We've known about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for quite some time ahead of its reveal at E3 2018. What we didn't know was just how massive it would end up being, featuring every character from the series' history, all wrapped up in a conveniently portable package.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Nate Bihldorff and Bill Trinen of Nintendo of America to talk about the game and the new changes it's bringing to both casual players and the competitive scene, whether Ultimate is a new game or an enhanced port, plans for the future, and... that fat guy from NES hockey?! Read on for the full interview.
Nintendo Life: Can you talk about how long the development cycle was on Smash Ultimate? It feels like it had to have been really short compared to previous entries.
Nate Bihldorff: It is huge. We don't have details on sort of exactly when development started on. I think those things ramp up over time. It’s kind of a small start like Genesis and then it ramps up all of the time, so we don't have specific details about how long the development cycle is. I think the results kind of speak for themselves. It certainly doesn't feel like something that was slapped together in a short period of time.
A lot of people were expecting Smash to be like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, or even in a lesser sense Splatoon 2, in that it looks like the Wii U original but it is just improved upon; I feel like this is more of a completely original game.
Bill Trinen: I would argue Splatoon 2 is a completely original game. You look at, you know it is not like shooters change that much from version to version, but Splatoon 2, they added new modes.
I think that the perspective - at least among our audience - was that it still looked very similar, and yes, Splatoon does have a distinct visual style, but the art style itself seems to be different between Smash 4 and Ultimate.
Bihldorff: You know we were just talking about that today. In particular, the lighting and the texture work in the stages, stuff like that are really significant. Actually, for us, the biggest thing was going back and looking at Melee stages that you know and love and all of a sudden you see all the care that’s gone into bringing them into this new game. I'd say for people who are expecting a Mario Kart 8 Deluxe upgraded port thing, that they are very pleasantly surprised when they open up the box.
Trinen: That's the question that I always ask. When was the last Smash Bros port?
Yeah. That's true.
Trinen: There has never been a port.
We just played on Saffron City, which hasn't been around since the original on Nintendo 64. We were really excited to see that pixelated Charizard is still there.
Trinen: Yeah, because it is awesome.
Are we going to see every stage that has ever been in a Smash Bros., or is it going to be a selection of some of the classics as well as some new stages?
Trinen: It is not quite going to have every stage, but as you see in the E3 build that they are looking at bringing some back. They are looking at bringing some over that were on the 3DS version, and bringing them into this game. Obviously, they look a lot better in this game than the did in the 3DS version.
Bihldorff: Yeah. I was actually reading; the internet sleuths did a wonderful job of dissecting the amount of media that we put out there between screenshots, and videos. They have already amassed all of the stages that they have seen in some form of media, and I don't really know how big it is, but seeing it in a list is very different than seeing it on a stage selection screen.
The amount of stuff already in there is unbelievable, the number of stages in the game. You could get paralyzed by looking at it. And then you realize that every single one of those could be a final destination stage with the same theme. Every single one of those could be a battlefield stage with the same theme. And I think for me anyways as a player, that just makes me incredibly happy. There are certain stages that I gotta admit, the hazards on them absolutely destroy me. For whatever reason, the characters that I play are just at an automatic disadvantage because of whatever that particular hazard is, and being able to play a battlefield version because I love the world that it is in, is just awesome. Hopefully, people think so anyway.
Personally, what are the stages that you are the worst at?
Bihldorff: There's a number of them. Mega Man stage, in particular, dealing with that yellow devil. I just can't...I just don't go in with a strategy because every time that I see it, I just try to avoid it. I know you are supposed to be on it yourself, and then you get it on to your team, and then you shoot up at people right? Is that the way that it works?
Bihldorff: I mostly just try to avoid it and I always end up getting shot by it, basically I'm in defensive mode all of the time. I think I need more simplistic, more wide open stages... I like to play quick characters. So a lot of it depends on having quick sight lines to get to an item or to the person that I'm after. There's a lot of stages that I'm bad at.
How many characters are currently announced for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate?
Trinen: Are you getting to the point where you're counting the Pokémon Trainer as one or two?
Bihldorff: Yeah. It's in the mid 60s.
Are there plans to either announce characters between now and December or is the finalized, complete roster? Can we expect to see more at a later date?
Trinen: We can answer that when we get closer to December.
