Yoshi has a Hammer: Exploring Style through Smash Bros.

As I finally get around to rediscovering Super Smash Bros. Melee, I explore what I find to be the most fundamental difference between it and its successor - style - and how it can play a role in every aspect of a game's design.

Death and Rebirth

I was among some of the first consumers in North America to obtain a [store-bought] copy of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  It was a cold Montreal January night, and the manager at the store outside which we were waiting decided to let us in a couple of hours early, so I and my roommates found ourselves playing the newest version of Super Smash Bros. well before its official midnight release.  Little did I know it, but following that moment, I wouldn’t play Super Smash Bros. Melee for over five years.

Just recently, upon finally deciding to stop letting it sit on my shelf, I dove back into my copy of Melee for the sake of doing something different.  I figured I’d get in a couple of AI matches (since I have no friends), and then I’d be bored with it and let it go for a while.  But by curious happenstance, it turned out that the save file for my old game had somehow vanished.  Everything I’d unlocked…all the records I’d set…they were all gone.  So what’s a completionist to do?  I sat down and started earning back everything I’d lost.

This experience wasn’t nearly as tedious as I’d imagined it might be.  For the past few years, I’ve been finding it harder and harder to think of games as just “games”.  Ever since I started putting in serious time towards becoming a professional designer, gaming has been more of a responsibility than a hobby.  Every now and then, though, something happens that reminds me of the good ol’ days before I knew anything about game design…before I knew game design was even a field I could potentially pursue.  That’s what happened as I rediscovered Melee.  I’ve been reminded of the idea of gaming for the sake of gaming.

Now, I’m not trying to say that Super Smash Bros. Melee is the be-all and end-all of all video games.  Simply put, it’s a damn fun experience.  During all my time playing Brawl, I had completely forgotten this.  And it’s not about the nostalgia.  There’s some of it in there, sure, but that’s not why I’ve found Melee to be so much more fun than its successor.  I wouldn’t even say it’s mostly a matter of design.  It’s mostly a matter of style.

Identifying Style

What do I mean when I talk about style?  Well, I could reference you to a blog post I made a long time ago called “Gestalt Game Design”, but I’ll just cover it here to spare you from too much of my pretentiousness.  I’m talking about the mood that underlies the entire structure of the game – its “feel”.  The style or feel is an element that all other elements of the game work to encapsulate.  The aspects of timing and structure derived from design blend with things like the color palette, animation styles, music, and the world’s scale to tell the player what a game is and what it’s about.  Testing refines all of these aspects, and programming ties them all together.

This is what comes to mind when I think of what makes Super Smash Bros. the beloved series that it is.  It’s one of the most inherently public-competition-friendly series ever made simply due to its style.  It’s also one of the few games that’s not just fun to play, but also genuinely fun to watch.  Sure, you can get an audience around to watch people frag each other in an FPS, but there’s something more visceral about seeing characters completely unrealistically fly away.  There’s also a certain excitement to be derived from seeing all of the action at once – seeing Dr. Mario returning to the stage after nearly flying off the screen, easily dodging a missile from Samus, only to be hit by the fully-charged beam blast following directly behind.  Smash Bros. is more direct, more brutal, and more visual than a lot of other tournament games.  It’s the American football to Halo’s baseball.

And more to the point than all of that, it’s ridiculous.

The feel of Smash Bros. is something that has been laid out right from the beginning.  In my rediscovery of Melee, I find myself reminded of the first commercial I saw for the original Super Smash Bros.  People wearing costumes of Nintendo characters, skipping through a meadow together, arm in arm.  And then the beatdown begins.  And Yoshi swings a giant hammer into the camera.  I don’t remember much since I haven’t watched that commercial since it was actually on the air, but those images have stuck with me.  They’re images of something ridiculous.  There are numerous presentations that could have been used for that ad, but the one that was chosen was the image of real, human adults dressed up as Nintendo characters.  The way I see it, that’s the truest possible representation of how Super Smash Bros. should feel when you play it.

