‘Super Smash Bros’ At 20: The Oddball All-Star Brawl That Started It All

CianMaher
Games Zelda
Games Zelda Nintendo

On January 21, 1999, Masahiro Sakurai’s Super Smash Bros. launched on the Nintendo 64. Although not as critically-acclaimed as some of the later installments in the series, Super Smash Bros. shocked the world when it took characters from several different franchises and put them together in, of all things, a fighting game. Anyone who had ever played Mario and wished that they could beat up Kirby had their wish granted in what had previously only been imagined in fever dreams.

Even its creator knew that the concept for Smash was pretty out there. Sakurai developed his prototype without permission from Nintendo, fearing that the publisher would reject his idea of bringing several different franchises together unless he had something solid to show. When he eventually finished his demo, it only had four playable characters, all of whom made it to the final game and have since become series staples: Mario, Donkey Kong, Fox, and Samus.

Super Smash Bros N64
The cartridge curio that started it all.

While it was Smash’s all-star cast that brought in the punters, this crossover also had the gameplay to match its enviable roster. Although it could have arguably been enough to clone the big names in fighting and chuck in everyone’s favourite Nintendo characters — director Sakurai instead opted to craft an entirely new kind of fighting game. Where games like Tekken and Street Fighter are built around the idea of draining the enemy’s HP, fighters start on the opposite end of the spectrum in Smash.

Starting from zero

As you might expect, at the beginning of a round of Smash, all fighters enter the brawl at 0% damage. The more hits they take, the higher their damage count goes. Yet, unlike most fighting games, players don’t die once a certain damage threshold is reached — here, the goal is to knock your opponent off the stage. While it’s a setup that gamers are likely familiar with now, at the time, this was a completely refreshing take on an aging genre.

The higher the damage count, the easier foes are to knock off the side, or “launch” in Smash vernacular. As a result, the environmental aspects of the game are afforded far more significance than those of traditional fighting games. One misstep and you can fall off the map; even if you’re at 0% damage and your opponent is at 150%, you lose.

The idea of falling off the map alone paved the way for an all-new fighting game mechanic known as “recovery.” While characters like Kirby can jump up to six times, other heroes like, say, Link can only jump twice. If Kirby falls off the map, it is unlikely that they’ll fall to their death; with Link, it’s a lot more hit and miss. Variables such as this attached different strengths and weaknesses to each character, allowing for an incredibly diverse meta.

On top of the environmental hazards placed at the side of each stage, Smash also introduced a new degree of verticality to play with. As a result, recovery was not only significant at times in which you were knocked off the stage. Instead of strafing across a two-dimensional plane and chaining together complicated combos—as is the case in many other fighting games—players are often given several levels to work with in Smash. This is complemented by each characters’ ability pool, as it is often the case that you can use certain abilities to attack an enemy that is above or below you, at which point factors of speed are taken into account to determine who gets priority on the hit— adding yet another layer of meta-building.

Platform your way to victory

Once again, Nintendo managed to break the mold with its new fighter, while somehow making the whole thing feel comfortingly familiar. Why? Because the overall uniqueness of mobility and stage design largely paid homage to some of Nintendo’s greatest traditional titles — its platformers. As anyone who watches Smash tournaments will now, being able to manage your abilities and check your opponent wouldn’t be enough in the upper echelons of Smash play — to make it in the big leagues, players also have to be capable of platforming to an incredibly high standard. These frantic, verticality-focused elements of Smash seamlessly stitched the recovery mechanic and each characters’ abillities together, creating a uniquely fast-paced game with seemingly unlimited potential in terms of what players had at their disposal.

It’s no wonder, then, that Super Smash Bros. quickly established itself as a fan-favourite. I mean, who wouldn’t want to pit their favourite video game characters against each other in a battle to the death? The success of the highly-ambitious first Super Smash Bros. game cemented its status as a Nintendo staple and new iterations of the series have been launched on every subsequent Nintendo console since.

17 years after its release, 'Melee' is still setting the competitive fighting game scene on fire.

Yet if we’re honest, there is one Smash game that is remembered the most fondly. After the Nintendo 64 Super Smash Bros. came of course, Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube. Melee has since been recognized as not only one of the best fighters of all time, but also as one of the best video games ever made. Building on the foundation cemented by its predecessor, Melee quickly developed a competitive circuit which has since been maintained for other Smash games, although even to this day Melee remains to be the most prominent Smash title in terms of esports.

A change in direction

Following the 2001 release of Super Smash Bros. Melee, Smash went quiet for quite some time — and many fans wondered if they’d ever see the frenetic fighter again. Thankfully, two years after the Nintendo Wii was launched, fans of the series were treated to Super Smash Bros. Brawl While the Wii entry didn’t go on to become as beloved as Melee in the competitive Smash circuit, it was the first title to attempt to mold Smash into a single-player experience. The first Smash game with anything resembling a plot, Brawl’s Subspace Emissary Adventure Mode allowed the player to take on the almighty Tabuu in a side-scrolling beat ‘em up campaign. To this day, many people argue that some of their favourite moments from the entire Smash series come from Subspace Emissary — and with cutscenes as wonderfully whacky as this — it’s hard to disagree.

Six years later, Nintendo published Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. Although an undeniably fun fighter, this iteration of Smash saw the most criticism since the original title from 1999. While these titles certainly brought with them some welcome quality of life and balance changes, to many fans’ frustration, they also ditched Brawl’s investment in a campaign mode and even suffered from performance issues—particularly the 3DS version. Still, it wasn’t all bad news for the hardcore, as these games  represented a  welcome progression for many, with the casual playstyle from Brawl had its pace accelerated once more, albeit not quite to the same extent as the competitively-oriented and still dominant Melee.

This brings us right up to the present day, twenty years later. On December 7, 2018—just over a month ago— Super Smash Bros. Ultimate launched on the Nintendo Switch. Aiming to collect every single character that had ever been featured in a Smash title, Ultimate quickly established itself as the most ambitious Smash game to date. Luckily, it delivered on that ambition.

The modern Smash

Incineroar and Little Mac
This one-time oddball risk has gone onto become one of Nintendo's most beloved gaming series.

Launching to unanimous critical acclaim, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was praised by critics all over the world, with many going so far as to say that it was the best Smash game yet. The World of Light Adventure mode represented a return to the story-oriented mode pioneered by Brawl, while the game’s gameplay had been refined into the smoothest Smash play to date. While it is still uncertain whether or not Ultimate will dethrone Melee in competitive circuits—uncertain, but unlikely, as Melee is still faster—it is undeniable that Ultimate gave fans of the series everything they could have wanted. With over 800 tracks, over 100 stages, and 74 playable fighters—with more to come if you take DLC into account—Ultimate’s sheer wealth of content is nothing to be scoffed at.

All of this is only possible because of Sakurai’s ambitious prototype from 1998 that was published on January 21 the following year. It is thanks to Sakurai’s initiative to develop a prototype on his own without permission that we have one of the greatest video game series of all time today. To me, that just proves that if you’re passionate about something you shouldn’t let the opinions of others affect your ability to pursue that passion. You never know; your idea could be the next Super Smash Bros.

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