Super Smash Bros. (1999)

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Gamers tend to forget that Nintendo is just as much in the children’s entertainment business as it is in the video game business. It’s a mistake that generates much of the frustration lobbied at the company’s unwillingness to evolve its key franchises; suddenly, the grand innovators who shepherded the industry through its infancy and adolescence often come off as… well, infantile or adolescent. I’m not making excuses for this perceived laziness, because I would love to see a new, envelope-pushing Zelda that truly strayed from the hand-holding, old-hat Ocarina-isms of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. But the fact of the matter is, those titles are, if nothing else, surely as satisfying for the current eight-to-twelve year-old set as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were for me, and as the original 1987 title was for the generation who later scoffed at the linearity of the Nintendo 64 games. What I’m saying is, even if they’re no longer the industry leaders when it comes to innovating game design, you can’t say Nintendo doesn’t know its audience. And, despite what you might think from looking at any internet comments section (the stomping ground of the vitriol-filled twenty-something gamer), Nintendo’s primary audience is — and really, always has been — children.

Children have a fierce sense of brand loyalty. Perhaps it’s a sad symptom of a culture branded and franchised within an inch of its life, but it’s true. If you think grown-up man-children who still have legitimate “Star Trek versus Star Wars” arguments are bad, try telling a ten year-old (circa 1999) that Pokemon is dumb. No entertainment company harnesses this youthful fervor (and the inherent, zealous defensiveness that accompanies it) to its advantage as brilliantly as Nintendo does. Nintendo is supremely skilled at making their droves of acolytes feel allowed in on something special when they swear allegiance to the company, even when that “something” is essentially glossed-up advertising like the recently defunct Nintendo Power magazine. They’re so good at it that they actually have fandoms within fandoms, some of which are so devoted to their specific facet that they do all but turn against the umbrella brand at the slightest sign of mistreatment. (Although to be fair, American Mother fans have it pretty rough.)

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It’s a strategy that works because these devoted younglings reciprocate Nintendo’s passion and energy tenfold. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan of his (because I don’t find shouting two unrelated curse words in tandem to be intrinsically hilarious), but James Rolfe — the “Angry Video Game Nerd,” if we must — created a video that might be the saddest, sweetest, and most honest depiction of Nintendo loyalty I’ve ever seen. It’s actually a home movie of Rolfe from the early 1990s, meant to illustrate his stance on the bitter “console war” that pitted the Super Nintendo against Sega’s competing Genesis platform. In the video, the young Rolfe, filled with childlike rage and on the verge of tears, sputters a rallying cry against the famous Sega advertising campaign that claimed, “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” In defense of his preferred mega-corporation, the poor kid — almost shaking due to the sheer emotion of it all — rattles off a list of (often completely falsified) reasons why Nintendo is clearly the stronger system by every means measurable. Your personal pie chart breakdown of what percentage you find this display cute, heartbreaking, and disturbing obviously depends on if you were ever a Child of the Nintendo Corn back then. I have to say, as a strict Nintendo user up until the current console generation, Rolfe’s reaction struck home enough that I felt a twinge of embarrassment for my younger self’s irrational devotional. Back in the day, this shit really was personal.

This sort of childish devotion to a franchise or a character leads to that age-old playground question: who would kick whose ass in a fight? Batman or Superman? The Terminator or Robocop? Mario or Sonic? An integral tenet that keeps a fandom in momentum (and the money rolling in for those profiting off said fandom) is the belief that the object your near-obsessive devotion is objectively better than the object of someone else’s near-obsessive devotion; just ask sports fanatics. (Side note: Playing the Canon does not endorse the idea of “fandoms” and actually finds it a limiting, harmful lens through which to discuss art and culture. We believe that everything should be judged on its own terms and for its own merits; it just so happens that discussing the merits of a game where beloved cartoon characters beat each other up requires at least some context as to why anyone gives a damn about such a thing.)

