For those of you unfamiliar with it, Super Smash Brothers is a series of fighting games for Nintendo systems. Unlike most traditional fighting games, which rely on a health bar, Super Smash Bros. uses only ring outs; as characters gain more damage, they fly further, until you can launch them right off the screen. Its other major distinguishing feature is that it is a crossover of Nintendo’s best known characters. Ever wondered whether Mario would win in a fight against Link? Wonder no more.
Sales-wise, Smash Bros. is a pretty big deal. The first one, for Nintendo 64, sold so well in Japan that Nintendo decided to sell it worldwide. More than 5 million copies were sold worldwide, a respectable number given that the console sold 32 million units worldwide. The sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Gamecube, improved on that number, selling 7 million units and becoming the best-selling title on the Gamecube. The Gamecube only sold 21 million units worldwide, so one in three Gamecube owners owned the game. The next game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, was on the Wii. The Wii console sold more than 100 million units overall. The larger install base would imply larger software sales, and that turned out to be true, with 12 million units sold as of March 2014.
For such a large and important series, Super Smash Bros. had a humble start. In 1999, Masahiro Sakurai, creator of Kirby, and Satoru Iwata, who is now the president of Nintendo, were working on a fighting game for the Nintendo 64. Iwata handled all the programming, while Sakurai handled everything else – planning, design, movement, etc. It was called “Dragon King: The Fighting Game.” This limited team came about because the project was not assigned by their employer. Instead, it was an idea that Sakurai had come up with and showed to Iwata, who offered to help. Iwata enjoyed it so much that he “seemed to come to life” when working on it, which he did even on weekends. The goal of the project was to create a “4-player battle royale” that would be different from the standard 2D fighters that were popular at the time. As the game developed, they realized that the faceless stand-in characters they had been using failed to set up an atmosphere, and no one would want to buy it. So they put in a request to use Nintendo’s all-stars. At the time, Nintendo was very skeptical of the idea of creating a crossover like that, so Iwata and Sakurai had to write up extensive documents supporting their proposition. Their persistence paid off, though, and the first game contained 12 characters from 10 of Nintendo’s biggest series. They had to be inventive for some of the moves characters used, though – Captain Falcon of F-Zero fame had never been seen outside of his car, for instance. Rumor has it that the famous “Falcon Punch” that resulted is actually a remnant of “Dragon King.”
The success of the first game led to more support being thrown behind its sequel. As a result of the high expectations, Sakurai worked for 13 months straight, with no holidays and few weekends. To show off the new abilities of the Gamecube, HAL, the company behind the game, worked with three different graphics companies to create the well-known opening sequence. Not long after Melee, Sakurai became disillusioned working at HAL, when he realized that people expected a sequel every time he worked on a game. As a result, he left and started his own company, Sora Ltd.
When the Wii was revealed in 2005 with the code name “Revolution,” Nintendo announced that it would have support for online play. Iwata said at a press conference that he hoped that in the future, one of the games they would release with online play would be a new Super Smash Bros. Unfortunately for him, many observers took this as an announcement that Nintendo was working on a new installment in the series. So Iwata asked Sakurai, who was looking for a project to work on next, to meet with him. While Iwata understood that Sakurai may decide not to work on the project, he felt that without Sakurai’s involvement, it would be impossible to add new elements – it would almost be a re-release of Melee. With that implicit threat and with the knowledge that a new Super Smash game would make lots of people happy, Sakurai agreed to work with Nintendo again to create Brawl. Since Nintendo had not been planning to work on the game, their internal development teams, including the one that had worked on Melee, were all busy.
As a result, they contacted another company – Game Arts – to help get the project started while they hired more staff. Partially due to this, Brawl was developed outside of Nintendo’s traditional Kyoto area, in Tokyo. Sakurai even moved, because in his words, “if you want to make a new Smash Bros., you have to be ready to put everything else on hold if you want to make it work.” While this is an unusual way to make a game, particularly for Nintendo, it worked out impressively well. Averaging professional reviews, Brawl holds an aggregate score of 93 out of 100, one of the highest on the Wii. Iwata and Sakurai attribute this to two factors: the love all the staff had of the series and Sakurai’s ability to envision what a completed game will look like from the start.
Now Sakurai once again reaches the end of a development cycle for a Super Smash Brothers game with the impending international release of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and the release later this year of its Wii U counterpart. Until it is over and he has time to do interviews rather than work on the game, we cannot get a complete look at their development. I can tell you, however, that I’m certain that just as with earlier games in the series, the entire team worked their hardest with a commitment to delivering a fun game to us fans.
(Citations coming soon)