By Neil Merrett
Smash Brothers Ultimate, released on Nintendo Switch in 2018, developed by Nintendo, Bandai Namco Entertainment and Sora
Imagine, if you will, a world where the very concept of apex predators, mysticism and the food chain has been turned on its head. Here, creatures one might consider household pets have the ability on a whim to alter reality itself, or burn it to cinder at the behest of its owners. In such a world, who is really the owner and the pet?
This is ostensibly the world of Pokemon.
It is a place where humanity’s intelligence, survival instincts and evolving ability to adapt to different environments are often overshadowed by creatures capable of incredible, god-like feats. These can range from harnessing and weaponising the sun’s rays, to manipulating human minds or reshaping the lands and seas.
It is to the eternal credit of developer Game Freak and Nintendo that a franchise that should border on being an existential, lovecraftian horror, has instead been shaped over a number of decades into a highly profitable series of games and cartoons that have been heavily merchandised on the appeal of collecting hundreds of these creatures. These Pokemon range from cuddly critters, to gruesome beasties, rock monsters, ghosts and seemingly other dimensional beings that are all very collectable as both videogame characters and soft toys.
Whether the player prefers a cuddly pet-like creature or a ferocious mythical beast that can master elemental forces, all these creatures can be captured in the Pokemon series in little balls. From here, they can be summoned at will either to be groomed or to engage in competitive gladiatorial-style combat. They can also be ridden as a form of public transport.
There is nothing like the bond between a trainer and a Pokemon, or so we are told. Even the series’ most elite and mysterious creatures rarely pose existential terror to the inhabitants of a game world that co-exists with hundreds of the collectable creatures. This is even the case of genetically engineered Pokemon designed to serve as super soldiers to create a new world order, but instead finding themselves contemplating the nature of humanity and free will.
Yet the latest Smash Brothers title – a place where videogame characters from a range of different series are mashed together in chaotic battles with the aim of violently expelling each other into an off-screen void – reimagines Pokemon as a terrifying, primordial force.
Once a Pokemon is unleashed from their spherical prisons by a player, they are then free to inflict seemingly unstoppable chaos on rivals and the world around them.
In any given battle, Pokemon can stalk the skies and drag any unsuspecting player that jumps or is launched into the air away with the wind into oblivion, or they can just coat the ground in flames or grow to encompass the entire level.
Smash Brothers is their world and we are just passengers here…
Alternatively, a pokeball that is carelessly discarded during a battle can unleash a creature of pure energy to blast away opponents, wipe their minds leaving them vulnerable to attack. They can also simply just hurl coins at the player.
It is perhaps the first mainstream Nintendo title to fully understand the world shaking ramifications of such powerful creatures roaming around the world, rather than taking them for granted as an everyday occurrence.
The continued success of the Pokemon series means that the player can themselves select a number of classic and more modern Pokemon as a main character, either as the iconic Pikachu or the perplexing bipedal feline wrestler Incineroar. This means they can battle directly with other players. Pokemon on Pokemon action as it were.
It can be strangely satisfying to unleash a powerful punch or kick to the jaw of some ultra cutesy Pokemon such as Pikachua or Jigglypuff, yet beware these creatures’ capacity for revenge, either by putting you into an eternal slumber, or unleashing the elemental force of the heavens back onto a player.
Yet the inclusion of Pokemon in the game not just as main characters, but as lethal hazards that can be collected, marvelled at or hurled as weapons, captures something unique about the otherworldly appeal of the franchise.
In Smash Brothers Ultimate, these creatures are not just rivals and peers, but something unknowable, untouchable and terrifying in their ability to literally turn a world on its head, regardless of one’s skill or actions.
This is a furry world of fury, an arena where gods and monsters can be unleashed on a whim and crush reputations regardless of skill or culpability. They are a force of nature outside of a player’s control and not just some form of cuddly collectable.
The inclusion of a vast array of Pokemon as powerful non-playable characters in the latest Smash Brothers is a reminder that nature can be as equally random, cruel and brutal as it is beautiful.
This time round, it is the player that is in danger of being caught out.
This is the true terror of Pokemon, beautifully realised in 1080p.