That’s exactly where the questions of style begin to profoundly split between Super Smash Bros. Melee and Brawl.  Melee is built around that idea of something that’s just so ridiculous…so freakin’ crazy.  It promotes that idea through the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it plays.  Despite its sizable development team, it gives off a humble, “Yeah, whatever,” sort of vibe.  The music is arranged by only a few composers, the colors are vibrant, and the narration is a prime testament against the respect the game industry has sought to obtain for all these years.  It’s just weird.

Brawl, on the other hand, seems to be built around the idea of an epic coming-together of the great heroes of video game legend.  It has this sense of wanting to ensure that these games are all honored and respected, which is a perfectly nice sentiment.  It is, on some level, what Smash Bros. has come to represent in the video game community, particularly when you look at the desire fans have had to expand the Smash Bros. character roster to include names from outside Nintendo.  Brawl’s inclusion of Snake and Sonic was a practical realization of this attitude.

What begins to result from that, however, is a game that loses a little bit of its craziness in the name of respect.  Where Melee has a spirit of humor about it, Brawl, while it still has a humorous side, feels more like it’s paying tribute.  Brawl is like a reel you show for someone receiving a lifetime achievement award.  Melee is like a celebrity roast.  
Or, for a more elaborate metaphor, there’s this:

Two Skits

Super Smash Bros. Brawl:

[Our generic video game hero awakes in a strange new world.  (S)he looks around, not recalling where this place is or how (s)he got here.  Before him/her, another hero awakens, sits up, and shakes his head to wake up.  Our hero approaches the newcomer.]

Hero: Greetings, fellow traveler.  What brings you…

[Our hero pauses, recognizing the traveler.]

Hero: …My goodness…you’re Mario!

Mario: It’s-a me, Mario!

Hero: Yes, I’d recognize that face anywhere!  You’re the legendary hero of the Mushroom Kingdom!

Mario: Yes, it’s-a me!  Mar…

Hero: Yes, yes.  I see you’ve also found yourself in this strange new realm.

Mario: How I get-a here?

Hero: I’m not sure, but I have the feeling some great trials await us.

Mario: I smell-a trouble coming on!

Hero: Indeed.  I say, a legendary hero like you… 

Mario: Me!  It’s-a me, Ma…

Hero: Quite so, and I believe you would make an excellent sparring partner.Perhaps we could learn quite a lot from each other as we’re both new to this world.  Together, we can prepare for the trials that await us.

Mario: Wa-hoo!

Hero: Is that a yes?

[The two battle each other.  Cue ‘80s training montage music.]

Hero: Indeed, you are a skilled warrior.  This has been a genuine honor!

Mario: Yahoo!

[The two shake hands.]

Hero: If I may be so bold, I’d wish to say I’ve made a new friend today.

Mario: It’s-a me, Ma…

Hero: Yes, it’s you.

[Our heroes embark on their epic quest.  After about ten seconds, a man emerges from beneath a cardboard box back near the tree line.]

Snake: Kept ya waiting, huh?

Super Smash Bros. Melee:

[Mario stands conversing with Link in a bar.  They’ve both had a few too many.  At another table, Donkey Kong and Yoshi, also quite wasted, have reached the point of having a dance-off.  Several other characters cheer on the dancers.  Mr. Game & Watch and Samus both sit alone at separate ends of the bar, trying to ignore everyone else.  The other fighters populate the rest of the bar, all of them drunk.]

[Mr. Game & Watch rings his bell.  The bartender brings him a pint, setting it down in front of him.  Game & Watch slumps over his drink.]

Bartender: Hey, buddy, you think maybe you better slow down?

[Mr. Game & Watch raises a hand.]

G&W: (Beep)

[If Mr. Game & Watch had fingers, he would be flipping off the bartender.  Since he doesn’t, nothing happens.  The bartender looks offended nonetheless.]