Will there be DLC? Are there plans to expand on the game after release?
Trinen: I think that Mr. Sakurai obviously said that the number one goal is to get all of the past characters, and you know, the thing with a game like Smash Bros is that when you make those changes to core mechanics in terms of speed, in terms of some of the additional directional air dodge and things like that, that they added to the core gameplay in this game. Then that means that you have to go through and re-balance all of the other characters, and once you have to do that, then you are having to adjust animations. You are also changing character models. You are giving some of them new moves. Some of them you are getting new final smashes, it does limit to a certain degree the ability to add a whole lot more. At the end of the presentation, [Sakurai] said not to expect too many, but he did offer one more at the end there, which is obviously going to be fantastic. So that was great. If you were at the tournament, you probably heard him mention that he is flying out on the midnight flight to get back and finish the game. That was not hyperbole. He actually did that.
He did it with a big smile on his face, because he did have a great time at the tournament. But his focus right now is getting the game ready for December. The thing about us, when it comes to something like DLC, we don't really start on it until we have got the game done. So, maybe when the game comes out they will make a decision on if they will do it, or if they do what they want to do, that sort of thing.
We noticed that it felt like the difficulty curve of the game had been softened a bit. The directional air dodge helped us play on the edge of the stage better than in previous games. Were those changes made for players that aren't quite so good at the game? Is it there to make the game more accessible to a broader range of players?
Bihldorff: I think that Mr. Sakurai's design philosophy has always been that way. He is always thinking about making it as accessible and successful as possible because he wants absolutely everybody to play his game. But also he is not unaware that high-level players are playing it at a really high level. Techniques like what you are talking about really serve dual purposes. They as you mentioned, have more mobility for someone who is just learning how to play the game. But in the hands of a master, a pro, I mean we already saw what those guys are doing with just the directional air dodge. I'm trying to think... there was one specific moment, what is the Kirby, that item where you can target...
Bihldorff: Yes, thank you. There was a moment in the finals where he got on that and he saw that. There was a directional air dodge where he dodged directly onto another platform and landed then ground dodged the second that he landed to dodge the second strike of the dragoon. I can't even do that, and it really annoys me that these pro players probably did that after 4-5 hours of practice leading up to the tournament! [laughter] That is just a perfect example of a design decision that benefits both sides and as a result, it satisfies two very different groups.
Trinen: I think the way that I would phrase it is that already Smash Bros is about as easy as a start as you can get from a game, right? It's the control stick, the A and B buttons, and even just with that. You don't know how to roll, you don't know how to shield. You don't know how to do any of that. Just with the control stick and the A and B buttons, you can have a lot of fun playing this game. Even my own kids started playing Smash when they were four years old, because it is that easy.
What they added to the game, as Nate was saying, is that it gives more things for people to experiment with. The other thing with the combination of the jump button and the attack button giving you instant access to the short hop aerial attack, what that does is that it takes a technique that had been really sort of exclusive to this top-tier player category and it brings it down a level and makes it easier for someone that is a beginner to do that. Same thing with the A and the B for the Smash Attach. Pressing A and B together to do a Smash Attack. It makes it easier to do these higher level manoeuvres. What that does is that it sort of gives a broader audience greater access to deeper techniques. But then it's also forcing those higher level players to then adjust their game because they may to do things that lower level players were unable to do.
You're increasing the baseline.
Trinen: Yeah, but doing so in a way that is still incredibly easy access to beginner players.
Do mechanics like Perfect Shield cater to that higher level player? Smash Bros. gained a hugely competitive following at first, as a happy accident. It's the most successful competitive Nintendo game out there. Are there any plans to further that along or host your own tournament series for this, sort of how Capcom does its Pro Tour?
Trinen: The first thing that I would do is rewind a bit and go to the 'happy accident' because that is a myth that I want to dispel. Absolutely dispel. Because the assumption is almost that Nintendo didn't know what it had with Smash Bros. And that actually suggests that Mr. Sakurai didn't know what he was doing. Whereas very, very specifically, he designed the game even back on the Nintendo 64 and especially on the GameCube, very specifically what we were talking about is a game that anyone can pick up and play, but one that has the incredible layer of depth to it. I mean, we used to play Melee every day at lunch and after work for 10 years. Literally. This went on in the Treehouse for years and years and years. Then we just got too busy.
