If “Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen and soccer is a gentleman's game played by beasts,” as the age-old sports quote playfully asserts, then Call of Duty is an adult game played by children and Super Smash Bros. is a children’s game played by adults.
Initially, Super Smash Bros. was supposed to feel like the tricycle race to Virtua Fighter’s Tour de France, the mini-golf to Street Fighter’s Pebble Beach. As an unapologetically simple and cartoonish 2D fighter spattered with zany weapon drops, it didn’t matter that some characters were ridiculously overpowered, or that the outcome of a match often boiled down to the spawn location of a nasty Bob-omb. For lots of players, the series has always felt best when experienced like a dark and curvy waterslide: fun and thrilling, but incalculable in scope or result.
This was not the kind of Super Smash Bros. experience that professional players showed up to watch at last weekend’s 2014 Evolution Championship Series—EVO for short—in Las Vegas. Nowadays, the competitive scene comprises experts who have mostly ditched Brawl and item-based interactions to focus entirely on the complex techniques, breakneck tempo, and aggressive combo systems of Melee. The game might be more than 12 years old, but it’s in the middle of a competitive renaissance right now, and the final round of this year’s Melee tournament brought in more than 100 thousand concurrent viewers.
EVO 2014, like most other events of its kind, was bombastic and tense. Gravelly voiced broadcasters delivered the play-by-play with drama and panache. Audience members roared up in mob cheers after successful combos. There were even official team sponsorships this time around, with the competition’s two finalists brandishing tags like “C9 Mang0” and “Crs. Hungrybox” to denote their group affiliations.
Regardless of the scene’s success, this is never what Super Smash Bros. was meant to look like, and game director Masahiro Sakurai has been open about his disappointment with Melee’s transformation over the years.
“There are three Smash Bros. games out now, but even if I ever had a chance at another one, I doubt we'll ever see one that's as geared toward hardcore gamers as Melee was,” Sakurai admitted in a 2010 interview with 1UP.com. “Melee fans who played deep into the game without any problems might have trouble understanding this, but Melee was just too difficult."
Super Smash Bros. was supposed to feel like the tricycle race to Virtua Fighter’s Tour de France
At last year’s groundbreaking EVO tournament, Sakurai’s vision collided head-on with the competitive community’s. In what would become Melee’s biggest tournament appearance to date, players raised $94,000 to re-introduce their beloved fighter to the competition after a six-year hiatus. Then, in a move that struck a deep nerve with the Smash community, Nintendo fired off a cease-and-desist to stop livestreaming of the event. The community exploded in outrage, and eventually the sheer volume of the backlash prompted Nintendo to back off.
For years now, this is what the Melee scene looked like: A burgeoning competitive community without an official blessing from its creators, built around a decade-old game that was never actually meant for competition.
Just one year after the EVO 2013 debacle, Nintendo is showing signs that it might be warming up to the competitive scene. At the finals of this year’s EVO tourney, Nintendo COO Reggie Fils-Aime delivered a rousing, encouraging kick-off speech. Just last month, the company held its own sold-out invitational tournament at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. And even though the scene was worlds different from the one at EVO, it was mostly a viewer-friendly upgrade: Players dressed better, the audience got stadium seating, and there were even cameo appearances from Sakurai, Fils-Aime and Robin Williams’ aptly-named daughter Zelda.
Just one thing was missing from Nintendo’s invitational: Melee. This tourney was strictly dedicated to the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, and the grand final match between ZeRo and Crs.Hungrybox played out slowly, with hit-and-run tactics winning out over aggression. This is a lot like how Brawl was played, and it set off some major alarm bells for Melee veterans.
Bobby “Scar” Scarnewman, who did play-by-play announcing at the invitational and has been active in the scene since 2007, says the combat is “floaty,” just like it was in Brawl. The word seems innocuous enough, but it is to Super Smash Bros. what the word “challenging” might sound like to a master chef: a blunt condemnation delivered with a light hand.
In Rock Paper Scissors, it’s typically advised to throw rock on the first turn since newbies are statistically likely to open with scissors. A smart player might feign ignorance of this information, throwing out a paper in order to counter a clever rock opening. This type of strategizing, using knowledge from outside of a game’s prescribed ruleset, is what we call “metagaming.”
If there’s one litmus test for what constitutes a “good” fighting game meta, it’s yomi: the Japanese phrase for knowing what's on the mind of the opponent. Originally introduced to the scene by the Virtua Fighter crowd, yomi is all about overcoming huge deficits, outplaying the enemy, and queuing up a response to counter their potential decisions.
