The year was 1997, a crucial time period for Nintendo. In the wake of the successful releases of the NES and SNES, which had dominated the market, Nintendo for the first time faced the prospect of equally daunting and powerful domestic competitors in its market in the form of SEGA and Sony. Their answer to the competition was the Nintendo 64. Masahiro Sakurai, a game director at HAL Laboratories, at the time most famous for creating the Kirby series, would be tasked with developing and presenting several game prototypes for the new console. The first was for an action-adventure game that would never see the day of light. The second was the seed that would eventually blossom into one of the most beloved franchises of all time: Super Smash Bros.
By October 1996, the project plan for what would become Super Smash Bros. was completed. It was just a prototype, a binder of looseleaf papers and a featureless, pared-down demo. It was tentatively titled “Four-play Simultaneous Face-off No-Damage Battle Royale Fight.”
Nintendo All-Stars: Super Smash Bros.
“Nintendo All-Stars! Super Smash Bros. is an opponent-based action game, where familiar characters clash intensely, competing against each other. The rules are simple…”
Dragons and Kings
“I felt something special about this title from the very first moment I started programming for it.”1
Like most great things, Smash had humble origins. The original inspiration for the game was a Japanese children’s game called ohajiki2, which plays similarly to marbles, although with different materials and large variety of rules. Masahiro Sakurai submitted two prototypes for approval for potential Nintendo 64 games on May 1997, and while both were relatively well-received, it was the other prototype, for an action-adventure game, that made it through. But through the miraculous wonder of market forces, HAL would end up working on the prototype for Smash. Their reasoning was simple– they wanted to release a game during the next year’s holiday window, and for a studio that had never developed a game on the new Nintendo 64 hardware, a fighting game would be far easier to create.3
The prototype was created by three people– Masahiro Sakurai as the brain, Satoru Iwata as the sculptor, and an anonymous sound engineer at HAL.4 Sakurai came up with the design, mechanics, systems, characters, models, and animations, and Iwata wrote the code. Iwata would call it “the ultimate handcrafted project.”5 Both men were juggling other projects at the time, but this was their baby– a staff member would even complain that Iwata would “come to life whenever [he was] working on the programming for [the] project.”
Sakurai and Iwata were inspired by the scenery of Mt. Fuji and the Koufo Basin from their office window, and used photos of the view as background textures. The prototype was codenamed “Ryuoh: The Fighting Game,”6 after the town where the studios were located. It would later come to be known as “Dragon King: The Fighting Game.”
The unique qualities that would come to define Smash were highly present even at this stage. The percentage system, knockback-based KO mechanics, and double jumps, were all part of the original playable prototype. But even with such a complete prototype, Sakurai knew he needed something more to sell this game. Something special, something more.
Not A Fighting Game
“…Moreover, us, as the creators, and the people at Nintendo recognize this game as an opponent-based action game.”7
Iwata and Sakurai tried to move Smash away from the fighting game genre, initially less for philosophical reasons and purely for business reasons. Sakurai had his qualms with fighting games even then, in 1999, but his main complaint wasn’t towards difficulty, but towards characters:
“We knew that fighting games had fared miserably in the consumer market from playing lots of games, it was obvious. I think it’s because they have so many protagonists. You don’t know which character to focus on…you could immediately have 16 protagonists, you don’t know what or who to buy into.”8
“We were told that there hadn’t been many successful original fighting games for home consoles, for example, so in order for this game to avoid that, we really thought carefully about what kind of fighting game this should be.”9
Also acutely aware of the failures of console fighting games in the market, he strove to distance Smash from those games, and to appeal to a different crowd. He had already created a unique genre unto its own, but he felt he lacked the character appeal to make his game succeed. His final master stroke would come when he would ask to use Nintendo characters in his game. Iwata and Sakurai made a prototype with Mario, Donkey Kong, Samus, and Fox as the four playable characters, for a one-shot, bet-it-all-on-this pitch. Iwata had already spoken to Shigeru Miyamoto about using Mario, and Miyamoto warned him of the heavy responsibility that would rest on his shoulders when such a cast of revered characters, not to mention severe logistical restrictions and requirements. Sakurai has said that if Iwata had told him about the conversation he had with Miyamoto, he probably would have “given up on borrowing characters.”10 Thankfully, the pitch was a success, and thus the darkest timeline was avoided.
Notably, Sakurai makes no mention here of fighting games being too difficult, or any sort of reasoning that applies to the pain or frustration of losing, which comes in much later. He simply talks about the difficulty of creating fighting game characters that appeal to people. His other grievances with fighting games won’t be aired until he after Melee is released.
“The point is that it’s gentle to beginners, but if you dig further, it’s actually a very deep game.”
