How to Lose Smash Bros. in Three Steps

smash bros master hand

1.The original Street Fighter—not Street Fighter II, but the very first, not-so-good arcade game—had a unique system for determining the strength of its characters’ attacks. Later Street Fighter games, and most fighting games, include different buttons for different attacks: light punch, medium punch, heavy punch, and so on. The first Street Fighter had only two buttons: punch and kick. Hit the button lightly, and you would activate a light attack. Smash the button hard, and you would activate a heavy attack. This was an intuitive but flawed system—it turns out that inviting players to deliberately whale on your machines will quickly wear them down.

Super Smash Bros. has never had such compunctions. Its definitive mechanic, the “smash attack,” requires players to slam the joystick hard and fast. Merely holding the joystick in one direction results in a “tilt” attack. To activate a smash attack, the game’s strongest attack, you have to, well, do exactly that: you have to smash the joystick. The game’s various manuals say “tap,” but they’re not fooling anybody. It’s not called Super Tap Bros. In the heat of battle, it’s impossible to maintain the composure required to gently maneuver a joystick. It’s unlikely that any other game has resulted in so many broken controllers.

The smash attack neatly encapsulates the entire Smash Bros. philosophy. This is a fighting game unconcerned with six-button control schemes, frame-perfect combos, or any of the usual fighting game jargon—so unconcerned that some people contend it’s not a true fighting game at all. Smash Bros. is instead a direct adaptation of a simple childhood motivation: to pick dolls up and knock them together, to play a game where the intensity of your inputs determines the intensity of your actions. The first game in the series, in fact, opens with a cinematic of a gloved hand picking up inanimate dolls from what appears to be a toy box. Later games dispensed with this narrative, but the implication is clear: Smash Bros. is what happens when someone actually makes the kind of ridiculous idea an eight year-old might have sent in a letter to Nintendo Power.

“Making war” with toys is a stereotypically puerile fantasy, but Smash Bros. is sweepingly popular. In my experience, Smash Bros. has been one of the great common denominators of communal gaming, enjoyed by my eleven year-old (at the time) little sister to the grown adults I know now. The first few games on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube are the objects of unadulterated nostalgia for gamers of a certain age. The sales numbers alone would be convincing, but one hardly needs them in the face of fond anecdotes of grade-school sleepovers and dorm-room tournaments. As Smash Bros. is a fan-pandering crossover, the game enjoys a critical mass of devotion—to the classic characters portrayed in the series, and to the series itself, which is now over fifteen years old. This brings us to the newest installment, laboriously titled Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, but commonly called Smash Bros. 4, and still the same as ever.

smash bros link fighting ganon

2.I’m playing the new Super Smash Bros. online. I am, I think, pretty good at this game. I’m Link fighting Ganondorf, a match that makes sense in the Zelda universe but is unusually coherent for Smash Bros.’ typically loopy battles. I build Ganondorf’s damage with a barrage of bombs, then set up my kill by hemming Ganondorf in with a carefully thrown boomerang. A well-timed smash attack launches Ganondorf off the stage, a victory message appears on screen, and my sense of satisfaction lasts only a few seconds before I remember that, as likely as not, I just beat up a little kid.

I’d probably recognize this kid.  I was 13 when the original Super Smash Bros. came out and I was deliriously into it the way that only young video game fans can be. I played it constantly and took any opportunity I could to compete with others. If I pick up a Nintendo 64 controller even today, muscle memory (which I would gladly exchange for almost anything else, like the piano lessons that went to waste) instantly kicks in. When someone challenged me and lost, I felt proud, like I had a skill worth bragging about.

Of course, I’m no longer a teenager. Being pretty good at a game series you’ve played continuously for fifteen years is not remarkable. (Being good at a video game has not been remarkable for a while.) Even if it’s true, it’s not something to brag about. It’s like being hot shit at Peggle, or “kind of a big deal” in Mario Kart. Gone are the days when I would play exclusively with my peers, when I would spend hours playing with friends and roommates who wasted as much time on the game as I did. The advent (for Nintendo, at least) of online play means that I’m often playing against people half my age, maybe even less. And online play means I’m finally realizing something that’s been true for a while: Super Smash Bros., probably my favorite series of all time and almost certainly the one I’ve spent the most time with, is no longer for me.

