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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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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