Monday, February 13, 2017

Super Smash Bros. - Of Revelation and Addiction
How a surprising last-second ledge-grab allowed for Nintendo's plucky mascot-mashup to retake the stage and forever reign as king of the hill.

To think that it was right there in front of me the whole time and I almost missed it.

So it was the middle of 1999, and I was desperate to find something to play on my beloved N64. For as much as I enjoyed replaying Banjo-Kazooie, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, THQ's wrestling games, and a few other favorites, I couldn't deny that I was hungry for new experiences. However, the problem remained that I wasn't terribly interested in any of the games listed on the N64's upcoming release-schedule. Also, since I was too oblivious to realize that the Game Boy Color was an entirely new system, and not a souped-up revision of the classic Game Boy, portable games simply didn't register as viable. "The Game Boy had its time," I stated in my ignorance, "and I doubt that the addition of color can do much to camouflage the fact that 8-bit monochrome gaming has long since reached its expiration."

Right around this time, a familiar scenario was reoccurring: My brother was about to head out to Electronics Boutique to buy some games for his new PC, and he asked me if there were any games I'd like for him to pick up while he was there. In reality there weren't, yet, as it had always been, I couldn't fight my natural inclination to say yes to his offers; as shopping was my among my least-favorite activities--and I hadn't yet established credit, which eliminated online stores as an option--it felt wrong to pass up what I saw as precious opportunities.

So I handed him a wad of cash totaling somewhere around $120 and told him to get Mario Party and Super Smash Bros., which I'd estimated were the safest choices available. They were, after all, made by Nintendo, whose track record during this period was largely spotless (the only true blemish was left by the pricey, content-deficient Yoshi's Story, which I found to be an exceptionally weak follow-up to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island). From there it was a matter of convincing myself that I was making a wise investment.

The results of my introspection were mixed: I could profess to have mild interest in Mario Party, since I liked board games, but I could come up with no justification for purchasing Smash Bros., which fit into a genre that typically floated around the bottom tier on my list (that is, whenever its current representative wasn't any version of Street Fighter II). All the while, I kept recalling that single image I saw in Nintendo Power--its a depiction of Mario fighting Link atop Hyrule Castle--and how I felt indifferent to the concept of Nintendo characters duking it out in a fighting game.

And it shouldn't have been that way. I mean, here we had a game in which all of Nintendo's famous mascots were coming together as one. This was what I'd been waiting for my entire life! It's what we all dreamed about when we were kids. You remember: A group of us would go out onto the porch on a summer day with our pens and paper in hand, and we'd begin drafting ideas for a game in which all of the most popular video-game heroes (Mario, Link, Samus, Mega Man, Simon Belmont, et al.) would team up and take on the dark alliance as formed by the equally prominent villains (Bowser, Ganon, Mother Brain, Dr. Wily, and the rest). And once our document was complete, we'd plan to put it in an envelope and "send it to Nintendo" with the hope that the company would see fit to breathe life into our idea. Yet here I was about to own a game that came close to matching that description, and I couldn't have been less interested in playing it.

Clearly its genre was to blame: Whenever I'd think about all of the exciting possibilities, never once would I seriously entertain the notion that Mario and company should appear together in a fighting game, which by the nature of its genre, I believed, would be too limited in scope to act as platform for a surreal, monumental gathering of legends. Rather, it was my expectation that the first Nintendo all-star mash-up would be reserved for something mind-blowing, like an all-encompassing action-adventure game that was large enough in scale to dwarf all of the heroes' respective adventures combined (I wasn't asking for much).

Instead we got Super Smash Bros., the comparatively mundane fighter. What a waste.

But hey--at least I'd have Mario Party, right? Surely its fantastically wacky brand of board-game hijinks would be entertaining enough to make up the difference!

I couldn't stand Mario Party. I kept rolling 1s while the CPU players seemed incapable of rolling anything lower than an 8. The three of them would keep teaming up on me during mini-games, making it impossible for me to win a single one of them. I'd never have any coins because I'd continually land on red spaces. The stars would always spawn on the side of the board opposite of where I was currently located, naturally close in proximity to the leading CPU player. It was one of the most aggravating games I'd ever played. I'm sure the game was a whole lot of fun when played with other people, but alone it made for an empty, unpleasant experience. So I shelved it.

I was so done with Mario Party that I could happily live without ever seeing it again. Had I not been the collecting type, I might have sold it back the next day.

