Thursday, October 16, 2014

Super Smash Bros. Melee (GCN, 2001)

I can only imagine that it's a great feeling when you make something that you're unsure about the success of, only to find out how big of a hit it was when you wake up the next day. Nintendo and Sakurai knew they'd struck gold with their little "side project" they worked on over the weekend, and one thing this meant was that the follow-up could be even more spectacular.

At the turn of the century, Nintendo's next home console, the Gamecube, was announced. Of course, one of the biggest announcements along with it was the next Smash game, Super Smash Bros. Melee. Though it wasn't going to be a launch title from what I recall, it was slated to release very shortly afterward, during the 2001 Holiday season.

With all the success of Smash 64, Nintendo had not only the resources to truly go big, but a damn good reason to do so. This game's roster of fighters alone was a testament to this, jumping from 64's original cast of 12 to a whopping 26. Naturally, there were also far more stages, new gameplay modes (namely a much richer and more involved single-player experience), and generally improved gameplay. To put it simply, the game was noticeably fast-paced and had a high learning curve while still being enjoyable to newer players. Even the characters' moves were expanded upon. For example, everyone had four special moves instead of 3.

A lot of the characters introduced here were ones that many people had requested; those who's exclusion from the first game surprised some. Notable examples include Bowser and the two main princesses of Nintendo, Peach and Zelda, but I'll talk about the new characters more later. As you might guess, a lot of the returning cast had their movesets changed to make them play smoother and more uniquely.

At the time that this game was being promoted, I was subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine, and there were a few articles showing off the new gameplay elements, stages, and characters. This was how I first learned of Melee's upcoming release, and like any child at the time, I was beyond excited. I'd never wanted a game this bad before that point, and I was so pumped up for it that I immediately went to my N64 to play the first Smash Bros to satiate my hunger for Melee.

My mom took me to Best Buy the day it came out (for some unrelated reason, I don't actually remember why) and I pointed it out as we were leaving the store. I had actually got to play the demo for the game before it released earlier in Best Buy. As I recall, it was a match between Pikachu and a CPU-controlled Zelda on Fountain of Dreams.

I always felt bad about asking for things from my parents ever since the whole ordeal I had with Pokemon cards in the late '90s, and buying a new Gamecube with Melee was a pretty big purchase. However, this was early December and I figured I'd just ask for it as an early Christmas present. There wasn't much else that I recall wanting aside from other Gamecube games, so it was naturally the perfect present. My mom asked me if I was sure that was what I wanted, and I thought it over the next day at school.

When I got home, I stood firm on getting the Gamecube, even if all of my "Christmas budget" had to go toward it. And the rest is history. I instantly fell in love with Melee. It improved on what 64 established on all fronts. I started off playing mostly as Pikachu since he was my 64 main and I wanted to begin in familiar territory, but I eventually branched off and started playing as Samus Aran often, too. When 64 came out, I had no idea who she was, but a few months before the Gamecube came out, my step-brother Charles actually loaned me his SNES with a copy of Super Metroid, which I beat. So by this point, I had a new-found interest in Samus.

Hardly anyone at my school had a Gamecube as early as me, so it figured that my house became something of a hotspot for Smash Bros Melee. Several of my friends would regularly show up after school to play the game with me. In particular, I remember playing a lot with Andrew, Trevor, Kyle, Nicholas, Michael, and Ashlea (kids who lived by or went to school with me, you probably don't know them but I figured I'd include their names for memory's sake), but most of my time on Melee was spent with my best friend to this day, Chris.

It was with him that I spent many a night staying up discovering the majority of Melee's well-hidden secrets. He came to my house a lot and even got to sleep over often, and we were almost always playing Melee or some other Gamecube game. Looking back on it, I think he came over so often because he hated his parents' cooking and would always eat whatever my mom made like he'd been starving... Anyway, you have to realize that this was before the internet was what it is today. Social media was barely in its infancy. There weren't many guides showing you how to unlock everything, and it was hard to tell facts from speculation and outright lies. We didn't even have a home computer at that point.

