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.

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