'Super Smash Brothers': The best and worst thing to happen to Nintendo
Destiny is probably the most important videogame I am never going to play. Bungie’s new massively multiplayer space shooting adventure game resulted in the most successful franchise launch of all time, although every official number released by the videogame industry in the last few years has a “juke the stats” uncertainty. My colleagues wrote everything you need to know about Destiny; suffice it to say that, if you always hoped they would remake Halo with more decorative robo-ninja capes, then Destiny is the game for you, weirdo.
A few years ago, it felt like we were in the game industry’s Decadent Era, Ancient Rome grown fat and sassy off bottomless wacky cash. It’s clear now that we’ve moved into something like a breakdown period. Sony trumpets its devotion to smallscale independent gaming while hustling another Uncharted into stores; Microsoft starts pretending that it wanted the Xbox One to just be a videogame system.
Destiny spent a couple years as a much-hyped Next Generation of Gaming talking point, which explains the sense of curious disappointment–oh, this thing isn’t the greatest thing ever! And Destiny completes the 2014 Disappointment Trilogy that started with Titanfall—a hotly-anticipated game which proved decisively that adding giant exoskeletons into Call of Duty does indeed create Call of Duty But Now There Are Giant Exoskeletons—and then Watch Dogs, a Ubisoft tropefest that promised a whole new kind of videogame but turned into a boring GTA clone surrounding a halfway decent Assassin’s Creed spiritual spinoff. (Part of the reason why Ubisoft is so important now is that everything feels a little bit like Assassin’s Creed.)
And then there’s Nintendo, on the other side of the world in more ways than one. While Destiny opened huge here in the States this week, Nintendo released a new Super Smash Brothers for the 3DS in its native Japan. It sold a million copies—not quite Grand Theft Auto money, but also nothing to sniff at for a company whose precise place in the current videogame socio-economic-cultural landscape is frustratingly hazy.
Super Smash Bros. fascinates me. When the first game arrived on the Nintendo 64 in April 1999, the pitch was simple: A monster-mash of the great franchises of Nintendo’s golden era, Super Mario Bros. fighting Legend of Zelda, Starfox fighting Metroid. Legend has it that the game had a tiny budget, that it was barely promoted. You could argue that Smash Brothers wasn’t even a proper Nintendo product: It was produced by developer HAL Laboratory, the people who also created the Kirby games–which probably explains why, in Smash Brothers, Kirby is so overpowered. (HAL also created EarthBound, and added that game’s star Ness as a secret character; in the process, they transformed Ness from the star of a forgotten cult classic into the annoyingly effective character your stoned roommate loved to play as.)
Smash Brothers came out around the chrono-midpoint of the Nintendo 64’s. You don’t often hear gamers trumpet the 64 as a revolutionary device–it’s more common to look at the late 90s as the period of radical ascendance for Sony, as the moment when the Playstation transformed gamer culture from “kids’ stuff” into “slightly older kids’ stuff.” And whereas the first Playstation era is filled with fascinating curios and tantalizing oddities, any list of the “greatest” Nintendo 64 games probably defaults to “pretty good” before too long.
But the great games were transcendent: Super Mario 64 and Star Fox 64 and Rare’s Goldeneye and Ocarina of Time led into Smash Brothers, and in its wake came Majora’s Mask (which looks in hindsight like the Dark Souls version of Legend of Zelda) and Rare’s Conker’s Bad Fur Day (which looks in hindsight like the Edgar Wright version of a Nintendo game.)
Super Smash Bros. was not any of those games. It put a few fun twists on the idea of a fighting game–four players onscreen at the same time, a “health bar” that was actually “percentage” that decided how far big hits would knock you. But I can’t imagine any serious or highbrow treatise on the history of videogames would even notice Smash Brothers It was a game where Mario could punch Link; it was a game where Jigglypuff could put Samus to sleep. (Jigglypuff is so powerful, you guys.) At some point in my career as a person who thinks too much about videogames, I have probably made the argument that Smash Brothers betrayed the whole creative history of Nintendo, wedging representatives of some of the great pioneering videogame franchises into a button-mashing neon-marshmallow ritalin orgy.
And yet I think Super Smash Bros. helped to define something about Nintendo–and lately, I find myself thinking it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. At a time when Sony was aiming bigger and grander with their games, Smash Brothers was a crossbreeding of two different flavors of retro. While the Nintendo 64 iterations of Zelda and Mario were gloriously 3D, Smash Brothers sent Mario and Link back into a 2D world. While Microsoft was working to figure out how many buttons it could fit onto a single chubby controller, Smash Brothers felt like a descendant-in-spirit of the great early ’90s fighting games. (One way of looking at Smash Brothers is that it’s Street Fighter II: Championship Editiong where everyone’s M. Bison.)
Smash Brothers was explicitly a fond look backwards at Nintendo history, with levels lovingly designed in the spirit of various settings from games past. The fact that the game was so cheap-looking actually enhanced the effect. 1999 was the moment when games began to look impeccable and polished. That was the year that Square released Final Fantasy VIII, a game that explicitly left behind the super-deformed manga style in favor of something more photorealistic. That sentence probably makes no sense to most people, so what I mean is that the lead character of Final Fantasy VII looks endearingly retro and the lead character in Final Fantasy VIII looks like the moodiest singer in a boy band.
So Smash Brothers was backwards, nostalgic even: This from a company that had usually been the pioneer in its field. In the new decade, Nintendo would become encased in nostalgia. There are several reasons for this, not all of them fair and not all of them Nintendo’s fault. By the time the GameCube arrived in stores, there were a few generations of Nintendo-loving gamers who could say with some expertise that the new Mario/Zelda/Starfox/Metroid was not as good as the Mario/Zelda/Donkey Kong/Etcetera that came out when they were kids. The GameCube was nobody’s idea of a success. And then the Wii was a huge success, but the intrinsic focus on casual gaming felt like a rebuke to anyone who defended Nintendo through the GameCube days. Now there’s a sense that the Wii U has stumbled—and so Nintendo spent E3 2014 promising Starfox and Zelda on the horizon.
