Thursday, October 02, 2014

Super Smash Bros (N64): A Retrospective

This week will see the release of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, the latest iteration in Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. series, one of the most endearing of Nintendo's spinoff series. The games' frantic, free-for-all type gameplay has made them a popular a staple for both competitive and casual gamers alike. With the series's stunning success, it's shocking to think that once upon a time Super Smash Bros. was just a modest fighter that was not destined for release outside of Japan. With that in mind, I think it would be worthwhile to go back 15 years to take a look at the game that started it all.

The History
It was 1998. America was embroiled in the juicy details of the Monica Lewinsky scandal while following the home run battle between baseball heroes Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Moviegoers in the US were flocking to see blockbusters like Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon when they weren't helping Titanic set records in both the box office and the Academy Awards. A lonely 13 year old boy was infatuated and obsessed with one of his classmates. In the gaming world, Pokemon was huge in Japan and just reaching the shores in America. PlayStation was seeing the release of Metal Gear Solid, while everybody around the world was preparing for the release of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Meanwhile, in the office of HAL Laboratories, a gaming company that develops games for Nintendo Co. Ltd., a young game designer was thinking of ways to redesign the fighting game. At the time fighting games featured two players with a set lifespan as they duel using complicated special moves and combos until one of them loses all their life points. It was a decent system that saw success in fighting games like Soul Edge, Mortal Kombat, Tekken 4, and Virtual Fighter. It was all fine and dandy, but by 1998 most of the great fighting games were on the PlayStation or in the arcades. The Nintendo 64 were left with anything from good if uninspiring titles like Killer Instinct Gold, Fighters Destiny, and Mortal Kombat 4 to unplayable dreck like Dual Heroes, War Gods, and ClayFighters 63 1/3.

At any rate, this young game designer by the name of Masahiro Sakurai wanted to design a fighting game that would break out of this mold and bring some excitement to fighting game fans for the Nintendo 64. He decided that the best way to do this was to create a game in which four players can duke it out at once. To do so would requiring doing away with the set lifebar. In its place he decided there would be a damage system that would determine how far the character would fly when hit. And the characters' lives won't be determined by damage, but by getting knocked off the stage. With the basic concept in place, he took the idea to HAL president Satoru Iwata, and together they worked on polishing the game and making it more balanced. At the time the game had the codename 格闘ゲーム竜王 (Kakutou Geemu Ryuoh, or Fighting Game Dragon King)

With the basic structure of the game in place, Sakurai then decided to make a decision that would completely change the course of multiplayer gaming for the next 15 years. At the time HAL Laboratories had been making games for Nintendo systems for almost 20 years. Their lineup include such classics as Kirby Super Star and Mother 2, better known in the US as EarthBound. However, they've never actually made a game featuring some of Nintendo's biggest stars, like Mario or Link. Still, in order to make the game more appealing to gamers, Sakurai decided to feature Nintendo characters instead of the nameless and faceless charactesr from Ryuoh. He had no idea what the higher-ups at Nintendo Co. Ltd. would think about the concept of Nintendo mascots fighting each other, but he proceeded with the game. At long last the game became polished to the point that Sakurai and Iwata were willing to present the game to Nintendo. They showed off a prototype that featured Mario, Donkey Kong, Samus, and Fox. They were initially uncertain whether or not Nintendo would okay a game that had popular Nintendo characters beating each other, but to their surprise Nintendo gave them the green flag. With Nintendo's okay firmly in hand, Sakurai and his staff at HAL Laboratories went hard at work into perfecting this quirky fighting game. It was released at last in Japan on January 21, 1999 under the title ニンテンドウオールスター!大乱闘スマッシュブラザーズ (Nintendo All-Star Dairantou Smash Brothers.)

