“Me and you and you and me
No matter how they toss the dice, it had to be
The only one for me is you, and you for me
So happy together”
Wow, N64. You don’t look a day over 20!
For many gamers I know, the Nintendo 64 was their gateway into the digital world. It was their introduction to 3D gaming. It was their childhood system. The N64 was Nintendo a little aged, a little daring, but still in its prime. Nintendo was still doing their bestest to dominate home gaming. A nonsensical controller and some horrific camera work aside, the console’s capacity for multiplayer games made it a popular piece of hardware with big families and the N64 had many gems now touted as classics. Nowhere is that clearer than with the game under consideration today.
In honor of the Nintendo 64 recently celebrating its twentieth birthday, let’s take a look back at one of the best titles of the system and one of the most unique fighters to come out of the 90’s: the original Super Smash Bros.
Known in Japan as “Nintendo All Star! Great Melee Smash Brothers”, this fighting game was developed by HAL Laboratory (creators of Kirby). The original game has spawned several sequels, none of which have been truly poor. It’s a franchise of franchises.
Smash Bros. opens to the scene of a young child’s bedroom, toys scattered about. A disembodied, Mickey Mouse-gloved hand flitters about, pulling dolls out of cabinets and straightening items on a desk. Then with all the power of imagination, the dolls come to life. They are the famous Nintendo characters, all of them playable as fighters in this world of make-believe.
The game features twelve fighters, four of which have to be unlocked by meeting certain requirements. They are Captain Falcon, Donkey Kong, Fox, Jigglypuff, Kirby, Link, Luigi, Mario, Ness, Pikachu, Samus, and Yoshi.
Their combat moves draw from the wealth of history associated with each character, such as Link being able to throw bombs, Yoshi swallowing opponents and turning them into eggs, Ness using his PSI powers, and Kirby stealing the abilities of his enemies.
During matches, random items can appear across the stages. These can be helpful in turning the tide of any fight and make the game seem more dynamic whenever a Poké Ball, Super Star, or Hammer appear. As a source of references to games like Super Mario 64, Super Metroid, and EarthBound, Smash Bros. is a treasure trove for veteran Nintendo fans.
However, Smash Bros. isn’t merely unique because of its character roster. The gameplay significantly differs from typical fighting games from the same era, such as Marvel vs. Capcom 2 which came out a year later. In the typical Street Fighter vein, fighters generally have to use complex combinations of button and joystick inputs to access character-specific special moves in an effort to completely reduce their opponents health bar to zero and thus win the match.
In Smash Bros., the health bar has been completely done away with. In its place is a percentage which begins at zero and rises every time a character is hit, up to a maximum of 999%. The higher a fighter’s percentage reaches during a match, the further they will be knocked back by an opponent’s attacks. If your fighter is knocked out of the stage completely or falls below the stage (which of course becomes an imminent danger the higher your percentage), you lose a life and are respawned at 0%. Matches track who wins based on who had the most lives left (stock) or who had as many K.O.’s in a set time limit.
The stages in Smash Bros. are also deviations from the typical 2D planes of other fighting games. They’re themed around Nintendo game settings like the Mushroom Kingdom, Onett, Zebes, Hyrule Castle, Dreamland, etc. The stages here are full of activity with moving platforms and hazards. More importantly, they are open on the sides and above, allowing for plenty of room to knock characters out of the arena or to be knocked back yourself. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that this concept came about as a cultural idea taken from Sumo wrestling, wherein opponents attempt to push and grapple each other out of a ring. Just a thought.
Every character in Smash Bros. has a variety of recovery moves to help them get back to safe ground if they’re knocked back into the air or over a pit. Generally this is jumping or double-jumping, or in the case of Kirby, flying (cheater). The characters also have different senses of weight to them with heavier fighters hitting harder and being themselves harder to K.O. though suffering from poorer recovery skills, whereas lighter fighters are the exact opposite. D.K. would be an example of a heavyweight and Jigglypuff a lightweight. This dynamic helps to keep the characters from becoming too uniform.
The fighters also share button inputs for all of their special moves. There’s no more quarter-circle-punch for hadokens. The system here is streamlined and simple, yet the fighters don’t seem identical even though they share identical inputs. The results and natures of their special moves are varied enough to preserve their personalities and different play styles. This all means that Smash Bros. is easy to pick up and learn on the spot.
The game features a single-player and multiplayer mode. More on the latter later. The single-player mode is a bit “meh”. You fight a short set of CPU fighters and complete a few platforming challenges unique to each character. You get to fight a couple of non-playable characters: Metal Mario, who is extremely heavy and hard to knock back, the Polygons, and the final boss, Master Hand.
This is like if Woody and Buzz Lightyear fought back against Andy in some kind of post-apocalyptic Hunger Games-esque arena, which would make a sick premise for Toy Story 4. Pixar, if you’re reading this, get on that.
