology to fans uproarious over it. Sakurai, the longtime friend, colleague, and creative partner Iwata once described as “capable of taking a project with nothing and visualizing a completed game almost perfectly,” got special seating at the funeral reserved for family and close friends. After that, the rest of the DLC – and, more importantly, any Smash Bros. games to come – would lack his involvement and influence beyond his memory. It’s hard to fully see what, if anything, has changed within Smash, but given his importance for the series it has to be significant. The man’s programming and executive history is a story filled with incredible triumphs and great tragedies, and his work on Smash fits well within the former very well. He will be missed, and the pain of his absence remains, to both Smash and the gaming world as a whole.
After Corrin and Bayonetta were released in February of 2016 (with balance patches coming out for a few months afterwards), Sakurai’s public statements largely stayed limited to occasional tweets and his Famitsu column. He mentioned in passing how he bought a new Vifam action figure in order to study the rifle it held for his latest project, but nothing more specific than that. With the knowledge that Nintendo was planning a new console for release, most fans began clamoring for a “Smash for NX” (the machine’s codename). It only increased when the console, now named Nintendo Switch, was officially revealed in October 2016. Its unique gimmick, that it could be used as both a home and handheld console, was of particular interest to Smash fans: it would have the benefits of both formats, and without the issue of splitting the modes and ideas. But nothing came of it, beyond vague statements from executives that of course Nintendo thinks about Smash. Instead, after launching on March 3, 2017, the Switch built an impressive first year out of impeccable sequels to Zelda, Mario, and Splatoon that propelled sales to an incredible degree.
A Nintendo Direct on March 8, 2018, however, did finally confirm an upcoming Smash Bros. game. It was nothing more than a short CGI clip of the boy and girl Splatoon Inklings fighting, before being dominated by a gargantuan, fiery Smash logo, with a few scattered silhouettes of possible fighters – Bowser? Marth? – seen only barely at the bottom. Still, work continued with no additional details, albeit changed by more equitable Japanese labor laws that have thankfully limited Sakurai’s occasionally self-destructive personal workload. What it stated was tantalizing, and it would take until June 12, at Nintendo’s presentation during E3, to see what the game’s deal was.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (December 7, 2018)
And what it was is this. As it’s only just come out on the very day of this article’s publication, we can only discuss it on Nintendo’s, Namco’s, and Sakurai’s terms. However, the vast amount we know about the game is fascinating.
The character select screen for Ultimate features a telling change. Typically, the series organizes fighters by series; the Mario characters went here, the Zelda people there, and the Fire Emblem heroes there. Instead, the roster is organized by a numerical system, delineating when characters came into the series (other than clones – now dubbed Echo Fighters – who are positioned next to their originals, so they can be stacked if so desired). Mario is first, then the rest of the Smash (64) crew, and on it goes to the final newcomers – except for the Mii Fighters who, as custom characters, are at the very end. Some fans have found it confusing to use (though I love it), but it’s most interesting because of what it says: fighters, and the game as a whole, are now being viewed through a prism of Smash first and Nintendo’s games second.
After nineteen years of Nintendo history and love (which is still there in a tremendous amount), Super Smash Bros. has finally begun to take a long look back on itself as a Nintendo icon in its own right. The first gameplay footage of the bloated, twenty-five minute segment of Nintendo’s 2018 E3 presentation was a Smash for Wii U fight between Mario, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and Pikachu – the mascots used in that Don LaFontaine commercial from forever ago. The organization on the selection screen emphasizes the history, showing the roster go from “traditional” to more gimmicky and exploratory. The art style draws extensively from both Brawl and Smash (For), leading to a game that celebrates the series’ many visual values and heights. There are only seven new stages, three of which are the new versions of the series’ staples Battlefields and Final Destination; all the rest of the whopping 103 count are rebuilt versions of ones from the five prior games in the series. And, of course, all sixty-five fighters from the series’ history are returning. “Everyone is here!” has been the rallying cry and unofficial motto of Ultimate, an attempt at finally bridging the divide between every subgroup of Smash fans.