The clearest indicators of Sakurai’s mindset come from his website “Smash Bros. Dojo!!” which he started right after the release of Smash 64. Interestingly, his tone and statements here are very different from his later stances on these topics. His foreword on the site is of particular interest, showcasing a very different Sakurai from the one we know now.
“I think I’ve left the gates guarding this game quite open.12 As a result, I think that your initial impressions will be that it’s an easy game. However, the good part of Smash Bros. is that people who learn quickly will be able to effortlessly understand and enjoy the game, while even sharper people will be able to easily dig into the hidden, deeper strategies and play passionately.…
However, unless the user works hard on his own, it’s difficult to see those good parts. It seems there are many people who have a narrow or prejudiced view when they haven’t played the game (or have barely touched it). And, despite the fact that I left the gates to the game wide open, I do think that playing the game and not noticing these hidden elements is a bit of a shame.…
I made this site so that everybody could learn something from it– the people who say “I’ve never even heard of Smash Bros.,” or for those who can boast “I’ve put in at least 100 hours of versus mode,” or finally to those who complain “I can’t beat 10 seconds in Break the Targets!”– so it’s possible that there are some points where it’s a little too hardcore. So, if there are parts that you don’t really understand, I ask that you skip the confusing parts– in moderation.
…Also, if you can, I’d like you to share this site with other people who play Smash Bros. If possible, give them the chance to interact with it directly. This is really just a distributable guidebook, so to speak. I would like as many Smash Bros. players as possible to see it.”
Sakurai comes off as wanting people to dig deeper into his game. He realizes that there are people that may only play it a little, or that they may not play it too seriously, but he wants to convert those people into serious players. Not only that, he wants as many people as possible to see it, meaning he wants as many people as possible to play the game in this way. He wants to share all of the little things that he put into the game, like they’re rewards for the people who put in a lot of time. “Smash Bros. Dojo!!” is a very comprehensive site. It details nearly every single mechanic in the game, including the more advanced mechanics: techs, angled tilts and smash attacks, Super Armor, Dash Grab, Smash DI, Projectile Ricochet, Shield Angling, and Z-cancelling. Compared to the manual, or the introductory “How to Play” video, “Smash Bros. Dojo!!” is catered much more to the hardcore, and its purpose is to introduce these mechanics to players who don’t know them. It even has pages about general strategy, like juggling opponents, edgeguarding, recovering, and more. The intent of the website is clear. His stated goals for the game were in line with this as well:
“I wanted to create a game that was simple, like a “back to the roots” kind of game. Simple, but the more you play, the more you put into it, the more you come to understand its depth, that kind of game.”14
It’s hard to reconcile this Sakurai with the image many have of him now. It’s also difficult to imagine Sakurai intentionally including, and then detailing, advanced techniques in his games. How did it happen? Was it that Smash’s original prototype, which was a fighting game, albeit a unique one, incorporated more fighting-game-like technical elements into the game originally, like its contemporaries? Perhaps he wanted to stretch his wings a bit and make a game that had a bit more “hardcore” elements for his first time directing a game that wasn’t Kirby. What is clear is that while he didn’t want to scare fans off by advertising these technical elements, he still wanted them to be discovered and utilized, openly talking about them post-release.
Regardless of your interpretation, the important takeaway here is Sakurai’s attitude towards the “hidden depth” of Smash. He is warmly welcoming of it, to the point where he wants everybody to experience it. It’s a philosophy that defined Super Smash Bros. and would also shape it’s sequel– for better or worse.
2. Ohajiki are small, flat cylinders (think flattened marbles), and also refers to the name of a game played with these discs. There are various rules and ways to play. You can play by flicking your ohajiki at your opponents, and if you hit one, then that ohajiki becomes “yours,” and you compete by trying to collect as many ohajiki as possible. Other playstyles include trying to flick an ohajiki to hit another ohajiki into a designated area, like soccer, or to hit ohajiki out of a designated area, like sumo, or “triangle” rules, were you flick one ohajiki into another, and have to flick another ohajiki in between the two that previously made contact.
6. Nintendo’s translation for the title that was used in the Iwata Asks is “Dragon King: The Fighting Game.” However, I personally feel that this is a slight mistranslation, as the “Ryuoh” in the title is a reference to a specific location, and does not refer to dragons, kings, or dragon kings in any way. I would prefer to keep it as “Ryuoh: The Fighting Game,” but seeing as there is a translation from a more official source, we’ll stick with that.
12. I went for a fairly literal translation that still gets most of the meaning across metaphorically, but in case it wasn’t clear he’s saying that he believes he made the barrier to entry/threshold quite low.
13. Z-cancelling is in the English version of the site as well, under the name “Smooth Landing.” In general, however, the English site is less comprehensive than the Japanese site.
Note: I’m doing my best to translate all of the things here in full and post them as quickly as possible. Thanks for your patience.