Buy by the late 1990s, Nintendo had no one to fight with during these schoolyard taunt sessions. Sega was heading into their dismal tailspin, and while the Sony Playstation trumped the Nintendo 64 in sales and technological practicality, it never procured anything close to the deep bench of characters and iconography that at that point was already Nintendo’s bread and butter. Being a young Nintendo fan became an increasingly myopic experience. From the Nintendo 64 onwards, Nintendo’s consoles became their own isolated world, bereft of third-party support and reliant solely upon the properties that inspired so many lifelong devotees to begin with.  Nintendo was still a big fish, but the pond increased enormously during this era; for the first time, Nintendo was truly a brand, one way of doing things amongst many. It became a Disney or a Marvel Comics, still huge and iconic, but something specifically huge and iconic within a broader field. One could draw a straight line from Mario to Star Fox to Metroid that couldn’t be drawn to fresh, innovative takes on the medium like Metal Gear Solid or Half-Life or Final Fantasy VII. Nintendo was no longer synonymous with “video games”; it was now only synonymous with “Nintendo.”

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Super Smash Bros. is Nintendo burrowing down into its Nintendo-ness once and for all. It is the Kyoto giant changing the conversation from whether they could win in a fight with their competitors to why they need competitors at all when they have so many great characters who can fight each other. It’s amazing no one thought to make this game even earlier; Mario and his friends raced and threw parties before this, but never thought to invite Link or Pikachu along? This is a franchise produced through cannibalizing other franchises; like Nintendo Power, it is a celebration of Nintendo put on by Nintendo itself. That it is an innovative, surprisingly deep little fighting game proves that the company’s increasing insularity isn’t always at odds with its devotion to its games or its customers.

It’s a minor miracle that, beneath its crossover-happy veneer, Super Smash Bros. isn’t just a cynical cash-grab. No genre during the Nintendo 64/Playstation 1 era — except perhaps the kart racer — was so flush with cheap knock-offs and half-finished franchise tie-ins as the fighting game. It seemed like shovelware law required every property worth a few bucks, from The Simpsons to Star Wars to Sonic the Hedgehog, to produce an inherently broken Virtua Fighter rip-off, in the hopes of luring in susceptible young consumers with promises of Chewbacca pummeling Darth Vader. A Nintendo crossover fighting game, especially one released during the content-starved twilight of the Nintendo 64’s reign, needed only to follow this formula, slap a couple Pokemon frying Luigi on the box art, and it would have easily sold a million copies. While the title perhaps seemed like a momentary diversion when it first appeared (it was well-received, but the franchise did not garner glowing reviews until it became the event game of Nintendo’s next two platforms), no one argued that it wasn’t a breath of fresh air.

Almost all fighting games grant the players a health bar. The goal, of course, is to drain an opponent’s health bar until he’s knocked out or — depending on the gruesomeness of the game — has his still-pumping heart torn from his chest. Games usually accomplish this through performing a series of combos, usually accomplished through a complex pattern of button-pressing that gives the game a high learning curve. I am not well-versed in fighting games, but my more experienced gamer friends assure me that Street Fighter II and its derivatives elevate this process to a battle of wits and reflexes that makes for some of the most intense, pure gaming experiences available.

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But none of that sounds very Nintendo. Again, “Nintendo” characteristically hints at an experience designed with all ages — and children especially — in mind. This is the publisher who took the racing game and added projectiles and banana peels to render it a fair fight; not that their games are always easy, per se, but enjoyment and accessibility are at least always guiding principles. Super Smash Bros. is not just Mario the character placed within a fighting game; it is truly a fighting game filtered through the Mario experience. Each player’s goal is not just to inflict harm on the other characters, but to avoid falling down a bottomless chasm by jumping and dodging enemies. That’s about as Mario as games get.

It’s through the physics of the platformer that Super Smash Bros. finds its appeal and durability. There is no memorizing of patterns, no true combos in the Street Fighter sense; just a handful of simple, visceral attacks per character and an all-important jump button. By ungrounding its characters to this extreme, Super Smash Bros. becomes one of the most pleasantly slapstick multiplayer experiences outside of the silliest first person shooters. It’s often so unbelievably madcap and fast-paced, with characters literally flying left and right, that even the player who just witnessed his avatar flail helplessly toward the horizon is inclined to let out a hearty laugh. Every element of the game’s design works toward this kind of screwball comedy; most stages feature dangerous, random elements that can drastically change the course of play. And some of its many, many items are so ridiculously overpowered that they are now infamous. Seeing a friend grab Mario’s near-invincible Donkey Kong hammer is an experience not unlike being mercilessly, yet jokingly, tickled: you know you are in no real danger, and you’re laughing, but there’s a lizard-brained fear taking hold, as well. I know some players prefer to limit the items and on-screen events as much as possible, in an attempt to focus the experience more purely on skill. (There’s an internet meme about how hardcore Smash Bros. players prefer every round to consist of “all Fox, no items, Final Destination,” which, if you don’t know the game, is about as vanilla as things can get.) I think that’s missing the point, like purposely extracting jokes from a lowbrow stoner comedy in order to draw attention to the acting.NINTENDO64--Super Smash Bros HD_Jan12 1_20_51.png

