NOTE:I transcribed this article for two reasons. The first is because scans are not readily available for the community, and I feel that this full interview is very important to understand in context. The second reason is with transcription, copying and pasting the text for other uses becomes a lot easier. If you have any questions about this article, please do not hesitate to contact the administrator. Please note, the pictures were chosen by me, and may not be present in the original interview.
Nintendo Power May 2008 Vol 228
We talk fisticuffs with Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai
“Way of the Sakurai”
by: Chris Hoffman & Steve Thomason
Though only 37 years of age, Masahiro Sakurai has already assembled an impressive body of work. As a designer at HAL Laboratory, he created ravenous punk puffball Kirby when he was just 19, and in 1999, he conceived Super Smash Bros., which went on to become one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. After setting out to become a freelancer in 2003, Sakurai reunited with Super Smash Bros. collaborator and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata to direct the game that’s likely resting in your Wii drive right now: Super Smash Bros. Brawl. To learn more about the game’s development — one of the most ambitious in Nintendo’s history — we recently sat down with the man behind Brawl.
Congratulations on finishing Super Smash Bros. Brawl and on the game’s success thus far in Japan. How does it feel to finally be done with this massive project?
MASAHIRO SAKURAI: Thank you, but I really don’t feel like I’m finished yet. The reason for that is because we haven’t launched here in North America yet. Obviously, it’s great that it’s been such a success in Japan, but until it’s in people’s hands around the world, I’m not going to feel like it’s completely done. As far as the development process, I’m extremely pleased to be finished.
How did the idea for Super Smash Bros. originally come about? We would think it would be difficult to get such a concept– where Nintendo’s marquee characters duke it out — approved. Was that the case?
First, we came up with the idea of doing a four-player fighting game. Then we took a close look at all of the different types of fighting games out there and realized that one of the first difficulties we’d encounter is that if you’re looking at a game like The Legend of Zelda, you have one main character — Link. Everything revolves around Link and you build the world around him. But with this sort of fighting game, you have not one main character but 12, 16 or however many. So making sure that the world works evenly and uniformly, and is well balanced, with all of these characters is one of the first hurdles that we had to get past.
The first demo that we built was more realistic, using characters sort of like stuntman dummies. So there were realistic body proportions and girues. When we showed that in-house, we were told, “Hey that’s really interesting. You guys have something really good and it’s a lot of fun. But will it sell? We don’t know.” So we had to figure out how we could get what looks like, potentially, a really fun game to appeal to a vast market and sell. And one approach that was suggested to us was replacing the stuntman figures with Nintendo characters. To be honest with you, when they presented us with this idea, we were a little hesitant. We weren’t sure if that was the greatest way to go. But looking back at the success of the series, obviously we think it was pretty valuable.
Ever since Brawl was first announced, you made sure that everyone knew that you were going to keep traditional controls, allowing the player to use the GameCube controller or the Classic controller. Why was including that option so important to you?
When you look at the pointing device with the Wii remote or motion controls, we didn’t think that was the most appropriate thing for the Smash Bros. universe, and we suspected our players might feel the same way. Nintendo was really focused on building lots of applications and creating lots of uses for that controller, so for us, we felt like maybe we should take kind of a counterintuitive approach. Since everyone else is focused over there, we fill a gap by going in a different direction.
(STRIKING A POSE:
A lot of game designers (and gaming magazine editors) have their workspaces decorated with action figures, but we’d wager that few put them to use as well as the Brawl team. To convey his ideas about character stances and animations, Sakurai posed and photograph a vast number of 4-inch Micromnan action figures in the positions that he envisioned for the Brawl cast. Sakurai equipped the toys with accessories to stand in for weapons such as Snake’s missile launcher and Samus’s pistol–he even created Pit’s bow and blades out of a twisty-tie– and took between 30 and 50 photos for each of the game’s characters in various situations (running, jumping, attacking, etc.). Although it was tricky to create poses that conveyed the motions of oddly shaped characters such as Metaknight, the action figures proved extremely useful in bringing the Smash crew to life.)
At the age of four or five, I played a paddle-controlled game. Sort of a Pong-esque thing. And I was just amazed by the fact that you could take this controller and control things on your TV screen. That was the beginning of my fascination with what you can do through the world of video games.
As for my knowledge of Nintendo games in particular, I’m not sure. I just remember stuff. I guess [laughs] It’s the same with music and characters. You play a game and it just sticks with you. There was a period where I was just playing games for research, and for whatever reason, I’m just able to keep all of that knowledge with me. With games that I haven’t played all that much, whatever I did play, even that minimal experience, left an impression. However, recently I have begun having trouble remembering people’s names. [Laughs]
What were some of the specific tweaks that you made to the core gameplay, and what were your reasons for making them?
First of all, of course, is the inclusion of the Final Smash. If you look at the overall direction of Smash Bros., players can go in and change the setup to match whatever game style they want. You can turn all items off, etc. But really, my vision of Smash Bros. is that it’s a party game, really. You got four people battling it out and you’re really not sure who’s winning or losing. Or maybe that’s not even the point. But I wanted to have something that could really surprise people and shake things up. Even though you’re winning the entire match, maybe in the final moment I’m going to win via this new mechanic.
As for other tweaks, the game speed is a little bit slower. That might not be quite as evident, but it affects ease of control, especially now that we’re supporting three different controllers. We wanted to make the control intuitive no matter which controller you’re using. With Melee, because you were only using the GameCube controller, it was a game based on speed and quick action. However, this time around, I thought I would make it easier to get into and emphasize the mid-air battle aspect. I thought that the way things worked in Smash Bros. Melee with the speed of fighting being very quick was good in its own way, but with Brawl I wanted to try emphasizing something a little bit different.