And ironically enough, my personal vindication now hinged on Super Smash Bros.'s ability to deliver some high-quality fighting action. I was nervous about its chances.

In my earliest experiences with Smash Bros., I kept mainly to its 1P mode. It was my first impression that its fighting system was kind of genius: Building up an opponent's percentage to decrease his density so that you could more easily knock him off the stage was certainly an intriguing idea--a Nintendo-like twist on a formula if I'd ever seen one--and it worked great in practice. Tilting the analog stick with different degrees of intensity to execute a more more-powerful strike--a "Smash Attack," the term from which the game derived its name--wasn't something I'd seen before. 

The characters' special moves, I excitedly observed, were faithful replications of the trademarked attacks and maneuvers they'd routinely perform in their games; and each move was logically mapped (Samus lays bombs with down-B, executes a Screw Attack with up-B), which worked to enhance the feel of its authenticity. Holding down either of the shoulder buttons activated a depletable shield that would regenerate when not in use; otherwise the input allowed for characters to pull off some cool evasive maneuvers. And you could even bludgeon your opponent with randomly appearing items as taken from all of those legendary games (though, there were a few Smash-exclusive items like the lightsaber-inspired Beam Sword and the Home-Run Bat, which had the capability to deliver one-hit KOs when swung with greater force)!

This was truly something new and different. Certainly Smash was respectful of its inspiration--the Street Fighter series, whose core mechanics served as the foundation for its fighting engine--but its wildly distinctive take on the formula enabled it to occupy its own space. As I'd done no research on the subject, it was my expectation was that Smash was going to be a simple Street Fighter II clone with Nintendo characters swapped in, so what I was seeing here was quite the surprise.

In particular, I was pleased with how characters like Mario and Link translated over to Smash--how their models and basic move-sets were close approximations of those that were on display in their latest N64 adventures. That their repertoires were expanded to include past abilities (that is, any attacks or maneuvers borrowed from their 2D predecessors) made for a fascinating amalgamation; there was something wild about seeing a 3D Mario execute a coin-draining Super Jump Punch when his newly stacked Super Mario 64 ability-set suggested that such a move was a thing of the past.

These were wonderfully concentrated versions of the characters: Mario had his classic fireball attack, his spin move from Super Mario World, and all of those acrobatic strikes and animations as seen in Super Mario 64 (including overlooked maneuvers like the break-dance kick, which he'd execute from a crouch). Link had his trademarked projectiles (the boomerang and those big blue bombs), the popular up- and downthrust moves from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and a collection of sword strikes as ripped directly from Ocarina of Time. Save for their rather middling interpretation of Samus, the designers at HAL showed great respect for Nintendo's legacy characters, I thought.

I also thought it was neat how the characters would return to stages via descending platforms that resembled those from Mario Bros., to which Smash indeed had a spiritual connection. The game was very up front about from where it drew its influence.

All of the ingredients for an amazing multiplayer game were there!

It was just too bad, then, that I didn't find the actual fighting to be exciting for more than a few minutes.

That's the opinion I came to hold after playing through the "1P Game," Smash's unimaginatively titled adventure mode, a couple of times. Frankly, fighting low-IQ computer characters, most of whom couldn't resist limply self-destructing as they attempted to recover, was kind of a bore. The 2-on-2 and 3-on-1 team battles (in which randomly chosen CPU allies assisted me in my fights against the Mario Bros. and Giant Donkey Kong, respectively) were more interesting, but clashes of their variety were too limited in number. And the final boss being a giant floating hand ("Master Hand," as he was known) was a big letdown. "Where are Bowser, Ganon and Ridley?" I wondered. 

I understood that his appearance was meant to be symbolic--that he represented the children who would derive enjoyment from smashing their action figures into one another--but I saw no reason why the designers couldn't have worked in one of the classic villains as a midboss or a specially designated ultimate evil in the harder difficulties.

So I found little reason to continue replaying the 1P Game. I devoted most of my time, instead, trying to set records in the Bonus Practice mode, which I thought was the most compelling part of the package. I loved how the Break the Targets and Board the Platforms mini-games were constructed in a way that required the player to find use for all of the characters' abilities--even those that were largely arcane. No Smash Bros. game has done it better since (and it's a travesty that the later entries have done away with them entirely). Otherwise, I spent time attempting to unlocking the secret characters. As the game provided no hints, and I had no interest in exhausting every possibility, I had to turn to the Internet, which was still in his infancy; we're talking about an era when you had to hunt down information by scouring every known video-game site and enthusiast message board you could find. And it would be a miracle if Yahoo! turned up a relevant result. I believe I eventually tracked down accurate information on a budding website called "Cheat Code Central."