The 8-bit Review
I’m of the opinion that early 3D graphics have aged less gracefully than their immediate predecessors on 16-bit consoles. Think about the games of the SNES and then think about the early pioneers of 3D and you’ll probably conjure up images of ugly, tiled textures, hard-angled polygons, weird 3D shapes mismatched with blurry 2D sprites, as if they could have the best of both worlds. They couldn’t but luckily 3D gaming continued to improve. Smash Bros. didn’t entirely escape this but it had better visuals than many other N64 games. Here, the graphics are colorful, eye-catching, and full of personality. Just what this game needed as the basis for a full-fledged franchise.
Let’s be honest. Not only does Nintendo own some of the most recognizable characters in all video games, but they’ve created some of the most iconic music to go along with those characters and their adventures. Even people who aren’t that into video games or haven’t played them for decades can still whistle tunes from Super Mario Bros. or even The Legend of Zelda. Smash Bros. capitalized on that by including remixes of classic Nintendo songs from various franchises alongside its upbeat original material. Extra audio bits like the enthusiastic announcer (now iconic in his own right) and the oohs and aahs of an in-game audience are just icing on this sugary, sugary cake. And let’s not forget about audio-gold like “Falco… PAOWNCH!!”
Smash Bros. is one of the funnest games to play on the N64. It isn’t hard to see why. Easy to learn, fun with friends, good visual and audio throwbacks to Nintendo classics. It couldn’t be as streamlined as later Smash Bros. games, of course, but it was a pioneer in and of itself, and it unfortunately was stuck with what I consider to be a clumsy controller with its console.
Single-player is the weakest of the game’s modes. It’s short and somewhat repetitive. The odd ally here and there or multiple opponents during a match go a little ways, but the versus mode is what really makes this game shine.
Dude. Multiplayer on Smash Bros. might seriously have been one of the most addicting things you could do with the N64 short of snorting cocaine on top of its hard plastic exterior. Which I don’t recommend.
Having four players all fighting and knocking each other back at once is exhilarating. Easily one of the best multiplayer experiences of the 90’s. Incredulous? Then you’ve never played any of the Smash Bros. games.
With all of the characters sharing the same button inputs (albeit with different results), there’s no need to have to memorize potentially complicated combinations as in other fighters. New players may not have been used to the pace of the game or the 3D visuals, but I’m convinced that nearly anyone could pick it up and get into it easily. In fact, I’ve seen it happen over the length of my gaming career. Certain characters may be a little more difficult to use than others, but the emphasis in Smash Bros. on fun and accessible gameplay over high-skill, precision-demanding gameplay makes for something which can be introduced to friends without much headache.
Fighting games already have a ton of difficulty, especially those designed for the arcades. Short matches which each last only a few minutes long coupled with respectable difficulty is a winning combination for replay value. However, Smash Bros. was not an arcade game. Yet the sheer delight of its versus mode meant this was something you wanted to play over and over again and get better at. Heck, you might have even made new friends just so you could have someone to play the multiplayer mode with. Either that or beg your parents for siblings.
I think it has already been demonstrated that this is one of the most unique fighting systems in gaming, what with its characteristic percentages and knock back and complete roster of Nintendo figures. Smash Bros. was first being developed as “Dragon King: the Fighting Game” until they wisely decided for a four-player Nintendo fighting. But for the final word on uniqueness, Director Masahiro Sakurai said “I wanted to offer an alternative to the two-dimensional fighting games that were crowding out the market. I also wanted to see if it was possible to make an interesting 4-player game that offered a new experience every time you play. Simply put, I was aiming to design a 4-player battle royal.” That four-player battle royal resulted in a highly distinctive and fresh style of fighting gameplay.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Smash Bros. is in my top 5 N64 games. I can still recall the many memories I had at a private school between classes or after school challenging classmates in four-player free-for-alls. The unspoken rule of the school was that the winner of the match got to choose the next game. Given there were a lot of kids who wanted to play, we were restricted to multiplayer games like this one and GoldenEye. Whenever I won, I’d stick with Smash Bros. I actually hated 007 at the time. We stayed on Smash Bros. for hours sometimes (with the occasional “free day” at school) and I was undefeatable with blue Kirby. He had to be blue or I wasn’t invincible. Something about the way I could track his color or something like that. At least, I hope those aren’t just sepia toned memories talking.
It seems to me that fighting games are in the decline compared to the 90’s, which may be due to the arcade being in decline as well. I’m not sure why, but I’ll always remember Super Smash Bros. fondly. It’s still fun to play to this day, though of course there are much smoother sequels to play with Melee, Brawl, and Smash Bros. Wii U, which I got to play for the first time a week ago thanks to The Black Humor Mage. I wonder if you can guess which character I went straight to on Smash Bros. Wii U?
Aggregated Score: 8.8