On This Day in Gaming: Super Smash Bros (N64)
In an era defined by sequels and remakes, the video game industry is increasingly opposed to new franchises. While the prospect of creating a new series is exciting, unsuccessful ventures cause lasting damage to a company’s reputation. For those desiring to venture into the great unknown, the support of key influencers is a proven road to success. These “movers and shakers” wield surmountable power and often are the decisive factors among corporate leaders. This is the story of a young person’s desire to break away from the traditional and convince an established company to try something new. Released on this day 21 years ago, Super Smash Bros was the crowning achievement of director Masahiro Sakurai.
On This Day in Gaming is a series that honors the anniversary of the most iconic video games in history. We analyze director and studio development decisions while also reminiscing on the enduring legacy that continues to influence the industry.
The Super Smash Bros Story
Young and Restless
As a young and ambitious teenager, Masahiro Sakurai was something of a prodigy. Believing his future line in applied physics, Sakurai attended a prestigious electrical engineering school as an early teenager. But Sakurai quickly realized that he lacked the passion necessary to solve systematic equipment problems. Embracing his strong affinity for video games, Sakurai dropped out and developed a belief in the power of a flexible mindset over formal education. While he went on to graduate from a traditional high school, his philosophy was grounded in a “learn by doing” mentality. Armed with unparalleled drive and unique perspective, a young 19 years old Masahiro Sakurai began his video game career at Hal Laboratory.
Despite lacking experience, the executives at Hal Laboratory selected Sakurai to direct a brand new series: Kirby. Originally intended as a one-button experience, Kirby’s Dream Land went on to sell over five million copies for the original Game Boy. Sakurai built upon his newfound success by directing the sequels Kirby’s Adventure and Kirby Super Star. Both went on to achieve critical acclaim and boost Hal Laboratory as a preferred second-party Nintendo developer.
Better to Ask Forgiveness than Permission
But Sakurai was restless. After nearly a decade of working on the Kirby franchise, he was ready for something new. A frequent guest of Japanese arcades, Sakurai developed a liking for the Street Fighter series. The more he visited the arcades, the more Sakurai began an opportunity. At the time, established video game developers marketed their console fighting series as a means of bringing the arcade experience to the living room. But Sakurai had a different idea: an original fighting game that featured four characters on the screen at one time.
Originally dubbed Dragon King: The Fighting Game, Sakurai pitched the idea to the his co-worker, late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Iwata immediately saw the potential of creating a unique fighting experience and began coding a proof of concent. As he tirelessly worked during his spare time, Iwata slowly started to understand the challenges of pitching a new fighting game to Nintendo. While Street Fighter 2 achieved critical acclaim on multiple consoles, the fighting game genre was not popular. Iwata knew that the project needed a “secret sauce” for players to immediately identify with the new game. That is when Iwata had an idea: create a fighting game with popular Nintendo characters!
Despite Iwata’s enthusiasm, Sakurai was much more grounded in reality. He knew that Nintendo never allow Hal Laboratory to use its most famous characters in a fighting game. Unsure of his next move, Sakurai decided to “go for broke”. Instead of asking for Nintendo’s permission, he began coding famous Nintendo characters into the game with the intention of pitching his idea to key influencers.
The Man Who Made Mario Fight
As he and Iwata continued to secretly work on the project, Sakurai paid special attention to the game’s balance and flow. Characters, such as Mario and Samus, needed to closely resembled their movements in traditional games. The prototype slowly began to take shape, and the team of Sakurai and Iwata were ready to approach Nintendo’s most prominent icon: Shigeru Miyamoto.
As the pair nervously shared their beta version of Super Smash Bros, Miyamoto nonchalantly stated, “Oh, this? I can play this. This isn’t bad. you can move ahead with this.” With the heaviest sighs of relief, Iwata and Sakurai were thrilled. They had done it. They had secured the rights to include a prominent Nintendo character in a fighting game.
Sakurai took the utmost care to ensure that his vision for Nintendo’s characters remained true to their original games. Often working late into the night, Masahiro maintained positive relationships with the original character creators. As the game slowly morphed into the 12-character fighting classic, all parties witnessed Sakurai’s passion, love, and attentiveness. As the game launched in the spring of 1999, Nintendo gamers responded by purchasing over 5 million copies.
To say that Super Smash Bros is a deviation from the norms of the fighting game genre is a drastic understatement. By differentiating itself from other established series, Smash has achieved critical acclaim.
- Established Characters. Unlike most new video game franchises, Sakurai did not create any new characters. He immediately understood that players held a strong affinity for Nintendo characters. Therefore, instead of trying to recreate that affection with original characters, Sakurai still utilizes the most famous video game icons.
- Third-Party Support. Perhaps Sakurai and Nintendo’s most ingenious idea was to expand its roster using third-party support. No other video game series features more characters and franchises than the latest release of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But Iwata and Sakurai laid the groundwork by proving that players connect better with well-known characters than original IP.
Although most fighting games feature two players who compete against each other to exhaust a health bar, Super Smash Bros was different. In fact, several aspects of the game were a diversion from the traditional fighting game genre.
- Changed Objective. Most fighting games adopt elements from the role-playing genre in that the player’s goal is to deplete an opponent’s health bar. Super Smash Bros instead integrates platforming mechanics with the goal of pushing a rival off the stage. As the opponent’s damage meter increases, it becomes easier for players to force their foes over the edge of the map.
- User Friends. Players remember the Tekken and Street Fighter franchises as games that require complicated and precise button inputs. Sakurai challenged this paradigm by giving each character the same button combinations. By doing so, he created a game that is accessible and enjoyable for players of all skill levels.
- Power-Ups. While traditional fighting games challenged the player to “git gud”, Sakurai included optional weapons and power-ups in the base game. Players can use these items to recover health or impose damage on their foes. Although frowned upon in formal competition, power-ups remain a fun means by which players can add excitement and variety to multiplayer matches.
Super Smash Bros Trivia
The staff at GamingROI would be remiss if we did not include a few snippets of development trivia.
- While Sakurai is the original creator of Kirby, fans knew few facts about the pink fluffball. Thanks to his Smash bros bio, we now know that Kirby is only eight inches tall.
- Fans of the original game remember that electric attacks will reveal a character’s skeleton. However, if a player electrocutes Samus, she will reveal her “suitless” form.
- In the character-select screen, Sakurai placed the original eight fighters in the order of their video game appearance. The 1981 Mario is the “oldest” while the 1996 Pikachu is the “youngest”.
- The concept of “final smashers” was meant to be included in the first game; however, Sakurai was unable to incorporate the idea due to the hardware limitations of the Nintendo 64.
Thanks to one person’s dream of challenging the status quo, the Super Smash Bros series was born. While Masahiro Sakurai took a risk by pitching a new game in an unpopular genre, he ultimately succeeded. Through networking with key influencers and meticulously honing his craft, Sakurai birthed one of the most iconic fighting series of all time: Smash Bros.
And there you have it. The story behind one of Nintendo’s most unlikely success stories. But we want to know what you think. Did you play Super Smash Bros during the N64 era? Have you played any other game in the Smash series? Let us know in the comments below or the social media links on the right. Also, be sure to check out our other On This Day in Gaming articles to learn more stories about your favorite video games.
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