What do you do if you’ve been fighting with the same people for 20 years? If you’re Nintendo, you hand out some weapons, get an announcer, and invite your friends over to watch.
The Super Smash Bros. series, Nintendo’s perennial Saturday-morning-cartoon take on how fighting video games can work, turns a whopping 20 years old today. It’s a marathon franchise that, as we’ll discuss, shouldn’t really exist. This, despite the fact that its premise has been independently dreamed up on every schoolyard for years: “What would happen if all my favourite video game characters fought each other?”
It turns out, quite a lot happens.
In celebration of 20 years of booms, zaps, and bonks, we’re taking you through each of the five entries in the series, plus the game’s humble beginnings, discussing in turn what made each era special in route to the series’ ultimate entry.
The Inspiration, In Beta, and Being Put Through “The Ringer”
Did you know that Super Smash Bros. is a video game inspired by marbles?
Far more precisely, it is actually the traditional Japanese game Ohajiki that lifelong series director Masahiro Sakurai and the former, late president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, based the gameplay of their collaboration on. This core concept would eventually evolve into Super Smash Bros. 64, the very first game in the series.
If you aren’t familiar with it, Ohajiki is typically played with flat, colourful discs on a flat surface. The game has seemingly as many rulesets as there are children who play it, but the rules usually involve flicking the discs between other discs, hitting or not hitting certain discs, and, yes, hitting a disc outside of a boundary.
The story of how this idea of disc-flicking turned into a digital fighter has been told on various Japanese web pages (a refreshingly transparent tradition that Nintendo has continued and evolved for this series), as well as in Sakurai’s own book about game design. The Smash Bros. origin story goes like this: Sakurai, originator of the popular Kirby video game franchise while employed at gaming studio HAL Laboratory, went through his routine paces by submitting projects for Nintendo’s latest home console, the Nintendo 64. Through a series of financial decisions, the least ambitious of his submitted projects would eventually be sped ahead of schedule to fill in the holiday 1998 timeslot (the final product would actually be released early 1999).
The reasoning to go with a smaller project? It was a fighting game concept, which meant it could theoretically come together much more quickly than his other chosen genres. As it was initially a low priority, Sakurai wound up single-handedly designing almost every element of the game himself, while Iwata handled all of the coding by himself, too. The result? Dragon King: The Fighting Game.
Of course, nobody has ever played Dragon King: The Fighting Game, because Sakurai correctly assumed nobody would intrinsically want to play Dragon King: The Fighting Game. Having developed the core foundation for the title: double jumps, shields, on-screen percentages that inform how far a character will fly when hit, and a 4-player battle royal mode, Sakurai and Iwata covertly continued development of their game, some say, well beyond the point of no return.
Then they put Nintendo character skins over all the characters.
For this, Iwata and Sakurai were said to have been “put through the ringer” by Nintendo, and even some fans. Mario punching Fox? Pikachu zapping Yoshi? Madness. There was just one major problem for its heady detractors: the game was way too fun. Following a concession by Nintendo and a rapid development cycle relative to a major first-party title, the Super Smash Bros. series was officially born, Nintendo characters and all.
Japan: January 21, 1999
North America: April 26, 1999
Europe: November 19, 1999
Sales Numbers: 5,550,000
What does a fighting game look like? Up until the late 1990s, and largely still, fighting games are mostly a product of what big, honking arcade controllers look like. Largely unchanged for decades, they pretty much all had a big stick and between four to six buttons. But what do you do when the fighting game you’re making is controlled with the N64 pad, arguably one of the most unusual controllers ever made?
Video game historians often point out the direct line between original 3D Nintendo titles, such as Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and the plastic controller that was holistically designed to play them. But maybe more impressive is the manner by which series director Masahiro Sakurai backwards-engineered a simple way to play fighting games using that same, bizarre controller.
Gone were the complicated button sequences, or “combos” that fighting game series like Tekken, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are known for. In Smash Bros., every single character plays totally uniquely but is controlled in exactly the same way. Further bucking genre conventions, no character has a health bar to deplete. Instead, the goal is simply to stay on the stage any way you can while knocking the other person off. Want to jump? Push up. Need to defend? Even the person in the back of the room can tell you’re blocking; a giant, colourful orb covers your body when you block. Smart, given the screen often has to zoom out to show up to 4 players at once.
As the forefather of the series, Super Smash Bros. 64 is a cartridge brimming with intelligent design. And like all smart designs, you hardly notice it. It’s hard to absorb design decisions when Donkey Kong is winding up to punch you from behind and Pikachu is calling down thunder from above. Spicing up the formula even further are randomly-generated items on the playing field – many hailing from Nintendo franchises – that act as power-ups to whoever can catch them first. Then there are the loud cartoon sound effects punctuated by a literal, invisible audience that cheers and claps as you rumble. Rounding out the stuffed cartridge are mini-game and arcade-style single player options, and even a moveable camera mode that doubled as the pause button. Clever.