The base mechanic of Super Smash Bros. doesn’t seem deep enough for yomi, at least at first blush: You get knocked off the screen, you lose a life. But the elegance and variety of the series comes in its percentage-based damage system: The more beat up you get, the lighter and easier to K.O. your character becomes.
This setup is wide open to yomi. Even if a player has already taken a pounding, they’re still a threat as long as they can stay away from the edge of the stage. At any moment, situational evaluations are popping in and out of relevance as character positions, damage counters and attack animations shoot by at 60 frames every second. Whoever can triangulate the variables, apply them to the opponent’s actions, and execute a response accordingly is the winner.
In the newest Super Smash Bros. installments, a lot of these nuances go out the window: “I hit this guy with a move, and they fly away and I can’t do anything about it,” is how Scarnewman describes it. “All the tension, all the creativity you need to have at different points in a Melee match, all of that’s removed from Brawl and Wii U.”
spectators are not objective, and they don’t like watching defense-oriented metagames.
The new Smash Bros. games aren’t worse than Melee from an objective standpoint, but spectators are not objective, and they don’t like watching defense-oriented metagames. They want to see people make plays, they want to revel in the catharsis of a comeback, to shout “OHHHH” after a taunt, to observe for themselves that the gifted hands behind the controller really do belong to “just a normal guy.”
At last year’s EVO tournament, the North American Smash community was first introduced to a new pair of gifted hands in Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto, a Japanese Yoshi player. With only a year and a half of competitive Smash experience to his name, and specializing in one of the worst characters Melee has to offer, aMSa posed little threat to the reigning local champs. But even though his home country is currently one of the most underdeveloped eSports scenes in Asia, aMSa turned the meta on its head and climbed all the way to the tournament’s quarterfinals.
Since his debut, aMSa has become to the American Smash Bros. scene what Sergio Leone was to the American Western, not because of his filmmaking skills, but for the way he’s unwittingly subverted local methods to create an autonomous, revelatory style of his own. Before aMSa’s arrival, only a few players dared to use Yoshi in competitive play, and none had made it very far. In this little green biped, aMSa found a Clint Eastwood, a hitherto-underrated canvas through which he could create a new and lasting technical archetype. If aMSa was privy to the meta-preferences of his contemporaries, as Leone was to the likes of Raoul Walsh and Edwin Porter, he didn’t let it inhibit his play.
“If you have technical mastery of Yoshi like aMSa does, you can pull off some very interesting and unexpected things,” Scarnewman says, struggling to describe aMSa’s style. “He just does things in a way that feels ... perfect.”
Susan Sontag once described the act of interpretation as the “revenge of the intellect upon art.” Regardless of how dubiously definitive the sentiment seems, it cuts to the core conflict of this Nintendo/Melee standoff: By dissecting its mechanics, tacking jargon onto its idiosyncrasies, and rejecting the parts of the game they don’t enjoy, is the competitive community stripping Super Smash Bros. of its art? Sakurai’s lasting regrets suggest the damage has already been done: "I had created Smash Bros. to be my response to how hardcore-exclusive the fighting game genre had become over the years ... but why did I target it so squarely toward people well-versed in videogames, then?”
is the competitive community stripping Super Smash Bros. of its art?
Why should any developer try to keep up with this localized, demanding, exclusive competitive environment? Now especially, as the constraints of genre and media and demographics start to feel more and more contrived, it seems futile, almost passé, to try and cater to so many needs at the same time.
For now, Nintendo and the competitive Melee scene have no choice but to stand locked into their vicious paradox: Although they long to forge a more-than-superficial camaraderie, they’re each held captive by their own respective paradigms. One remains loyal to the steadfast and complex drama of Melee, the other stands tied to the razzle-dazzle approachability of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Separated by their cultures and philosophies, it seems for now that the twain shall never meet.
Instead, what's left is the striking image of a delirious Masahiro Sakurai, deprived of sleep, bloodshot-eyed and dangerously obsessed. For “13 months straight ... without a single Sunday or holiday off,” he slaved over Melee, pouring his life and sanity into a new Super Smash Bros. that would please fans as much as the first. For him, Melee was more than a sequel, more than a game even. It was his idée fixe, his impossible ambition to create something infinitely deep and comfortably shallow at the same time. Now Melee has become his Pinkerton: A revitalized cult masterpiece, a bolt of lightning caught in a bottle, and the one puzzle piece that could fix everything... if it didn’t already belong to another era.