By Neil Merrett
Super Smash Bros. released on Nintendo 64 in 1999, developed by Hal Laboratory
Shared universes, or at least proposals to try and create them, are everywhere in popular culture these days.
These are collective stories or products that bring together famous characters or brands in order to create something much larger than the sum of their collective parts. They are now very much part of the mainstream.
Some of these products have gone on to reshape the structure of modern mainstream cinema – for better or worse – while others have barely even got out of the planning stage.
Nintendo’s own history with bringing together disparate characters into games or other media goes back decades, with a range of products that include party games, karting titles and even golf sims.
Yet it is strange that a company that is often regarded as a family friendly manufacturer of hardware and software, has perhaps most successfully managed to create a shared world for its iconic and not-so iconic intellectual property – as well as other companies’ videogame characters – in a title where the main purpose is to deliver a beating to anything that moves.
This is Super Smash Brothers, a title that when launched in Europe on the Nintendo 64 in 1999 seemed so ludicrous that even the accompanying adverts didn’t quite know what to make of it all. As one North American television promotion put it at the time, “something has gone wrong in the happy-go-lucky world of Nintendo.”
Whether using magical artefacts, blunt implements, fists or even plant life as a weapon, the Super Smash Brothers series asks you to smack around other game characters before trying to expel them violently into an off-screen abyss.
A sign of the times
18 years later, and this obscure title, originally programmed by Nintendo’s trusted third party developer Hal Laboratory, has gone on to become an actual e-sport with cash prizes and significant online audiences wanting to spectate on clashes of the foremost players of the age.
The series has developed to become a mainstream behemoth for Nintendo – built on literally answering the somewhat jokey premise and 90s playground debate of who would win in a fight between Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Unlike many other beat em up games such as Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat, the game is unique in not having an energy bar, but a climbing percentage meter.
Every bit of damage to the player sees the figure getting a higher and higher percentage rating that makes them increasingly susceptible to being launched out of a level with even the slightest of hits.
A classic assumption was always that any player with damage of over 125% should soon be expecting to be fired far outside of the gaming arena with very little hope of getting back to the fight without losing a life.
This simple system has remained throughout the series, albeit with tweaks concerning speed and movesets. Over the same time, an increasing number of figures from throughout Nintendo and wider gaming history have joined the fray. This has led to the release of Smash Brothers Ultimate this week.
You have Mario and Bowser still included of course. Pikachu and Link, Pac-Man and Megaman, and somehow Solid Snake from Metal Gear is also there.
This list has only scratched the surface of an array of characters that would seem like an obscure joke a few years ago, such as the Duck Hunt dog.
But somehow even this scenthound is a playable character at this stage of the series.
It is fair to say that there is some amount of fan service going on here.
This sheer variety of characters will be a significant part of the most recent games and the series’ ongoing appeal, as well as a huge incentive to play through an array of different modes and challenges to unlock them all.
But sometimes there is something equally as invigorating and rewarding in gameplay design by sticking with simplicity.
When the first Super Smash Brothers was released on Nintendo 64 in 1999 to a curious and unsuspecting public, there were barely a dozen exclusively Nintendo characters to play as. Some of these were from games not released in Europe at the time.
Technical limitations of the 64 system would have played a part in the restricted number of players, yet it was still a collection that was satisfying in both number and concept.
From a narrative standpoint, companies such as Marvel have through theirs comics, cartoons and movies been largely successful in facing up to the challenge of bringing together different characters from a wide variety of genres of storytelling into a single narrative.
In the case of Smash Brothers, developers were required to try and recreate very different gameplay and control styles into a satisfying single style, while still retaining a sense of individuality for dozens of different games. This is no mean feat with over 60 different characters including pokemon, stealth assassins, intergalactic demons and a New York plumber masquerading as a medical professional.
That the series has managed to do this in a game that functions as both a complex, competitive spectator sport, and a party game that can be played amongst friends, is perhaps an underrated achievement.
Audacity of concept
The original dozen characters in the first Smash Brothers game were a revelation in just how many played almost exactly as if they were an actual standalone Kirby, Yoshi or 2D Legend of Zelda game.
Their key iconic abilities, down to the physicality and a weight of a character’s jump, or their ability to swallow and then assume the powers of another character, were recreated faithfully as part of the game’s design.
This was not exclusively the case of course. Some characters such as Ness from the esoteric and existential turn-based Earthbound RPG obviously had to be built up from scratch to fit into an action melee game.
Yet even this endeavour gave these RPG characters a new physicality that has arguably created a huge new following for some of Nintendo’s more obscure creations.
Ironically, the company’s more traditional 2D platforming gaming icons, character such as Mario and Donkey Kong that would seem most suited to the 2D Smash Brothers game design, were most changed to flesh out the number of combat options they had.
Both these characters in their original games had less of a focus on punching then they did jumping on or over an opponent – this doesn’t lend itself to a fighting game.
Initial hype and sales of the latest Smash Brothers will no doubt mean the series will be as long lasting as other Nintendo staples such as Mario Kart. But it was the sheer audacity of concept of the first game that arguably makes it the most successful and ultimate of the smash titles.
As age tends to be quite cruel to the longevity of games – even the most classic and beloved of titles – the Original Smash Brothers probably will feel clunkier to play than all the subsequent versions of the titles that have appeared on home consoles and handhelds.
But the tightness of building just a dozen well executed, iconic and very different game characters faithfully continues to remain a real technical achievement and something still very much to marvel.
Happy smashing everyone, whichever version you choose.