Even when you closed your eyes and imagined it, who knew Mario and Link fighting each other could honestly be this fun? Super Smash Bros. 64 went on to sell five and a half million copies, and was the fifth best selling game in the N64’s history.
Japan: November 21, 2001
North America: December 3, 2001
Europe: May 24, 2002
Sales Numbers: 7.09 million
Encore! After the runaway success of Smash 64, Nintendo no longer needed convincing turning the game into a franchise, yet things were quickly changing in the video game marketplace.
In 2001, Nintendo ushered in the successor to the Nintendo 64, the Nintendo GameCube. Almost everything about this hardware, outside of its oddball purple colour, was a response to the building criticism of Nintendo remaining too old-fashioned; it had CD technology, edgy marketing and even the strongest processing speed on the market.
Also unconventionally Nintendo? The Nintendo GameCube did not launch with a flagship Mario title, nor even a Zelda title. Instead, Super Smash Bros. Melee launched the week of the console’s premier, taking over the mantle as Nintendo’s marquee thoroughbred. And boy, did it look the part. In fact, many still take for granted just how strongly Nintendo crushed it with this sequel.
Look back on giant technological leaps between a video game and its sequel, and you’ll often find years in between titles as the culprit: Fallout 2 (1998) and Fallout 3 (2008), Metal Gear 2 (1990) and Metal Gear Solid (1998), and Super Metroid (1994) and Metroid Prime (2002) are solid examples. But Super Smash Bros. Melee released a scant two and half years apart from its predecessor, and not only looked fluidly gorgeous on release, but utterly annihilated the production values of the N64 title by every measure
Heck, even the game’s opening title screen is so cinematically over the top, it plays like 6 years of frustration from technologically lagging behind the Sony PlayStation, all gushing out simultaneously into one minute-and-a-half long video.
At its roots, Super Smash Bros. Melee was the original game on steroids; it featured 26 characters, more than double of the original’s 12; it utilized a far more advanced game engine; it had way more items and stages and deeply robust menu options; they premiered new arcade modes; Sakurai introduced a completely orchestrated soundtrack; the game even had a variety of computer animated cutscenes – largely a first for the series and the company. For all its efforts, Melee became the best selling game in the GameCube’s history.
It's well worth noting that Super Smash Bros. Melee, for its impeccably complicated game engine, jump-started the franchise’s competitive streak. While Melee is no different from its predecessor or successors in terms of multi-player couch-co-op fun, those most committed within the fanbase soon developed advanced techniques in Melee that cement this particular title as the most demanding entry in the series to date. And despite existing in an era before online play existed, early organizations like Major League Gaming helped legitimize the competitive playstyle many Smash players still dazzle with today.
Japan: January 31, 2008
North America: March 9, 2008
Europe: June 27, 2008
Sales Numbers: 13.29 million
What’s even harder to believe than this entry’s amazing sales numbers is the fact that series director Masahiro Sakurai had no idea it was being made until after the game was announced.
For context, it's very important to denote the hardware Brawl appeared on. Seven long years would come to pass between Smash Bros. releases. When it was finally announced alongside Nintendo’s new console, it was the Nintendo Wii’s unique motion controller, not Smash, that took the world by storm. Today, the Nintendo Wii is as much a part of the fabric of its decade as music videos were to the '80s, or as Elvis was to the '70s. If you weren’t there, you still know a lot about it, and if you were, it's all anyone would talk about.
Using a sneaky foot-in-the-door technique, Satoru Iwata, by then having ascended all the way to CEO of the entirety of Nintendo, announced the game to the public as a way to convince his old friend Masahiro Sakurai into helming the project. Sakurai quickly agreed out of a duty to uphold his stringent standards, opened an independent development studio, and began a long development cycle that would produce many firsts for the series: early online play, optional motion controls, and an out-of-this-world single-player experience featuring endless fan-favourite cutscenes.
Not to be defined by simple iteration, Brawl featured another important, and at the time, highly unlikely series staple: non-Nintendo characters joining the battle. Did Solid Snake seriously just attack Mario?!
Items (like the newly introduced Smash Ball), stages and characters were serially announced on an official Smash Bros. website, the routine timing of which sent browser refreshing fans into a frenzy. This focus on adding more characters like Sonic the Hedgehog, Solid Snake, Metaknight and Pit greatly raised the total number of fighters from 26 from 37, and the number of stages up from 29 from 41. While the game would earn a reputation for being more accessible due to a toned-down game engine as compared to its immediate predecessor, the world at large didn’t mind; Brawl earned a top 10 all-time sales figure on one of the highest selling pieces of hardware of all time.
