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Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 7, Super Smash Bros. (series)
What was once considered a weirdo Nintendo release has become a system-selling staple franchise.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Crossover fighter Super Smash Bros. series isn’t why I decided that including certain ranking entries as “series” instead of individual games made sense for this project, but that’s only because I got the idea while thinking of another franchise first. Once I got around to thinking about Smash, too, about the idea of writing up full articles on the differences between each game in the series, and trying to organize where they rank against each other — never mind against the field as a whole — I was exhausted.
I feel no shame in admitting this. I wanted nothing to do with arguing over whether the approach of the more fighting-tournament-friendly Melee was superior or inferior to the series' switch to focus on comparative accessibility and enjoyment of the game for even non-devotees. Those conversations are about as exciting as arguing about whether too many characters in Smash Ultimate have swords or not, which is to say, they are not for me, nor for this particular space. Once I realized tossing them all together and giving them what is probably a higher rank than any of the individual games would have achieved on their own, with the added bonus of being able to include even more games on the list because of the freed up space, well, there was no more discussion to be had on what I needed to do.
What I did want to discuss, once that decision was made, is just how significant a series that was initially thought to be a weird mistake has become. Super Smash Bros. released for the Nintendo 64 in 1999, during the tail-end of the fighting game boom, and it was Nintendo’s first real foray into that scene. Except it wasn’t, really, since Smash wasn’t really like other fighting games: it wasn’t anything like the titles that dominated the scene at the time, your King of Fighters and your Street Fighters and your Tekkens and so on. Smash actually had much more in common with the wrestling games developed by AKI, like WCW/nWo Revenge, even though Smash used a more traditional fighting game perspective. It was all in the control scheme: whereas typical fighters used a series of button presses you needed to memorize in order to perform a character’s moves, Smash worked like AKI’s games. The moves are different for each character, but you just have to press a direction and a face button. Every character has an Up + B move, for instance, which doubles as a save from falling to your doom, just like every wrestler in Revenge had moves mapped to similar, directionally-based combinations.
Smash wasn’t baby’s first fighter, though, as much as more hardcore segments of the fighting game community maybe wanted to treat it like, and it also wasn’t much like those AKI games outside of the button combinations for moves. It was just a different beast entirely, a new kind of fighting game, not meant to be just like what was already out there. There was more of a focus on vertical play and platforming, hence the need for everyone to have an Up + B move that could launch them back upward to grip the edge of a platform. You didn’t deplete a life bar, so much as pile on damage to the point the next attack could launch your opponent entirely off of the screen. There were items, for healing, for offense, and for defense. Stages were pretty basic in the original release, but would grow more complicated and deadly with time. The game could be played with four people sitting around a television, too, which made it even more its own thing, in the same way something like Mario Kart 64 and Goldeneye 007 got so much attention for what the N64 allowed them to do and to be for groups of friends.
I actually wasn’t a huge fan of the N64 edition of the game. It was fun enough — I remember whose basement bedroom I played it in first, and even their annoyance at my use of Kirby — but I didn’t feel the need to save up money to get my own copy of the game. For young teen Marc, that was the true sign of greatness, wanting to get something for myself instead of just renting or borrowing it or going to a buddy’s to play it, and Smash 64 wasn’t quite there. (For comparison’s sake, I had multiple friends who owned WWF WrestleMania 2000, but that did not stop me from getting my own copy of the game.) This memory lines up pretty well with reviews from the time: it might be hard to believe now, if you aren’t of this specific time, but the first Smash was mostly considered a cool idea that worked better than it had any right to. I know some people who think the original is the best one, and that has made it harder for me to trust their opinion on any other video game.
