Sunday, March 12, 2017

Shades of Resonance: Disappointment and Regret - Memory Log #53

Super Smash Bros. Melee

I'd become obsessed with Super Smash Bros. I found myself playing it on a daily basis, usually for hours on end. I was spending every moment of my available free time Charge Shotting and Falcon Punching fools to their oblivion. I saw any downtime as a perfect opportunity not to socialize or plan for my future but to mix it up with Nintendo's cast of happy-go-lucky gaming icons atop the roof of Hyrule Castle or within the nostalgically textured confines of the classic Mushroom Kingdom. I just couldn't get enough of the game's endlessly addicting multiplayer action!

And all the while, I couldn't stop dreaming about what a larger-scale sequel would entail--about who would be in it and how wide its scope would be. Thoughts about duking it out with video-game characters from the across the spectrum--those from both Nintendo's history and the rosters of equally beloved third-party developers like Capcom, Konami and Tecmo--filled my mind at all times. That was the power of Super Smash Bros. It was a game that dared me to dream about the possibilities. It was resolute in its desire to spark my imagination. It strove to convince me of its potential. And it succeeded wildly in its efforts--so much so that my wondering about where this series might take me was, in my estimation, an essential part of the experience.

And wonder I did. In time, I became consumed with the idea of a Super Smash Bros. sequel. One had to be in the works, I figured; I mean, there was never a bigger no-brainer! But I needed to see some sign that Nintendo was currently working on it. So in between Smash Bros. sessions, I'd head over to Yahoo!, type in every permutation of Smash terms, and exhaustively scour the Internet in search of any rumor, no matter how fanciful-sounding, that would point to the existence of this mystical Smash Bros. sequel that existed only in my head.

Somewhere there had to be an insider spilling information, I believed, and it was my mission to find the place. So I'd run my searches and follow links to the most obscure forums on the Internet in pursuit of precious knowledge. I'd unquestioningly take the word of any random schlub who would claim to know that Nintendo was collaborating with its partners to bring Mega Man, Simon Belmont, Ryu Hayabusa, and many others to its unfathomably expansive Smash Bros. follow-up. Most embarrassingly, I sent a desperate-sounding email to IGN's editors asking if they'd heard anything about a Smash Bros. sequel coming to Nintendo's newest console, the GameCube. I don't recall the exact wording, but I'm certain that it wasn't anything more intelligent than "IF U HAVE ANY INFORMATION, PLEASE TELL ME. OK, THANX. BYE!"

My memory tells me that these searches went on for years and years when it reality it was barely two. That's how it was when you were brimming with anticipation for video-game news. Of course, none of the "leaks" or rumors I discovered over that period were ever substantiated, but that was OK; I didn't mind having my emotions toyed with. It was all part of the fun. In fact, as I had in the past, I considered all of the build-up and pre-release activity to be vital pieces of my memory of the game in question.

After following so many false leads and having my hopes shattered again and again, I was suddenly invigorated by the news that Nintendo was prepared to show something Smash-related at some yearly trade show called "E3," which I'd never heard about. Really, I didn't know what such an event entailed or how I could go about viewing it. In lieu of actually doing some research on the matter, I spent the next few days making the rounds of the usual enthusiast sites (IGN, GameSpot, GameSpy, and the like) and continuously clicking the refresh button with the hope that the Smash Bros. sequel I'd long dreamed about would soon be proven to be real.

Finally it came to me in the form of a single image.

It depicted Captain Falcon throwing a Falcon Kick into Link while Sheik was charged in from left and Fox fired a blaster shot into the fray. They were fighting atop a platform comprised of rope-tied logs in what was surely a Donkey Kong Country-themed stage. This image would be burned into my memory for all time.

I don't remember what day it was or which site I was browsing at the time, but I certainly recall how ecstatic I was as I studied every pixel of that image. I mean, this was what I'd been waiting for since 1999! Here it was right in front of me. It wasn't a Photoshop or an April Fool's prank. Oh, no--this Smash Bros. sequel was real.

Its name was Super Smash Bros. Melee, and, unlike its predecessor, it was being treated as a huge deal from moment one. From what I ascertained, it was to be a showpiece title for Nintendo's powerful new console. How 'bout that: The original had apparently performed so exceptionally well that Nintendo was trusting its sequel to be the primary mover of GameCubes--a role usually reserved for Mario games! "Not bad for a criminally underbudgeted mascot-fighter whose localization teams didn't believe in its ability to achieve 'hit' status," I thought.