Today, perhaps the most enduring of Brawl’s contributions to the series is its mind-melting soundtrack, a collaboration between 38 different composers (!) from inside the gaming industry, featuring over 258 individual compositions.
Super Smash Bros. for 3DS / Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (AKA: Smash 4)
Japan: September 13, 2014 (3DS), December 6, 2014 (Wii U)
North America: October 3, 2014 (3DS), November 21, 2014 (Wii U)
Europe: October 3, 2014 (3DS), November 28, 2014 (Wii U)
Sale Number: 3DS: 9.35 million, Wii U: 5.35
The newest Smash Bros. game will theoretically always be the most technologically impressive. But depending on how you look at it, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS, the only Smash game to ever appear on Nintendo’s handheld line, might forever retain the claim as the most technologically impressive game in the series.
In 2014, Nintendo was struggling. Its latest home console, the Wii U, was failing to gain traction and needed all the help it could get. Naturally, Smash Bros. was once again called off the bench. The tactic this time around? Nintendo went with its typical “everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink” approach, but hedged its bets by making two versions and marvellously making the core game work identically on 3DS as it did on its home console.
Given there were now 58 characters to house alongside an improved online mode, it’s a marvel that the whole thing fit onto Nintendo’s pocket system. There were still, however, differences between both games. The 3DS title was released two months earlier to reap early adopter enthusiasm, and it featured an exclusive one-player mode called “Smash Run”. It also employed a sort of comic book outline style to go along with its literal 3D visuals on the 3DS screen. As a bonus, there were several stages unique to each version.
Meanwhile, the Wii U version, of course, displayed at 1080p, a series first, and offered up a ludicrous 8-player mode, a barn-burning feature made easier by the fact that Nintendo created a plastic adapter that added 4 GameCube controller ports, a nod to its still growing competitive scene.
Speaking of the competitive scene, Smash Bros. for Wii U not only sped up the gameplay from the previous game in the series, but Nintendo began marketing to the fanbase’s most committed players, arguably for the first time ever. This was punctuated by an event called the Super Smash Bros. Invitational, an ornate tournament featuring over the top spectacle, (relatively) tournament rules, and most importantly, actual professional Smash pros alongside Nintendo’s creators. Statement made.
This is the note Smash 4 will be remembered for as a whole. It trended the series towards modern gaming conventions like esports, online ballots, game patches, downloadable characters (including the ever-popular Cloud from the Final Fantasy series), and a greater emphasis on online interactions. Combined, both versions sold well, the 3DS version carrying much of the slack en route to becoming a top 10 3DS game by measure of sales. The Wii U version, meanwhile, sold admirably, considering the very low adoption rate of the Wii U console. Yet it stands to remain the lowest-selling console version of Smash Bros to date.
Worldwide: December 7, 2018
Sales Number: 3 million+ in 11 days
Between the release of every Smash Bros. game, opinions differ over what modes or characters should remain, what options are best, and what stages are optimal to fight on. “No more,” presumably thought series director Masahiro Sakurai. The fifth and latest game in the series, announced in March of 2018 for Nintendo’s rebound system, the Switch, would settle for nothing less than conglomeration.
The philosophy of Super Smash Ultimate is right in the name: be the Ultimate title in the entire series. But how can Nintendo possibly hope to top 20 years of video game mascot royal rumbles with certainty? For starters, every single fighter who has ever been in a Smash Bros. game is back in action. That means 76 in total, every single one updated, including an assortment of fan-favourite newcomers (with more on the way). Nintendo made sure to offer unprecedented customization options, along with extremely malleable modes and customizations to appease even the most hardened Smash connoisseur.
And outside of Super Smash Bros. Melee, the game is the most fast-paced in the series, with a strong nod towards “easy to pick up, difficult to master” game design. Being this is truly the first Smash Bros. game to release in the YouTube/Twitch era, the results have been fascinating to watch.
And to top off the whole package, this behemoth of an experience can be brought on the go, thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s portability. Having a home console experience like Super Smash. Bros Ultimate on a bus is frankly hard to believe, until it's in your hands.
But why is Nintendo keen on having a massive blow out for this Switch edition? Well, Sakurai has hinted this may be the last Smash Bros. game in the series. But don’t worry, Smash fans; far more realistically, Ultimate is potentially the last Smash Bros. that Sakurai opts to direct.
And if indeed Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the last game Masahiro Sakurai creates himself from the ground up, it will cap off 20 years of one of the most improbable creations in all of gaming history. That is to say, Super Smash Bros. is not only a genuine original, a meticulously balanced title in the face of thousands of permutations, and a standard bearer for how licensing in a video game can work, but every single game in the series, to their absolute, purest core, is nothing more than the exquisite execution of a really dumb question: Who would win in a fight between Mario and Link?
Hate to say it, but the answer twenty years later is pretty obvious: everyone wins.
Thanks to Source Gaming for a few key translations of Japanese text.