The Game
Japanese gamers must have been quite puzzled when they saw the new game. The commercial was rather vague, featuring four kids wandering a field. They happen across the Donkey Kong stage in the distance, followed by some game footage. Sakurai also started a Smash Bros. website to perform some information about the game. When the game came out, the box provided a little more information. It had "Nintendo All-Stars" on it and featured popular mascot characters like Mario, Link and Donkey Kong, but they looked a little bit off than what people were used to. (The art was provided by illustrator Shuji Imai, best known for providing the art for the old Nintendo Power comic series Howard and Nester.) And the box was accompanied by onomonopoeia like "ZAP," "WAM," "BOM," and "SMAAAASH!!!" The back of the box provided the most insight, saying "Nintendo's popular characters battle it out at the same time!! Mario, Link, Donkey, Pikachu, Kirby, Yoshi, Samus and Fox. These familiar popular characters are surely not participating in a melee!? Use punch, kicks, and special skills to give your opponent damage, then snap your stick to do a SMAAAASH attack! Blow your rival off the stage!!"*
任天堂の人気者が4人同時に大乱闘!!マリオ、リンク、ドンキー、ピカチュウ。カービィ、ヨッシー、サムスにフォックス。おなじみ人気キャラがまさかまさかの大乱闘!?パンチ、キック、必殺ワザで相手にダメージをあたえたらとどめはスティックをパチンッとはじいて SMAAAASH 攻擊 ライバルたちをステージがら "ふっ飛ばせ!!
The instruction booklet that came with the game provided a little more information. The cover had the same design as the box, while the game was filled with colorful decorative borders. It introduced the basic concept of the game and highlighted how it was differnt from most other fighting games, with the goal being knocking the opponents off the stage rather than taking off their life points. It introduced the basic control mechanism, such as using the joystick to move and affect the directions of the basic attacks. It also highlights the importance of tapping the joystick, as that can not only allow players to dash, but have them perform powerful SMASH attacks. It discussed the various special attacks that can be performed with B, using R or Z+A to throw, and using Z to block. It shows the different game modes, from the singler player modes to the multiplayer modes. It then introduced the items that can be used to liven up gameplay: carrier items like the box, barrel, Chansey egg, and capsule; target items like the ray gun, fire flower, and star rod; throwing items like the motion sensor bomb, bob-omb, bumper, and Pokeball; melee items like the beam sword, home run bat, fan, and hammer; recovery items like the maxim tomato and heart container; and special items like the star and green and red shells. Finally the game introduces the eight Nintendo All-Star characters and their special attacks: Mario, the world-famous action star; Donkey Kong, the powerful former enemy; Samus, the agile bounty hunter; Fox McCloud, the leader of the Star Fox team; Pikachu, the popular electric rodent; Link, the hero of Hyrule; Kirby, the copying glutton, and Yoshi, the egg-laying dinosaur. Plus it hints at four hidden characters. Finally it gives a couple of tips and tricks and fun ways to play.

When gamers that bought the game turned on the system, they were treated to a short opening movie. In a typical Japanese boy's room (complete with a poster of a mini-van), a disembodied, flying hand reaches into a toy chest, grabs a toy of a Nintendo character and drops him onto the desk. It arranges the desk while another character falls onto the desk and snaps its hand. The desk is instantly transported to a stage and the character comes to life. The game then showcases each of the character, including Donkey Kong and Samus beating up on each other. The movie ended with each of the original eight characters jumping and attacking in quick succession followed by four shadowy figures. A burning circle appeared while horizontal and verticals line burned through it as the narrator (voiced by;Jeff Manning, who also did the narration for Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast that year) cries "Nintendo All-Star Dairantou Smash Brothers." A game that the gamers never quite experienced before is about to begin.

When the gamers started the game, they had the option of going to four modes. The Options mode was rather limited, as all they can do is change the sound options, adjust their screen, or clear their game data. The Records mode introduced the playable characters, and featured a VS record that kept track at the number of each character's KO and TKO among others. There is also a Sound Test that players can unlock. The single player mode were a place where gamers can actually experience the gameplay. They had a Training Mode for players to practice their moves and get used to some of the items. They had two bonus levels, a Break the Targets and a Board the Platform mini-game that challenged gamers to beat platform-like puzzles using their characters' movesets. The primary 1P Game put players through ten different stages where they defeated each of the characters interspersed with the different mini-games before finally getting a chance to fight an army of polygon figures and then Master Hand himself, which sets up the almost meta situation of characters fighting the deity that gave them life. It was fun, as the game kept track of your score so they can challenge their high score, but the order of the stages never changed, and it would quickly get old.