Having to find every secret yourself was an almost indescribable, magical feeling that can't really be replicated with current games. Brawl, and especially Smash 4 had almost every secret leaked onto the internet well before the official release. It's a shame, really. I was actually alone one night when I unlocked Pichu, and it gave me a huge feeling of surprised and happiness, so much that I even ran upstairs to tell my mom. Chris and I discovered Falco one night and I remember him saying that if he ate doughnuts, he could beat Falco and unlock him. It's humorous memories I have with Melee that give it such a special place in my heart.

However, the best memory came with the discovery and subsequent unlocking of my favorite character in the entire Smash series. The character that inspired me to get good at the game, learn advanced techniques, watch countless videos, enter local tournaments, and prove myself: Mewtwo. It all started a few days after Christmas 2001. I was at the dentist's office in the waiting room, and my dad brings me the strategy guide for Super Smash Bros Melee. I suppose he randomly bought it for me on his way there, figuring I'd enjoy it. By that point, I almost had everything in Melee unlocked, but there were still things missing. This strategy guide had every hidden thing included, as well as how to unlock them. I skimmed through the character profiles and welled up with all the excitement you'd expect from a 9 year old kid when I saw Mewtwo.

Then I saw his unlock requirement: Leave the game on for 20 consecutive hours. I knew I couldn't do this alone, so Chris and I devised an elaborate plan. We convinced my mom to let him stay the night on New Years Eve, and when he got there, I already had the Gamecube started up. I'll never forget it; a one-stock match on Mushroom Kingdom, two controllers plugged in, 1P was Roy, 2P was Peach. We figured that we'd just leave the game on all day and night and do other things to pass the time. Roy was Chris's main at the time, so naturally he'd be the best choice to take on the imposing Mewtwo. We'd just pick up the second controller and run Peach off the edge when the time came.

So we waited. I had the N64 and the Dreamcast set up in a different room, plus a few VHS tapes to keep us occupied. We even set up a huge "war" between all our toys in the living room floor, with a Mewtwo figurine serving as the "leader" of the good side. The time came eventually, and we ran back to the Gamecube.

There was just one problem. Either him or I accidentally picked up the first controller and ran Roy off the edge instead of Peach, so Chris had to fight Mewtwo with a character he was largely unfamiliar with. Somehow, he pulled it off, and Mewtwo was mine. I immediately went to training mode to play around with him, and instantly I noticed how well the psychic cat thing's moves catered to my playstyle. Chris enjoyed him as well, but I think we unlocked Ganondorf right after that and that became his main from there on out. We made a pretty devastating combo in doubles.

Melee was a game my friends and I never truly put down for good. Years after its initial release, even into our teen and adult years, we would play it at least once every time we hung out. It became something of a tradition at my house. Melee's staying power is truly something to behold, and playing it during its early years was unforgettable.

That being said, that was then, and this is now. How does the game look through my eyes currently?

The intro was even more epic than Smash 64's. It had a lot of exciting cinematic sequences and the music is nothing short of iconic now. It ends with a short flash of the text "[GET READY]", an explosion, and, just like the previous game, the announcer screams the game's title, albeit mispronouncing "Melee".

Like I mentioned before, the gameplay heavily built upon Smash 64's with some major improvements. Melee obviously looks better due to being on a newer console, and the graphics in general are very vibrant and eye-catching. For an early title, it's one of the best-looking Gamecube games, if you ask me. Even the stages look nice, with each one offering a different aesthetic.

For many Smash fans, the most important part of the game is the playable roster, and I think Melee delivered the best in that aspect. Aside from the awesome Mewtwo (he's actually one of the worst characters in the game, I'm just really skilled with him), there was a plethora of welcome additions. Smash 64 featured only heroic characters, but Melee brought some iconic villains to the battlefield. While Mewtwo's status is questionable, the long-requested Bowser made his debut along with The Legend of Zelda's own king of evil, Ganondorf.

We also saw the debut of Peach and Zelda, the latter of which could transform into her ninja-esque alter ego, Sheik. Beyond that, there were some "clone" characters (this refers to a character with a similar moveset and playstyle to an already-existing character), such as Dr. Mario, Young Link, Pichu, and Falco. Continuing the theme set with Ness in 64, Melee brought in a few unexpected characters that had fallen into obscurity over the years, namely the Ice Climbers and Mr. Game & Watch, representing the earlier days of Nintendo.