I was disappointed by HAL's selections. Luigi? Fine. He was a member of the legendary Mario "Bros.," after all. Captain Falcon from F-Zero? He was an OK choice, though I wasn't sure about his fighting potential, since we'd never seen him outside the Blue Falcon.

"But who the hell are Ness and Jigglypuff?" I wondered as I read through the page with a perplexed look on my face. "And why should I care about either of them?"

I couldn't even guess as to which games they were from!

"This is supposed to be a convergence of all-stars," I declared with great vehemence, "so where are iconic characters like Wario and Pit?!"

Honestly, I was kind of miffed about their being snubbed. In the case of Pit, I saw this as a emphatically delivered vote of no confidence. I could only guess that Nintendo no longer saw him as a major star--that maybe it was time to give up hope of seeing the Kid Icarus series resurrected.

I didn't want to feel as though I'd twice been suckered out of my money, so it was my compulsion to try to find additional value in Smash Bros. Over the course of the next few days, I engaged with it in a few different ways: I played a number of 1-on-1 matches against CPU opponents in VS Mode, where I could customize the rules and add some variety. There were prolonged sessions in which I experimented with the characters in Training Mode--thoroughly explored their move-sets with the aim of inventing new combos. And I continued to set records in the bonus mini-games (except for on Jigglypuff's Board the Platforms stage, which I hadn't yet completed; it seemed impossible until I looked up the solution).

Otherwise, I could find reasons to indulge in the game's appealing presentation. The stage design, for instance, was excellent (I still think that the original Smash has the best stages), with standouts like Hyrule Castle and the spacious Sector Z topping my list. The inclusion of an 8-bit-styled Mushroom Kingdom stage--with its unmistakable scale platforms, functioning warp pipes, piranha plants, and POW blocks--made my life. And I thought that the designers did a great job of incorporating elements from the actual games, like the oscillating barrel cannon in Congo Jungle, the wind-stirring Whispy Woods in Dream Land, and the disappearing clouds in Yoshi's Island.

The large static images that occupied the stages' backdrops were low in resolution and a bit cloudy, sure, but there was a certain charm to them; their quietly dominating presence made for an underappreciated means of conveying atmosphere, the distant landscapes, with their wondrous sense of placidity, never failing to stoke my imagination. My favorite visuals included Hyrule Castle's Death Mountain depiction, Peach's Castle as viewed from above, and the attractively drawn crimson sunset in Congo Jungle. To me their nostalgic resonance was amplified by memorable activity like Ridley infrequently flying across Planet Zebes' background. It always felt appropriate to stop fighting and simply observe whenever he appeared.

Also, the stages were accompanied by some finely composed arrangements of classic Nintendo tunes. They weren't grand recreations, no, but they managed to capture the spirit of the old games with their evocative, suggestive strains--so much so that I could have sworn that the Congo Jungle theme was ripped directly from Donkey Kong Country. Also, I couldn't help but be enchanted by the game's delightfully serene, understated menu music, whose wistful vibes made for a reflective atmosphere that somehow seemed appropriate for a game that was meant to recall images of the medium's history, in which I'd been so steeped (this feeling would become more pronounced as the years went by). You'd have thought that a loud, rockin' introduction would be more befitting of this type of gathering, yet the menu theme's hushed tones did just as well to create anticipation. It could be interpreted as the calm before the storm, its yearnful notes evoking images of the heroes we've known for ages battling each other in familiar spaces.

But that was about as far as my affinity stretched. Really, I'd extracted all I could from Smash Bros.; I'd exhausted all of the single-player content, and the Versus Mode was useless to me. The latter may have been a source of great fun had I been able to rope in some additional players, but there was no chance of that happening; all of my friends were gone, and my brother wasn't a fan of fighting games. And for as much as I liked Smash's fighting system, I wasn't going to pretend that 1-on-1 battles against CPU opponents made for a particularly exciting demonstration of its potential. So the time had finally arrived when I had to admit that Super Smash Bros. was a bust--that I'd be getting absolutely no return on my investment. There was nothing left to do but shelve it right alongside Mario Party.

