Super Smash Bros. Melee was a love letter from Nintendo to the company’s legion of fans — a fighting game packed to the brim with songs, stages, characters and art from the storied history of the Japanese game company. It’s an accomplishment quite unlike and unmatched by any other. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the third game in the series, was by many accounts slower, looser. Creator Masahiro Sakurai had worked to make the game more welcoming to newcomers, but in so doing had sacrificed the precision necessary to foster a competitive fighting game community. For many fans of the series, Brawl just didn't quite feel right.
Since Brawl’s release in 2008, a dedicated group of volunteers have been crafting their own take on the Super Smash Bros. series, and in those years it’s been honed to become one of the most polished fan mods around. The team now thinks their game is on-par with a retail release and is their ultimate tribute to a franchise that has already given gamers countless hours of entertainment.
With just over four years of development, Project M — the 'M' stands for Melee, in case you were wondering — has become an absolutely massive undertaking. In 2012, it was reported that there were over 50 people were working on the project with whatever time they could spare. To date, most of them have put in over 1,000 hours apiece. It’s a labour of love, to be sure, and one that comes with its own unique challenges.
For most, modding a game is strictly within the realm of a PC. Consoles aren't just harder to mess with — most manufacturers put in safeguards and security features to foil pirates. Project M, however, only requires a copy of Brawl and an SD card that can hold less than 2 GB. Even so, getting out the word that the project even existed was the first major obstacle.
“Upon becoming more and more popular with the mainstream Smash scene, we were reminded of a very important and humbling fact about the nature of Super Smash Bros: its genre versatility," says Adam Oliver, a developer on the project. "We also want to stress that we earnestly believe in the ideal that Super Smash Bros. is a series that is meant to be enjoyed by a wide audience. With so many options to choose from, Smash games can be played as both competitive fighters and party games. We truly believe in the creed that there isn't a right way to play Super Smash Bros., only a way that is right for you. It is an important distinction that we take to heart when developing Project M. When we say that we've taken heavy inspiration on Super Smash Bros. Melee, it is partially because it adheres to these standards.”
By all accounts, if Brawl had one critical flaw, it was that it seemed to miss that focus on inclusivity. In talking to professional Smash players and to the Project M team, it became clear that Melee — while exceptional at building a strong following of high-end players — was just as welcoming to newcomers. To this day, Melee remains a staple party game and the top-selling game ever released on the GameCube. For many fans, Brawl seemed to discourage tournaments and high-level play by design. For the folks that spent years learning the ins-and-outs of Melee, it came as a harsh surprise. That, according the folks behind Project M, is what drives them.
A simple, straightforward set of goals is necessary for such a loose project. From the beginning Project M was designed to be more fast-paced, with natural movement that affords players a greater sense of control and rewards technical proficiency. Most of these targets are in direct opposition to some of the mechanics of Brawl. Tripping, for example, is a random occurrence that can disrupt games and cannot be turned off. At the very least, no matter how good any one player gets in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, they can't overcome those types of basic obstacles.
Close interaction with the community, especially for a project driven exclusively by dedicated fans has been the team’s bread and butter. “We're all making a game that we want to enjoy with friends, and as we make the game it’s very satisfying to picture other groups of friends experiencing the same game, learning the ins and the outs of characters while uncovering our little bits of fan service," says Oliver. Fans, though, have taught the Project M team a few lessons of their own. After all, the professional community that has grown up around the Smash Bros. series only ever existed because a handful of players managed to dig through the game and uncover all sorts of secrets and tricks that a good chunk of which the original development team wasn't even fully aware.
“It’s extremely satisfying to conceptualize an attack, animate it, rig it up in game, polish it tirelessly, and then see community members not only passively enjoying the attack but actively analyzing and discussing it," continues Oliver. "This level of engagement is great, and when the community uncovers nuances that we didn't even think of before it really surprises us in the best of ways. They may be thankful for our work, but we are just as thankful for their unrelenting support.”
With that support, however, comes pressure. “Our only real frustration is that we can't get this out the door faster,” Oliver says. “We know that the fan base is always hungry for new content, and we desperately want to give it to them as soon as possible. However, they rightfully expect polish from us and we have to take the time to make that content work as flawlessly as possible.”
Their goal is to create a finely-tuned, expertly-crafted product. Competitive gamers — by their very nature — are spectacularly talented when it comes to finding all of the cracks in a superficially perfect game. As with the discovery of the subtleties of Melee such as float-cancelling, L-cancelling, wave-dashing and more, the Project M group is trying to engineer and control those elements as much as possible instead of keeping them as a smattering of idiosyncratic pieces throughout the code. “If we want Project M to be viewed as a serious proposition — a truly professional experience — then we must try to adhere to the same standards that a professional company would,” Oliver says.
Extreme attention to precision aside, they do have a few regrets. Game design, as any professional will tell you, is an iterative process. Your first build will always be the scaffolding upon which you construct the rest of your game. Because of that truism, it’s easy to make some choices early on in development that will hinder your future products. “The greatest regrets mostly stem from the fact that as we get later and later into the life span of Project M releases it gets harder and harder to change anything without a rock-solid justification to the community,” Oliver comments. “There are a small number of mechanics and character decisions that we wish we could go back and improve before they'd become so well established, but in some instances it’s simply too late.” While the inspiration for Project M may well have been the oddities of Brawl, it’s hard to not wonder if Sakurai and his team at HAL laborites ran into similar problems.
It’s been just over four years since the Project M team started work on their conversion of Brawl. In that time, an entirely new console has come in the shape of the Wii U and an entirely new entry in the series has been announced. For these fans, though, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Whatever the new games hold, the Project M folks probably won’t be trying to modify them.
“A lot of us are getting older and just don’t have another 1,000 hours to give to a new project," Oliver says. "Brawl was really a perfect storm of some players liking the new content but looking for something a little tighter, faster, more offensive, and an active Wii homebrew community with eager coders ready to pump out the toolsets and programs necessary to realize something like Project M. Once we've made the game that we've wanted to play with Project M, it’s hard to imagine us throwing ourselves at modifying Smash 4 with the same freshness and enthusiasm.”
With Nintendo’s recent announcement that it is shutting down the Nintendo WiFi Connection for some of their older titles — including Smash Bros. Brawl — the fact this is a project clearly bound by aging technology has never been clearer. Though the team won't be able to keep online multiplayer going for Project M — nor are they likely to work on the upcoming Wii U or 3DS titles — they stress that their work isn't complete. After a well-received third version release, there are still a few more characters to add and a bit more polish to coax out of the now aging Brawl engine, but beyond that the future of Smash Bros. fan mods are uncertain. All of the signs of a cult classic are here, however it may well yet come to rival its predecessor and chief inspiration for ubiquity. For now, though, there’s more work to be done.
“Project M has reinforced the idea to respect any and all smashers. Seeing all of these smashers from different scenes play our game made us meet many different people with different opinions. In the end, we came to the conclusion that no matter where we come from, we are all bound by a love of Smash... Our greatest hope is that Project M will be played and enjoyed by many [people]. It is being played in many homes and our fanbase is on a steady increase. We hope that this tendency will continue.”