The Case for Dark Souls

Thanks to Soma and Cart Boy for edits.

In 2009, FromSoftware – a small studio mostly known for niche titles aimed at “hardcore” players like King’s Field and Armored Core, with little exposure outside Japan – released another title in that vein for the PlayStation 3, Demon’s Souls. The quasi-Medieval action-RPG garnered commercial and critical success, and it helped act as a foothold for their traditionally difficult, “inaccessible” (for lack of a better word) games. However, its spiritual sequel eclipsed it in acclaim, sales, and renown, and has come to define the company. Dark Souls, another action-RPG set in a western fantasy world, made bank and became a mainstream hit beyond anyone’s expectations, considering its theoretically niche appeal and intimidating design. Since its 2011 release, it’s gotten two sequels and will almost certainly get more even after creator Hidetaka Miyazaki has ended his tenure on the series, alongside a spiritual sequel of its own, the Victorian-era horror game Bloodborne.

There are two ways to approach Dark Souls. The first is entirely as an intensely difficult and taxing game. Even the weakest enemies can kill you in seconds, the intricacies of the combat are hard to learn, the RPG mechanics all but incomprehensible, the world a series of twisting, interconnected mazes, and death – a central part of the mythology and gameplay – carries high punishments. But the act of overcoming these obstacles, finding much-needed shortcuts, and taking down its massive boss monsters gives a sense of incredible empowerment. The second approach comes from the culture surrounding the game, a cloistered community that dives obsessively into its complex lore and works to break the game’s underlying mechanics. The series’ stories of divine fires fading and vengeful kings of olde are as convoluted as those very kings’ decaying kingdoms, and the lack of concrete exposition gives exploring it a power that’d feel clichéd from a more explicit presentation.

The three Dark Souls games, along with Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, are the vanguards of a specific trend of game design that has in recent years become incredibly popular, ones seen in other works like Hotline Miami and Hyper Light Drifter. Ostensibly, they’re a return to the “hardcore” and unforgiving action games of the arcade and NES era, but they secretly contain a number of forgiving systems or allowances those games did not. For all of their “throwback” and overtly nostalgic attitude they’re much more modern at heart, right down to allowing players a much greater degree of control and personal style in the choices they make. But their difficulty is high, and an interesting counterpoint to a different trend in modern blockbuster games that are made deliberately easier for broad demographics of differing skill levels. Neither approach is wrong, but the openness and sense of accomplishment in a Souls game can be a breath of fresh air after the overstuffed tutorials and constant hand-holding of a Ubisoft sandbox.

Because of a few reasons, chief among them its utter lack of presence on Nintendo consoles, the series has been essentially free of any Smash related speculation. However, FromSoftware is confirmed to be among the third party developers making something for the Nintendo Switch. And whether it’s simply a Souls port (which is rumored) or an entirely original project, it will likely have many of the same features as these games. Because of that, this is a somewhat unique “Case For” argument, less for any specific Souls character specifically than the inclusion and representation of FromSoftware’s most popular and iconic property in at least some fashion.

Reasons for Inclusion:

Dark Souls is probably the biggest new property Bandai Namco has published in decades, and one of the more important new series of the past ten years. Its singular design is identifiable and unique, in stark contrast to increasingly similar “Triple-A” titles that may have different stories or characters, but share mechanics and systems to an extent that makes everything feel more similar. Of course, somewhat ironically, that very uniqueness has made it copied extensively, turning the “Dark Souls-style game” into something of a budding genre of its own with homages in Nioh and Salt and Sactuary.

The series’ relationship with Zelda – a comparison Miyazaki has decried, modestly saying his own works are “unworthy” of the comparison and noting their major design differences – has been discussed at length, and it is the central reason for this article’s existence. Souls games noticeably share the same nonlinear but controlled structure of the NES Zelda games, a punishing style which mimics the tone of certain Zelda entries, and even formal elements from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. What they lead to is a game that feels like a unique evolution of the original Legend of Zelda, a game from which the actual Zelda games have slowly moved away over the past thirty years.

FromSoftware took the intensely open ended design of the NES Zelda games and ran with it just as Zelda creative director Eiji Aonuma fought it before jumping back in with the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (which seems to be taking at least a little inspiration from Souls, alongside other fantasy action games like Skyrim). Ocarina of Time really had to be more linear; due to the history, popularity, iconography, and specific design of Zelda, it was and had to be the game that ultimately got how to make action and adventure games work in 3D, which even in 1998 was still confusing and unwieldy. The new perspective and major technical limitations simply could not allow the kind of intense freedom of the first game; people were still coming to terms with 3D environments, and particularly vast open ones. The 3D Zelda games since have followed on that and been generally more linear and directed, while Dark Souls took basic ideas like strong spacial awareness and enemy targeting and fitted them to a much more open ended sensibility.

