20 years ago this month, the original Super Smash Bros. launched for Nintendo 64 in North America. It hardly needs to be stated how important that game would prove to be for Nintendo’s fortunes. The mascot brawler would eventually grow into one of the company’s most beloved and lavish franchises, selling millions of copies and inspiring a string of imitators on other platforms in its wake. But despite all of the marquee characters attached to the game, it was also a big risk for Nintendo, a curious experiment within a genre it had little familiarity with, and its eventual success was far from assured.
By the time Super Smash Bros. arrived in 1999, Nintendo was already well-versed in spinning its mascots off into seemingly incongruous genres. The company’s dungareed workhorse, Mario, had by that point starred in even more off-shoot games than he had platformers, running the gamut from puzzlers to racers, and he certainly wasn’t the only one; the lovable puffball Kirby had a similar predilection for genre-hopping, appearing in his own interpretations of pinball, Breakout, and even minigolf, while the Pokemon series would go on to inspire a raft of its own off-shoot games following its explosive debut.
N64’s Super Smash Bros., however, differed from other spin-offs in one significant way: it marked the first time these disparate characters appeared together in the same game. While its roster may seem quaint by today’s standards, at the time it was a veritable all-star cast of Nintendo mascots. Mario, of course, featured prominently in advertisements and on the game’s box, but now he shared the spotlight with Link, Pikachu, Donkey Kong, Yoshi, and even a couple of relatively obscure characters like EarthBound’s Ness and F-Zero’s Captain Falcon, representing a cross-section of the company’s biggest franchises.
Few other games at the time attempted to bring this many properties together under one banner, giving Super Smash Bros. the air of a blockbuster crossover event. However, it wasn’t always envisioned as such. The game initially began life under the codename “Kakuto-Geemu Ryuoh,” a side project that Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai and then-HAL programmer (and future Nintendo president), the late Satoru Iwata, collaborated on in their spare time. From its inception, Sakurai wanted the project to offer a different type of experience than other fighting games on the market, emphasizing four-player free-for-alls and easy-to-learn controls.
When it came time to replace the game’s generic stand-in fighters with an actual cast, Sakurai asked to use characters from Nintendo’s vast stable of mascots, but the idea was initially met with some reluctance. “Nowadays, we take it for granted, but at the time, people had reservations about mobilizing an all-star cast of characters,” Iwata recalled during a 2008 interview with Sakurai. “I guess fans were upset by the prospect of pitting characters like Mario, Link, and Pikachu against one another. We had a hard time convincing them the fun and depth that were so obviously present in the Smash Bros. trademark fighting style.”
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Despite this hesitance, Sakurai’s instincts proved to be correct, and Super Smash Bros. would go on to become one of the N64’s best-selling releases thanks in large part to its star-studded roster. The diverse cast of fighters gave the game a crossover appeal that many of Nintendo’s other spin-offs lacked. While Mario’s sports outings inherently drew in those who were already fans of the plumber, Super Smash Bros. appealed to anyone who had ever played a Nintendo game, be it Zelda, Donkey Kong, or Pokemon. Moreover, it allowed for some hilarious, never-before-possible confrontations, further adding to the novelty. Here was an official Nintendo game in which players could shoot Pikachu in the face using a ray gun or smack Yoshi with a hammer and send him flying into the background.
It certainly helped that the title was easy to pick up and play as well. Sakurai’s work as a game designer had long been characterized by its accessibility, and with Smash Bros., he applied that same sensibility to what was traditionally an inaccessible genre. Where most contemporary fighting games required players to memorize complex strings of inputs to pull off combos, Smash emphasized simplicity, tying each character’s full repertoire of attacks to two buttons and directional tilts. This setup still afforded enough nuance for advanced play, but even those who had never proven to be particularly adept at fighting games were able to pick the title up and join the fray with relative ease. The stages on which these bouts were contested also contributed to the unpredictability, as each featured its own unique hazards that players needed to carefully navigate while fighting.
Super Smash Bros. would go on to sell more than five million copies worldwide. While it wasn’t enough to reverse the N64’s fortunes against Sony’s insurgent PlayStation, it helped solidify the system’s reputation as a party machine. More importantly, it laid the groundwork for even greater things to come. While the original game was a commercial success in its own right, the series wouldn’t truly explode in popularity until its sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, arrived two years later on the freshly launched GameCube. And the franchise only continued to grow from there, each successive installment introducing more fighters, gameplay modes, music, and other content until each game became a spectacle unto itself.
All of these advances would eventually culminate in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for Switch, which is far and away the largest installment in the series to date, dwarfing the original’s humble 12-character roster with more than 70 playable fighters. Despite only launching this past December, Ultimate has already become the best-selling game in the franchise, moving more than 13 million copies in four months–a testament to the series’ enduring appeal even two decades after its debut. While the original Super Smash Bros. may seem antiquated compared to the games that would follow, it’ll always be remembered for kickstarting one of Nintendo’s most beloved and lucrative franchises, and it wouldn’t have been possible if two visionary designers hadn’t worked on a weird little experiment in their spare time 20 years ago.
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