Oh, I'd pop it into the N64 every few weeks or so and desperately attempt to unearth some undiscovered depth, but I'd always arrive at the same conclusion: Aside from its fun, well-conceived bonus games, Smash just didn't have much to offer a single player. Though, I wasn't about to let myself become too broken up about it about its failure to deliver. After all--I was the proud new owner of Camelot's outstanding Mario Golf, which was eating up so much of my time that I honestly had no attention to spare for some silly mascot fighter.

My, how quickly things can change when I actually pay attention to what I'm doing.

So sometime late in the year, when I was light on entertainment options, I figured I'd give Smash Bros. one last shot--one final opportunity to convince me that it wasn't a lost cause. And as the pattern followed, it gave me nothing. The 1P Game was still as bland as ever. Fighting 1-on-1 battles against CPU opponents grew monotonous in a hurry. And there was still no sign of meaningful single-player content. It wasn't going to work out; the game simply had nothing for me. I was about done with it.

I was seconds away from giving up on Smash Bros. for good when something amazing happened: As I was thinking about what game I should play next, I started clicking about randomly on the VS Mode's character-select screen. That's when I discovered, quite by accident, that you could activate the second- and third-player slots by clicking on the icons located in their upper-left corners; most excitingly, this meant that I could assign one or two additional CPU characters and participate in 3- and 4-player free-for-alls! Really, I had no idea that this was possible. I didn't recall seeing anything written about it in the manual. It was my assumption that those extra slots were reserved only for human players who had plugged controllers into the N64's third and fourth ports. This discovery changed everything!

From that point onward, it was a whole different ballgame. The chaotic free-for-all battles proved to be insanely fun. Never before had I played a fighting game that featured its awesome combination of frenzied combat, breathtaking air battles, and epic recovery attempts. And there was so much variety to its VS Mode: I could set up team battles, 3-on-1s, 2-on-1-on-1s, and just about every other combination. I could play with items on or off. I could play Time or Stock battles and manipulate the values as I saw fit. The possibilities seemed endless.

Smash Bros. was now brimming with irresistible radiance. I was hopelessly drawn to the glow of its exceedingly addicting multiplayer action. I'd return to the game every day. My sessions would last for hours and hours. I'd play one match after the next, stopping only to eat and sleep. I couldn't get enough.

Suddenly Super Smash Bros. had taken over my life.

That's how it went for the better part of the next two years: Playing free-for-alls in Smash Bros. was my go-to video-game activity. Boring Sunday? Spend it playing Smash Bros. Have some time to kill before dinner? Perfect opportunity to get in a few Smash Bros. matches. No new games coming out this month? Oh well--that just leaves more time for Smash! In a relatively short period, I'd poured more time into Smash Bros. than any game I'd ever played. Its potential for fun was limitless.

Smash Bros. became the party game. Almost every N64 owner I knew had it in his or her collection. Everyone else would repeatedly rent it from Blockbuster. The game was everywhere, it seemed. I couldn't escape it even when we'd go on vacation. If we were in, say, Atlantic City, then there was a good chance that the hotel room we were in had an N64 rental service with Smash Bros. as its hottest attraction (those modded N64s might still be in those hotels to this day). There were times when I'd talk my brother and his friends into renting the game so we could play a few matches while we were getting ready to head out onto the Boardwalk or while we were waiting for room service to arrive.

In the early days of Free-for-All Madness, my mains were Link and Samus, whose combinations of abusable projectiles and ranged strikes seemingly rendered them elite characters in a game where being able to control the action from a distance and rack up damage while avoiding the craziness of multi-person clusters was a huge advantage. However, as time went on and I became more intimately familiar with the fighting system and its shades of nuance, I gravitated more toward the Mario Bros., whose spin attacks were great for setting up all sorts of combos (and Luigi's superior recoverability ensured that he was never out of a match), and Captain Falcon, who was demonstrably overpowered. I loved all of Falcon's special moves and particularly the devastating Falcon Punch, which hit with explosive impact. If your percentage-meter was over 40% when you walked into one, you were toast.

There was a bit of lag to the move, sure, but it didn't matter; the reward far outweighed the risk. Wildly throwing a Falcon Punch into a three-person scrum, for instance, would often produce glorious results, with fools flying off in all directions to their deaths! Truly, nothing in video games was more satisfying than connecting with a Falcon Punch, whose viscerally pleasing impact was only amplified by the Captain's fierce, angry bellowing of the move's name ("FALCON ... PUUUUAAAYYYNCH!"). The actors who voiced Falcon in future games failed to reproduce his N64 incarnation's intensely violent energy.

