Super Smash Bros. Melee
“Melee is the sharpest game in the series.”15
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
“…a game that improved on its predecessor in every aspect, including content, graphics, and action.”
–“Think About the Video Games,” pg. 6
On July 5th, 1999, Sakurai finished the project proposal for the game that would become Super Smash Bros. Melee. With Melee, Sakurai’s goals were clearer than ever: to make a game that would surpass its predecessor in every way. That desire was evident from the Japanese title for the game. Dropping the Nintendo All-Stars portion of the title (foreshadowing of the third party inclusions desired in Melee and fulfilled in Brawl), it was simply Dairantō Smash Brothers DX. DX, of course, stood for deluxe— a product that aimed to be superior in every way. Compared to the more experimental Smash 64, Melee was a far more serious project. It was the first sequel, and a key entry that could determine Smash’s success as a franchise, to prove it had more legs than just a quirky, experimental fighting game. And Sakurai was intensely determined to see it through. He wrote:
“…With Melee, though, the previous game did well enough that Nintendo and the character designers knew what I wanted in advance. And I wanted a lot.”16
He would also describe its 13 month development cycle as “extremely grueling,” and that it stuck out “far ahead of the pack” compared to the other games he had developed, and he physically collapsed and was sent to the hospital at one point during its development. In fact, as the release date neared, it looked as if the game would have to be delayed, lest it ship incomplete. Satoru Iwata himself, despite being an executive at Nintendo, came in to HAL Laboratories to do debugging and code review for the game. It would be his last time working as a software engineer in the field.17 But in the end, it was worth it– Melee would become the best selling game on the Gamecube,18 at one point boasting a 70% attach rate.19 And, further down the line, one of the most popular competitive fighting games of all time–perhaps to Sakurai’s chagrin.
For the majority of Sakurai’s insight on Melee around the time of its development and release, we’ll refer to his site, “News Flash! Smash Bros. Dojo!!”, a sort of spiritual successor to “Smash Bros. Dojo!!”. The site is more promotional than informational, serving more as a developer diary than a guidebook. Still, it detailed a lot of the new mechanical additions in Melee, and that’s where we’ll start looking into Sakurai’s relationship with Melee.
Wavecheating and Fun-canceling
gfycat courtesy of reddit user /u/darderp. Source video is Perfect Dark.
“Melee fans who played deep into the game without any problems might have trouble understanding this, but Melee was just too difficult.”
“News Flash!” introduced a lot of the new mechanics that were added in Melee (although not all of them). Because of the site’s nature, it at times had a more teasing tone, where Sakurai would begin to detail something, like Samus’ tether grab, but then trail off, leaving things to the imagination, presumably to build anticipation.
For context, the following is a list of the following advanced techniques that were detailed on the site:
spot dodges, air dodges, DI, ASDI, the return of SDI, charging Smash attacks, Meteor Cancels, Knockdown damage, carrying heavy items and throwing them upwards and downwards, Loop damage, Ledge jumping, Walljumping, changed Dash Grabs, Pummeling, escaping grabs, up-throws and down-throws, light shields, heavy shields, aerial tether grabs, Powershields, reflecting projectiles with Powershields, shield DI, grabbing items in midair, item drops out of tumble, B-reversals, Yoshi’s unique double jump mechanics, and Peach’s Float mechanic.
It’s a fairly comprehensive list, but it doesn’t come close to listing all of the advanced techniques that can be pulled off in Melee. But when you consider that this was the official pre-release site for the game, and that it was made for the fans of the original game, it’s quite the list of techniques. Some of these techniques are included in the game manual, showing that they were intended for general use. Other techniques were mechanics from Smash 64 that were similarly hidden, while others were entirely new and never mentioned in any official capacity. Clearly, Sakurai had similar intentions here to the original “Smash Bros. Dojo!!”, where he revealed techniques that rewarded those who were invested enough in the game to discover his site.
