During E3 2014, each member of the USgamer team will be focusing on a particular question that will define the future of gaming. Kat Bailey asks: "Has the next generation truly arrived? Or are we still waiting?".
As Masahiro Sakurai showed Super Smash Bros. at a Nintendo event that capped the first real day of E3, he made note of a small but significant moment in gaming history. For what was likely the first time ever, Mega Man, Mario, Sonic, and Pac-Man stood on the same screen in a video game, something that was difficult if not impossible to imagine during their individual heydays.
"To see four of the most famous characters in video game history fight each other is truly a miracle," Sakurai said proudly. "It's an experience you can only have in Super Smash Bros."
He's right. Sony may have tried to capture Nintendo's success with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, but there's still only one Super Smash Bros. Over the years, it's become a kind of museum of videogame history, playing host to a huge number of Nintendo characters, R.O.B. the Robot, and even Solid Snake. The closest equivalent I can think of is Super Robot Taisen, which does for the mecha genre what Super Smash Bros. does for classic gaming.
It's a responsibility that Sakurai and his team takes seriously. Whenever a character makes their way to Super Smash Bros., they are always treated with the utmost care. In Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Sakurai and company not only gave Sonic all of his signature moves, but faithfully recreated the Green Hill Zone complete with its signature loops and collapsing terrain. They even managed to squeeze in the cheesy (but oh so entertaining) "Sonic Boom" from Sonic CD. In a very deliberate way, Super Smash Bros. sets out to encapsulate the spirit of the games it depicts in its character and level design, and it largely succeeds.
"I want to make the number one character-based fighter in the world," Sakurai says, and he means it. It makes me think that he still sees Super Smash Bros. as less of a fighter and more a showcase for gaming history despite the efforts to promote competitive events and tournaments. Competition has been a part of Smash Bros' identity since 2007, but it still seems secondary to everything else. One only has to recall Sakurai's somewhat bemused reaction to complaints of Super Smash Bros. Brawl discouraging competitive play with its pratfalls and Final Smashes. He's reversed course a bit since then, but I don't think he will ever see it in the same light as the ultra-competitive fans who comprise the game's core.
With that in mind, I've come around on Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, which I initially considered a disappointment. Playing it at the Nintendo booth, I felt like it wasn't an appreciable evolution of Melee or Brawl, and I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the new characters. Greninja felt like a fast and fragile Squirtle 2.0; Little Mac played a bit like a combination of Ike and Balrog, and Mega Man was just downright confusing. Mega Man and Greninja in particular felt weak and not that satisfying to use.
To an extent, I still feel that way. However, I've become less concerned about Super Smash Bros. being an "evolution" of the mascot fighter concept. Super Smash Bros. Melee was a fine game that still holds up very well today; and if Sakurai had a mandate with the Wii U and 3DS versions, it was to reverse some of the needless changes in Brawl and bring it back to basics, which he seems to have done.
With that out of the way, I mostly find myself appreciating the way that Smash Bros. continues to carry a torch for classic gaming by giving its characters the platform that they deserve. After all, who would even remember Mr. Game and Watch out of hardcore Nintendo enthusiasts if not for Super Smash Bros. Melee? Would Nintendo have chosen to exhume Pit and give him another game if not for the outcry to include him in Super Smash Bros. Brawl? Would Fire Emblem have even made it to the U.S. if not for Super Smash Bros.?
The answer to all of these questions is probably "no," and that's where I see the value of Smash Bros. At its best, it advocates not just for the Marios and Pac-Mans, but characters like Lucas, Ike, and Captain Olimar. As Bob reminded me yesterday, so long as Nintendo keeps these characters alive in Super Smash Bros., they're never really gone.
Of course, it could be argued that Super Smash Bros. is beginning to run out of material. With the last Nintendo franchise having been invented more than a decade ago, Sakurai and company have been forced to plumb ever greater depths for characters like Wii Fit Trainer, who arguably isn't a character at all (even if they do represent a part of Nintendo's history). I expect it's for that reason Nintendo has invited Namco Bandai, Konami, and Capcom to contribute characters like Solid Snake and Pac-Man -- the pool of characters is getting mighty thin. But that's a Nintendo problem as much as a Super Smash Bros. problem, and has been for many years now. It's an issue that can either be remedied by significantly expanding Smash's mandate, or by Nintendo suddenly developing a lot of new IPs.
Otherwise, I feel like Super Smash Bros. fulfills its purpose as an enjoyable game that serves to celebrate the company and the medium that birthed it. Despite being very much a harbinger of the new generation—Nintendo has celebrated each successive console generation with a new Smash Bros. for fifteen years now—I feel like Super Smash Bros. sits outside the usual console cycle. Judging it against current trends is almost useless.
Like Nintendo itself, Super Smash Bros. will continue to occupy a unique niche regardless of the changes that overtake the industry. I don't imagine that there will ever be anything else quite like it; in part because no other developer has a roster as deep as Nintendo's stable of characters, and in part because they seem to misunderstand what Smash Bros. is really about. It's less a video game than a time capsule at this point; a living history of Nintendo's past and present. That it's taken the form of a fighting game seems almost incidental at this point.
As we continue pushing into the new generation of gaming, I'm glad to have Super Smash Bros. to remind us where gaming came from, and why we fell in love with the medium in the first place. After all these years, it's a comfort.