We had families and all that. It was even over all that time, we continued to improve and grow as players because he specifically designed the game with layer upon layer upon layer of depth. It wasn't an accident. The game didn't accidentally become that way. He is a meticulous game designer. Every decision that he makes on the game is a planned decision. So what was the 'happy accident' wasn't that the game was designed that way. The happy accident was that people started to discover it, and that became something that people could then relate to one another through and that they can have fun playing with each other. And that created the bond that gave them the inspiration for the community to build that tournament scene. But I do want to dispel the notion that the game wasn't designed with that in mind, because it very much was.
Do you think that Nintendo is going to sponsor events or do anything like that to push that competitive scene a bit more forward outside of the traditional fighting game circles?
Trinen: We kind of take a different approach to tournaments. The first thing that I would say is that E3 2014, we held the original Smash Bros. Invitational. There was a confluence of events going on, you were seeing some big effort on the community side to really try to help elevate the scene. We held that tournament at that point in time had the highest viewership of any Smash Bros. tournament ever, which helped give exposure to the tournament scene. Of course, we invited a lot of community members to that tournament. It also was helped by the launch of Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Any time in the fighting game scene you have a new game come in, it tends to give momentum to the scene overall.
What we have actively worked on behind the scenes the past few years is really making sure that both the Melee scene and the Wii U scene are both strong and healthy. If you were to go back and look at attendance at tournaments prior to 2014, viewership of tournaments prior to 2014, and what has happened with numbers post 2014, Smash Bros. has just been on a huge trajectory. Huge viewership numbers, number of people playing, what had been at the time big tournaments for Smash, but it is still very small to things like Genesis. We partnered with some of those tournaments, kind of behind the scenes, helping them and things like that.
Obviously, we work with EVO for years as well. So our approach is a little bit different than other companies, but really what our goal is, is to try to continue to foster those places where the community can get together, the community can play, and the community can really engage in that fun competitive nature that we kind of talked about at the tournament as well.
Ridley being in Smash is a huge deal. I remember - I could be misquoting, so please feel free to correct me - I remember hearing that Sakurai himself said that Ridley was just too big for Smash. What happened?
Bihldorff: He studied the art, and he hunched his shoulders! [Laughter] He talked about that in a Treehouse Live segment that we did immediately following the Nintendo Direct. He was getting Ridley to stand upright in the game. One of his talks is Ridley standing straight up, which to me is probably him directly addressing the issue that he is too tall. He mentioned exactly what Ridley's height is, although obviously it is on a sliding scale depending on which game you're talking about. In the original Metroid it's like Samus and Ridley were [not that large].
Whereas in Super Metroid, he was this massive beast.
Bihldorff: Exactly. I think he's got a specific size, but he did put a lot of work into making it look like the NES sprite where he has a hunched back most of the time.
Was it a big moment for you guys when you found out that Ridley was, in fact, going to be in the game? Was it directly in response to fan outcry about Ridley, or was it something that had been planned and fans happened to jump on it at the right time?
Bihldorff: A lot of people complain that a lot of characters that are still out there, they will complain about those, it doesn't mean that they will make it. I think Mr. Sakurai hears it, but then I think he just muffles it out and puts in the characters that he wants to put in. I mean he clearly listens to the community. I mean, you heard him speak at the tournament. I think he knew that the scene would be psyched that Ridley got in, but I don't think that it was the matter of, "oh, the way this reached its breaking point, it's time to put in Ridley before this collapses on top of itself."
Trinen: And certainly, if they were all to rally for the fat hockey player from NES...
Nate: Hey man!
Trinen: That wouldn't happen.
Bihldorff: Mr. Sakurai, not only does he have an innate knowledge of each one of the characters, but he does so much research about what they are supposed to look like, what their move set is based on. It comes from somewhere in video game lore. He is a student of video games, period. It comes through the second you see a stage, a piece of music, a character, just breathes love for whatever that franchise is.
He does all of the balancing himself, doesn't he?
Bihldorff: He's involved in all aspects of a development. He's probably got too many jobs to be sitting there doing 8 hours of gameplay, every day. But he is involved a lot in the process.
Mr. Sakurai has said in the past that he wants to keep making Smash. Melee was where he was content. Then he got pulled into Brawl and then he made Smash 4. Was he really willing to get involved in this one? Is he really done now?
