This interview was originally posted on HAL Laboratory’s website, where they had a couple features talking to some of the employees there, including Sakurai. This interview was posted in three parts, which can be found here (1, 2, 3). It’s really more of a talk, between Sakurai, and HAL’s development lead, Satoshi Ishida (it seems that Ishida also handles some PR stuff).
Ishida: It was another long day at work…Cheers!
Sakurai: Thank you.
Ishida: Today, after I got back from my business trip, I saw that you got another request for an interview from a gaming magazine.
Sakurai: About what?
Ishida: “An interview with the developer of Super Smash Bros.,” that kind of thing.
Sakurai: News coverage on Smash, huh…It really makes me happy that people still want to cover that game now, in September, even though it was released in January. From a PR perspective, is this level of coverage normal?
Ishida: I think it’s exceptional and out of the ordinary, for sure. Normally, and this goes for sales too, but most of the time the media only cares in the few months before and after release. But Smash has sold 3 million copies worldwide, and it’s still on the charts. That’s why you’re still getting requests for interviews now.
Sakurai: Back when the game came out I didn’t think it would get that much support, though. During development, of course I had a lot of faith, I really thought this would be good, but the reviews that came out right before release weren’t as good as I thought they would be…so there was a time when I felt pretty bad about that.
Ishida: Right. The reviewers weren’t necessarily bad, though I did think it should have scored higher.
Sakurai: I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the game. When magazines write articles about games, they tend to summarize a game with a single statement, like, “It’s this kind of game.” In the case of Smash, when you summarize it like that, it tends to become “a game where a lot of Nintendo characters show up.”
Ishida: “A crossover game with an all-star cast” was definitely the image that a lot of people got of the game.
Sakurai: It was a little upsetting that people generalized the game as for the younger audience. Yes, the game is designed in a way that it’s easy to get into, so that anyone can get started quickly, including little children, but people fixating on that element and generalizing the game as “shallow” or “not deep” was very frustrating.
Ishida: Yeah. But that’s why we made the introduction video, and updated the website, to try to spread the knowledge more. I think due in part to what we did, especially after release, the people who played the game started to understand the depth and complexity of Smash.
Sakurai: Smash Bros. Dojo, yes. I thought a walkthrough or guide wouldn’t really be enough, so I decided to make something akin to that myself. I did have some documents lying around that formed the skeleton of that site, but really creating it was a ton of work.
Ishida: You made that all by yourself, right? When did you start?
Sakurai: I started working on it during February, and made it public during April. I gave up my weekends for two months (laughs).
Ishida: Sometimes you see developers making little comments here and there on a game’s official page, but the director personally writing a guide, of that volume, is basically unheard of.
Sakurai: But I’m glad I did it, I think it was a good thing. I wouldn’t have gotten an understanding of what the people really thought of the game at work, surrounded by other developers. But I made a poll on the website and opened it up for viewers to send in their responses, so I got to read the opinions of a lot of different people. That was really encouraging.
Ishida: As the head of PR, in addition to looking at magazine and online articles, I also check the monthly sales charts, physical sales, and other data. And Smash has a unique sales pattern, where I think word of mouth really helped sales. Normally the bulk of your sales come right at release, but we saw a huge bump during Golden Week, for example. Maybe parents were playing it with their kids.
Sakurai: Maybe the adults, who played Super Mario Bros. as children are playing this game now, with their children.
Ishida: Yes, at the Smash tournament we held at Spaceworld, the entrants there ranged from young children to people in their thirties.
Sakurai: That was August, right? The line to get into that tournament was ridiculous. It was really hot too, and seeing all those people waiting in line to play a game that had already been released made me feel really emotional, as a developer.
Ishida: It was a strange sight, seeing a kid and then an adult twice his size standing side by side, playing Smash. Was making a game that a parent could play together with their kid something you were aiming for during development?
Sakurai: I don’t think it was something we thought of that much, but we did think, easy to play, but difficult to master. Just because something is for kids, doesn’t mean it has to be easy– that’s not true at all. I think we made something that kids, in their own way, could fully enjoy. In Smash, you hit your opponent to increase their damage percentage, but I thought it would be boring if your opponent just collapsed and fell to the ground once you hit a certain percentage. So I came up with the idea of, the higher your opponent’s damage, the further they fly, which is where I thought I could really add some depth and increase the breadth of the game.
Ishida: Was there a lot of pressure on the team internally, knowing it was your first non-Kirby game?
Sakurai: It was our first Nintendo 64 game as well, so we definitely felt that we had to produce something of quality. And also because we were borrowing a lot of Nintendo characters, and each character has their own creator, you know? I didn’t want to betray the original creators and let them down. Sometimes, my own creation, Kirby, is used in other places, and sometimes I think, “Kirby wouldn’t move like that.” I want to avoid that, if possible.
Ishida: In that sense, I think that your games are crafted with a lot of love and care. You pour a lot of love into your own games, you create the website yourself, but you also have a lot of respect and care for the other creators. Is there a certain philosophy to your games?
Sakurai: Um…for me, I start with “what does the user want?” A lot of game designers are like, I love actions games, I’m going to make an action game, or they like adventure games, or simulation games, but for me, there is no singular genre I focus on. Although I think people categorize me as someone who makes action games, like Kirby and Smash.
With Kirby, I made Kirby at a time when I felt like action games were getting universally much harder, and I thought, maybe an action game that everyone can enjoy is something that the people want. But when I say a game that “everyone can enjoy,” that doesn’t mean an easy game, just that someone playing the game for the first time could easily enjoy that game, and easily get attached to it. But, the more you play, the more depth you uncover, and you realize it’s a game that you could play for a really long time. A game that molds itself to the player really tightly, like a glove, maybe.
Ishida: I see. In general, I feel like our games are like that. We’re here because we all love games, after all.
By the way, these days a lot of people want to become game developers. What type of person do you think is suited to game development?
Sakurai: I think game development is a lot of work, so I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone (laughs). That sounds mean, but if you really want to be a game developer even after that, then that means you have perseverance and tenacity, so I think you’ll be okay. For me personally, if I felt like I’d done everything I wanted to in video game development, I’d find another job. Because it’s a job that really requires that passion– if you don’t have it, you can’t keep doing it, I think.
Afterwards, over their dinner, these two teetotalers continued talking about video games until the morning came…
Translator’s thoughts: A pretty fun interview, in my opinion. It’s also nice to hear from Sakurai back in the day. A lot of these points are things that came up on Smash Bros. Dojo! and in his old interview with Shigesato Itoi, but still, new primary sources are always good.
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