As for items: I always turned them off. Not for philosophical reasons, no--I just thought that the game was already chaotic enough without them. I'd have trouble focusing if there was too much going on.

A big part of the fun was thinking about Smash Bros.'s sources of influence and imagining what its sequel would entail. As I'd experiment with the characters in Training Mode, I'd try to identify their moves and pinpoint their origins. For characters like Mario and Link, this was easy, but there were certain individuals whose unrecognizable maneuvers required that I put my mind to work ("Well, obviously Donkey Kong is borrowing the Spinning Kong from Dixie Kong, and the Falcon Kick is likely Captain Falcon's physical simulation of the Blue Falcon hitting a speed-booster.")

Also, I'd wonder about how other characters from Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and such would translate over to Smash's world. That left much to consider: What would their special moves be? What kind of entrance animations would they be given? How would Smash's engine be stretched to replicate their more quirky characteristics? What items could be mined from their games? I'd spend a whole lot of time imagining the possibilities.

One thing was clear: There was enormous potential in a Smash Bros. sequel, and I didn't miss a chance to dream about it.

In the end, I was glad that Masahiro Sakurai and his staff thought to introduce us to characters like Ness and Jigglypuff, since I came to realize that their inclusion epitomized what Smash was all about: Bringing something different to the table. Shining a spotlight on the overlooked and the underappreciated. Celebrating all aspects of Nintendo's rich history. Were it not for Smash Bros., I wouldn't have known anything about them, and that would have been a shame. I'm glad that I got the opportunity to meet them--to learn about their histories. Neither had hijacked anyone's slot. They were there because they absolutely belonged. Besides--there was always the chance that Wario and Pit could show up in a future Smash entry (they would, though much later than I'd hoped)!

That future entry arrived two years later in the form of Super Smash Bros. Melee, which wowed me at first but ultimately (for reasons I'll explain in the future) proved to be no replacement for the original work. For a while, I split my time between them, but inevitably Super Smash Bros. KOed its technologically superior challenger and retained its title of "go-to Smash game." To this day, I still prefer it over all three of its sequels.

In the later years, I was able to squeeze a ton of extra value out of Super Smash Bros. when I discovered that you could use GameShark modification codes to substitute characters into bonus games where they don't belong (you can use Luigi in Fox's specially designed Board the Platforms, for instance, or even swap in characters like Metal Mario, Giant Donkey Kong and Master Hand). Since then I've been whittling down my best times to totals that were previously unimaginable. More so, it's just plain fun to try to complete, say, Kirby and Jigglypuff's bonus games with characters who lack their aerial proficiency.

I find comfort in Super Smash Bros. I like being immersed in it. Its graphics are a bit rough-looking, sure, but the blocky nature of the character models lends the game what I call a "quintessential video-game aesthetic." Its next-generation sequels, in comparison, are so shiny and slick-looking that they fail to replicate its nostalgic simple charm. Super Smash Bros. is replete with evocative strains, which is why I enjoy looking at it and listening to it as much as I do playing it. That it can arouse such feelings is the reason why I consider its release to mark the end of the old days, when creators weren't afraid to stoke the player's imagination. When information wasn't readily available and you had to scour the Internet in search of tips and codes. When games were still games and not large productions. Super Smash Bros. stands as a representative of how things were before modernity brought us the explosion of the Internet and the rise of super-powered machines. It's a pure nostalgia trip. Its every vibe reminds you of where you were at the time.

For certain, Super Smash Bros. will continue to do that job for me. As the series moves farther and farther away from what made its progenitor so easily accessible and endlessly replayable--as it seeks to add layers of complexity that diminish the take-it-to-'em nature of the battles and instead encourage overly conservative fighting styles and the avoidance of air combat--Super Smash Bros. will remain my rock, its action never failing to remind me why I fell in love with the series in the first place. It's my hope that future Smash directors will study its lessons well.

Above all, Super Smash Bros. will endeavor to teach us that the medium's history will remain relevant as long as there are people who are willing to discover it, celebrate it, and enthusiastically immerse themselves in it. And if there's any justice in the world, then Super Smash Bros., too, will continue to find audiences who will proudly proclaim to be so rabid. Their passion will ensure that its spirit lives on forever.

Past and present being able to live together harmoniously, to me, would be positively smashing.

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