Unlike other players, I don’t really see Darks Souls as inherently superior to modern Zelda for that. The more linear, controlled style has its place, and there are things – dungeons and puzzles, for instance – it does vastly better, a lot of that being inherent to the design. But there is a noticeable frustration amongst longtime Zelda fans to let them have more freedom, especially when some of the more irritating companion characters come into the mix. But really, this isn’t about the merits of one approach versus another, and it orbits around my main point: Dark Souls is an evolution of a major part of Zelda, a series that for all its influence and historical power hasn’t really had a lot of overt “clones” (even Ōkami, one of the major ones, was still a Clover Studios game at heart). There’s an undeniable connection, which is worth considering when taking into account how important Dark Souls is now. It shows how Nintendo’s influence can be found even in places or directions that aren’t as explicit or clear. It doesn’t hurt that Sakurai is particularly interested in the Japanese gaming scene, a creative culture that sadly hasn’t been producing too many exciting new properties or works. Dark Soulswhich he wrote about in an issue of Famitsu – is one of the notable ones, alongside Bayonetta, Splatoon, Yo-Kai Watch, and Gravity Rush.

And while these are mostly philosophical arguments, it’s worth noting that the series’ action roots, visual splendor, and numerous combat approaches would make it an excellent fit into Smash. Several characters, from the “Chosen Undead” player avatar to side characters like the lightning bolt-tossing Solaire, would work wonderfully. As a fighter “gimmick,” they could function with a unique kind of stat distribution: like how they move in their games, they would be slow and frail, but exceedingly strong. And imagine the series’ vertically minded ruins and towers acting as stages! You could have the dizzying parapets of the Undead Burg, the dank ruins of the Gutter, the stark beauty of Anor Londo…characters in Smash are not chosen because of the stages they could bring to the table, but these ones would be fantastic.

Reasons for Exclusion:

Well, for one thing, the series has never been on a Nintendo console. Sure, FromSoftware has worked on them, but there’s little to no chance of their non-Souls games like Armored Core being represented for a number of reasons, most of all their utter lack of international appeal or recognition (and as for Bloodborne, it was produced by Sony and they may own the IP, so that’s never happening). And we also don’t know what it is they’re making for the Switch – or, for that matter, if it will even see release – which could be anything from a port of one of their older games to something new to, hell, even a Hyrule Warriors-esque crossover between one of their series and one of Nintendo’s. Sakurai is a somewhat cautious man by temperament, and I doubt he’s much inclined to add something as massive as an entire new character – and with it, a stage and probably Assist Trophy – just on the potential of a game owned by another company.

That brings up another issue – relevance. By the time Snake and Cloud were added to their respective games, the impact of Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy (and specifically Final Fantasy VII) on the entire industry had been clear for a decade. But Dark Souls is a game that’s influential right now, with those influences largely exclusive among western developers. Sakurai trends to the historical, well known, and iconic, especially with series outside Nintendo. Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, Pac-Man; these are series known not only to players but the general public. Dark Souls simply isn’t that; it’s not recognizable to nearly that extent. Yes, Bayonetta is about as relevant and less commercially successful, but the ballot was a specific, unique circumstance. And I certainly can’t imagine FromSoftware got much of any presence on the last one, or would on a theoretical successor.

And finally, there’s that issue of a character. While the series does have a deep bench for its cast, none of them are really “definitive” or singularly representative of the series. Do you go with the player character, a nondescript zombie in armor? I mean, the side characters really don’t work; most players may never meet them due to the series’ open-ended design, and the need to represent customization is paramount. There are avatar characters who make sense – we’ve actually seen a number of them in Smash – but they are as an unofficial rule visually iconic and memorable, which that “zombie in armor” just isn’t (the most identifiable outfits are too difficult to attain to be recognizable to the vast majority of players). The single most iconic element in Dark Souls above all else is difficulty, and it’s hard to anthropomorphize that in a satisfactory way. And while Smash could just sidestep a character altogether and add only a stage, that’s never been done before for a third party series. And honestly, it probably shouldn’t; considering how difficult it can be to secure rights for these properties, focus would be best served first on memorable characters.

To be clear, I vehemently do not think we’ll see a Dark Souls character, or stage, or anything in Smash, certainly not for the foreseeable future. And while I dearly love the idea of Smash being an interactive library on the history of video games in which anything could conceivably appear (in some respects, it’s kind of like a video game counterpart to The LEGO Movie), it’s silly to demand it go beyond limitations of time, budget, energy, and corporate feasibility. But Dark Souls shows how Nintendo’s greatest successes still carry incredible influence today. It’s a sign of how the best games of the Eighties and Nineties should be seen not as curios but alive and compelling, still able to inspire for reasons beyond simple nostalgia. That is important. That is valuable. And even more than its own quality and iconography and formal splendor, that is why Dark Souls in some fashion is not undeserving of consideration.

Music

What is Smash Bros. without music? A whole lotta nuttin’, that’s what. Here are a few tracks you can look forward to on the incredibly minute chance Dark Souls ends up in the series.

Wolfman_J

Wolfman_J

Librarian, amateur film critic, gourmet, and meshuggeneh, I've as many fitful obsessions and interests as you can count. My articles predominately focus on critical analysis of a wide range of Nintendo titles with a particular eye to the company’s ongoing history. First played the original Smash Bros. blind at a neighbor’s house, and have been fascinated with it since.
Wolfman_J

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5 comments

  1. You lost me the “Dark Souls” part on the title. Nobody would ever want to play as any Dark Souls or Dark Souls related character(s) in Smash because they’re afraid that they’ll die all the time!

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