Super Smash Bros. Melee launched in North America on December 3rd, 2001 – 15 years ago. 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 By today’s standards, its graphics are outdated and its mechanics esoteric and maddening.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 percent of GameCube users owned Melee, proving its near-universal appeal. And between 2002 and last weekend’s DreamHack invitational, more than 1,500 competitive Melee tournaments have been hosted, doling out a combined $1.6 million in prize money.