There’s no way to know for sure what Sakurai’s reasoning was for detailing these additions, but the fact that they were on the official pre-release website, shows that Sakurai wanted hardcore fans of the series to know about these mechanics. Even if not all the fans would utilize or even care about the implementation of these techniques, he wanted to show them off, to prove that he was making Melee even better. This was his primary goal when making the game.
In addition, he talks about his initial goals and mindset about making Melee in this column as well:
“…why did I target [Melee] so squarely toward people well-versed in video games, then?”21
Targeted towards a more hardcore audience, his mindset seems like a natural extension of his mentality towards Smash 64, where he wanted people to dig into the game deeper, to discover and master more of the hidden techniques. If Smash 64 was playable by people of all skill levels, why not push that skill ceiling even higher? Do what Smash 64 did, but do it better, and do it more.
It’s a logical conclusion when you consider how close together the games were in development, released a little less than 3 years apart. Melee’s design plan was finished half a year after Smash 64’s release, and he was still in the midst of updating “Smash Bros. Dojo!!”. Since he was still updating the original Smash Dojo up until February 4th, 2000, it makes sense that his mentality from 64 would carry over to Melee.
However, there are some small differences. Specifically, while Sakurai outlined almost everything there was to offer in Smash 64, he didn’t do so with Melee. It probably comes down to two factors. The first is that Sakurai wanted to keep some of the mechanics truly secret, even if there were hints as to how to do them. The second factor is that a lot of the tech in Melee was accidental–left in the game intentionally, but never intended to be used as such, and are merely quirks of the physics engine. The second factor is much murkier, because it’s really impossible to know to what extent Sakurai was aware of the use of these quirks, how he felt about them, and the exact nature of Melee’s development. For example, here’s a very interesting–but very open to interpretation, quote from the site where he talks about air dodges:
“In particular, the air dodge can be performed in tandem with pushing the control stick in any direction you want, which allows you to move a short distance in that direction, and it’s worth looking into some creative uses of this technique.”
It’s an example of one of Sakurai’s vague teases regarding game mechanics, but this one in particular will likely pique the interest of any Melee player. It’s most likely he just means something like “you can use it as a recovery mixup,” but given that Sakurai and the development team did know that wavedashing was in the game, it’s at least possible that Sakurai is hinting at wavedashing as some people might consider that “a creative use” of the technique. Sakurai could never have predicted how prevalent or game-changing wavedashing would be, and it is unlikely that he would draw attention to an unintended consequence of physics interactions in his game– even if it was just a small tease. But the possibility, however meager, is still there.
Regardless of what his true intent was, it’s an example of how in comparison to Smash 64, Sakurai intentionally left comments ambiguous, wanting players to experiment with things on their own. In the end he never revealed everything there was to the game (as far as I know, L-cancelling in Melee has never been officially mentioned). If Sakurai laid Smash 64 open to everyone, then Melee was the game with secrets– and he wasn’t going to be the one to divulge them. You would have to find them yourself.
Remorse and Regret“…[Melee] basically ended up becoming a Smash Bros. game for hardcore fighting fans. I personally regret that…”22
–EDGE Magazine interview, August 2014
Regardless of how Sakurai may have felt about Melee during its development or shortly after its release, in the years to come he would come to publicly bemoan his own creation. He had some nice things to say about it, calling it the “sharpest game in the series,” he also said the “dazzling exchange of skills was the game’s most exhilarating aspect,” and that Melee’s popularity “fundamentally rested on the game’s speed.” He did offer up some other criticisms, saying its balance had “rough edges” and that the “dynamic range of the characters was limited.” But his main regret is the one that’s offered up above: Melee was too hardcore. It was too difficult for casual players. It was too much like a fighting game. This column23 goes more in-depth on Sakurai’s feelings towards fighting games, but his message is clear. By appealing to the players at the top of the pyramid, he felt that he had ruined the sense of ‘haphazard’ fun resulting in high-variance results. It was less that he was wrong, and more that he thought he ‘went too far.’ He would say the following soon after the game’s release, after he was completely finished with Melee:
“I think it’s more important to aim for, within the population of people who play video games, the people who are at the bottom– well, it’s rude to say it that way, but the players at the base, where it’s wider, people who on a basic level don’t really care about games…having something that appeals to them so that they can play is vital, I think.