[Mario confronts Link.]

Mario: No, no.  No.  No.  You just…you just-a say that again.  You…you, uh…you make fun of-a the Mushroom Kingdom, and-a we…uh…we…we see…what-a happen.

[Mario throws down his empty mug.  It shatters on the ground.]

Mario: No, I…I tell you what-a happen.  You think-a you so tough and all.  Well let’s…I’m…I’m, uh…I…we have a fight, and then we…we…we have a fight.  And you just bring-a your sword, and…uh…and arrows…and all…uh…uhh…all-a your explodies, and I…you know?  I…[Mario takes on a bare-knuckle boxing stance]…I take-a you on with-a my fists.  I take-a you on.  We see…uh…we see…we see who so tough.

[Link downs the rest of his mug.  He throws it on the ground, where it shatters.  He reaches for his sword, but in his stupor, misses the initial grab.]

[Mario punches Link in the face.  Link pauses, wiping his bleeding nose.  He stares at the blood on his fingers and looks up at Mario.  Suddenly, he draws his sword.  The fight is on.]

[Excited by the prospect of the emerging fight, Donkey Kong stops dancing and rushes over.  It isn’t long before the crowd observing the dance-off joins in.  Annoyed by the noise, Game & Watch leaps into the fighting crowd and hits Donkey Kong with a hammer.  Samus continues trying to ignore the scene, but is quickly motivated to join when hit with one of Link’s stray bombs.  The entire bar erupts in drunken violence and everyone quickly forgets exactly what they’re fighting about.]

[Several minutes later, the fight breaks down into bouts of laughter.  Bloodied and scuffed, people all around the bar sit arm in arm, laughing and reminiscing about past battles.  In the process of treating everyone’s injuries, Dr. Mario has reignited the dance-off with his elaborate “pill-throw mambo”.  Mario and Link sit arm in arm.]

Link: No, no, seriously.  Did you…I mean, you were, like…you were shooting fire from your hands!  I was all like, ‘By the Goddeddesded…Goseddes…God-des-ses…By the Goddesses, this guy’s ridiculous!  I mean, like…fire!  From your hands!

Mario: Did…did-a I ever tell you…[he begins sobbing]…I mean…I just…I just think-a you’re so great!

[The dance-off continues as everyone cheers on.]

This is the sort of attitude that underlies each game.  Both of them pay tribute to a collection of video game greats, but they go about it in different ways.  Brawl, while not a bad game, simply doesn’t have as fun and reckless of an atmosphere surrounding it as does Melee.

Seeing the Intangible

So how are some of the ways in which this style becomes evident?  It’s true that it’s something kind of intangible, but it’s still generated from the game’s more tangible aspects.

To begin with is each game’s respective single-player experience.  Melee is built around three modes: Classic, Adventure, and All-Star, as is Brawl.  Of key difference here is the fact that Brawl’s adventure is built to be a full story, and actually, a separate game with its own title, “The Subspace Emissary”.  This comes complete with a fleshed-out storyline, a fully-realized game world, boss battles, and cinematics that make it look like Super Smash Bros. had a baby with Final Fantasy.  Melee’s Adventure mode, on the other hand, is a collection of short stages, each simply themed after the world of one of the main fighters (some of them simply the same stages used in Multiplayer mode).  

In addition, Melee contains the separate single-player mode of “Event Match”.  This mode is simply a series of challenges which grow progressively more difficult, but each individual event seems to be built almost on a whim.  It’s as if someone said, “Hey, you know what would be a fun scenario to play through?  [These] characters with [this] level of difficulty.  You play as [this] character and you have [these] conditions to work under.”  Then, those scenarios were mocked up, built, and collected into what is almost a series of mini-games.  “Sure, Giant DK and Giant Bowser battling in the middle of the city!  Sure, an endurance match against 128 Marios!  Sure, protect Yoshi’s egg from being broken!  Fine, let’s run with it!”

