The charm of Super Smash Bros.

Monday, 7th of January 2019, 13:53 +01:00

I remember my friends and I cycling back home one day after school, more than 17 years ago. They wanted to stop by the toy store because a new game was supposed to be released. Something Smash something. Never having liked fighters like Tekken and Mortal Kombat, and never having played the original Nintendo 64 game, I wasn't immediately excited about it. Little did I know that on that day I'd get introduced to one of the most interesting and fun games of my life.
They picked up the game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. We all went to one friend's parent's place and played non-stop until morning the next day when we had to get ready for school. No sleep for the Smashers.
The first thing I did on my way home after school was getting my own copy. This was my new favourite game and I had to master it.

Now what makes Smash Bros. so special? Why is it different from other fighting games? Why did it become so big, and which parts of its design made this possible?

The cast of Super Smash Bros. Melee. (25 characters)

The Smash Factor

Comparing Smash Bros. with any other fighter is comparing apples and oranges. I'd almost call it a different genre. The main difference is that in classic fighting games like Tekken or Street Fighter, a fighting move is triggered by a sequence of button presses, usually called a combo. This was, I learned later, the reason I never felt compelled to play games like these. All characters behave differently and the move inputs are difficult to remember.

Control scheme for Street Fighter (some characters, some moves only)

In Smash Bros. a fighting move is a simple combination of one directional input and one button input pressed at the same time. Moves are much shorter on average as well, allowing the player to perform a couple in rapid succession. Combos are sequences of moves instead of buttons, meaning players can glue together their own combos. This is not only much easier to remember, it also provokes creative gameplay more quickly.

The simplicity of Smash. All moves for all characters are performed using the same button patterns.

The other thing making Smash Bros. entirely different from classic fighting games is its win condition. It's not a matter of depleting each other's HP bar, it's smashing other players so far from the platform they aren't able to make it back. Damage gained by being hit increases the distance a character flies when smashed away. Players have multiple lives and each life, the distance multiplier is reset to zero.

There are two ways this adds variety to the pacing of a battle, compared to traditional fighting games where players stay in a perpetual state of fighting until the match ends.

1. Getting smashed off the platform requires your character to stop fighting and start recovering to get back onto the platform, usually using their mid-air jump and ^+B. This micro-pauses the fight, giving the attacking player a second to catch their breath and the recovering player a chance to save their life. One player experiences relief, the other attempts survival. Because there are multiple lives and multiple attempts per life to successfully smash opponents far enough, each player experiences both emotions several times per battle. Variation in actions within one match greatly reduces player fatigue and contribute to much longer session time.

2. Multiple lives per battle gives players a new start, every time they lose a life. Their distance multiplier is reset to zero while the opponent's multiplier stays where it is. Now the player that just lost a life has the advantage, creating a subtle rubber-banding. Additionally, it offers a possible mental opportunity that cannot be achieved with one single health bar for the player to say "that last life was pretty bad" and shake it off, instead of staying in an emotionally negative spiral. This gives sportsmen the edge over more tilt-sensitive players, very similar to what happens in tennis when a new set starts.

Melee's March

Whenever people ask me what my favourite games ever are, I still call out Smash Bros. as one of them, but I've always specifically mentioned Melee for reasons I'll get into a little later. While this article isn't a history lesson (these have already been written) a little context can't hurt:

Melee was the version that really put Smash Bros. on the map, and one of the most fascinating things is how this happened. Smash Bros. Melee became immensely successful without Nintendo facilitating anything related to competitive play! It was never designed for e-sports, but it still became one.
Melee is still played competitively, 17 years and 3 sequels after its release. I really recommend this series of YouTube documentaries on this topic. I'd call it one of the most emergent scenarios that has ever happened to a video game. At its release, Melee was perceived as "just a spin-off" game. Two years later, it was played competitively on the biggest e-sports events in the world.
Truly special is that it's still a party game as well, able to be picked up by most to be played without much introduction, next to being a professional e-sports game.

This is all because of Melee's physics engine, which is so fast, responsive and quirky that it allows professionals to perform tricks. Tricks even the most competitive home players would likely never find out about without the internet.

L-cancelling technique, practically impossible timing, only used by the best of the best.