Bihldorff: No, I think you are probably reading too much literally into those comments. I think that Mr. Sakurai really puts his all into every game that he works on. So, towards the tail end of a project where everything is furious and on fire, he might say, "I'm done for a while," but I wouldn't say that there would ever be a moment where he might say, "I'm never going to do a Smash Bros again," or he's "never going to do another game in another series." He always has other ideas. I'm sure he is constantly surprising himself with what he can add. As this series iterates, it's never a matter of just adding more characters. Every single game has plenty of new things, well beyond characters. It is all about game balancing. [So] I wouldn't read too much into that. We didn't kidnap Mr. Sakurai or anything.
Trinen: I would say that his approach is that if it had to be the last one, people would look back and say, "Man that was a killer last Smash Bros." That's what he puts into it every time, so that every time it is a fantastic game.
Speaking of characters, Snake is back. Fans have been wanting him back for a while, not only for Snake, but with David Hayter voicing him. Obviously Nintendo doesn't have full control over whether those characters can appear. Was Konami all in when they were approached about whether Snake could return for Smash? What was that process like?
Bihldorff: We don't have a lot of visibility into a lot of the conversations, the individual talks that occur. Clearly Mr. Sakurai and his team worked closely with every single one of them. That is a lot of characters outside of Nintendo's purview. Every single one of them, not only is there a conversation to get this character to come back, but it comes down to every single last detail about the character. I guarantee you that every piece of art is getting approved, every piece of music, every detail that is related to that particular IP, they are working closely with the rights holders to make sure that it is perfect and to their satisfaction. We weren't in the room when it got brought up, but I'm pretty sure it was pretty happy for them. There were probably a lot of fans over at Konami that wanted to play as Snake a lot.
Trinen: I think people don't even recognize. He does that with all the Nintendo characters as well. When you think about it, with Mario, there is a Mario team at Nintendo. With Zelda, you've got the Zelda team. Inkling, that's a different team. They all want input on their own characters to make sure that their characters are the way that they want as well. It's actually a process that is applied to not just the third party characters, but even to all of our own characters. Then you have franchises like Fire Emblem which has obviously a lot of characters in Smash Bros. as well, that involve companies like Intelligent Systems, even Earthbound with that's with Lucas. People just look at Smash Bros. as this thing, that's just like, "It's Smash Bros, they can just do it," and they don't really think of all of the work that goes into it.
It's an enormous project.
Trinen: It really is. You're talking, just from the playable characters, 30 different IP represented. That doesn't even include all of the Assist Trophies. Even the Assist Trophies use third-party characters as well.
With the penalties that they put on repeated dashing, do you think that wave dashing will basically not be a thing?
Bihldorff: That is interesting. I was reading some initial reactions from the players last May and it is funny after one day it is like they are trying to figure out what techniques are going to be possible. I think that it is going to take some time for this game to mature with the pro players.
It isn't going to feel exactly like any of the other games. So the side techniques, they have their own language at this point. With dashing, wave dashing, this sort of thing. I don't know what they're going to come up with. I think that it will be different, but it will be robust.
Trinen: The other thing to keep in mind is that wave dashing wasn't discovered until 9 months after the game launched. This game hasn't even launched. It isn't even at its point to start balancing yet. Even with the Wii U game, they were finding new tech, new combos and things like that, long after launch. There's a lot to uncover about the game, especially once they start to piece together all of these changes fit together.
Bihldorff: I couldn't believe how many good techniques I already saw in that tournament, with literally less than five or six hours of practice with the game, so I don't think it'll be called wave dashing, it'll be called something else, but there are so many movement tools available, that I can't wait to see what the pro community does with this thing. I think they're going to find a lot of awesome techniques.
Trinen: The one person that I want to call out from that tournament was the dude, Pac-Man cosplayer. Not only did he have good cosplay, but he actually was a pretty good Pac-Man player.
Thank you so much for your time.
Trinen: Thank you.
Are you ready to take to the field of battle on 7th December? Do you plan on maining a returning character, a newcomer, or are you going to hold out for the fat guy from Ice Hockey? Can't get enough Smash? Make sure to check out our hands-on preview from E3 2018.
We'll have much more on Super Smash Bros. Ultimate as we get closer to its release, but for now, let us know what you're most excited about in the comments.