Super Smash Brothers Ultimate came out this week.
Unfortunately, I don’t have it myself: I’m getting my copy later this month. But that’s no reason not to celebrate this momentous occasion. Because make no mistake: the release of a new Smash game is one of the biggest events in the whole of the gaming world, and it’s always thrilling to get caught up in all the excitement.
Of course, part of the reason I’m so excited is that I have a long and proud history with Super Smash Brothers. Back when I was but a wee lad and my only real console was a Nintendo Gamecube, I spent hours upon hours upon hours playing Super Smash Brothers Melee with my brother. Heck, looking back on it, there was a time where you could have locked us in a room with that game and we could have spent our whole lives in that magnificent game. The endless replayability of the gameplay, the varied cast and stage, and the fact that we were endlessly imaginative, allowed us to use Super Smash Brothers Melee not only as a fighting game, but as a stage in which to tell stories to one another. Many a long summer night was spent in front of the TV, narrating tales and inventing stories using the Smash Brother characters as digital dolls and avatars.
By the time Super Smash Brothers Brawl came out, however, we were a bit more mature and way more boring. But fortunately, the game had its own story mode so we didn’t have to invent one ourselves, and we played that until our fingers bled. We also had a renewed interest in the actual competitive aspect of the title, and we sparred with each other constantly. This ultimately proved fairly fruitful: these days my brother is one of the best Smash players in his office, while I’ve been a prize-winning finalist in a number of small-scale smash tournaments. Put me in front of any casual player and I can crush them pretty easily… but put me in front of a pro and I’m basically a flailing infant. So I’m sort of stuck in the midway between casual and pro play.
And to get a bit off-topic, the difference between a pro and a casual is downright mesmerizing. The way they move, the way they attack, the way they block and grab and just manage to stay six steps ahead at all times: it’s one of those things you can visibly see, and feel in your hands when you play against them. During those matches, I was lucky to even land a hit against those guys, let alone knock them off stage. We were playing two very different games…
Anyway. The fourth game in the series, Super Smash Bros., was something of an odd duck. Dan and I both got the game, but since we weren’t stupid enough to get a Wii U, we played it on the 3DS… which was certainly fun enough, but the smaller screen and the non-standard controls made it uncomfortable. We never dived as deep into that title, and the allure of the series sort of waned in my mind in the process.
But boy, did that turn around for Smash Brothers Ultimate.
Here’s the thing: part of what makes a new Smash Brothers game so exciting for the gaming world, regardless of if you’re a Nintendo player or not, is the fact that Nintendo doesn’t treat Smash Brothers like a standard game release. They treat it like an event. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had a couple of trailers, pre-order bonuses, and a unique Switch version. Super Mario Odyssey had a dope music video and trailers and all that.
But Nintendo can do something different with Smash. Every character, every stage, every song, every mode: Nintendo can split that stuff up and share it, one trailer at a time, each trailer gradually revealing more and more of the game to the public. From the moment the title was announced to the moment it’s released, every event in the gaming world, every special date, every Nintendo Direct: people will wonder if they’ll be another Smash Brothers info dump. Fans will look for leaks, and all-to-often, invent their own. Developers from other studios will talk about the game, which of their characters they’d like to see added. Developers who do get characters added to the game will release promotional art and cool new trailers – hell, Smash Brothers is one of the few times Konami actually acts like a game company.
And the best part? Nintendo and co go all out with CGI trailers that would make Blizzard brush and cinematic fight scenes that are absolutely mouthwatering. We get to see Luigi get murdered in Dracula’s Castle. We get to see Mario get his head crushed by Ridley, which… really makes you wonder about how Nintendo is treating their mascot, but hey, better gristly murder than the kiddy gloves, which has stopped other iconic mascots like Mickey Mouse from being anything but an ultra-clean non-entity. It’s all fun, is what I’m ultimately saying. The trailers, the reveals, the speculation, the fanfare, the fans themselves… it’s all just really enjoyable. And anyone can enjoy it, even the most insecure and defensive PC gamer, or those people who just refuse to play a game past Melee.
And in a lot of ways, it’s not just an event. It’s a celebration. A celebration of Nintendo and their long history of making great games. A celebration of their most iconic characters. And last but not least, a celebration of everything that makes video games great. And I think that last bit is especially important, because in a lot of ways, Super Smash Brothers is sort of the raw distillation of everything great about gaming. It’s overblown. It’s gratuitous. It’s dominated by personalities and characters that can keep coming back again and again and again for another round in the spotlight. It’s violent as all hell. But it’s colorful. It’s friendly. And at the end of each match, no matter how badly your character got twisted, mangled, maimed, burnt, crushed, or eviscerated, they’re always standing healthy and fine, either posing in victory or applauding politely for the winner.
And you know, we kinda need that “excessively game-y” quality right now. Because I feel like we’ve been losing it in recent years. Don’t get me wrong: God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed… these are all great games, sure, but they’re all so self-serious, and pondering. They’re slow and considerate and “arty”. And some of them (heck, most triple-A games these days) feel like they mostly exist just as a vehicle to encourage people into spending more and more money on DLC and loot boxes. Smash Brothers, on the other hand, is a modern callback to what games once were in their glory days: goofy, barely-justified fun for you, your friends, and your whole family. And I’m not saying it’s bad to have pondering, ‘mature’ games that tell a great story, not by a long shot! I’m just saying those games, particularly in the triple-A space, tend to outpace the games that just want to be fun for fun’s sake.
Games like Smash Brothers. Smash Brothers, which seems designed to just bleed “fun” from every pore. Putting “fun” before everything and anything else. That’s the kind of game design we just don’t see often anymore. At least, not in the Triple-A space, where we seem to have forgotten to try to get over our ‘self-serious’ phase. You know, that period in the late 2000’s where games were trying really hard to be mature and edgy and more like movies so they would be ‘respected’ or whatever? We never really got past that. We just found more healthy ways to act on that impulse to act like big boys.
And you know… end of the day, I think that part of the reason Nintendo can “get away with” some of the scummy stuff it does is because they’re still pretty much the sole guardians of this kind of thing. I mean sure: other studios can, and have, made games that are mechanically similar to Super Smash Brothers. Sony even tried their hand at it (remember how that went?). But none of those games could be Smash Brothers, because Smash Brothers is something only Nintendo could make: a game that’s not only a celebration of some of the most well-loved games and series in the world, but a game that also captures the childlike joy that those games were always designed to inspire. No other studio has that kind of history to tap into, no other company has the guts to put all their eggs in the “fun” basket, and nobody but Nintendo has the sway to make Konami straighten up and agree to let Castlevania be something other than a Netflix show or a pachinko machine.
Nintendo, you and I don’t always see eye to eye, but times like these remind me why we still need you around.