Credit Smash Bros.‘ delightful eccentricities to lead designer Masahiro Sakurai. Sukarai is like the weird (and now semi-estranged) little brother of the Nintendo family, always looking at what his older siblings accomplish and figuring out ways he can re-work such feats to be truly his own. He’s a sort of counterpoint to other longtime Nintendo second-party developers Rareware; whereas that company was often content to crib design ideas from the latest Mario or Zelda game and maximalize them, Sakurai genuinely mutates the creations of Miyamoto and others into something new. His Kirby games are one of the few true subversions of the Mario formula. Mario is all about tightness, about harnessing the jump technique to make it through a stage’s pitfalls and booby traps. Kirby‘s controls are literally floaty, stripping away the challenge of the platformer and asking the player to examine the creativity and aesthetic of the game design.

Sakurai’s fingerprints are all over Super Smash Bros., but given the restlessness and variety of his catalog, that basically tells you little more than that it is the work of an eccentric. Still, Sakurai has one of the rarest and most valuable traits a game designer can foster within himself: he is not afraid to fail. Super Smash Bros., with its unconventional gameplay not quite like anything seen before or since, could have easily alienated both Nintendo and fighting game fans, but it’s found its niche in both communities.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed the game, I must admit that I’m not very good at Super Smash Bros. I have never found a character I’m truly comfortable with (although I greatly enjoy the way Mario’s punches connect during his physical attacks), and I have no strong preference amongst the series’ three incarnations like some fans do. But still, even when being consistently beaten by significantly more skilled friends, the game is rarely frustrating. And even though I lack true mastery over its frantic, perpetual chaos, I can still see that this is a game that is better than it has any right to be, a game that is more than the sum of its parts. A mascot beat-’em-up should not have this sort of legacy, but I can’t deny the appeal of seeing these beloved icons (and let’s be honest, most of them truly are more icons than characters) toss each other around a bit. I could make up excuses for why I get a kick out of such a childish concept, label the game “cultural iconography” or “pop-art maximalism.” But I think the the original Smash Bros.’ framing device, in which these Nintendo heroes are floppy ragdolls brought to life, presents the answer. Despite the great strides games have taken toward maturity, Nintendo can still remind us that sometimes we just like to play with our toys.

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12 thoughts on “Super Smash Bros. (1999)

  1. dugular says:

    You’re right, Nintendo know that the magic point is the pre-teen market. By keeping their franchises from growing up with the audience, they keep attracting new younger gamers whilst keeping the older ones through nostalgia and familiarity.

    It is exactly what Sonic did wrong. Where most franchises grow up with the audience, Sonic seemed to take Nintendo’s approach half-heatedly. They grew Sonic up to the ‘early teen’ market… and then stopped him there. The very worst market you could ever pick is the early teen market. Adults are much more comfortable with ‘pre-teen’ stylings (Like Mario) than they are with ‘teen’ stylings. The former is innocent and can bring about feelings of childlike glee which adults crave, whereas the latter… is just embarrassing.

    As adults, we’d rather go and see a Pixar/Disney movie, than Twilight.

    Why SEGA choose to keep Sonic in that most awkward of markets is beyond me. Teenagers are different in each generation… but children are not.

    Nintendo, as you point out, are doing the right thing by the brand.

    My only disagreement with Nintendo, is their lack of updating Mario’s side-view iterations to more modern game design ethics. They can keep the style and controls and everything else as Mario as they want, but they are extremely dated on their lives/continue system. I feel they’re too scared to change it too much.

