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The End of a Super Smashing Era

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MISHAWAKA – The last downloadable content (DLC) character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has been announced, and with it, the end of the roster for the game and the end of an era.

Approaching the three-year mark for the release of, debatably, the greatest Super Smash Bros. game of all time – yes, I said debatably, Melee fans, calm down – Masahiro Sakurai and the development team at Sora Unlimited have announced the final character to join the legendary roster. Before revealing that, however, I feel it is necessary to try to convey just how important this entry in the series has become.

Smash was originally conceived as a fighting game featuring Nintendo’s most popular characters, solving the dilemma of every kid and their brother in the nineties who had the playground argument of, “Who’s stronger?” With a base roster of a select few franchises, Mario, Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Star Fox, F-Zero and Earthbound, and only 12 characters, it is incomprehensibly impressive that, only 22 years later, a Smash game features a roster seven times that size. The original 12 were Nintendo’s most popular protagonists of the day, and what better way to generate sales and interest in their respective games than to put them all in one place?

Smash really started standing out in its second installment, Super Smash Bros. Melee. While Smash 64, as it is colloquially referred to, was a fun party game, Melee brought with it a collection of unique mechanics and more famous characters, for a total roster size of 26, and a heretofore unmatched physics engine (or so I am told). These improvements and additions came along just two years after the original but managed to sustain a fanbase that is almost brutally protective and loyal to this day. In the Smash community, Melee players get a bit of a stigma for being out-of-touch and elitist for a now twenty-year-old game, but I just think it is impressive that they can find themselves content with such a small roster, antiquated graphics, and, in my polite opinion, fiddly game. Moving back to the game’s impact, however, the new installment was more polished and expansive, opening young players’ and developers’ eyes to what the series could be.

The following title, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, was when Sakurai and Sora Unlimited went all in on the marketability of the game. Dozens of items, special rulesets, 39 playable characters, and the all-new cinematic Final Smashes branded this game as the one to play with friends. This was the first time that Nintendo went outside the confines of its own intellectual property and brought in characters like Sonic and Solid Snake. Their gamble paid off, as this move meant people who had never played Smash but had played Metal Gear or a Sonic title now saw the opportunity to play as their gaming idols in a fun party game they could share with their friends on one of the most popular consoles of all time. In terms of accessibility, Brawl was uncontested. Despite it being marketed as a purely casual game, the competitive scene was not going to let a new Smash game fall by the wayside. Even the additions of the aggravating and legitimately unpredictable tripping mechanic, the competitively illegal Final Smashes, and the should-have-been-competitively-illegal newcomer, Meta Knight, did not stop Brawl from enjoying a fairly successful stint in the limelight.

Brawl was quickly cast aside among competitive players for its shiny, more-responsive little brother, Super Smash Brothers for 3DS and Wii U. Yeah, that title was a bit of a mess for everyone, so most players just referred to it as Smash 4. The first game to have two distinct versions with different content, bonus characters and stages in the form of downloadable content, Smash 4 was the first Smash game I ever owned, and it was an instant hit and a much-anticipated revival for the series. Though the gap between Melee and Brawl was a year longer, the six years between Brawl and Smash 4 felt like they were spent making a solid, polished, and fundamentally unique fighting game.

At this point, Sora Unlimited had realized that Smash could be home to the crème of the crop of video game characters, evidenced by the 58 playable characters in the game. But they didn’t just add more characters, they added some that people had thought were impossible. For instance, Cloud Strife, one of the most iconic video game characters in history, is the intellectual property of Square Enix, a studio infamous for retaining the rights to all its IPs. Not only did Sakurai manage to negotiate a deal with Square to include this veritable gaming celebrity in a kid’s fighting game, but he also managed to secure iconic pieces of music and an entire level based on Cloud’s original game. Add that unlikely feat to bringing in characters like Pac-Man, Mega-Man, Ryu (of Street Fighter fame) and Bayonetta, a decidedly “mature” character, and Smash 4 was looking like an impossibly extensive roster, punching well above its weight in recognizable names.

