Why 'Super Smash Bros. Melee' is Still the King

Why 'Super Smash Bros. Melee' is Still the King

Nintendo's Smash Bros. Melee is a hit that endures even today Glixel

On its 15th anniversary, the Gamecube classic is as popular as ever, thanks to a loyal fighting game community

On its 15th anniversary, the Gamecube classic is as popular as ever, thanks to a loyal fighting game community

Super Smash Bros. Melee launched in North America on December 3, 2001 – fifteen years ago tonight. If we were talking about any other 2001 title, this article would now assume a nostalgic tone. We’d discuss the game’s meteoric rise and eventual fall, its long-term impact on the genre, and its cherished place in the hearts of all who once played it. But this is Melee. By today’s standards, its graphics are outdated and its mechanics esoteric and maddening. Even its developers want it to go away. And yet it has survived. More than that – 15 years after its release, Melee fills arenas with screaming fans and draws hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch. It is an accidental masterpiece, a Frankenstein esport, a zombified middle finger to proponents of accessible game design. And, if 2016 is any indication, its best days may still be ahead.

The premise of Super Smash Bros. is simple. Player-controlled Nintendo characters pummel each other senseless on stages that tend to take the shape of a floating platform. The more damage a character takes, the further they fly when struck. When a character is jettisoned off the screen in any direction – up, down, left or right – they lose a life. Unlike in traditional fighting games, like Street Fighter or Tekken, where players memorize complex button sequences to execute a vast arsenal of advanced attacks, characters in Super Smash Bros. have around twenty moves each, usually triggered by pressing A or B and a direction.

This simplicity is deliberate. The game's creator, Masahiro Sakurai, didn’t set out to produce an esport that would last for decades; he wanted to make a fun party game that anyone could play. Somehow he managed to do both. At one point, 70% of GameCube users owned Melee, proving its near-universal appeal. And between 2002 and last weekend’s DreamHack invitational, more than 1500 competitive Melee tournaments have been hosted, doling out a combined $1.6M in prize money.

The secret to Melee’s competitive success is a vast suite of arcane mechanics collectively referred to as “techs.” Dodging diagonally into the ground causes your character to slide, or “wavedash.” This technique can also be used to land unpredictably (“waveland”) or cross the stage quickly to chain short-range attacks (e.g. “waveshine”). Any aerial move’s backswing animation can be interrupted via L-Canceling. Dash-dancing enables erratic movement and juking. When mastered and combined, techs make Melee a dazzling, turbojittery display of snapback reflexes and grueling physical endurance.

Sakurai didn’t approve. “Melee’s controls were … quite complicated and very tiring if the player really got into it in a serious way,” he said in a 2014 interview. “This made the game less accessible for novice players ... I personally regret that, because I originally intended the Smash Bros. series to be for players who couldn’t handle such highly skilled games.”

When Super Smash Bros. Brawl rolled around in 2008, hardcore Melee fans were horrified to discover that wavedashing had been removed, along with L-Canceling, dash-dancing, and a variety of other maneuvers. Overall, movement and combat had been slowed down tremendously. The result? While it remained an excellent party game, Brawl just wasn’t particularly fun to watch.

When Brawl came out, the competitive Melee scene almost evaporated. Total prize money declined by three quarters between 2007 and 2008. But still the game refused to die. By 2011, Melee ($44K) was awarding more prize money than Brawl ($27K). Exasperated, in 2013 Nintendo tried to stop the hugely popular fighting game tournament EVO from broadcasting Melee; a tremendous outcry led them to reverse their decision. Today, Melee tournaments award around $500,000 annually in prize money; the biggest events break 200,000 viewers.

Smash 4, the latest title in the series, regained a bit of Melee’s speed, but despite better graphics, a larger active playerbase, and a more-diverse cast of viable characters, it still consistently falls short its viewership numbers. Perhaps the lesson is that commercial success and competitive durability are contradictory design goals. Sakurai certainly seems to think so.

“If Smash had gone further down the path that Melee had, I don’t think it would be as popular as it is now," he says. If that’s the case, Melee really is an outlier – an esport that endures not because of but in spite of its developers’ intentions.