Perhaps the most unexpected characters were Marth and Roy of the Fire Emblem series. No one outside of Japan even knew who these swordsmen were. Nintendo was actually considering taking these characters out of the international release for this reason. Fire Emblem was a Japan-only series at this point, and Roy hadn't even been in a game yet (his Melee appearance was meant to promote him and his upcoming title). Unexpectedly, the inclusion of these two actually sparked an interest in Fire Emblem within the United States and this eventually lead to the series being localized.

Stages are more diverse this time around, and every playable character aside from Marth and Roy has a stage representing their franchise. Several of the stages are hidden as well, with some being quite difficult to unlock. Some stages have more complex gimmicks, while others offer a more neutral experience. They also have multiple music tracks, something that would become a series staple.

Another thing I mentioned before is the improved single player modes. Classic makes a return, but this time the enemies you fight are randomized, adding significant replay value. Master Hand and the metal characters return too, along with even more new bosses. The second mode is called "Adventure", which has you running through stages based on popular Nintendo titles, such as Super Mario Bros and Metroid. You fight the respective characters, as well as several weaker enemies along the way. This was the closest thing Melee had to a story mode, and it even featured a few small cutscenes. The final standard 1P mode was called All-Star. You only got it after unlocking every character, which made sense because the objective was to defeat every fighter in the game without getting KO'd at all. It was basically an endurance match.

It didn't end there. One of the most interesting new modes was the Event Match. This placed you in special situations where you had to fight under a specific condition, usually relating to the story of the characters you were playing as or fighting against, or putting you in a humorous situation of some sort. Some of the matches required that you played as a certain character, such as Link against Ganondorf on the Hyrule stage. The minigames were split into the new "Stadium" mode. Break the Targets returned along with Multi-Man Melee (a mode where you fight several waves of weak CPUs) and Home-Run Contest (Where you use a baseball bat to hit a sandbag as far as you can). All of this made for a great experience when you didn't have friends around.

Of course, multiplayer options were expanded upon, too. There was now a "special" Melee mode where you could fight as giant characters, play with your damage at 300%, or even take screenshots and save them to your memory card. There were new modes added alongside Time and Stock, too. Coin battle had you beating up your enemies to get money to fly out of them for you to collect, and Bonus mode scored you based on your style of play. These two modes weren't played often, though.

The last new thing Melee introduced was the advent of in-game collectibles in the form of trophies. Trophies were small figurines of characters, stages, or other game elements, each containing some information on their backstory. There were around 300 to collect, and each had different requirements to obtain, much like the other ingame secrets. You could also earn "smash coins" by playing normally, which could be spent at the Trophy Lottery for a chance at a new trophy. This also became a staple of all future installments and I found it fun collecting them all, even if some demanded a lot of skill from the player.

Since I brought it up in the Smash 64 article, I figure I could talk about Melee's competitive scene. It's huge. It's one of the most well-known competitive fighting games, even well over 10 years after its release. Melee tournaments bring in massive crowds and are sure to be a good time. The rise of the competitive scene lead to the discovery of many advanced techniques, such as wavedashing and l-cancelling. It was through Melee that Smashers such as Mew2King, PC Chris, and Mang0 rose to fame as the best in the country. Many of the players that started back in 2002 still attend tournaments today, and the tournaments continue to generate just as much hype as new games.

And that's a great segue to bring up my final point. As the competitive game evolved, a "tier list" was established, separating the more powerful characters from the weaker ones. Though it's entirely possible to get good with a low-tier character like I did, for most people wanting to place high, there isn't much point in playing as anyone outside of the top tier (Fox, Falco, Sheik, Marth, Jigglypuff, Peach, Captain Falcon, or Ice Climbers). No matter how good you are at the game, you'll almost always get beat by someone using a higher-tier character if they're on a similar skill level to yours.

Melee is a fantastic game, but it suffers from poor balance. I only play characters I'm a fan of, which results in a lower ceiling for me aside from the off chance that I play Falco. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact, but some characters just aren't viable for high-level play, and that bothers me. It's one reason I'm starting not to like Melee as much, favoring Project M instead.  If you want a balanced game where your favorite character is always viable, play that instead.