It leads to a roster of veterans that’s fascinating, a way to view the series from the perspective of five prior games that had their own priorities and needs. Sakurai’s fascination with Link has led us to getting three versions, the first now with a fancy makeover inspired by 2017’s new Nintendo standard The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. A number of other veterans have gotten new flavors, most appreciably Pokémon Trainer and Pikachu having female costumes; one of the latter’s has a luchador outfit from recent Pokémon titles. Speaking of the Trainer, Charizard has been reabsorbed back into them, with the latter losing that terrible stamina mechanic. Ike and Ganondorf have reverted to costumes from older games (Brawl and Melee, respectively, though the Ike has his Smash For one as well), and the latter finally uses that silly Spaceworld 2000 sword from eighteen years ago. Luigi has references to Luigi’s Mansion 3, which is currently slated for a 2019 release. Ryu now has the gimmick of always facing his opponent in one-on-one fights, Street Fighter style. Yoshi’s new Final Smash replicates a scene from the Melee opening (though it’s likely also inspired by Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door (2004)). The changes aren’t evenly distributed in any way, but a multiplicity of fighters do seem at least a bit different. It does a great deal to stave off the significant issue that the meat of the game emphasizes past content and ideas so intensely.
The size of the roster has also led to an issue of the newcomer selection being the smallest of the series, by a long shot when accounting for uniqueness given that five of the game’s eleven newcomers are Echo fighters. Having accepted their inevitability, the concept of clones has been given its own title and epsilon imagery (apostrophe imagery in Japan, where they’re known as “Dash fighters”). It’s gone over surprisingly well given the series’ fandom’s typical ire, either because having a fancy title makes things more acceptable or because they’re highly demanded characters: Metroid Prime 2’s (2004) Dark Samus, Daisy from Mario, a (finally) playable Chrom, and Street Fighter and de facto clone character icon Ken. While not that important or exciting, the Echoes are pleasing; they also help build a selection that’s small but not wanting for personality.
With space for only six “traditional” newcomers, there was evidently no room for bizarre surprise characters this time. The Inklings from Splatoon (2015) make sense as Nintendo’s newest huge IP; they’re also the one fighter with a serious mechanical difference in how their weapons use and draw from an ink supply. Ridley, who by 2018 was the series’ most wanted character for the longest time, finally made it in as E3’s marquee new fighter. Another fan favorite was King K. Rool, in apparently due to an overwhelming performance on the Smash ballot. Isabelle from Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Incineroar from Pokémon Sun & Moon (2016) both represent newer games, and the latter – a pro wrestling heel with lariat moves – furthers Sakurai’s love of fighting game tropes. And the new guest franchise, Castlevania, was the kind of long term Nintendo affiliate that would’ve felt right had Smash started on the NES; Simon Belmont and his Echo Richter look solid, as do their series’ giant thirty-four music track listing. Notably, all but Incineroar and the Castlevania fighters had some presence in prior games: Dark Samus and Isabelle were Assist Trophies, King K. Rool and Inkling were costumes, Chrom was (and still is, weirdly) part of Robin’s Final Smash, Daisy and Ken had trophies, and Ridley (who was in every game except Smash for 3DS in some capacity) is a Smash icon in his own right.
It’s a roster that was also, for the first time in the series’ history, revealed in its entirety before release. While Sakurai hasn’t explicitly stated why, it’s a fairly obvious attempt to stave off the various leaks that had frustrated him for the previous two iterations. It was probably for the best in this instance; it’d hopefully mollify the inevitable disappointment with a list of newcomers this small, and there really wasn’t a chance of stumbling onto that many surprising new characters. Of course, Sakurai’s efforts still failed; early copies were found and hacked weeks ago, leading to spoilers on the game leaking like a sieve.
While it doesn’t hit the full mark of getting “everything,” the stage list is in some way even more extreme: the 103 stages are almost twice as many as those in Smash for Wii U, but only seven of them – including series staples Battlefield, Big Battlefield, and Final Destination – are new. The new stages (including one that floats around Super Mario Odyssey’s (2017) New Donk City and another based on Dracula’s Castle from Castlevania (1986)) are exciting and look incredible, but the lack of new environments do show the real limitations of going so far into the backlog. Seeing stages over fifteen years old remade in gorgeous HD is wonderful; it’s a real treat the way the logs of Melee’s Kongo Falls (né Kongo Jungle) move down and up slightly as fighters walk on them. But the game can’t satisfy an interest in new stages, especially from a number of newer Nintendo games. It’s also weird having all of them unlocked from the start – the opposite tack of how the starting roster matches the eight character one from Smash (64) – and almost painfully overwhelming for even longtime fans.
