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...

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