Many hours over the next few weeks were devoted to blissfully poring over every screenshot and preview that IGN and its contemporaries were making available. I lustfully watched and re-watched every low-quality live-feed video I could find. And I hit up every message board in existence looking for attendee impressions. I was counting the days until Melee's release.

I was so excited for Melee, which was scheduled to be a launch title, that I resolved to buy a GameCube on day one. This was significant to note because otherwise I wasn't terribly interested in the console. No, not for the usual reason--that I was afraid of change and what it meant for my current favorite console--but because the magic was gone. New console releases just didn't seem like a big deal to me anymore, though at the time I struggled to pinpoint the reason why. It might have been that I no longer viewed a graphical boost, alone, as a compelling-enough selling point. Or maybe it was that console launches were like Christmas in that they felt less and less special as you grew older. I couldn't say for sure. Whatever the case, I simply wasn't feeling the hype.

Also, I was pretty cold on Luigi's Mansion and the rest of the GameCube's launch lineup, which was seriously lacking for heavy-hitters. Certainly Nintendo wasn't offering anything of the caliber of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 64, or any of the other game-changing launch titles from consoles past. Its lack of a revolutionary, generation-defining launch game was glaring; the absence of such led me to believe that Nintendo had fallen way behind schedule and wouldn't be able to provide a string of system-selling software for several months. Loyal customership aside, I was buying its console on launch day for one reason and one reason only.

As the game's release neared, I decided to stop following all media coverage because I wanted for there to remain an element of mystery to Melee; mainly, I was hoping to avoid having its unlockable content spoiled for me. "Why not allow myself to be surprised when Pit and Wario make their grand entrances?" I thought to myself. "Surely Nintendo's not going to snub them a second time!"

I was able to refrain for about a week before I gave into temptation. But I didn't feel that my reneging was a big deal, really. After all--there was, I figured, no real harm in skimming over message-board posts, which at worst might spoil information about a newly added item or a music track. That's when I made a really bad mistake and read through a "leaked roster" post on the recently founded Smash World Forums. My attitude was that these "leaks" were usually fabricated by attention-seekers and over-enthused wishful-thinkers, so it probably wouldn't hurt to humor the post's creators and entertain his brand of silliness. However, in this instance, the moderators were able to verify that the source was legitimate, and man was I pissed about what I'd just read.

Not only had Pit and Wario not been selected to appear in Melee--they'd been disrespectfully snubbed in favor of additional Pokemon, whose series was already overrepresented; no-name characters like Marth and Roy; wholly redundant clones like Dr. Mario and Young Link; and the inexplicable Mr. Game & Watch, who wasn't even a real character, dammit! Seriously--he was nothing more than a series of still frames taken from a bunch of unrelated LCD games!

"Why do we need second forms of Mario and Link when Nintendo's roster is filled to the brim with so many wonderfully unique characters?!" I wondered in my frustration. "And what the hell could they possibly to do with a Game and Watch-style character anyway?!"

It all seemed like such a waste.

And even when there was some intriguing information to be found, its impact would be immediately diminished by an accompanying qualifier. It was, for instance, huge news to us that Ganondorf was going to be a playable character in this game. However, our excitement-level dropped considerably when we learned that he would not be the magically imbued spell-caster we knew from Ocarina of Time but instead a largely indistinct "Captain Falcon clone."

"WHY?!" I shouted in perplexment. "What sense does that make?!"

I was angry with the news but not devastated by it. For however much I disagreed with the roster choices, I was still looking forward to Melee, which was the undisputed top entry on my Christmas list for that year. Still, I couldn't deny that my enthusiasm for the game had been somewhat diminished.

The way events unfolded from there didn't help the situation: On Christmas Eve, without being encouraged to do so, my cousins brought from New Jersey over their copy of Melee and invited me to play it. I really didn't want to--since it was my desire to experience the game for myself on Christmas morning in a more-personal setting, which had always been the tradition--but I felt that it would have been impolite to decline their offer. 

As I was still desperately holding out hope that that there was more to the roster than I'd learned, I decided that the best solution to limiting potential spoiler material was to look off the right side and view the game's character-select screen with my peripheral vision--maybe squint as hard I could and obscure the visual--and train my eyes toward familiar-looking mugshots. In the early moments, they located Captain Falcon, who happened to be positioned near the screen's upper-right corner.