    Adult gamers like Mario because it is actually quite challenging, but my partner is not a gamer, and the only games she plays is Mario (Which she loves). Watching her start to hate a Mario game because it is constantly making her replay three levels she knows how to beat every time she dies 5 times on the one afterwards.. is a bit depressing!

    • Joel Newman says:

      Excellent points all around! I never quite put together that that was what bothered me so much about the Sonic Adventure games. I always just wrote them off because the gameplay didn’t interest me, but you’re so right. Those games are off-putting because they’re trying to appeal to teenagers, and it just comes off as desperate as Poochy from The Simpsons. No one wants a dark and gritty game about a cartoon hedgehog. Not children, not teenagers, not adults like us that can still appreciate Mario. (The Pixar/Twilight comparison is spot on.) No one.

      And yeah, given their work on Donkey Kong Country Returns (a game that I personally think tops the original series for inventiveness and dynamic game design), imagine what someone like Retro Studios could do with the New Super Mario Bros. sub-franchise, or the team behind those fantastic new school Rayman games. I really hope that during the next console generation, Nintendo can figure out a way to move forward without feeling like they’re betraying their accessible, all-ages spirit. They did it once beautifully with the Nintendo 64, but now they seem way more interested in innovating hardware than the games that run on it. They just made some pretty big promises about the next Zelda (specifically, that it will be less linear), so here’s hoping!

    • rainmaker97 says:

      Just adding my two cents here. Really great insight into why Sonic has gone downhill, yet Mario’s remained solid. As one of those unlucky bastards who actually bought Shadow the Hedgehog, the game’s weird compromise of attempting to be edgy through guns and swear words while toning it down (nothing worse than “damn,” no blood) so as not to lose their younger audience was very jarring. I felt kind of embarrassed as I played it, even though I was probably in their target audience at the time.

      By comparison, I was playing Super Mario Galaxy 2 a few years back when my roommate (a strictly CoD and Halo brogamer) came by, saying he heard the familiar chimes of me gathering coins. I was a little embarrassed, but he stayed and watched, then asked if he could try a level I kept dying on. Everyone I know understands that Mario is ostensibly geared towards children, yet unlike most franchises, it’s still acceptable to play it as an adult. Is it because platform games are considered to be as demanding of one’s skills and reflexes as most FPSes are? Perhaps it’s that “retro” appeal that has even permeated modern Mario titles like SMG2? Maybe it’s just that Pixar effect where the game is truly for “all ages” despite being wrapped up in a sugary coating?

  2. I loved the fighting genre back in the day–Street Fighter II just might qualify as one of my first loves, and Tekken was a close second–yet I NEVER liked Smash Bros., despite the fact that I wanted to. I think you are pretty dead on when you point out the simple mechanics and how they are meant to appeal to younger gamers. To those of us who were a little older and a little more hardcore, Smash Bros., was frustratingly simple.

    I always felt that SB was a little too much like Mortal Kombat–a flawed fighting game that made it big thanks to a shallow, stand-out innovation (for SB it was the Nintendo icons fighting, while for MK it was the spectacle of the gore-heavy finishing moves). I think your post has helped me to think a little more highly of SB. I still think MK was a terrible fighting game that made it big because of one lucky innovation… but I have to actually give some credit to Nintendo for SB. I still don’t care for the game, but I can applaud its innovations (unlike MK it has more than one), and recognize that they served a very “Nintendo” function–i.e., they made the game perfect for its target audience. As usual, thanks for the thoughtful, well-written post.

    • rainmaker97 says:

      I think Joel is correct in stating that Smash Bros. is a “surprisingly deep” fighting game. It does appear simple at first glance, but that’s because the ground game (which is the focus of most hardcore fighting games) isn’t the focus of high-level Smash play: it’s the aerial game and the edgegame. Joel mentioned the jump button is crucial, but in competitive Melee play, it’s your lifeblood. With the focus on ring-outs over health bar whittling, you’ve gotta be able to knock your opponent off the stage, jump off yourself (thereby risking death) and block him from returning, then be able to return to the stage yourself. Melee upped the competitiveness of the series by increasing the game speed and inadvertently adding a series of physics glitches that allowed for cancelling (a fighting game staple), thereby lending Melee a Guilty Gear-like complexity. For the first time in the series, you could actually perform real combos, just like in Street Fighter. Admittedly, the game’s following would probably still be considered “niche” compared to SF or Virtua Fighter, but Melee is actually regarded as a surprisingly deep fighting game experience. Sure, it requires a completely different playstyle than the heavyweights of the fighting genre, but the things top-level players have been able to do with the engine are mind-boggling.