But Masahiro Sakurai didn't intend for Super Smash Bros. to be a single player battle. He meant it to be a party experience where friends can get together to beat each other silly. And so the VS Mode is the key part of the game. It can be played on a single-player basis, where one player take on three computer players, but really the most enjoyable part is to get together with a group of friends and play the game together. It's a social experience much like Mario Kart 64 and GoldenEye 007. Players can choose one of the eight original players, or one of the four unlockable characters (Luigi, Ness, Captain Falcon, and Jigglypuff) and battle them out in one of the eight stages (plus one unlockable stage). The game becomes that much more exciting as each player can develop their own fighting style that could be completely different from the AI. The players can play in time mode where victory is determined by the difference between the KOs (number of times knocking off another player) and TKO (number of times knocked off.) Or they can play in a Stock Match where each player has a set number of lives. They can do a free for all where it's every man to himself, or a team battle that can be 2 vs 2 or 3 vs 1. There are other options such as giving everybody a handicap based on skill or even a secret Item Select mode where players can turn items off or on. It was this VS mode that really stuck out in the minds of gamers.

In addition to the unusual fighting style, Smash Bros. was also the first game that brought together Nintendo's mascot characters from different franchises. Mario and Link have never starred in the same game previously. Therefore effots were made to have each stage capture the feel of the original franchise. That not includes the design of the stage to include some stage-specific pitfalls, but also in the background music, all arranged by Hirokazu Ando. Donkey Kong's Kongo Jungle stage, for example had a barrel floating around in the bottom while accompanied by a remixed tune from Donkey Kong Country, while Samus's Planet Zebes stage featured rising acid levels that can send the player flying high. Yoshi's Yoshi Island stage has the feel of Yoshi's Story with clouds that provide temporary relief, and Pikachu's Saffron City stage features an opening where Pokemon can come out and attack the players and so on. The nostalgia factor is quite strong, especially in the hidden stage based off of Super Mario Bros.

When the game came out, Nintendo was hoping for some modest sale. The game had only a modest budget, and the executives were hoping that the promise of inter-franchise battles and the nostalgia rush that the game promised would drive some hardcore gamers to get the game. To their surprise when the game launched it sold out at almost every major gaming outlet. By the end of the first week Smash Bros. had risen to the top of the sales chart with almost 200,000 copies sold. It took the release of Final Fantasy VIII to finally unseat Nintendo's brawler at the top of the charts. When all was said and done, Nintendo All-Star Dairantou Smash Brothers had sold close to 2 million copies in Japan, making it the number 2 best-seller in Japan, behind only the legendary Mario Kart 64. Sakurai's idea had been a spectacular success.

Coming to America
Originally Nintendo had no plans on releasing Smash Brothers to the United States, the larger market for the Nintendo 64. They were uncertain whether or not Americans would take to the unconventional brawler, and they douted some of the characters' appeal. Ness was the star of EarthBound, an absolute bust in America, while Samus hadn't appeared in a game since Super Metroid five years prior. In the end, the smashing success of the game in Japan convinced them to give an American release a try. The localization wouldn't be too difficult, as the menus were already in English, and the narration was already done in English by Jeff Manning. They did have to change a few names, such as "Purin" to "Jigglypuff" and "Harisen" to "Fan." Rachael Lillis had to redub for Jigglypuff, and they had to go to 4Kids to obtain some of the American Pokemon voices. There were also a few Japanese texts that were a cinch to switch out.

One of the biggest changes came in the sound effect department. Whenever somebody gets hit in the original Japanese version, there would be a sound that sounds kind of like "peat." It had too much of a resemblance to the sound of somebody actually getting punched in a fistfight for the executives at Nintendo of America, and they had it replaced by more thundering sound effects. The differences is best heard in a comparison between the two games. (This example featured changes in the opening How to Play video, which is changed so that Luigi doesn't put up as much of a fight.) Another smaller change came in the Beam Sword, which featured a Star Wars-esque hum in the Japanese that was removed in the American version.

Nevertheless the change were quite minor, and Nintendo established a release date for the end of April. They also chose to simplify the title, as "Nintendo All-Star Dairantou Smash Brothers" was too much of a mouthful. "Dairantou" wasn't even an English word and was easy to eliminate, while "Nintendo All-Star" was a bit too wordy. They kept the "Smash Brothers" as it hearkens back to "Mario Brothers", and decided to add "Super" in the front to complete the title. They initially listed the title as tentative, but there really was no way to improve on it. And so "Super Smash Bros." was scheduled for release on April 26, 1999.