Many of the new Assist Trophies are also just as much for the benefit of longtime Smash Bros. fans, or general game nostalgia, as they are for the gameplay. Kirby’s Chef Kawasaki steals Kirby’s old Final Smash (which was changed from Cook Kirby to Ultra Sword in Smash (For), while Zero from Mega Man X (1993) and Knuckles from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994) were Mii costumes in the last game (the same is true of Akira, who still uses his blocky graphics). Sukapon and Ditto are back after having been removed as planned items seventeen years ago, and others are gaming in-jokes; Guile exclusively uses competitive Street Fighter’s notorious “down backing” tactic, and the moon from Majora’s Mask is as horrifying here as it was then. And of course, plenty are long requested fighters: Krystal of Star Fox Adventures, 2014 indie darling Shovel Knight, and a returning Isaac from Golden Sun. They’re the right kind of in-jokes, so well told that they can be funny to the uninitiated, akin to one easter egg where Pit assumes the Ice Climbers must have been cut from the last game for “illegal teaming.”
Even its new story mode, World of Light, draws from Smash nostalgia – at least Sakurai’s, as it’s identical to a self-rejected story pitch for The Subspace Emissary (perhaps thankfully, he didn’t use the also-rejected Brawl pitch from Final Fantasy VII writer Kazushige Nojima, which started with Snake spying on Samus and Donkey Kong on a bus trip). The plot centers around Kirby, the only escapee of an attack that annihilates the entirety of the Smash Bros. world, building up a party to defeat an angelic monster. He has to cross through a shallow overworld and rescue his fellow fighters. However, they have all been replicated dozens of times over, and the replicas – which have now covered the world like a scourge – have been animated by the lost spirits of hundreds of Nintendo characters. Only by beating replicas, capturing spirits, and saving fighters can the party explore the world further. There are, of course, other obstacles: bosses (amongst them Rathalos from Monster Hunter, an equally awesome and confusing choice that shows how big the crossover has gotten), special challenges, and impedimentary terrain. The mode has even fallen prey to the siren song of video game skill trees.
The concept of “spirits” is being used to power the game’s most interesting, unique, and inevitably contentious feature, a mode of the same name that alongside including the story functions as a catch-all successor to many important and long-lasting Smash traditions. While much of the system has been obscured for the game’s actual release, it’s based around this idea of those spirits embodying Smash Bros. fighters. Within the mode, spirits act as both custom gear and opponents, represented by fighters who are kind of analogous to them. The painter Pokémon Smeargle, for instance, is represented by Inkling, while indie game hero Shantae uses the similarly ponytailed Zero Suit Samus. To get the sense across further, fights, picked from a bounty board, can be based around unique conditions (enemies who are always invisible, or terrain that’s electrified) that couldn’t be replicated in normal matches. And while the reward for winning these matches are these spirits you beat, they can also give out additional spirits, money, or even music CDs.
Essentially, Spirits has taken a myriad of Smash staples and one-off ideas – Adventure Modes, Event Matches, trophies, stickers, custom gear, Special Orders – and fused them all into a single one, something built around the series’ conceit about toys come to life. It’s a legitimately fascinating and ambitious endeavor, one that synthesizes so many ideas and functions as a way to more easily incorporate them. Statements by Sakurai note that the trophies, which likely would have had to push close to a thousand in number this time, were just too much of a strain on the production. It’s not hard to see other time-sensitive issues in other modes (certainly Adventure Mode) being solved in this way, and it’s interesting seeing so many of these ideas be intertwined. However, that also means the game is dependent on that incorporation actually working. And that is a legitimate concern given that this series has often struggled with executing more direct customization, when its skills have typically been best with more organic functionality, variability, and self-expression.