Now, the stage is properly set for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to burst onto the scene in 2018. The years separating the last patch of Smash 4 and the release of Ultimate were filled with silence on the subject of a new Smash game. Then, out of nowhere in 2018, that iconic glowing ball blazed onto the screens of ecstatic Nintendo fans. Uproars around the world in the gaming community had speculation soaring high and hopes even higher: who would get in, how would the game play, are they finally just making Melee 2? Between March, when the announcement was made, and December, when the game released, people were anxiously awaiting any shred of news concerning Ultimate. Finally, after that initial teaser, the first of many Smash-themed Nintendo Direct presentations aired, showing the roster. Thus, Ultimate’s tagline of “Everyone is Here” was born. Every single character that had made an appearance in a Smash game was returning for this installment, regardless of how many games they had been in: Ice Climbers, and Pichu – who had not been seen since Melee – and Wolf, Snake, and Pokémon Trainer – leaving after Brawl – all leapt back into the fray for the game. Not content to reinvent the wheel, over half-a-dozen brand-new characters were being added, including long-time asks, like King K. Rool from Donkey Kong, Ridley of Metroid infamy, and the classic Castlevania characters, Simon and Richter Belmont.

The base roster included 74 characters. I cannot stress enough how unbelievable a number that is for a kids’ fighting game. But, never being one to know how to take a break, Sakurai laughed at the initial roster size, and said, well, something in Japanese that I will not attempt to replicate, but to the effect of, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He immediately added character number 75, Piranha Plant, and he later announced a DLC Fighters Pass, a collection of five fighters with their own stages and music libraries that would be introduced over the upcoming year. The first character sent the entire fandom into shock: Joker, from Persona 5. Now, if that name does not mean much, imagine trying to steal the Mona Lisa if it were locked inside Fort Knox at the center of Mt. Vesuvius in space. Masahiro Sakurai did that while live-streaming the whole thing and high-fiving the head of security on the way out. That is how mind-boggling Joker’s addition was. If ATLUS, the company that owned Joker’s game – comparable to Square Enix, except way worse – had shared one of their most highly-protected IPs, nothing on Earth could stop Sakurai from adding whomever he wanted. 

The Fighters Pass added all five characters before Feb. 2020, with the notable inclusion of Banjo and Kazooie, a reveal that had many grown adults sobbing for joy. Yet again, Sakurai showed the world that he did not know the meaning of the word rest, even once it was translated into his language, by announcing a second Fighters Pass, with six characters this time. The highlights of Fighters Pass 2 are Steve from Minecraft – yes, you read that right – Sephiroth, the antagonist from the same game as Cloud Strife, and the newest and final character in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Sora, from Kingdom Hearts. By the time all is said and done, Ultimate would have 85 characters in the game, with representation from over 450 different games. Whether that was their initial goal back in the nineties or not, Masahiro Sakurai and Sora Unlimited started a series that would go on to become the veritable gaming Hall of Fame. That, in my opinion, is what makes Smash so special. It is so much more than just an insanely fun and accessible fighting game, which is a feat to achieve. More importantly, Super Smash Brothers, specifically Ultimate, is a love letter to video games, nostalgia and fans. The developers did not make a game with 85 characters just for the fun of it, not least because that would involve four years of work with barely anything approaching the definition of “fun” in a 30-mile radius. They made a fighting game representing the characters, stories, achievements, and memories of over 450 games, games that impacted the lives of millions of people around the world. They took those memories that shaped people and condensed them into the characters they loved so much and put them on display for the world to see, and that is the best kind of gift I have ever been given as a player. I genuinely feel terrible for those who, despite their love for the game, still do not have their icons among that list, but I also urge those players to see the opportunity presented before them: the opportunity to make new memories with characters they might have never seen before or stories they might not have been interested in before, and, instead of accusing the game’s creators of taking that chance from them, to appreciate the game and the kind people behind it for giving players that chance.

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