In order to spice up interest for the game, Nintendo released a commercial much more memorable than the Japanese one from a few months earlier. Instead of having four kids wandering the stage looking for a real-life Smash Bros. stage, they instead focused on the brawling nature of the game. It starts out with Mario, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, and Pikachu (or at least people wearing fursuits of those characters) walking down a field while the Turtles' "Happy Together" play in the background. All of a sudden Mario leans over and kicks Yoshi in the shin. They all proceed to beat each other up while Don LaFontaine (or at least a sound-alike) says "Something's gone wrong in the happy go lucky world of Nintendo." It then shows some actual game footage as LaFontaine says "Introducing 'Super Smash Bros' where all your favorite characters go toe to toe in one four-player, star-studded slamfest only on Nintendo 64." The commercial ends with Yoshi whacking Donkey Kong with a hammer, and DK is left seeing N64 logos instead of stars

When the game was released, the box featured the same characters designed by Shuji Imai actually fighting each other with the words "DUKE IT OUT as your favorite Nintendo characters" on the bottom. Naturally Mario occupied the most space, although Pikachu wasn't far behind, which made sense as Pokemon was huge at the time, having come to the US just the year before. Fox and Samus were shown fighting in the background, while Kirby and Link (looking absolutely clueless) were in the red border. Donkey Kong and Yoshi never showed up at all. The back of the box offers more information:

It's a Bumpin' Bruisin' Brawlin' Bash!
The many worlds of Nintendo collide in the ultimate showdown of strength and skill! Up to 4 players can choose their favorite characters - complete with signature attacks - and go at it in Team Battles and Free-for-Alls. Or venture out on your own to conquer the 14 stages in single-player mode. Either way, Super Smash Bros. is a no-holds-barred action-fest that will keep you coming back for more!
  • Plunge headlone into battle with your favorite Nintendo characters: Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, Pikachu, Samus, Yoshi, Kirby, and 4 hidden characters!
  • Characters use their very own trademark attacks, such as Mario's fireballs and Link's sword.
  • Grab a Fire Flower or Poke Ball and send your opponent sailing out of the arena.
  • Compete in 8 different settings, each from a characters' home world, and each with its own dangers.
Super Smash Bros. opened to modest reviews. Jeff Gerstmann of Gamespot had the earliest review, two months before the game's American release. He praised the game's level design, especially incorporation of the Nintendo license, and the four-player mode. He was none too impressed with the single-player mode, but said it was "easy enough for anyone to pick up, yet it has enough multiplayer appeal to stay interesting for a good long time." He ended by giving the game a 7.5. Peer Schneider of IGN gave a similar review, calling it a "refreshing multiplayer battle game," but adding that it "won't fix the gaping hole in the N64 fighting game lineup" and that "players looking for a Tekken-killer on N64 will have to wait a bit longer." They gave the an 8.5 score. 8.5 was also the score given by three of the four reviews at EGM, with Dan Hsu saying "Super Smash Bros. is a great party game whose Nintendo-heavy themes work well" but that "if you're a lone gamer, however, Smash Bros. may not be worth the cash." Only Sushi X gave the game a 9.0, saying "it's deceptively simple to pick up, but there are plenty of techniques to learn." The aggregate score allowed for an EGM Silver award.

But gamers didn't really care for those reviews. The Nintendo 64 was a party system, and here was a hot new party game. They stormed the gaming stores en masse, and by the end of the week Super Smash Bros. was the top selling game in the industry. It placed fifth in top selling games in the month of April, and was only available in the last few days of the month. The gamers didn't care that the game wasn't as deep as Tekken. It was just as fun, and still had enough depth for tournaments. It became a popular game for adolescent gamers and college students alike. When all was said and done almost 3 million copies had sold in the United States. When combined with its Japanese and PAL sales, over 5.5 million copies of the game were sold, placing it a solid fifth in the overall Nintendo 64 gaming sales, behind only Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, GoldenEye, and the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was the best-selling Nintendo 64 game from 1999, barely beating out Rare's Donkey Kong 64. And when I compiled a top 100 Nintendo 64 games list from 2003-2006, Super Smash Bros. also placed fifth. Not bad for a game that was initially designed to be a Japan-only release.

