In 2015, I’m trying to get into the habit of writing shorter, more frequent blogs, and save the ponderous word-monsters for the stuff that really needs it. Normally I’d give the whole thing a clever name and format, but instead I’m just going to write the damn things. Call it a New Year’s Resolution if you like.
To this day, the original Super Smash Bros on the N64 is the perfect example of what I want a fighting game to be.
Super Smash Bros drew me in with the prospect of a punch-up between Mario, Link and Pikachu – the kind of thing that had my ten-year old salivating like Homer Simpson over sixty-four slices of American cheese – but the thing that stuck with me was its streamlined combat.
The game eschewed the hard-to-memorise combos that will inevitably fill the arthritis clinics of ten years’ time with old Tekken and Street Fighter players. In their place was a neat two-button system which put all of its weight on timing, anticipating your opponents’ moves and and understanding the differences between characters. These are the same things a devotee of the genre will tell you about competitive Street Fighter 2 but to a novice like me, the barrier to entry is just too high.
In Smash Bros, each character essentially has four unique moves to learn. Add a pile of items, each introducing a pinch of chaos to the match when it drops from the sky, some creative levels, and you have the complete Smash Bros formula. Unfortunately, each subsequent installment seems to have lost confidence in the simplicity of the game’s core loop, and leant instead on the latter half of the formula: the big pile of stuff. More characters, replacing distinction with duplication; more game modes; more items, cameos, trophies, unlockable macguffins…
By the release of Super Smash Bros Brawl in 2008, it was less the lean fighting game I’d fallen in love with, more a virtual museum exhibit of videogames’ roaring nineties.
This is the bit where, if you haven’t yet played the catchily-titled Super Smash Bros for Wii U (or SSBWU for short), you may be expecting me to say ‘…and it takes the series back to those gorgeous basics’.
SSBWU stacks yet more on top of this swaying Jenga tower of features. For the first time, eight players can get their smash on simultaneously, crowding the screen with colourful fighters. You can customise each character to your exact specifications, making them faster but more vulnerable, or punchier but slower. The series’ ever-growing roster has, from an initial dozen on the N64, now broken the half-century mark. This is further bolstered with the ability to use personalised Mii characters, meaning you can punch your best friend in the face, without having to get dragged round his house by your mom to apologise.
The game is bloated like Kirby after inhaling an opponent with his B attack, but somehow SSBWU adds such an insane amount of stuff that it manages to come out the other side of these problems and, like a zen master, find peace among the chaos.
The finer points of combat can still get lost in a mess of particle effects, especially when there are eight players on screen at once, and the wider range of characters means less distinction between the silhouette. (Seriously, compare Marth, Ike and Robin – I think that’s who they are, but frankly who knows – in the screenshot above.)
But I can still pick up a controller blind and immediately know how Fox McCloud’s down-B attack works, from the time I learned it 15 years ago, or appreciate the subtle changes in how SSBWU‘s iteration of Samus Aran handles. I can even try out a new character and get to grips with the weird new mechanics they add in the space of one three-minute game.
Partly, I admit, that’s a case of personal bias – Smash Bros happens to be the game I invested hundreds of hours into when I was a kid – but it’s also the simplicity of that two-button, four-directional combat system. Underneath the clutter of SSBWU is the same wonderfully elegant game, refined and expanded and shining through more than it has in years.
(Oh, and the other thing I love as much today as I did in 1999 is the freezeframe mode, which which now allows you to snap photos, save them to an SD card, transfer them to your PC and then upload them to a blogpost until you have far, far too many to actually justify as illustrations. I’ve dropped another dozen of my favourite shots below.)