"I decide what goes in the game; nobody else."
These were the words of Masahiro Sakurai during a 2008 interview with Official Nintendo Magazine about Super Smash. Bros. Brawl. It's a quote that stands out because it contrasts quite starkly with the modest way in which the man presents himself in most media appearances.
However, to assume that the 44-year old's quiet and mild-mannered nature equates to a lack of assertiveness on his part would be a huge mistake; Sakurai-san is a hands-on creative and a master of intricate game design, and it's his self-awareness of these traits that have enabled him to make some of the best and most cherished games of the last 25 years.
During this time, Sakurai-san has racked up some mightily impressive achievements: he created both the Kirby and Super Smash Bros. series — the latter of which is arguably now Nintendo's most significant video game franchise — and revived Kid Icarus with a stunning degree of technical flair and character after it endured a two-decade hiatus. Such accomplishments could only belong to someone with an immense amount of dedication and determination.
Interestingly, Sakurai-san has always played a key role in the games that he has worked on. He joined HAL Laboratory in his late teens, yet despite his youth his first video game credit is as the director of 1992's Game Boy hit, Kirby's Dream Land — he was only 21 years old at the time of its release. Two years earlier, however, was when he actually created the pink puffball who would go on to become one of Nintendo's most popular characters.
How Kirby came to be is unusual to say the least. Sakurai-san originally designed the character with the intention of it simply being a stand-in until a more sophisticated design could be developed. However, the design team at HAL grew increasingly fond of the simplistic creation, and opted to use it instead when creating what would become Kirby's Dream Land.
He would go on to direct two more Kirby titles during the 1990s, including NES classic Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby Super Star for the SNES. His character's games proved popular with reviewers and players alike, so much so that other Kirby games were developed that weren’t overseen by himself.
His original concept had evolved into a considerable success for HAL Laboratory and Nintendo, but Sakurai-san's creative drive didn't end there. In the late '90s, he saw a gap in the then over-saturated fighting game genre; it had continued to enjoy popularity in arcades, but home system titles were increasingly struggling to have a lasting impression on consumers.
Unofficially, he began work on a prototype fighting game with his colleague at the time, Satoru Iwata. It was unlike anything before it. Kakuto-Geemu Ryuoh (Dragon King: The a Fighting Game), as it was originally known, was a simplistic demo in which four faceless combatants faced off against a backdrop of the Ryuoh-cho neighbourhood in Tokyo. It later became Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, and quickly became one of Nintendo's most important franchises after it sold 5 million copies worldwide — much to the company's surprise. Yet again, Nintendo was keen to capitalise on this success, and tasked him with creating Super Smash Bros. Melee for its then upcoming system, the Nintendo GameCube. You can find out more about the history of the Super Smash Bros. series by checking out our recent feature.
In less than a decade, Sakurai-san had gotten two major achievements under his belt, although these successes would also become a considerable source of personal frustration for him. In 2003 he left HAL Laboratory, citing the company's heavy focus on sequelisation to be one of the key factors behind his departure. "It was tough for me to see that every time I made a new game, people automatically assumed that a sequel was coming", he said in an interview with Japanese gaming publication, Nintendo Dream shortly after he left. "Even if it's a sequel, lots of people have to give their all to make a game, but some people think the sequel process happens naturally."
At this point in time, the Kirby series had seen multiple releases, and even Super Smash Bros. had received a follow-up for the GameCube only two years on from its début. Sequelisation is something from which Sakurai-san has never managed to truly escape; it's virtually impossible to create something different when your customers enjoy your product so much that they want more of it.
Nevertheless, he used his freedom from HAL Laboratory and his time away from the Super Smash Bros. series to indulge his creative side. He teamed up with Tetsuya Mizuguchi of Q Entertainment to design Meteos, a unique puzzle game for the DS which was very well-received by critics, and even set up his own company called Sora.