Personal History
The first time I heard of Super Smash Bros. was when my sister was talking with my friends. We were in the middle of our Pokemania in early 1999, and the discussion came up that two Pokemon characters: Pikachu and Jigglypuff, are going to appear in a fighting game called Super Smash Bros. My first thoughts when I heard the news was "Super Smash Bros... is that similar to Smash TV?" and, "Really...Jigglypuff???" I didn't hear much about the game after that, and even missed the legendary commercial that appeared on TV. But my sister was one person who was interested in the game, and asked for it for her 13th birthday. It wasn't until she came back from a trip to the west coast with the game that I was able to find out more about it.

I read through the instruction manual after she was finished with it, and saw that the cast of Nintendo characters wasn't the only thing special about the game. I was intrigued by the game's concept, and being the douchebag that I am, that night I did something that I would do dozens of times in the next four years: I snuck out of bed and went downstairs to do something I shouldn't have been doing. That night, I played Super Smash Bros. for the first time before my sister. I tinkered around with the single player mode and attempted a few multiplayer matches against the CPU. Then I erased the data and head upstairs. The next day my sister and I played against each other for the first time. I played as Mario and my sister played as Kirby. I crushed my sister, which surprised her. I sheepishly admitted that I snuck downstairs the night before to play the game. She got understandably pissed, but she would eventually get the last laugh by beating me almost every time we play.

Super Smash Bros. quickly became the go-to game in our house that summer. We would play in battles against each other or teamed up against level 9 computers. We would try to beat the Break the Target or Board the Platform mini-games in order to unlock Luigi and the sound test. We had an easy time unlocking Jigglypuff and Captain Falcon and a difficult time getting Ness. We played a tournament of champions match with different players, where I got my sister to hate Captain Falcon when I wasn't even playing. (I was providing voice-over for Captain Falcon, making him as sort of a pompous ingrate, which was one type of person that she will hate forever and ever.) We eventually settled into characters with whom we were comfortable, with me playing as Pikachu and my sister playing as Yoshi. We played Super Smash Bros. well into 2000. Even with other games around that took up some of our attention, like Perfect Dark, Harvest Moon 64, or Donkey Kong 64, we can almost always find time for a couple of matches of Super Smash Bros, most likely because it was a game we can play together that we actually own. Even today, in the dozen years since its release, Super Smash Bros. is one of the top multiplayer experiences I've had, and it still remains one of the games that I've spent the most time playing. And that is saying something.

The Legacy
Super Smash Bros. was such a success that when the Nintendo Gamecube was announced, a Smash Bros. sequel was one of the first games reported to be in development. Throughout much of 2001 gamers held their breath as information about new characters and new stages. It didn't quite make it as a launch title for the Gamecube, but Super Smash Bros. Melee quickly became the most popular for the Gamecube. It had twice as many characters as the original even without any of the unlockables, and had three times as many stages. The controls were also fine tuned to the point when gamers developed tournaments as deep as the ones for games like Tekken or Marvel vs. Capcom. By the end of the Gamecube's lifespan it had become the best selling Gamecube game in the console's history, in spite of it's Teen rating from ESRB (the first game rated Teen for most of the Nintendo characters.)

The Wii was announced early in 2005, and naturally a Smash Bros. game was announced early on. The game went through some development difficulties, but eventually started having regular "megaton" announcements in 2007 and was released as Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008 with such additions as third-party characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and a deeper single player campaign in the Subspace Emissary. However, some gamers weren't as satisfied with the tweaks in the gaming mechanics. It was still a massive success, and led to the announcement of Smash Bros. game for the newest Nintendo console (Wii U) and the newest Nintendo handheld (3DS).

Still, while the series has achieved greater heights and far deeper experience, many gamers still feel some love for the first game. Perhaps some of it is the nostalgia factor, but a lot of it is because in spite of all of the evolutions that the series have undergone the original game is still a fine party game. Even today the game sells for $20 at the cheapest on eBay, but prices can often soar into the $60 range, even over $100 for complete copies. 15 years after its initial release it still shines bright, and that is perhaps the best legacy that a game can have.


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