Little Rag Dolls: The Evolution of Smash

SSB_For_Wii_U_And_3DS_LogoMy academic quarter has finally ended. This was an exceptionally stressful one between my nastiest commute ever—which is saying a lot for folks who knew me when I first moved to Boston—and a gamut of demanding academic responsibilities and service commitments. Therefore as my immediate stressors loosen up, involved cerebral narratives and thought-provoking formal experiments are gathering dust on my review back-log in favor of popcorn party games.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Smash.

I’ve been a fan of the Super Smash Bros series since the first installment on Nintendo 64 in 1999. Back then, I loved the game’s framing metaphor of the characters of Nintendo’s most popular games as inanimate toys brought to life by the Master Hand’s omnipotent selection. I loved something about beloved characters depicted as rag dolls come to life—shades of Toy Story, but in universes into which I was infinitely more invested. After all, I had been obsessed with Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom, pretending to be magic-wielding princesses rescuing imperiled adventurers, drawing world-maps, and planning level sequences, since I was old enough to hold a controller. Plus, this was a fighting game!

The story behind the original Super Smash Bros is rudimentary, just enough to motivate a fighting game. After all, we know these characters already. By 1999 we didn’t need instruction manuals and intro stats to tell us Mario’s story the way Street Fighter needed to frame its characters, all we needed to know was why Mario wanted to fight Pikachu. And an evil disembodied gloved hand—maybe Mario’s, but most definitely the omnipotent Player’s—wills it so. The Player wants Mario and Link to fight, and at The Player’s behest, it is so. It was as if the devs acknowledged that the story doesn’t matter, that the player brings it with them—the characters are just The Player’s toys after all! You weren’t really there for the story, but at least it set up a motivation for why the characters were fighting. As a child I mostly played the original alone, and I always injected my own stories for why Mario had it out for Link.

The latest installment (released in 2014 on the Wii U and 3DS with slight differences and referred to by the community as Super Smash Bros. 4) does away even with the pretense of a story around Master Hand, and the characters are now intrinsically motivated to fight each other for various reasons (see Palutena’s intro sequence below). This is, in fact, the first Smash that doesn’t show characters in a toy form coming to life in the opening cutscene. But the past is ever-present, and certain modes find you inexplicably moving a toy resemblance of your character around a game board between battles. You even fight Master Hand and his partner Crazy Hand with no explanation for them being the final boss beyond “it’s what every other Smash has done”, another nod to a history it presumes you know by now. But then, the devs are right, you’re almost certainly not playing Smash for the story; you’re playing for the multiplayer.

The original Super Smash Bros.’ multiplayer was revolutionary. Since Street Fighter’s release in 1987, popular fighting games emulated Street Fighter’s controls and almost all of them had difficult button sequences for special moves. Special moves in Smash didn’t require difficult button combinations, and all characters had the same basic controls. More importantly, the players set the rules, and the game offered different game modes to accommodate different levels of competitiveness in play. Even as the series evolved and the increasingly lucrative eSports scene emerged around it, Smash games always remained fun party games, easy to pick up with no prior experience, easy to come back from early losses, and easy to brush off as silly and fun. You could gauge how serious a match was by how many of the frivolous elements were turned off: random whimsical items, stages that could affect the outcome of a match, could all be customized. Each iteration of the series has provided more knobs with which players can fiddle, the point of which is to let players decide whether they want matches to be closer to games of chance or games of skill. As a young adult who was increasingly surrounded by people who considered themselves serious about games, our preference was always toward games of skill. Skill was our social currency, and I made up for my gender with prowess. Character balance was hotly debated.

I remember tournaments for Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) at conventions, but with Smash’s lingering reputation as a party game, it didn’t feel like they were taken very seriously. With the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008), as the eSports community emerged, rules became codified in tournament scenes, and perceived imbalances in the system were corrected by what amounted to a consensus of house rules. Still, among my circles of the fighting game community, Smash was never considered as legitimate as games like Street Fighter. Until comparatively recently, it was always “that party game that’s trying to be taken seriously.” It’s no coincidence that the latest Smash is the first in the series to include Street Fighter’s main character; this is Smash wants you to know that it belongs in the eSports scene.