It certainly sold well enough, at least, which meant there would be more Smash releases, and time for it to evolve beyond its origins and into the phenomenon it would become. The second game is where the series truly took off: Super Smash Bros. Melee for the GameCube. This, like the original, was developed by HAL, with Masahiro Sakurai returning to helm the project he and Satoru Iwata had created. It had roughly twice as many playable characters to choose from, with the crossover fighter expanding from the original series represented by Smash 64 — Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, Metroid, F-Zero, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Pokémon, and Mother/Earthbound — to now include Game & Watch, Ice Climbers, and Fire Emblem characters as well. The expanded character base was mostly made up of clones at this point, though — Luigi and such weren’t their own fully fleshed out characters just yet — but even with that, the game just felt so much bigger than the original. In character selection, in scope, in ambition, in execution.
There are plenty of folks out there who believe Melee is peak Smash, and while I don’t agree with that, at least that point of view comes down to a difference in what you’re looking for out of the game, instead of… whatever it is that drives someone to believe the original is the best one. Melee requires the most precision play of any of the Smash games, which is why such a devoted, hardcore audience has sprung up around it. The kinds of balancing that exists in all of the Smash titles after this doesn’t exist within Melee: there is no final smash ball that serves like Smash’s equivalent of a blue shell in Mario Kart, designed in part to even the odds, or at least throw some chaos in the mix. Assist Trophies weren’t a thing yet, either. Because of this, Melee is the most fighting game-feeling of the bunch, even if it, like the original, does feature Poké Balls with some nasty attacks inside.
I loved Melee, but I was also terrible at it. I didn’t buy Melee right away, but this time it was because so many of my friends had it and I was playing it all the time, anyway, whether in someone’s dorm or at their parents’ house. This was good, having access to it whenever and wherever I was besides home. It was also bad, because they had more access to it, and my friends liked to teach you how to play a game mostly by kicking your ass and telling you not to suck so much. It’s fine, I’m not looking for your sympathy, I had plenty of fun tormenting them back with a number of games I knew inside and out like they did Melee. By the time I got my own copy on the secondhand market, it was too late to catch up, but it did convince me to dive in on day one when the Wii’s Brawl landed in 2008.
What a wonderful decision that was, and not just because I was finally able to keep up with my friends in Smash. The Smash roster continued to grow, with a starting lineup as large as Melee’s entire roster, and another 14 characters on top of that. Third-party characters joined the fray, with Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Konami’s Solid Snake becoming playable characters. Final Smashes were introduced: simply be the one to break open a floating smash ball, and you get to use this potentially devastating, screen-clearing move. Assist Trophies are a more common element: think of them like the Poké Balls, except with something besides Pokémon inside. These range from nearly useless (Mr. Saturn) to annoying for everyone (Nintendogs blocking everyone’s vision) to really bad for the one player the trophy character decides to home in on (Lyn). Some assist trophies have gone on to become full-on Smash fighters in their own right, like Little Mac, Dark Samus, and Isabelle. Others are still waiting, like Waluigi, or Bomberman, or Saki. These trophies are wonderful if you play Smash for the chaos, but if you don’t, if you’re looking for a good, clean fight, you can always turn them (and Poké Balls, and smash balls, and all or just certain items) off.
The much larger roster combined with the expansion of, well, everything else, meant that the game’s Vault served as a kind of virtual museum more than it ever had before. There were statues to collect of every character, playable or not, represented in the game, and they included descriptions of the character themselves as well as the games they were from. I spent a lot of time just looking through these statues, learning about Nintendo series that weren’t as popular as the core franchises, or were, in some cases, never released outside of Japan to begin with. I’m sure that activity is partially to blame for putting me in the position I’m in now, where I’m familiar with an alarming amount of Nintendo’s catalog.
Brawl also introduced online multiplayer to the Smash-verse, and while it didn’t work quite as smoothly as it did for Mario Kart Wii, it was still there, and that was not nothing. No longer did you need to be four buddies crammed around a small television in order to play Smash the way it was meant to be played: you could be four buds in different locations sitting in front of their own small television.
Brawl wasn’t developed by HAL, but it was instead put together by Sakurai’s new venture, Sora. Sora isn’t a developer, really, but is instead just a company name for Sakurai’s life as a freelance developer, which he formed after leaving HAL. So, every Smash game is developed by Sora, in the sense that Sakurai is the lead on every Smash game: the co-developer of Brawl is listed as “Nintendo ad-hoc,” meaning, whoever from Nintendo’s slate of developers that Sakurai got to work on Smash with him.
