Crossovers. They have the potential to excite even the most hardened among us, the idea of one intellectual property appearing in another sends waves of excitement up the most jaded of spines. Batman v Superman, a film derided and ridiculed by fans and critics alike, but everyone picked a side. Everyone wanted in on the fight. With fighting in mind, that’s where our subject matter firmly originated. The golden decade of fighting games: Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, The King of Fighters, they all started in this glorious decade of combat heaven. Although most of these games ended up on a Nintendo console, Nintendo didn’t have a fighter of its own. Nintendo was and is still seen as the family-friendly company, so the idea of a first-party fighting game created by Team Mario seemed ridiculous.
Fighting games are known for being elaborate and brutal. Nintendo are very good set being elaborate, but not so much with the brutal. So it came as some surprise when it was revealed that Nintendo was releasing a fighter based on all of their IPs. The idea seemed ridiculous, after all how could family fun Nintendo make a fighting game? Well, that answer came very much the same way most questions to Nintendo are answered: with lots of fun.
The job of developing such a unique game fell to HAL Laboratory, a second-party developer closely tied to Nintendo. An employee of HAL, Masahiro Sakurai, had an idea for a fighting game that wasn’t your usual 2D plane one vs one fighter. He envisioned a game that combined part-platformer and part-fighter, but concerned Nintendo would never allow such a game he developed it in secret, and with the assistance of future Nintendo legend Satoru Iwata, then an employee of HAL, he came up with a prototype called Kakuto-Geemu Ryuoh, the basis for a four-player fighting game. Iwata was impressed and urged his friend to continue development of the game. At this point the game was nothing more than a well-balanced fighting game, but looking for a way to make his prototype game original and appealing, Sakurai added Nintendo characters to the roster. Mario, Fox, Samus Aran and Donkey Kong were the first ever playable characters in a Smash game. With these characters in place and the balance system ready, Sakurai pitched the prototype to Nintendo and waited anxiously for a response.
Nintendo loved the project and approved its development, and so started the march towards bringing a Nintendo fighting game to life. From the outset Sakurai had a singular vision for the fighting game, he wanted to make it appeal to everyone and ensure anyone could pick up a controller and play. Aware at the time of the timescale it takes a new player to master a traditional fighting game, Sakurai kept the controls simple. Choosing not to incorporate overly complex special move combos into the game, the controls for Smash were kept basic for a new player to quickly learn, but also balanced that in the right hands could be devastating.
One of the other development choices Sakurai and his team incorporated was the stage choices having an impact on the battle. Before, most fighters did not have an interactive stage, but Smash changed all that, allowing the gameplay and combat to take advantage of the layout of the stage to secure victory. Not only this, but the addition of various power-ups that could change the course of a battle were introduced. Pick up a pokeball and you’ve got a devastating move to pull on your opposition. One of the real points was that each stage was never the same. Some stages were dynamic and shifting, others static and fixed, but it was another obstacle to keep the frenetic energy alive in the unique experience Smash offered.
So comes the roster for Super Smash Bros. Out of the twelve characters, eight were immediately playable. These were Mario, Donkey Kong, Link, Samus Aran, Yoshi, Kirby, Fox McCloud, and Pikachu. Four more could be unlocked by playing through the game: Luigi, Captain Falcon, Ness, and Jigglypuff. Each character had its own unique moveset and special moves. As the game didn’t require players to remember complex button combinations, special moves could be pulled off using the same controls for each character. The game was designed to take advantage of the unique controller layout of the N64, with its trident design and unusual button configuration. With Mario, players could expect a well-balanced all-rounder that was perfect in the hands of a beginner, Donkey Kong was slow yet powerful, Link, from the Legend of Zelda franchise, was great for long-range melee attacks, Samus Aran from Metroid possessed incredible endurance, whilst Yoshi was considered unpredictable as a fighter, Kirby was a fighter that possessed unique attacks and unbelievable recovery skills, a skill tree shared by Fox McCloud from the Star Fox series, whilst last on the starter roster, Pikachu from the Pokemon games, possessed lightning speed and blistering electricity attacks. The four unlockable characters were each palette swaps of a character from the main roster possessing their same skills and attacks. Sakurai tried to keep the game as friendly to new players as possible, telling website Mashable ‘If I went all-in with that and produced the whole game for hardcore fans, it’d start to tilt toward current titles in the fighter genre. It’d tend to be an exciting experience for expert gamers, but too forbidding for new players trying to get in. I always think from the perspective of the beginner and try to balance the game in between the two camps, and the result is Smash Bros. as you see it today.’ The focus was on fun, always the number one priority for any game Nintendo ever produced.
‘If I went all-in with that and produced the whole game for hardcore fans, it’d start to tilt toward current titles in the fighter genre. It’d tend to be an exciting experience for expert gamers, but too forbidding for new players trying to get in. I always think from the perspective of the beginner and try to balance the game in between the two camps, and the result is Smash Bros. as you see it today.’
Sakurai wasn’t aware of it at the time, but he and his team were crafting a legend, bringing to life a cult game that would put so much pressure on Sakurai that he would forever question if he had the energy to produce another Smash title with every future release of the game. Acknowledging in interviews that his own health invariably suffered with every new version of the franchise. Sakurai, a self-confessed video game connoisseur with an apartment full of classic titles from all genres, poured his heart and soul into the title, putting in seven-day weeks and constantly playing and replaying the game to make sure the balance for each character was perfect and no character had and significant advantage over any of the others.
When it came to the music of Super Smash Bros. HAL would take the familiar music from the franchises of each character, but also composed new additions. Hirokazu Ando’s compositions proved so popular that a soundtrack was released on the Japanese music market. Ando, a HAL employee since 1991, would return to supervise and compose for every subsequent version of Smash released, adding pop and energy whilst keeping every stages’ music familiar and in tone with the level.
The game only really used four buttons to play. A normal attack, special attack, jump and a guard. Most fighters were now well used to using a minimum of six buttons just for the basic punches and kicks and varying levels of intensity. Sakurai had no interest in repeating anything that had come before in a fighting game, making sure Smash was unique.
Sakurai was ready to release the game, but at the same time whilst his game was preparing to launch, his friend and fellow HAL employee, Satoru Iwata, was preparing to leave HAL and join Nintendo as an employee, eventually going on to become its president.
The game had a strange commercial in the United States featuring four main characters brawling it out amongst the greenery, whilst the Japanese version featured school children arguing and settling their differences via the medium of Smash.
The game was never planned to see a release in the West, but after the sales in Japan exceeded one million copies, Nintendo turned their eyes to a worldwide release. Super Smash Bros. would go on to sell over three million copies, making it a certified hit and one of the best selling games on the N64.
Critical acclaim from reviewers followed, with one reviewer calling it ‘A game that shouldn’t exist, but we’re glad it does!’ It would go on to win several awards upon its release in 1999 and became a hot new property for Nintendo and their ever-growing catalogue of exclusive titles for their system. A 2002 follow up, Super Smash Bros.: Melee would hit the GameCube, featuring additional fighters and modes, and this was followed by Super Smash Bros.: Brawl for the Wii, and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U in 2014.
A new entry came to Nintendo’s hybrid console, the Switch, in 2018, boasting the biggest roster of characters ever, with a stunning 74 characters incorporated. Super Smash Bros. started life as a fun little game cooked up in secret by Sakurai and Satoru Iwata, but the series would fight its way into the hearts of gamers everywhere.