My plan was to set the match's tone and establish my presence the same way I always had when I was playing as Captain Falcon: that is, start the match by immediately charging toward the nearest opponent and throwing a vicious shoulder tackle. So the match begins; I smash the analog stick to run; and Falcon unexpectedly zips across the screen at what I could only perceive to be light speed and plummets off the stage like a sack of wet bricks.

"Oh dear," I thought to myself as my heart dropped. "Something is seriously wrong here."

My expectation was that Melee, save for the addition of a few new techniques, was going to be mechanically identical to Super Smash Bros. It wasn't; it played similarly, yes, yet it was clearly a much different game. I didn't know how to feel about what I was experiencing, though I did my best to live in the moment and enjoy myself. We played for about a half hour or so before they called us for dinner.

As I was eating my dinner, I continued to reflect upon my time with Melee. My mood was somber. There were so many negative thoughts lingering at my mind's forefront. The same concerns kept surfacing over and over again: The game moved way too fast, even when I was using a slow character like Donkey Kong. Its controls felt sloppy, the characters slipping and sliding all over the place. And the stages seemed so cramped; most of them were far too small in scale compared to those in the original Smash, and their blast lines ("KO borders") were placed much too close to the stages' edges, which led to anticlimactic deaths and all-too-abbreviated matches. The more I ruminated over the experience, the worse I felt about the game. By the time the night was over, my hype for Melee was completely deflated.

That's not how I wanted things to be, so I spent the rest of the a.m. hours trying to convince myself that my disappointment was unjustified--that it was unfair to base any harsh criticisms on what was most likely a poor sampling. While I laid there in bed that night, I continued to re-framed this sentiment and do what I could to hold on to that narrowing sliver of anticipation; though, I couldn't help but feel that my efforts were fruitless.

But while my spirits were were low, I was still excited to be unwrapping a brand new Smash Bros. game on Christmas Day! In fact, my best memory of Melee--my main source of nostalgia for the game--was formed on that glorious morning, in the personal setting in which I found myself being absolutely blown away by the scope and production of it! Now that I could allow myself to keenly focus on its intro and menu screens, I could see that Melee had been afforded the type of budget that an all-encompassing Smash Bros. game deserved. "Maybe I was wrong about Melee," I thought.

Its exuberant energy was irresistible! Its presentation was amazingly appealing! Its graphics were stunning! Its soundtrack was incredible! Its character animation was top-level--some of the best work I'd ever seen in a video game! I loved new stages like the supersized Hyrule Temple, with its pillared structures and cavernous underside, and Brinstar Depths, whose central platform would rotate after being viciously swiped by the stage's frightening visitor--the enormous Kraid as he was depicted in Super Metroid. I marveled over the flexibility of its engine--how characters shared the same input but were able to showcase unique, rule-breaking attributes (Peach could float, as she was known to do in Super Mario Bros. 2; the spike-shoed Ice Climbers, who fought as a pair, wouldn't slide on icy surfaces; the lumbering, projectile-hurling Zelda could transform into the speedy, physical ninja Sheik and vice versa; and so on). Also, wall-jumping and tether recoveries were cool new additions, and I appreciated how they were applied faithfully (Mario could wall jump, but Luigi rightfully couldn't, as he'd never displayed such an ability). 

There was no feeling of uniformity among the cast when logically there should have been some level of redundancy (as there was in, say, Mortal Kombat, whose characters were also bound by shared input). In terms of artistry and technical achievement, Hal Labs had really outdone itself here.

Melee was as much an experience as it was a game. There was so much to see. So much to do. So much to discover! Of greatest significance to me was that there were so many characters to unlock, the challenges for which were a joy to undertake even if I wasn't thrilled about their selection. I had a lot of fun unlocking them and then immediately appraising them in Training mode, where I could test out each of their moves and abilities and guess as to its source of original--the game from which it derived. The only character who long eluded me was Mewtwo, whose unlocking required that the player fight 700 versus matches or total 20 hours of play in VS. Mode, neither of which I'd be able to do on my own; instead, I resorted to plugging in three controllers and letting the game run for four or five hours while I switched the TV's input and watched a basketball game. You gotta do what you gotta do, I guess.

And you know what? History repeated itself: As I experimented with all of the previously dismissed unlockable characters, I could see the wisdom in their inclusion. The ingenious Mr. Game & Watch--with his imaginative, cleverly animated attacks and authentic movements (their every frame borrowed from a Game & Watch game and creatively repurposed)--became one of my favorites; he joined Captain Falcon, Ganondorf and Falco in my list of mains. Fire Emblem star Marth, whose games had never left Japan, also turned out to be a cool new addition. Like Ness and Captain Falcon before them, these types of characters epitomized what the Super Smash Bros. series was about--why it had such great respect for Nintendo's history, obscurities and all, and sought to celebrate it.

