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The Origins of a Fight: Battle Royale vs Super Smash

If we want to understand the comparisons of Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale and Super Smash Bros, first we need some context.

In the wake of Super Sm4sh's home run success some have stepped up to throw a couple more blows at the 2 year old punching bag Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale. Yes, the clone Smash fans all love to hate. I own the game and have spent my fair share beating friends up as Sir Daniel, but even I will give the crown to Smash if there can only be one throne. But in all of the conversations about Royale since it was released, I have yet to see one side of the conversation explored and that's a deeper dive into the origins of these two games and how that influenced the final products. This is just understanding one fight between two franchises, but understanding a whole genre.

Firstly, some caveats. I think the comparison of SSB4, a game design in its fourth iteration, and BR, a game in its first, is a fixed fight from the beginning. So on competitive grounds, SSB1 must be the franchise representative from Nintendo. It turns out it's a better game than Sony produced anyway, but my analysis is primarily going to be made on the ground of origins, and the origins of everything after SSB1 was simply, "Hey that first game did great, huh? What if we did another?"

Another caveat is that I am not a competitively recognized fighting game player, and I really can't stand Street Fighter-esque fighting games. I have placed in some local competitions in Soul Calibur and SSBM and Toribash, but when it comes to places where technical mastery is a required perspective I rely on my friends for their input.

A good place to start is to jump off the discussion at hand. A couch-talk between IGN staff works as a very apt display of the main differences people level between Smash and Battle Royale, (link) namely things like the variety in attacks, the penalty for falling off stage, the interactivity of stages, finishing move mechanics, physics, the character roster's relatability, and technicality. In similarity, Battle Royale's director would have us believe that it is only surface level (link) but in reality it is obvious that Smash was a template SuperBot Entertainment relied on when making difficult design decisions. To be distinctive, SuperBot attempted to eschew things they thought made Super Smash distinctive, but which they thought the game could survive without, and in that way they did what so many other Smash clones did (link) and overlooked the soul of the game they were making.

To explain, we have to go back to the origins of super smash (link)(link), and do a little speculation based on the final designs. At the tail end of the SNES, when Nintendo had already done some experimentation with its Super FX chip in Starfox and Yoshi's Island, Masahiro Sakurai decided the platform needed a fighting game, and in conversations with Satoru Iwata it came out that the in-development N64 needed a four player game to take advantage of the thumbstick. The prototype they eventually came up with, code-named Battle Royale (I think I know where Sony got the name) and later called Kakuto-Geemu Ryuoh or Dragon-King: The Fighting Game, was remarkably similar to the original Super Smash, but the Nintendo mascots theme had yet to be established. How is it the gameplay that wound up fitting so well with Nintendo franchises when it wasn't outright designed for them?

We can't know exactly how the developers made all their decisions, but working on a fighting game in a company that had almost exclusively platformers leads to Super Smash being the answer to a kind of what-if quetion: "What if a bunch of platforming characters were to fight?" The design of Super Smash's remarkable gameplay extends directly from this what-if question.

We can do this with every fighting game to see how it pervades the final design. Street Fighter(link) started as "What if a bunch of arcade brawler characters got in a fight?"; Toribash(link) started as "What if you could control every muscle individually in a fight?"; Soul Calibur started as "What if fantasy weapon masters got in a fight?"; Deadliest Warrior(link) started as "What if real-world weapon masters got in a fight?"; and Dissidia Final Fantasy(link) started as “What if magical anime heroes and villains got in a fight?”

Sakurai's previous work was almost entirely in the platforming genre, (Kirby Dream Land anyone?) so he would have had an easy time thinking about the minutiae of 2D platforming physics and gameplay. The line between these origins and the final products are quite direct. What are the obstacles in platformers? Enemy entities, hazards, and pitfalls. So too in Smash does the battlefield fill with obstacle items and hazards, and the boundary of the screen is death, rather than a health bar. Are there deep, complex, combo systems in platformers? Not really. So too in Smash are the attacks distinct combinations of a button and 1 of 4 directions, depending on the character state. These buttons also closely match primary functions in a platformer. Compared to other fighting games at the time, Smash had way more air-time (and floaty physics) and a strange heath mechanic. But compared to platformers? Pretty much the same air time with a controllable descent, and lives are a perfectly normal health mechanic. But the pitfalls in particular are the most primary holdover from platforming. The fear of missing a platform is the greatest fear of a platformer. The percent damage mechanic seems to not translate in this analysis, and yes, it is not represented in platformer tropes. But if we're still following "What if platformer characters fought," we can't just look at the platformer. We also have to look at the fight.

Real life duels would seem lightning fast to anyone who enjoys video game or action film fights. Directors of both games and films want the fight to stretch on as long as the drama can sustain it, but real duelists wanted to kill their enemies and kill them fast. If smash were hewn closer to a platformer, it would be about as quick as a real duel. Players would hit each other a couple times, or fall off the ledge a couple times, then their lives would run out. The percentage mechanic draws the battle out longer, while still retaining the platformer's fear of the pitfall. The way it must have grown is that Sakurai wanted players to have a chance to recover from a fall when their opponent knocked them off, but then he also had to have a way for players to raise the stakes on each other and for games between skilled players to not stretch on for ages. When your primary fear is falling, and your primary escape from that fear is jumping and recovery moves, the most visceral stakes-raising is a way to knock players further away from the ledge every time. Therefore, a hit-strength multiplier in the form of damage.

So back to Battle Royale. Their design asks the question "What if playstation characters were in a super smash game?" and then forgets all of what makes super smash visceral and what makes the sony brand distinctive. Ignore balancing issues with the super-moves; ignore the boring campaign and intrusive stage interactivity; the problems with BR are in its developer's choice to blindly start with Smash's core mechanics. Playstation is not a company built on a history of side-scrolling platformers, but one of 3D platformers. Really, Royale should have followed in the prints left by Power Stone 1 & 2 (link)and utilized the 3D arena. Nowhere else is this misstep more obvious than in Royale's death mechanics.

The Super-Move is the ONLY way to score/kill opponents. Its progress bar's build-up is the only relevant competition. One might think that, comparably, the only relevant competition in Smash is increasing your enemy's percentage, but that mechanic works in service of getting your opponent off your square of land, and the struggle is always squarely focused on out-of-bounds-ing your opponent. Where Super Smash is essentially king of the hill, Battle Royale is essentially king of the progress bar. All BR's move variety and technicality of combos means nothing if the set up to that powerful punch doesn't get your opponent any closer to dying. Mind you the pitfalls still exist, but instead of it being the main death mechanic, the penalty is only a slight loss of built-up super-meter. The penalty is so slight, that there is no legitimacy in prioritizing king of the hill tactics to reduce your opponent's super meter, only in finding any possible way to increase your own meter. The result is best regular moves in Royale is Pa-Rappa's boom-box and Fat Princess's nap, both of which forgo fighting to increase the player's power bar steadily and do nothing to force pitfalls. I repeat: the best moves in a fighting game are are pacifistic, and the platformer's worst fear is turned into a pittance.

I was excited for Sony. Their characters are honestly just as memorable as Nintendo's, and one can see in the wide variety of character specific mechanics in Royale the team was willing to experiment on the path to solving their what-if question. If only they had started from the heart of their history, rather than trying to ride on the coat-tails of the reigning champion, Playstation could have been an innovator. They could have been a contender. Instead, they were left punching at shadows.

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