All of that aside, Melee holds the most memories for me of any game I've ever played, barring online games like RuneScape and Halo 3. It will always have a special place in my heart. Unlike most of my older games, I still retain my original copy of Melee, and don't plan on getting rid of it. I'll never forget the great times I had with it, and I know that even more are to come. Balance issues notwithstanding, Melee would be a hard game to follow up on, but Sakurai and his team wanted to take even more time perfecting the next installment. Six years, to be precise...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Super Smash Bros. (N64, 1999)

As a kid, one of the things I was always fascinated with was the idea of a crossover game. A game where characters from multiple franchises would come together and interact in one way or another. A lot of debates between my friends and I back in elementary school centered around who would beat who in a fight. The first game to explore this idea in the form of a fighting game was Capcom's VS. series, centering around Capcom characters fighting against Marvel super heroes. Nintendo's answer to this was a game that launched one of the most popular series in gaming history: Super Smash Bros.

This game was the brainchild of a Nintendo employee known as Masahiro Sakurai. He already had the popular Kirby series under his belt, and was still working on other games at the time when he got the idea. Conceptually, it was originally a more generic fighting game without any Nintendo characters in it. This concept was named "Dragon King".

The idea was to make a fighting game that could be enjoyed at a more casual level than popular fighting games at the time, such as Street Fighter. Sakurai believed that the gaming industry was flooded with fighters that were too similar to one another and catered more to technical, high-level play and complex button inputs and combos.

Not too long into the development process, Sakurai got the idea from Nintendo's president, Shigeru Miyamoto, to replace the more generic characters with iconic Nintendo mascots such as Mario, Link, and Pikachu. This would help the game appeal to a wider audience and hopefully sell better. He changed the title to Super Smash Bros, and began reworking the game.

Super Smash Bros. was created on a very low budget. The development team wasn't sure if the idea would catch on, and Sakurai only worked on the game whenever he had spare time on the weekend since he and his team were busy with larger projects. Rather than a standard health bar, every fighter has a "percentage" next to their icon. The object of the game was to raise your opponent's percentage so that they could be knocked off the stage by your next attack. As you might guess, the higher your percentage, the further you were knocked back.

To make a long story short, the game was a huge commercial success. Marketing went especially well in the United States, thanks to the now-famous commercial featuring men dressed as the characters beating each other up to So Happy Together, all while being narrated by none other than Don LaFontaine (the guy who voices over most movie trailers). Almost everyone that had a Nintendo 64 in 1999 had this game, and it was the go-to multiplayer game any time you had friends over.

My first exposure to Super Smash Bros came when I was still in Kindergarten. I had a good friend at the time named Matthew. He'd typically get new 64 games when they came out, and he had a lot of them. I already purchased Banjo-Kazooie after playing it at his place back in '98, and the small taste I got of this game enthralled me. I remember not doing much other than playing around in a few stages as Pikachu and Jigglypuff in training mode, and watching Matthew play through part of 1P Game. Later that week, my father bought the game for me from Toys R Us.

Though I was only 6, I still have a very vivid memory of the first night I brought the game home. I lived in a 5-room house back then, so my room was always really quiet. I got home kind of late and rushed down to my room to play it as soon as I was done eating. It was a really serene and chill evening; I messed around in training mode and fought a few CPUs to get used to the controls. This was during the height of my Pokemon obsession, so I pretty much immediately called Pikachu as my main, and started the 1P game on easy (Yeah, I was young and still sucked). I was pretty blown away the first time I went through it, especially when I got to the Fighting Polygon Team. The stage looked cool, and the music really got you pumped. I picked up a fan item and beat up the whole team with it. After I beat Master Hand, the credits rolled and I felt a strange sense of accomplishment that no other game at the time gave me. I felt like I'd become a part of something that would "blow up" and get really popular. You can imagine my surprise when I looked out my window and saw how dark it'd gotten. Smash really sucked me in, and I'd lost track of time. It was one of the first nights I ever stayed up "late"!

There wasn't a whole lot else to do in 1P mode after that, other than the minigames. I didn't get to have friends over very often, and when I did, it was usually in small intervals, what with how strict my and my friends' parents were back then. However, when we started up Smash, we were always in for a good time. I even bought 4 controllers eventually, but we rarely used more than 3 unless it was my birthday or something.