You could argue that the first Smash Brothers was the moment that Nintendo stopped creating anything new–or anyhow, you could point out that the most famous Nintendo characters in the first Smash Brothers are still the most famous Nintendo characters fifteen years on. (Aside: Nintendo godfather Shigeru Miyamoto spent a considerable portion of the 2000s trying to make Pikmin happen; all the Pikmin games are great, and yet I’m guessing most people who know Pikmin know it from Smash Bros. End of aside.)
But you could flip the argument, and note that Smash Bros. was the moment when Nintendo inadvertently dodged a bullet. Nintendo games could look weirdly out of place in the 2000s, in the period when games trended bigger and huger and more gigantic. That’s Destiny: Even though it’s coming out in 2014, the pitch on Destiny feels like a product of the overstuffed un-casual era. (One way of looking at Destiny is that it’s World of Warcraft plus Mass Effect with better guns.) Even when Nintendo had its strong late-2000s comeback, it still felt strange to try to compare Nintendo’s signal product (Mario Galaxy and Wii Fit and Nintendogs) to the overstuffed mega-games on Playstation and Xbox—to say nothing of the rising tide of fascinating indie games like Braid or Limbo.
My come-to-Jesus moment happened with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game that I hated for about an hour and then loved so much I wrote 11,000 words about it. Skyward Sword is unmistakably a product of Nintendo’s post-Smash Bros. era. It doesn’t just refer back to the aesthetic and tropes of previous Zelda games–it actually invents the entire ensuing history of Zelda games. Spiritually, it’s not so different from Nintendo’s 3DS Mario games, which imitate the veneer of NES-era Mario and then pumps the gameplay full of caffeine.
None of these games ever experience the next-best-thing ever hype cycle of Destiny or Watch Dogs or Halo A Billion or whatever mega-game Sony and Microsoft are releasing next. Nintendo is still making an attempt with the Wii U, but it feels like the company is shifting its focus to the far more successful 3DS—and the 3DS never be a “pioneering” system, in the way that the NES or the Nintendo 64 or any of the Microsoft/Sony devices could claim.
But to me, the central appeal of the 3DS feels more in tune with the times than the Xbox One or the Playstation 4. The problem with consoles is simple: Why would anyone buy an expensive brick of circuitry that can only be played in front of a TV set, when there are much cheaper games that you can download straight to the device you carry with you in your pocket? Believe me, I’m not anti-console–and I do sometimes think there’s a world where the iPhone and the Wii were never invented, and in that world’s 2014 every videogame is a big-budgeted artistically-daring masterwork and everyone in the world loves Shadow of the Colossus. But I got bored of Watch Dogs after five hours, and I’m still playing Super Mario 3D Land.
And I think you can look at the 3DS as the Smash Bros. console: Not so much an evolution as a reconfiguration. Whenever a new Smash Bros. arrives, it feels like an attempt by Nintendo to transform the first decade-plus of its existence into an appeal to new gamers. Whenever Nintendo adds in a little known character from the early days–Mr. Game & Watch, or Little Mac–it feels a little bit like a legacy rock band fishing one of their deep cuts out for a reunion tour.
Describing Nintendo as “a legacy rock band” might feel like a backhanded compliment. I don’t mean it that way. 2014 feels like the year when the whole idea of a “retro game” starts to become hazy. Is Shovel Knight “retro” just because its sharp gameplay and snazzy style was implicitly made in the spirit of old games? (In that sense, Titanfall was equally retro, because James Cameron was doing Giant Exoskeletons back in 1986.) Is the South Park game “retro” just because it was influenced by EarthBound–and if that counts as “retro,” then how do you define something like the upcoming Fantasia game, which was produced for the Kinect, a device that was “futuristic” a couple years ago and now has already joined the Virtual Boy in the detritus pile of videogame history? (EarthBound is still a great game, and the Kinect already feels old-fashioned.)
Smash Bros. is arriving on the 3DS here in America in a couple weeks; there’s a version coming to the Wii U sometime around Christmas. I’m not sure the new Smash Bros. can save the Wii U–and I’m not necessarily sure the Wii U can be considered a completely successful device if it needs decades-old franchises to rescue it. But consider that, in the last fifteen years, some of the great series in videogame history have risen–and many of them have fallen. BioShock, Mass Effect, Max Payne, Gears and/or God of War–these were all names nobody had heard of in 1999, names that helped define a great era for console videogames, names that all have fuzzy futures after entries that disappointed critically or commercially. Throw in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil; hell, Call of Duty: Ghosts sold less than Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
And Smash Bros. is still here, welcoming fading franchises with open arms. Sonic the Hedgehog and Metal Gear‘s Snake already joined the party; the new game adds in Pac-Man and Mega Man. Isn’t that possible that someday everything will be Smash Bros.? And is it possible that that’s not a bad thing–or anyhow, that it’s not as bad as everything being Destiny?
EPILOGUE: The original Smash Bros. lineup, ranked Best to Worst:
1. Starfox (those kicks!)
2. Captain Falcon
3. Luigi (I’m a younger brother, sue me)
7. Samus (cheap but fun)
8. Donkey Kong
9. Mario (boring)
11. Yoshi (NO ONE LIKES YOU YOSHI GO HOME)
12. Kirby (see: Yoshi)
Got any geeky thoughts or questions, or just want to argue? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll respond in a future edition of my Entertainment Geekly column.