In this series of articles we'll write about one Mario game every day for 30 days, each representing a different year as part of our Super Mario 30th Anniversary celebrations.
In our final entry for Mario in the 20th Century we reach the beginnings of one of Nintendo's most vital franchises. While not strictly a 'Mario' game, the mascot is typically front and centre in marketing for the title, and his inclusion was a key early factor in the game achieving success. Yep, it's just an excuse to talk about it.
With the sales success, critical acclaim and the growth of the eSports scene around Super Smash Bros. Melee in particular - though Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is gaining momentum in the competitive field - the Nintendo 64 original is often overlooked. Far more limited and rudimentary than its ambitious follow-up, it was an integral gamble that paid off and, as a result, set in motion what was to come.
Developed in 1998, it began as a secondary private-time project instigated by Masahiro Sakurai and driven forward with the late Satoru Iwata, both working at HAL Laboratory at that time. In an Iwata Asks interview both men reminisced over working on the project outside of office hours; they were the only core staff in the prototype phase, with Sakurai-san working on "planning, specs, design, modelling and movement" and Iwata-san working on the programming.
The original prototype was called "Dragon King: The Fighting Game" and featured generic, faceless characters.
The core desire was to create a 4-player Battle Royale experience as a counterpoint to the dominance of 1 vs 1 fighting games, and utilising Nintendo characters was seen as pivotal in making it a success. The early prototyping was completed without approval to use Nintendo IP, but the addition of these characters took the project onto a new level.
Iwata: Even though all we had in our first prototype was four faceless characters on the screen, the game took off in a completely different direction with the addition of Nintendo characters. Can you remember how this change came about?
Sakurai: Of course. I asked to use Nintendo characters since it was so hard to accurately convey to the players the atmosphere of the gaming world where they play a fighting game on home console. You have to have some main characters in a fighting game, and when you line up character 1, character 2, character 3 and so on, the main characters end up blurring together. With a game for the arcade, it's okay for character development to take a backseat since players are content with the fighting. With a fighting game for the home console, however, you have to set up the general image or the atmosphere of the gaming world right from the start or else the game suffers. That's why I asked to use Nintendo characters.
Iwata: Nowadays, we take it for granted, but at the time, people had reservations about mobilizing an all-star cast of characters.
Sakurai: We were put through the ringer alright. (laughs)
I guess fans were upset by the prospect of pitting characters like Mario, Link and Pikachu against one another. We had a hard time convincing them the fun and depth that were so obviously present in the Smash Bros. trademark fighting style would offer.
In comparison to its successors this original game was extremely limited in scope, with minimal single player variety conceding the limelight to multiplayer. As was the case in previous entries in this article series, namely Mario Kart 64 and Mario Party, the ability for four players to take part at once was hugely exciting at the time. The small cast of 12 characters was appealing, too; bear in mind that, as highlighted in the Iwata Asks segment, seeing these characters fighting each other was unexpected.
While the original vision of Sakurai-san and Iwata-san was a relatively simple concept, it was a fresh gaming experience once on the market. Customisation of items, free movement around the stage, and of course the core idea of raising an opponents percentage to smash them off screen - all of these ideas contributed to an experience that felt unlike other mainstream fighting games. Sakurai-san's eye for detail also ensured it was mechanically sound and complex, too, though this one's successors would take that depth to new levels.
In striking a nerve and shifting millions of copies, Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64 gave birth to a hugely important franchise and significantly changed Masahiro Sakurai's career. It's also another reminder that, although Satoru Iwata would go on to become President of Nintendo, he was first and foremost a skilled programmer and gamer.