I've played Smash Bros. Melee for tens of thousands of hours, but practically always against the same friends. It was a thing we did. We got very, very trained at knowing each other's techniques and tricks; we constantly evolved to beat each other. None of us did extensive research on the internet how to perform advanced techniques like wavedashing or l-cancelling. Techniques which basically are quirks of the game's physics engine that even the game's designer, Masahiro Sakurai, didn't know about when the game was released. When finally attending a local public tournament, we realised there were many others that went further than we had gone during all these years. Even the semi-pros at the tournament played radically different from us. And they wouldn't even get close to the superhuman performances shown during world championships. The game's skill ceiling is insanely high.

Nintendo's Design Vision

The irony behind this all is that Melee is probably the worst game in the series when looked at from a true game designer's standpoint. Like practically all Nintendo's games, Melee should also have been designed to be easily playable by players with a lower skill level, making it as accessible as possible. This vision has held up, but only marginally compared to other Nintendo games. The eternal double edged sword Game Designers always end up fighting with, depth versus accessibility, is very apparent. Regardless of the game's immense popularity amongst competitive players, Sakurai feels up to this day he didn't succeed making the game accessible enough for a big enough audience. He had been too tempted to add advanced mechanics (although without telling the players) that made Melee what it became to be; a hardcore game disguised as the approachable game it was supposed to be.

Most games that fail to cater to their target audience are doomed to be commercial failures, but Melee is one of the exceptions to the rule. I'll even take it further. I think the Smash Bros. franchise wouldn't be as big as it is now without the passionate support of its Melee players at the top of the skill-pyramid. These players have had the passion to be advocates for the franchise while more novice players don't. If Melee would have been less hardcore, it could have still been 'that spin-off' Mario Tennis is to this day (which is undeserved in my opinion).

Smash Bros. Melee on Dreamhack 2016

The post-Melee sequels.

Condone Nintendo for it or not, but the company has always strived for the broadest audiences possible. After Melee released, Sakurai became more and more aware he went too far with it regarding its depth and difficulty. With this in mind he set of to create Smash Bros. Brawl some years later. Nintendo's Wii console was designed to pervade households that never had a game console before and the Smash Bros. for that console would have to be way more accessible.

For me personally, as a relatively skilled player, Brawl was a huge disappointment, its gameplay was slow, mechanics involving randomness like the infamous tripping were added to the gameplay. While this works in games like Mario Kart, where it is accepted and common knowledge that you didn't win until you've reached the finish for the 3rd time, it doesn't in Smash Bros.

Brawl didn't feel like the Smash Bros I was used to. Regardless, it became the fastest selling Nintendo game ever in America. The game looked good, played great (if you weren't used to Melee) and sounded amazing. Next to this, it was revolutionary that Sonic could battle Mario for the first time in history. Oh, and Solid Snake was there too,

Sega's Sonic and Nintendo's Mario in the same game.

Years later, still licking my wounds from the personal trauma I experienced after having bought Brawl, I was cautious about buying Smash Bros. WiiU. But quickly after seeing how polished the game looked, the new characters that were added again, how it introduced more quality of life features than ever before (like being able to play with my good ol' classic GameCube controllers) I yielded. The love for the franchise was still there. The game played nicer (no tripping) and faster than Brawl (thank goodness).
Not living close to my friends anymore, I hoped to be able to play against them online, something that had been impossible with earlier versions. It wasn't meant to be. Online functionality turned out to be laggy on Nintendo's least successful console ever made. On top of that, some characters like Bayonetta and Cloud were pretty overpowered. Smash Bros. 4 suffer too many issues for it to not be another personal letdown.


And now, 1 month ago, it looks like it has finally happened. Smash Bros. Ultimate for Nintendo Switch released and while it's still early. I can say it finally feels like Smash Bros. again for me. The gameplay is almost back how it was in Melee, only more modern!
The game was designed to take everything that was great from all its predecessors and merge it into one extraordinary version (hence its name). It didn't only take all the best aspects of all previous games, it also took all maps and all characters, tripling the roster's size when comparing it to Melee. Online gameplay feels smooth, the single player mode is fun and elaborate and the balancing feels pretty solid. Of course there are some exceptionally strong characters like King K. Rool and Ridley right now, but nothing that can't be easily patched with a next update!

I'm relieved and amazed at what Sakurai and his team have accomplished with Ultimate. A week ago, during New Year's Eve I met up with the same friends and for the first time in years it felt just like that first night 17 years ago.

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