If I had friends over and we weren't playing Mario Kart or Pokemon, we were usually playing Smash. It became a great game to keep coming back to. I started playing it a lot again when the sequel was announced so I could prepare, and even after it came out, my friends and I would occasionally revisit the original game for variety's sake.

Looking back on the game today, what do I think? Well, starting with the intro sequence, it really amps you up to play the game. It shows all the characters in their native environments, a bit of gameplay, and ends with the announcer screaming the game's title. You don't see that kind of enthusiasm in current games, which I think is disappointing.

The singleplayer aspect is definitely where this game is lacking the most. The standard "1P Game" (what would later be known as "Classic mode" in all future titles), was a standard arcade mode. You'd choose a fighter and defeat every non-unlockable character, as well as some special boss characters, with some unique mini-games in between fights. It was fun to play through, but didn't have a lot of replay value since you fought the exact same opponents every time. You had to play through it 3 times with certain parameters to unlock 3 of the characters, and if you beat it with every character, you even unlocked a new stage.

Beyond 1P game, singleplayer options were pretty limited. You could play two of the minigames by themselves and try for a best time (you needed to do this with every character to unlock one of the hidden ones), or you could play training mode, where you could practice at the game against a "dummy" CPU and test things out with the pause menu. And that's about it. This is excusable, however, since the game was developed on a low budget with multiplayer action as the primary focus.

The multiplayer was indeed a far more rich experience. 2-4 players could play, and you could edit the game modes to a degree. The two main modes were Time (requiring you to earn the most KOs with in a time limit of your choosing), or Stock (where every fighter had a set number of lives and there was no time limit). The second option is preferred by most players. You could also change between a free-for-all match or a team battle, where teams of two could challenge each other by picking a color-coded team. There were other options available, such as the ability to turn items on or off. Smash's multiplayer was simple, yet strangely addictive.

As for the characters to choose from, there were only twelve including the secret fighters. This number is dwarfed in size by later Smash titles, but it is impressive given the game's low budget. It mostly consists of Nintendo's well-known heroes such as the Mario brothers, Link, Donkey Kong, Kirby, and Pikachu, but it also brought a few characters out of obscurity, namely Captain Falcon (of the semi-obscure futuristic racing game, F-Zero), and Ness (of the cult hit RPG, Earthbound). A lot of people, myself included, had no idea who these characters were until reading up on them later on. The cast is relatively balanced in terms of how potent they are as fighters. Samus has some glaring issues whereas Kirby is near-perfect, but the gap isn't very big between them.

The stages each represent an iconic location in a Nintendo franchise, such as Saffron City from Pokemon, and Yoshi's Island. Each one has a "gimmick" that can greatly affect the flow of battle. For example, Donkey Kong's Congo Jungle stage has a barrel you can catch yourself in if you're about to fall. There's only 9 of them, but each one brings something unique to the table, just like the characters themselves.

Most of the music consists of new arrangements of popular themes from other Nintendo games, as you might expect, but there's also a good deal of original music in the game, a lot of which returned in later Smash titles. The main menu music, however, is a stark contrast to the other games. It has a minimalistic feel and I personally find it to be oddly unsettling, but I like it.

While it's successor, Melee, is known for its sprawling competitive scene, that scene hadn't quite blown up when Smash 64 was new, so it was and still is largely in Melee's shadow. Currently, the competitive community for the game is small and dwindling, but the fans of the game are very dedicated to keeping it alive, one notable example being Isai, who is generally considered the best Smash 64 player. Still, the game is far from forgotten, having seen a re-release on Nintendo's virtual console.

In conclusion, while Smash 64 might come off as dated to some people, it offers its own experience with its quirky, cartoonish attitude. Most if not all of the aspects this game established went on to be staple features of every Smash title made, and it's fun to revisit if you've not played in a long time. Unfortunately, physical copies of the game are currently very expensive, but there's always emulation if you're short on cash. The fact alone that the game continues to live on after three sequels is a testament to its success. It's proof that you don't need to sink a ton of money to make a game that is both successful and enjoyable, and with the launch of the next Nintendo console, a new Smash game was sure to follow.