      Note that only Melee has achieved this sort of respect from the fighting game community. The original Smash Bros. is indeed as simple as you say, while all the competition-friendly glitches and exploits that made Melee so fast were removed from Brawl, leaving it sluggish.

    • Joel Newman says:

      I definitely agree with you on Mortal Kombat, definitely a game whose legacy rides a shock value reputation more than actual innovation. I honestly consider Smash Bros. to be enough of its own thing that it’s almost a disservice to call it a “fighting game.” As Rainmaker notes, Melee really did a lot to up the competitiveness and strategy of the series, but the game is still so different in its mechanics and goals that it will probably never be seen as something as pure as Street Fighter and Tekken. It’s a tangent of the genre I find engaging, but again, I’m hardly enough of an expert to really feel comfortable saying much beyond that.

  3. rainmaker97 says:

    “…The Simpsons to Star Wars to Sonic the Hedgehog, to produce an inherently broken Virtua Fighter rip-off, in the hopes of luring in susceptible young consumers with promises of Chewbacca pummeling Darth Vader.”

    Oh God. Masters of Teras Kasi. I had finally forgotten about that abortion of a game, and then you drag it back into my life.

    Fun fact: I was reading one of the more recent Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, and one Jedi Master namechecked “Teras Kasi” as an obscure alternative fighting style. That shit’s even invaded the books now.

    • Joel Newman says:

      Haha, I found out about Masters of Teras Kasi through a pretty backwards means… my girlfriend, who was a Star Wars obsessive as a kid, got the game just because she was psyched you could play as non-movie characters like Mara Jade. So I guess the Expanded Universe connections went both ways!

  4. You bring up an incredibly good point about Nintendo making games for the kids. We often complain that the new Zelda games or Mario games are simply not innovating enough, but they really might not be for us at all. The thrill of riding into Hyrule fields for the first time can not be recreated in the same series for me, and honestly I doubt I will return to Zelda ever again. Its not that the games are bad, but I am an adult now and I have Skyrim and Just Cause and those are two games made for me.

    I review a lot of older games on http://www.betterbyyouasking.com and i am noticing that some series really just stay the course and only innovate when they need to. These are generational games meant for a specific age group. I do not need to keep playing Sonic, I have Bastion and Braid and Limbo.

    Once we learn to grow up and leave the old franchises behind maybe we can start to love them again.

    • Joel Newman says:

      Kudos for mentioning the Bastion-Braid-Limbo triumvirate as filling in the holes left by these old franchises in new, innovative ways. Completely agreed.

      It’s tough for me to say if the spark in these games is gone for good. Skyward Sword definitely had some “final straw” elements for me, and Nintendo has been marginalized enough that I doubt we’ll ever see the company be responsible for a paradigm shift like Super Mario 64 again. But my foolish heart still maintains enough affection for the once-proud company that I hope against hope they will surprise us yet. Like you said, it’s not like we can’t look elsewhere until that happens.

      • We need to look elsewhere. If I was to only let my kids (someday) watch Land Before Time or other franchised movies I would be cutting them off from culturally relevant and emotionally rich films like Spirited Away, Up and other like it. As my (future) kids grow up I have to help them grow their tastes as well. We have to step out of our comfort zones and embrace new and scary ideas and let the franchises be generational like they should be.

  5. janhutchings says:

    As a guy who’s only played Smash back when it first released on the N64 and never tried the other ones, I’m actually quite surprised at how long-lasting this game’s fun factor has been for the last decade and a half. My friends and I still play the game on the N64 during parties and get-togethers; though I don’t see myself playing much of Nintendo’s core titles by myself as I find that these are more aimed towards a younger demographic. Like betterbyyouasking said, we’re adults now and games like Skyrim, Just Cause, and other open-world RPG’s appeal to us more than the Zeldas and such.

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