And normally, you just lower the difficulty and do nothing else, that’s the most common result, common solution. For example, there’s Kirby’s Copy ability. The reason why I implemented that is so that experienced players and new players alike could choose their own abilities and enjoy it in their own way…I designed [Kirby’s adventure] so that you could clear the game just by inhaling and exhaling…But the more experienced you become at the game, you want more. And so we have the more hardcore abilities…
My goal with Kirby was to create a game that could be played differently by any person, the way they would want to.”24
While in this specific instance he is talking about his design philosophy on Kirby, his response likely also applies to his mentality towards the Smash series. Instead of lowering the difficulty, he wants to appeal to experienced and new players alike by having the option to play seriously or not. In 64 and Melee, he accomplished this by having a bunch of these hidden techniques, unlisted in manual or in the game– but there nonetheless for the keen to take advantage of. Later on, however, in Sakurai’s mind, even having these options ended up hurting the casual, novice players.
“Melee’s controls were, however, quite complicated and tiring if the player really got into it in a serious way. This made the game less accessible for novice players…”25
Regardless of how valid Sakurai’s opinion may be, this is where he stood some time after Melee’s release. His mindset and outlook on the development of Smash would take a drastic turn in the next entry in the series.
“On the other hand, if “Smash” swings solely in the hardcore direction, the game itself has no future.”26 [if you’re going to look at just one footnote, please look at this one]
In the end, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how Sakurai feels about Melee now, both about the game and its legacy. He’s certainly aware of Melee’s tournament popularity, with his response being a respectable, if muted “I think it’s best if people play the way they would like to.”27
Overall, his feelings appear to be a healthy dose of shame, perhaps a sense of dismay at having lost his path and vision, and then explicit regret about how it all turned out. For a game that he poured his heart, soul, and body into, it’s unfortunate that the majority of his stated feelings towards it are so negative. Melee was Masahiro Sakurai biting off more than he could chew– his attempt to have his cake and eat it too. It was his desire to create a game simple enough to appeal to everybody, with enough secrets and intricacies to satisfy the more intense and passionate following his first game had bred. It was his raison d’être of accessibility backfired, twisted into a creation he could no longer control. Some people might say that Melee was an accidental masterpiece, a miraculous magnum opus. Masahiro Sakurai would probably kindly disagree.
20. These include spot dodges, air dodges, shield tilting, and ledge jumps.
22. EDGE, August 2014, Issue 271, pg 78.
25. EDGE, August 2014, Issue 271, pg 78
26. Nintendo Dream, February 2015, Issue 250, pg 28. This quote has been translated multiple times, one with the implication that if the game is played only in the hardcore direction, that the game has no future, and the other with the implication that if the game is directed only in the hardcore direction, that the game has no future. Both are, in my opinion, perfectly valid interpretations of Sakurai’s statement, but neither is a correct translation. Because the statement itself lacks a subject, and because Sakurai switches subjects between the sentence prior and the sentence after (prior being players, after being the development team), it’s impossible to say with certainty which implication is correct. All I can do to translate this sentence is to maintain the original ambiguity, which I have done. It is an admittedly confusing sentence, because he specifically says “game” and not series, which seems to imply that he’s talking about playing the game, as developing the game with a hardcore bent wouldn’t really destroy the game’s future, as that game…already exists. And will exist. A hardcore-oriented Smash game could end the series, though, due to poor sales or other factors, so using the word “series” or “Smash” would have been more appropriate. In the end, it’s a Sakurai brand of ambivalence and ambiguity, so take it for what you will.