Another aspect of each game in which “style” becomes evident is in the music.  Melee, as mentioned before, has a short list of composers and a relatively short list of songs.  As a result, its soundtrack is fairly unified and sounds similar from track to track.  Every game’s music is “adjusted” to fit the style of Smash Bros., as if to say, “You’re in our house now.  You’ll play by our rules.”

The soundtrack to Brawl is massive – about 18 hours long.  It brings in composers from all over Nintendo and beyond (like Nobuo Uematsu, who composed the main theme), creating remixes of songs from more games than are even represented within Brawl’s character roster.  In addition, it includes a good number of original game tracks.  With all of the different composers and musical styles involved, the music isn’t reaching towards a single, unified style.  Rather, each game represented gets its own assortment of music that the player can investigate and then choose from; again, feeling like more of a “tribute” than a simple nod.  Each game has its own integrity to be respected.

A third element that I just can’t ignore is the narration.  Now, to be fair, as of 2001, Nintendo hadn’t been huge on the process of voice acting, but they and HAL Laboratories were knowledgeable enough that, had they desired, they could have made Melee’s narration sound like it wasn’t being broadcast from the bathroom down the hall.  But they did.  It sounds ridiculous.  I don’t know if the idea was for it to sound like a voice in a large stadium, or if it was just meant to sound “disembodied”, but it’s definitely unusual.  As Brawl was coming out, I was looking forward to the prospect that this narration style would change, and it most certainly did change.  But sometimes, you don’t realize how much you’ll miss something until it’s gone.  It’s still pretty over-the-top and ridiculous, but it doesn’t have that same feel of “Yeah, so, we made this game, and, like…whatever.  Have fun.”  Brawl’s narration is…clean.  Organized.

The Purpose

I could go on about things like color palette, level design, and “Bonuses”.  The bottom line, however, is that Melee and Brawl are designed around two different purposes.  Melee is designed to promote and encourage a social experience; Brawl is designed to support a more extensive solo experience.  Part of this is due to the different capabilities of the Gamecube and the Wii, part of it is due to demographics, and part of it is due to the reputation the Smash Bros. franchise developed over time.

On this latter issue, there’s a clear difference between the design concerns for Melee and the design concerns for Brawl.  Melee was designed to take the experiment that was Super Smash Bros. and expand upon it, emphasizing the aspects that made the original game popular, namely, its energetic promotion of social interaction.  Melee works to explore this aspect of the franchise and demonstrate it as the core reason for buying the game.  Melee succeeded quite thoroughly in this regard, which is exactly, I feel, why Brawl focuses on it much less.

By the time Brawl was developed, Melee’s reputation for drawing a crowd together was securely established.  There was no real need to delve much deeper into that realm of the gameplay, so Brawl focused more heavily on the elements Melee lacked – a true single-player adventure and online play.  In turn, the structure of the entire game works to promote these elements much more.  In Brawl, for instance, all of the game’s playable characters can be unlocked simply by completing “The Subspace Emissary”.  In Melee, numerous characters and stages can only be unlocked with a particular number of hours or matches played in Versus Mode.  (My main is Mr. Game & Watch, and I haven't even re-unlocked him yet.)

In the end, I suppose this is what you might consider each game’s style to be based from.  Brawl has a “solo player” style; Melee has a “group of friends sitting on the couch” style.


Why am I going on and on about this, though?  Is it just a love letter to Super Smash Bros. Melee (and a sincere apology for letting it sit on the shelf for five years)?  Well, partly, sure…but I’m really delving into this because I believe that a game’s style truly does lie at the heart of everything it is.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.  A game’s style defines how it looks, how it plays, and how it’s all put together.  More than anything else, though, a game’s style defines how the game FEELS to play.  When all is said and done, that’s the part of the game people remember.

And now, I’m remembering how it feels to play Super Smash Bros. Melee.  It feels like someone in a Yoshi costume is hitting me in the face with a hammer.

I mean that in a good way.

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