How did you go about choosing which characters to include in the final roster? Were there any characters that you really wish you could have included, but weren’t able to for whatever reason?
Of course there were some characters that we couldn’t include, but we’ve decided that we’re just not going to talk about them. [laughs]
As far as choosing which characters, we had to really look at the series that would be represented in the game and create a balance that would make fans of all series happy. We didn’t want to have all Mario characters, all Pokemon characters…We looked at each series and tried to pick the characters that would have the widest appeal to the largest fan base. And of course, we looked at games like Animal Crossing and Nintendogs, where aren’t really any characters that lend themselves to fighting, and we decided not to include characters from those series as fighting characters.
One thing that was kind of a challenge is that we haven’t had a lot of new characters from Nintendo since Captain Olimar [that could work well in a fighting game]:a lot of games have been Mario titles or new iterations in existing series.
There was a rumor at one point about Ridley being playable. Was that ever a consideration?
I think that would probably be pretty impossible. [Laughs] If we had put our best efforts into it, we may have been able to do it. But he might have been a little slow. Would that be all right? [laughs]
We’re just glad he made it into the Subspace Emissary. You’ve talked previously about how Solid Snake ended up in the game, but how about Sonic? How did his inclusion come about?
At the time we announced Snake, we actually put together a survey for our users, asking which characters they would like to see in the game. And a huge amount of people said Sonic, especially in the United States. So in order to satisfy our fans, I thought it was a good idea to try to include Sonic. But that was the thing that put the whole process in motion.
Which characters are you best at playing? Not necessarily your favorite, but with which you dominate.
If I had to absolutely win? There isn’t really one character I would choose. There are a couple of characters that I wouldn’t choose. [laughs] The thing is, I play for fun, so I don’t think about it in those terms.
Can you talk a little bit about the collaboration with Game Arts? How did that come about, and what will become of the team now that Brawl is finished?
When we decided to build Smash Bros., we realized that we needed a lot of people. We needed to build a team. At the same time, Game Arts was finishing up development on Grandia II, so they had some people avilable. Someone from their board of directors was speaking with Mr. Miyamoto, and Mr. Miyamoto thought up the idea of them working on Smash Bros. That’s where the whole process began.
Going forward, we really have no plans after the North American launch. After that, the team will disband. My company, Sora, has to be able to work with other people. We’re a freelance company. Whether or not I end up working with Game Arts again, it’s all up to fate.
This is one that a lot of hardcore Smash Bros. fan have long wondered about. Was the ability to “Wavedash” in Melee intentional or a glitch?
Of course, we noticed that you could do that during the development period. With Super Smash Bros. Brawl, it wasn’t a matter of, “OK, do we leave it in or do we take it out?” We really just wanted this game, again, to appeal to and be played by gamers of all different levels. We felt that there was a growing gap between beginners and advanced players, and taking that out helps to level the playing field. It wasn’t a real big priority or anything, but when we were building the game around of the idea of making it fair for everybody, it just made sense to take it out. And it goes back to wanting to make something different from Melee and giving players the opportunity to find new things to enjoy.
Do you have any suggestions for some cool custom match types that you think our readers might enjoy trying?
Well…no.[Laughs] We really just want the players to explore it for themselves. I don’t really have any specific match settings that I would recommend. But I do believe that the game is balanced to be played, and be played well, no matter what you do, no matter what pairings you come up with. I think we’ve done an excellent job of making sure that everything meshes together well. So just get out there and explore. Make up lots of different combinations and we’re sure you’ll have a good time with whatever you come up with.
Depth of Character:
At the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Sakurai explained how he retained characters’ individuality while making them mesh with the Super Smash Bros. world. He spcifically discussed three newcomers: Pit, Sonic and Snake.
Unlike other Nintendo characters, Pit hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. Sakurai approached the redesign by imagining how Pit would have slowly evolved over a series of games, and arrived at Pit’s new look as the result. The designers added a golden laurel branch to his head and gave him golden armbands to evoke images of halos; they also changed his face to look less cartoony and more earnest. Pit gained tights under his toga to convey a youthful image, and ornamentation was added to the toga to provide a feeling of nobility. His boots were designed to be a mix of past and present, incorporating Grecian-style gathers and fuzzy trim. Sakurai compares Pit’s dual blades to Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber from Star Wars Episode I.
Snake was designed as the slowest human character, but he makes up for his lack of speed with close-quarters combat techniques, cunning, and a plethora of weapons. Sakurai showed some examples of Snake’s abilities by planting an explosive on Sonic’s face, and by choking out Pit before dragging him on top of a mine to blow him sky-high. Since Snake is known for crawling on his belly, Sakurai kept that aspect in Brawl, but with modified animation; instead of realistically keeping his shoulders near the ground as in the Metal Gear games, Snake crawls in a more raised position.
Other than gaining longer legs, Sonic’s appearance didn’t change much from that of his Sega character model. Sakurai pointed out that there’s more to Sonic than pure speed; the character also has a heaviness to him that makes utilizing that speed so satisfying. Since Sonic isn’t known for his fighting abilities, Sonic’s melee moves moves were influenced by another Sega property– Virtua Fighter. While most of Brawl roster was determined during the game’s initial planning stages, Sonic is the exception, he was added to the lineup in 2007 after hearing the demands of true-blue hedgehog fans worldwide.
NOTE: Check out GDC Slide translation for additional information on Microman, character choice guidelines, and changes made to certain characters. Half of the information in this interview comes from that talk.
Also, check out Character Design 101, where I’ve collected a bunch of translations done by the Source Gaming team concerning character designs in Smash.
Lastly, vote in the Ultimate Smash Ballot poll. So far over 300 votes have been counted.
PushDustIn types like a madman. You can follow him on Twitter to stay up to date on his newest novel, Source Gaming Will Go On.