A few traditional features are still there. The online functionality has taken a few steps forward, though it’s still pretty limited compared to other games, even other Nintendo games. Classic Mode has been nicely revamped to give each character a different adventure (Isabelle’s pits her against other female fighters, while Wolf fights other characters who were cut from the last game – including a Subspace boss). On the other hand, All-Star appears to have been supplanted by the Multi-Man modes, as – perhaps a consequence of a seventy-six character roster – it’s now just an endless endurance match. Training and Tips have more amenities to make them more useful. My Music now has just under 850 pieces, with composers’ personal choices for the songs they wanted to pick superseding any kind of balance amongst the franchises, and each stage can play every song from its franchise. Final Smashes are almost universally direct, easy to understand attacks, which clamps down on what innovation the mechanic still had left but lets characters like Donkey Kong actually get use out of them; there’s even an optional “Final Smash meter” more chaotic than the regular thing. The speed’s been moved up a bit from Smash For, though not to the level of Melee. And, of course, there are plenty of smaller quality of life features across the board meant for easing newbies and old hats into the experience.
Another returning feature is, unsurprisingly, downloadable content, along with minor patches adding promotional spirits for new Nintendo games Pokémon Let’s Go and Super Mario Party (both 2018). This time, the service is straightforward: there will be five fighters, each in a pack with one stage and some new musical tracks (buying the season pass for all five nets both a small discount and a bland Mii costume of Rex from Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (2017), who was too new to get in the base roster). There’s no pretense of a ballot, either; for the first time, Nintendo itself has actually chosen the newcomers, and Sakurai only held the power of dismissing any choice he felt unworkable. The number of DLC characters is smaller than last time, but it’s more exciting in its own way: instead of having three veterans and four newcomers, having five (with presumably all new stages) carries a bit more potential for exciting new ideas. Though technically I’m being untruthful; there are actually six DLC fighters. The first is a promotional bonus separate from the “Fighter Packs” and which fills the role Mewtwo had in the last game, a freebie for those who bought Ultimate new and available for purchase separately. Except instead of being a beloved veteran whose being cut sparked a minor controversy, it’s…a Piranha Plant from Super Mario Bros., bouncing around in a garden pot and chomping on characters. It’s a cosmically bizarre choice that isn’t without reasoning – after all, coming from one of the most well known games of all time makes it more well known than well over half the roster – but still defies logic. It’s the game’s actual surprise character, mocking Smash expectations with hilarious abandon. Even the shocking announcement made about ten hours before this article’s publication that it’ll be followed up as a fighter by Joker from Persona 5 (2016) almost can’t compare.
All of this means Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is stuck between celebrating its own history, placating its devotees, looking to new ideas, and pushing the limits of what is actually possible to make. It’s a compelling and thorny issue, one that this game more than any of its predecessors has to confront. Sakurai has, during the development of every game since Brawl, stated that he treats every project as though it’s his last, providing as much content as humanly possible, if not more so. There’s never anything to be deliberately held back for a sequel, no bullet in the chamber. At the same time, there’s only so much you can actually add to any one game. He’s also talked about the inevitability of diminishing returns by simply adding more and more characters, but also how doing so is just logistically untenable. This year, he’s repeatedly stressed two things: that bringing back every fighter almost never happened – likely due to both third party difficulties and development limitations – and that it will likely never happen again. The Japanese name is Special, but Ultimate feels fitting for something performing a high wire act it likely won’t match for size and scale ever again.
But truthfully, walking fine lines is what the series does best. It’s a bizarre game, Smash. It’s a crossover – debatably the most mercenary type of story possible – yet it’s also a deeply, often painfully auteurist vision. It’s at times an intense fighting game that playfully pokes fun at the genre’s conventions, and constantly makes strides to include those who can’t keep up with that. It makes history just as much as celebrates it. And so much of it, buttressed as it has been by the work and acumen of hundreds of people, was built on the “utmost faith” two game designers had in each other to build something. Supposedly, Iwata occasionally annoyed people early in the development of the first game, as this little side project obviously engaged him more than his managerial duties. There’s something intensely captivating about it that’s consistently drawn people of all sorts in, and not just from its gargantuan crossover appeal. That’s something that’s led to dozens and dozens of Smash clones of varying quality, but none have managed to match the feel, the style, and arguably the heart of Masahiro Sakurai’s grandiose, ever expanding vision.