For kids, Smash Bros. is a game of discovery. Yes, it’s a fighting game, but it’s a fighting game with what feels like an infinite variety of possible interactions. I might describe a more typical match as, let’s say, Luigi versus Jigglypuff on board a spaceship from Star Fox—but the whole point is that few games are “typical.” With a big enough cast of characters and a big enough selection of levels, one simply does not know what will happen. This is even before factoring in Smash Bros.’ notoriously disruptive items, which now number in the dozens.

It’s not just the battles. The cast is itself an idiosyncratic tour through video game history—or at least, Nintendo’s history. From the first game, obscure characters like Ness and Captain Falcon were paired with heavyweights like Mario and Donkey Kong. The series now contains characters as eccentric as the dog from Duck Hunt and the trainer from Wii Fit. (For English-speaking audiences, several characters were completely unknown until their Smash Bros. debut.) “Assist trophies” summon dozens of additional non-player characters, and collectible trophies document hundreds of additional characters and objects.

Call this what you will: nostalgia, fan-service, shameless pandering. To a kid, it’s still that toy box. But if I would recognize that kid, I would no longer relate. I’m a different person than when I was 13, but Smash Bros. is no different a game. If it were created for me, Smash Bros. would probably be faster, more complicated, with plainer stages. All of those extraneous features—the trophies, the single-player modes—could be cut. I’m not interested in the toy box anymore for the simple reason that I’m not 13 anymore. The game would more closely resemble what tournament players want it to be. As the joke goes: No items, Fox only, Final Destination.

super smash bros continue

3.The Game & Watch series of handheld games was introduced in 1980. When Super Smash Bros.  was released in 1999, Game & Watch was 19 years old. Among the playable characters of the Super Smash Bros. series, “Mr. Game & Watch” represents the oldest franchise, followed closely by characters like Donkey Kong (1981) and Little Mac (1983). The venerable Samus Aran, first appearing in 1986, feels positively sprightly in comparison.

There is a greater gap between the newest Smash Bros. and the first Smash Bros. than between the first Smash Bros. and the original Metroid. In 2018, a mere four years from now, Smash Bros. itself will be just as old as Game & Watch was when Smash Bros. was first released. A game designed to celebrate decades of video game history will be bringing its second decade to a close. A series known for retro fan-service can now start referencing itself as retro fan-service.

These ages sound like eternities in the video game world, where games that feel as recent as Halo are getting “anniversary” re-releases. As a teenager, I remember feeling exactly this way. Ness’ appearance in the Nintendo 64 Smash Bros. felt like a distantly obscure reference, even though EarthBound had only been released in the U.S. in 1995. As an adult, however, these ages have begun to compress. Smash Bros. is now just a game I’m pretty good at. It once felt like an event, a work that covered a span of history I considered weighty and important. These emotions illustrate how effectively these companies are able to engender a consumer culture—a culture which has been rightfully criticized when it is carried unthinkingly into adulthood by those to whom it no longer belongs.

Let me be clear: I’m still embarrassingly excited about the new game. Before the Wii U version came out, I put a number of hours into the 3DS version that I’d rather not reveal. Smash Bros. demonstrates, as well as any other Nintendo game, the all-ages quality that they’re so well-known for. It would be a far worse game if it were made for me instead of the kids whose days I ruin online. I’m glad I’m still able to enjoy a game which has been, dare I say, significant in my life. But all-ages starts with, and cannot exclude, the very young. The game can’t continue to appeal to me without sacrificing what made it special to begin with. I can either selfishly expect the designers to make that sacrifice, or I can brace for the day when the next game is announced and I’m happy for everybody else.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.