Clearly I was a fool for doubting Sakurai and crew's judgment on the matter a second time. These were terrific characters! I couldn't think of a future game that didn't include them. And so what if Dr. Mario, Falco, Ganondorf, Roy and two others were "clones"? From what I'd learned, they weren't even included in the original plans; they were thrown in during the final months of development when Hal found itself ahead of schedule and decided to make good use of its time. Knowing as much, it would have been silly to complain about extra content that otherwise wouldn't have been there! It was better to be thankful for the clones' inclusion, I felt.

But for as much as I was blown away by Melee's presentation, music, and visuals, I still wasn't particularly fond of the tweaks that had been made to its fighting engine. All of my original criticisms stood: The action moved too quickly to the point of being out of control. The game's movement-controls were kind of sloppy; characters would slip and slide all over the place, and there were too many instances where my character would fail to complete an attack as executed from standard jump height. Most of the stages were too small to contain the action of four-player free-for-alls, and the blast lines were moved in so close that characters could be KOed at ridiculously low percentages. And then there was the matter of the game losing sense of two of its important elements: the epic airborne exchanges and breathtaking edge-guard battles whose impact was greatly diminished by the newly added air-dodge maneuver, which discouraged such engagements.

For these reasons, Melee's multiplayer modes weren't as addicting as its predecessor's, even when I played them with human players. Instead, I extracted entertainment from the game by setting Target Test records and taking on fan-made challenges like the Hyrule Jump, in which you were tasked with using each roster member to complete a jump from Hyrule Temple's upper-right edge down to the small circular platform at the temple's base. 

The new Adventure mode was quite a treat (though I felt that they could have done so much more with it), but I was tremendously disappointed that Hal decided to drop the Board the Platforms mini-game in favor of the Home-Run Contest, which held nowhere near the same value. I'd happily have traded one for the other.

Oh, I was able to extract many months of enjoyment out of Melee, but ultimately it proved to lack the longevity of its predecessor. In order to get my Smash Bros. fix, I had to return to the original (which in comparison felt so slow that I thought my N64 had broken--this until I realized that it had always moved at this speed). Mostly I'd split my time between the two, with the original winning out over time. That's to say that I returned to Melee less and less over the years until inevitably I stopped playing it completely. From then on, I derived entertainment from it by watching videos in which Smash pros like Ken, Isai and Mew2King fought each other in tournaments. I continued to follow the scene despite the fact that I found all of the talk about tiers, tournaments and "advanced techniques" to be a huge turnoff--all of it working to suck the joy out of Smash Bros. communities I'd frequently visit and turn them into something repellent. But, really, that's a whole other story.

And that was my relationship with Super Smash Bros. Melee--a game that captured me with its immense sense of scope but lacked the substance necessary to keep me glued. It was amazing in every way except for the one that mattered the most. Quite simply, it wasn't the Super Smash Bros. sequel I'd long been anticipating. And there was no reconciling its differences, though I tried. Believe me: I wanted to love Super Smash Bros. Melee, but it seemed determined to push me away.

Reflecting upon it now, I don't think it's a coincidence that my opinion of Melee parallels how I was feeling about consoles at the time--how I felt that they were moving away from me with their increasing focus on complexity and super-slick graphics. I longed for the simplicity of it all. I lamented the loss of the old values. I regretted how I took for granted a time when consoles were creatures of their own wonderfully unique technology. I was hoping that the GameCube would carry their flag--keep their spirit alive--but it just didn't possess such inclination. It was the same deal with Melee, which showed little desire to adhere to its predecessor's sense of accessibility; it had its own ambitions, none of which looked too promising to me. So I slowly drifted away from it.

In the end, that's what Melee represents: the beginning of the end for me as a console guy. I see it as the perpetrator that inflicted much of the 100% worth of damage I accrued before a series of disappointing sequels came along and delivered the knockout blow.

So Hal's latest broke my heart. What could I do? I wasn't going to cry about it. I wasn't going to make any childish threats or protest by feigning disinterest in future Smash Bros. entries. No--nothing was going to deter me from being a huge fan of the Super Smash Bros. series, which was appealing in multiple ways (its games were fun to play, watch and think about). Nothing was going to stop me from believing that bigger and better things were in store for this endlessly alluring franchise.

Nothing was going to stop me from continuing to dream about the possibilities.

1 comment:

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