With the latest release, I immediately noticed how different everything feels. Super Smash Bros. 4 feels much more like a tournament game than any previous Smash. Controls are tighter. There are more built-in options for unintrusive stages. I haven’t checked numbers, but attacks overall feel like they do less damage than in previous iterations—a design technique fighting games often use to slow down matches—but maybe it’s just that knockbacks are more finely tuned. It feels harder to close gaps in damage if you get down early in the match, a process called “rubberbanding” that many competitive videogames incorporate as a way to facilitate late-game comebacks that is almost entirely absent in sports. And Smash 4 is, very clearly, meant to be a sport: it wants to be a game to sell out giant arenas and attract spectators and sponsors invested by the millions, while at the same time being the ball you can toss around the backyard with the kids. After all, the addition of an 8-player mode makes Free For All battles into an outrageous scramble, ensuring all of the family can play at once, while also providing an efficient winnowing process for tournaments. The game is unarguably tight; perhaps the best in the series so far.

Interestingly enough, while Smash 4 is probably the most “tournament ready,” this is the first Smash release in which with casual game appeals to me more than the hardcore game.

Maybe it’s that I’m older and busier. Maybe it’s that I’m over tournaments. Maybe the people I hang out with no longer need to prove their worth through game proficiencies or use their prowess as a measure of their legitimacy within a group. Whatever the reason, I find myself a little sad at Smash’s move into seriousness. Even in writing this article, I found my thoughts pulling toward the lovable imbalances of past games, which is in many ways fitting.

History is ever-present in the Smash series. It supports the controllers—up to 3 consoles back—of every previous Smash since 2001 (and most serious players insist on the 15 year old Gamecube controller that the Wii U surely supports only for Smash). It also offers in-game items, digital trophies, and sound bites from games of the 80s, constant reminders of Nintendo’s storied history that today’s teenagers will probably never have heard of, much less experienced first-hand. And Nintendo, keenly aware of young audiences, insistently peppers loading screens with trivia on its past glories:

The game Duck Hunt sold over 28 million copies worldwide. A big contribution to this was its inclusion as a pack-in title with the NES console.

When Mario took up a new career as Dr. Mario, Peach joined him as a nurse. But she didn’t get to appear in the game itself, only in the manual!

R.O.B. made his debut in 1985 as a peripheral for the NES. The ability to move a real robot using in-game actions made a splash with media and gamers alike.

Oh, remember Peach in the manual of Dr. Mario? No, never mind that she had a different name and a different look back then. It was so great. But weren’t you disappointed she wasn’t in the game? And don’t you remember how cool R.O.B. the robot was?  Don’t you remember?

Indeed many of my friends in their 30s don’t actually know that Pit debuted in Kid Icarus (1986) or that the R.O.B. character is based on early NES peripheral hardware, so while tidbits are not off base, they tend toward revisionism. Nintendo’s success hinges on nostalgia, and in the absence of that nostalgia, Nintendo is happy to artificially cultivate it.

Yet my nostalgia is not attached to Excitebikes helping me kill my opponent or some factoid on Duck Hunt’s number of copies sold; I miss the little rag dolls full of whatever story I gave them. The “trophy” figurines and the real-world Amiibos into which they evolved are cool artifacts to hoard, shiny and Collectable™, but they don’t have the same sense of wonder and possibility. They don’t feel like toys coming to life, even though that’s literally what they’re supposed to be. They’re glorified SD cards that I’m obliged to collect and display.

Nintendo’s glossy nostalgia is too forced, too happy, and that kind of nostalgia will never replace the sweet melancholy of imagining little rag dolls coming to life.