However, this sabbatical from AAA game development was brief, and in 2005 Sakurai-san found himself returning to helm the development of the next Super Smash Bros. game. At the time, Nintendo was gearing up to release the Wii, and needed to bring out the big guns if it was going to avoid another commercial disappointment like the GameCube (though history would later prove that Nintendo's focus on accessible casual titles would end up being the main driving force behind the Wii's success).
His approach to Super Smash Bros. Brawl was somewhat at odds with Nintendo’s philosophy behind the Wii. While he did adjust the gameplay formula to accommodate beginners, Sakurai-san nevertheless believed that the game should only really be played with the GameCube controller. Motion controls were worked into the game, but in a very minor and superficial way; fully incorporating the Wii Remote’s motion features likely would have meant that other control inputs would need to suffer in order to balance things.
That’s not to say that Sakurai-san isn’t in favour of using a system’s unique features to enhance a game, but rather he simply doesn’t see a need to tack them on to an existing template unnecessarily. Not only that, but he’s very aware of the player’s wants and needs. In an interview with Kotaku during E3 2013, he said that Super Smash Bros. for Wii U wouldn’t use the GamePad to any bespoke degree, claiming that the reason behind this was because “everyone has their own special preference of what controller they like to use”. Given how much excitement the announcement of the GameCube Controller adapter for Wii U received when it was announced earlier this year, we’re inclined to agree.
With that said, Sakurai-san isn’t easily influenced by what his fans demand — and demand is perhaps an understatement when it comes to the Super Smash Bros. series. From character requests to gameplay “improvements” from so-called expert players, Sakurai has seen it all. “It's supposed to be a fun game for a wide variety of people”, he said when asked by Kotaku about whether he incorporates feedback from high-level players. “We wanna avoid a situation where it becomes a game sort of like other competitive fighting games, where it's only appreciated by a very small, passionate group of sort of maniac players”.
This inclusiveness for all extends — bizarrely enough — even to cutting things from the game. Last year, he announced that that a story mode as per Brawl’s Subspace Emissary wouldn’t be featured in either of the upcoming versions for 3DS and Wii U. The reason he gave for this:
Unfortunately, the movie scenes we worked hard to create were uploaded onto the internet. You can only truly wow a player the first time he sees [a cutscene]. I felt if players saw the cutscenes outside of the game, they would no longer serve as rewards for playing the game, so I've decided against having them.
Speaking of rewards, this is something that Sakurai-san has placed a heavy emphasis on in his recent games, and he goes about implementing it in a very clever way. Kid Icarus: Uprising included an intensity meter option in its single-player campaign, which effectively enabled players to gamble on their own success at completing a stage on a difficulty level of their choosing — the higher the difficulty, the higher the potential reward or loss. It’s such a superb feature because it appeals directly to the very heart of a gamer’s being; overcoming a challenge. It’s perhaps something that has slipped by the wayside in today’s market of story-driven, cinematic walkthroughs, but one of his strengths is that he understand the importance of keeping players interested through gameplay; the fact that his games are played for years on end suggests as much. The intensity meter makes a return in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, and it’s something that completionists will have to embrace if they want to unlock everything.
It’s apparent when exploring Sakurai-san's past works why he has been so successful over the past 25 years — he always approaches game design with the player’s experience in mind. It’s surely something that every game designer does (or at least is supposed to do), but it would appear few manage to do it as well as he does. With each instalment of Super Smash Bros., he has always taken a hands-on approach to development; even today, he is still the only person who undertake the challenge of balancing the character roster, inputting all the character data himself. There’s an art to it, and one which Sakurai-san openly admits only he can get right.
At first glance, his direct input when it comes to developing games may seem a tad controlling. But as evidenced by the quality of his work to date, he clearly knows what he’s doing. It’s important to issue responsibilities and work as a coherent team in modern video game design, but sometimes — as the old saying goes — if you want a job done well, you should do it yourself.