That was a pretty temporary setup, though, as Bandai Namco Studios joined up in time for the goofily named duo of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. Smash had really hit the big time, as it was getting a full-fledged handheld release that didn’t compromise the gameplay or scale of Smash. In a tribute to just how good and addicting Smash can be, I bought it on the 3DS — it released that way first — and unlocked all of the characters, stages, all the big stuff, before moving on to the Wii U version of the game. While Nintendo likely developed two different versions in part because the Wii U just wasn’t selling like it needed to while the 3DS was another obvious handheld success, Smash did well on the home console: 5.4 million sales doesn’t seem like much for Smash, but for the Wii U, that was an attach rate of about 40 percent, the highest of any Smash release. The 3DS version was no slouch, either, with 9.6 million sales: the combined sales were tops for the series as a whole.
Like with Mario Kart kind of finding its groove with Mario Kart Wii and focusing on refinements from that point forward, Smash had found what it wanted to be with Brawl. The Wii U/3DS version of the game was more about tweaks, new characters, and new stages than it was about any major overhaul to the proceedings, and while it was the top-selling Smash in its own time, it was also easily discarded once Ultimate released for the Switch. Ultimate is more of the Smash you’ve enjoyed for over a decade or even decades now, with emphasis on “more.”
There are currently 80 fighters in Smash Ultimate. Eight zero. There are two more to come via downloadable content, and even if you just bought the base game and stuck with it, you’re still talking about a roster with 69 fighters. A nice number of fighters, indeed. Xenoblade Chronicles, both the original and its sequel are represented now. There are more playable Pokémon, what some would say is borderline too much Fire Emblem representation, Splatoon and Animal Crossing and Pikmin characters, as well as even more third-party fighters, Namco’s Pac-Man, Square Enix’s Hero and Sepiroth and Cloud, Rare’s Banjo and Kazooie, SNK’s Terry, Atlus’ Joker, and more.
There are still lots of clones, and yes, yes, lots of swords, too, but there are also over 80 characters in this game to choose from, goddammit, so if you’re real worked up about the swords or the clones at this point, it probably says more about you than it does Smash. And while the game is called “Ultimate,” it’s not like it’s the last of these: many of your faves and my faves will eventually end up in this ever-growing beautiful monstrosity and ode to excess. There will be a console sequel to the Switch, and it will have a Smash Bros. game to help sell it, even it kills Sakurai. Which, honestly, it might. You gotta take a day off here and there, dude, or work on another game, or something. Remember Kid Icarus: Uprising (number 64)? Remember how much fun that was, to be doing something besides Smash? Famitsu gave that the rare perfect score, you know, just like they did for Brawl. It doesn’t have to be Smash to get that kind of reaction, think about that sometime. I hear naps are good, too. Vacations. Literally anything besides Smash.
Is Smash Bros. really and truly a fighting game? I don’t really care, to be honest. It’s Smash: at the least, it’s its own thing, one that no one has been able to perfectly replicate despite a few attempts here and there to do so. It has a dedicated community, its own tournaments, devotion to games both new and old. It doesn’t have to be a “pure” fighter or whatever to rule. And it does rule, enough so that even when I was used to getting my asses kicked by my friends, I still kept playing them in it, and eventually dedicated myself to getting better so the playing field could be level. Which it was, and still is. Maybe the first game in the series didn’t motivate me enough to want to get to that point, but from Melee onward, how could that not be what you want to do, once you’ve experienced what the game has to offer? It’s a franchise that has gone from weirdo, potential one-off to classic, with multiple worthwhile game modes, endless customization, ever-growing rosters that other companies want their characters to be part of, and with an expectation that there will be a new release every time there is a new Nintendo console. It’s hard to get much more successful than all of that, but more importantly, the quality of the games merited that kind of success.
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