Friday, December 26, 2014

Project M (Fanmade mod, 2012-2015)

Before I move on to the fourth and most recent Smash title, I'd like to make an entry on a highly-acclaimed fan mod called Project M. It's recognized by official Smash tournaments, so I think it deserves a mention here.

One of the most fascinating things about games is the ability to make modifications to their software to achieve new effects. Creative people with the right tools can change many aspects of a game, from textures and models to actual gameplay mechanics. Though some people can use mods to cheat, most people tend to do it to create their own spin on a game, sometimes making it almost like a completely different one. Without modding, many popular games would not exist today. It's generally agreed that the Nintendo Wii is by far the easiest console to modify without extensive knowledge in the field. Many of this system's titles were modded not too long after they released. By far, the most popular game to mod was none other than Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

It started off with simple texture and moveset hacks, mostly involving crudely remaking characters like Mewtwo by putting them over already existing characters. It looked shoddy for the most part, but it was easy to do, and you had a lot of kids and teens thinking they were pro hackers for it, and YouTube was flooded with videos showing off their mods.

However, some people wanted to take it a bit further. As most people know by now, Brawl was a game that divided the Smash community and was generally disliked by competitive players due to its vast differences from Melee and its more random, casual motif. A particular group of experienced modders got together to make the first extensive overhaul of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. In 2009, it was released under the title of "Brawl+". The idea behind this mod was to balance the game and restore a few techniques like wavedashing. While this mod was considered a failure by some, it did see a large presence at several tournaments and was at least somewhat popular with fans of both Melee and Brawl. Its popularity peaked in Summer of 2009, and it was mostly forgotten within the next year.

A few years later, after development of Brawl+ had more or less ceased, the team decide to rework their mod. It started off as a simple idea to make the character Falco in Brawl play exactly like he did in Melee. The team realized they were onto something, and decided to begin working on every character in a similar fashion. Bringing together each character's best strengths from Melee and Brawl combined, they coined their new mod "Project M". Its first beta build was released in 2012 and only had the top tier characters from Melee and a few others, but it certainly caught the attention of the community.

Throughout the rest of 2012 and 2013, the mod was regularly given heavy updates as more characters were retooled to bring out their best qualities. By far the most notable thing within Project M was the development of the Clone Engine. As I mentioned before, character hacks required the new model and texture to be placed over an already-existing slot. With this new engine, that was no longer an issue. new characters could be added to the game with their very own slot. Through this, we finally saw the return of Mewtwo and Roy, two characters that caused a lot of outcry over their initial exclusion from Brawl. Their movesets, models, animations, and everything else were all made from scratch, taking over 700 hours for each character.

I didn't get my first taste of this mod until this year. I would've got it sooner, but I stupidly sold my Wii back at the end of 2012. Either way, I'll share my own thoughts on the mod.

In terms of accessibility, it's very easy to obtain. The Project M website offers links to download the latest version of the mod, and you don't need to know anything about modding to install it. All that's required beyond a Wii and a copy of Brawl is a 2GB SD card, which is very cheap and easy to find. After it's installed and the SD card is inserted into your Wii, you need only to access the "Stage Builder" menu in Brawl, and Project M will boot up automatically.

As soon as it starts up, you'll notice that the menus received a beautiful makeover. I mentioned before how I hate that Brawl's menus are a blinding white color. PM fixes that by replacing them with deep purple, blue, and black tones with a new, stylish font for all the names. Everything is also much easier to navigate, and setting up matches is a breeze. There's even a new, original main menu theme. From the PM launcher, you can connect to the internet to receive updates, too.

In terms of gameplay, it's fast, technical, and responsive. Each character is a blend of their best attributes from each Smash title, with a few new tricks up their sleeves. It takes some getting used to, but it's great once you pick everything up, especially if you're an aspiring competitive Smasher. By far the best thing about Project M is its character balance. I complained about how awful it was in Melee and Brawl since those games overcentralized a very small amount of characters, but this is not the case here. No matter who your favorite character is, they are certainly viable at a tournament level due to their heavy reworking to bring out the best in them. This change means that Project M tournaments are infinitely more fun to both watch and attend because of the large character variety. You're no longer forced to choose from 5 or 6 characters to have any hope of making it out of pools.

The two characters they brought back from Melee, Mewtwo and Roy, are very welcome additions. Both characters were notably very low on Melee's tier list, but the Project M team has assured that they become competitive powerhouses that bring all sorts of new things to the table. I mentioned before how I'm a dedicated Mewtwo main, and I can't praise this mod enough for bringing him back in a competitively viable state. Everything about him and Roy are improved and so much easier to pick up and play. According to their website, these two aren't the only characters scheduled to be added back, as they're working on even more newcomers.

Project M is also "pre-loaded" with a good amount of all-new fanmade stages and character costumes to give you new things to play with, and it isn't hard to add even more. The whole mod is full of easter eggs, inside jokes, and proverbial love letters to the Smash fanbase. This is particularly evident in the singleplayer mode. All of the modes from Brawl are still functional in PM, and there are even some brand-new event matches. The Subspace Emissary mode is much more enjoyable with PM's physics.

Predictably, Project M has been the subject of some controversy. A lot of casual gamers think it "ruined" Brawl and see it as some sort of abomination towards Smash. Others just see it as "too competitive". I'll be the first to admit that it definitely caters toward the competitive Smash scene. In addition to the replicated Melee physics, advanced techs like wavedashing and l-cancelling are intentional and much easier to do. The DACUS technique from Brawl returns too. Stages are reworked to remove random hazards and function as neutral, tourney-legal stages. Matches by default are four stock, items off, with an eight-minute time limit (though almost everyone agrees that Stock is the optimal gametype). There's even this really cool feature where the music will fade after several minutes so tournaments with multiple setups don't become too loud and hectic. Other smashers are worried that it will take away from the sales of Smash 4 and other official media, but this doesn't seem to be an issue, and the PM team regularly promotes Smash 4. Currently, Nintendo has not filed any sort of lawsuit against the mod despite it being in existence for over two years.

Despite the controversy, Project M is held in generally high regard by the community. It's the only mod to be recognized by official national tournaments like EVO, APEX, and The Big House. The unique, varied nature of the mod brings crowds just as large as what the official smash titles would draw in, which is very impressive in its own right. Tournament representation ensures that Project M and the official Smash games can coexist and be played alongside each other without favoritism.

Personally, as someone who almost exclusively mained characters who weren't considered viable, I adore Project M. As my competitive career has advanced over the course of 2014, I've largely dropped Smash 64, Melee, and Brawl to focus on training in Project M and entering tournaments based mostly around it. Though I was primarily a Melee player at first, I find myself playing it less and less due to its overcentralization of the top 8 characters and moving on from it. It's still a fun title to play and compete in, but Project M is infinitely better in that regard. With the release of Smash 4, I've decided to dedicate a lot of time to it as well, though I still enjoy PM almost as much. It's amazing how much a group of fans can accomplish, and PM is a monument to the competitive Smash scene if nothing else.