Every summer, Las Vegas hosts the Evolution Championship Series, the world’s largest fighting game tournament. The 2013 edition of the tournament marked a special occasion. One of the headlining games was Super Smash Bros. Melee, a game that was twelve years old at the time and that had only been featured at EVO once before in 2007. More to the point, it’s one of my favorite video games.
Tuning into the livestream of the tournament, I saw people play the game in a way that I could barely comprehend. It didn’t look anything like the game as I have played it, not because there were any visual updates, but because they were using techniques and abilities that I had never come close to figuring out when I was younger. There were people talking about the game in real time, giving play-by-play analysis and color commentary. All of this was happening on the main stage at an event attended by thousands and watched by hundreds of thousands of people – record-breaking numbers.
I knew that there were people who played Smash on a professional level, but I didn’t know that the game had endured to this point. After the tournament ended I wanted to know where it had all come from. I wanted to know who these people were. I needed to know their story.
The timing was pretty perfect. A couple months later, The Smash Brothers documentary came out.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know more about the community that is Smash. Travis “Samox” Beauchamp crowdfunded this nine-episode documentary about seven of the greatest players to pick up a GameCube controller. It was released to critical acclaim within the fighting game community and beyond. (Don’t stop reading this blog to watch the whole thing. Not right now. But when you get a chance, it’s five hours well spent.)
When I watched the documentary, I got a sense for what Smash has meant to all these people, and it made me think about what Smash means to me. What is my story?
Super Smash Bros. came out on the Nintendo 64 in April of 1999, and I can remember the first day we got the game. David taught me how to play. He started by running through the single player mode while I watched. Then we got into the multiplayer, the heart of the game.
Smash is a simple game on the surface. You pick your favorite Nintendo character of the ones available and try to knock your opponent out of bounds. Each character has a predetermined number of lives, or stocks, and the last man standing wins.
That first time playing, I’m pretty sure I picked Link as my character. Ocarina of Time was recent enough that I still would have been obsessed with him. Picking Link meant I was going to lose badly, though, and I’m guessing David knew this. He’s never been merciful.
David played as Kirby, which just goes to show that a person’s character choice doesn’t always match up with reality. The effete, pink puffball is a far cry from the quietly wrathful teenager David was. The look of the character defies convention at every turn, as his appearance also belies his incredible power. Kirby’s moves come out quickly and they have surprising range. He is one of the lightest characters in the game, but he also has the best recovery, meaning he can return to the stage after being knocked off very easily. This combined with his moveset also means he excels in the air.
In contrast, Link is slow and heavy. The Hylian warrior is dependent upon his ground game. The Master Sword and his projectile moves give him great range, and though he hits hard, he is easy to read. He has horrendous recovery.
So David didn’t so much pick me apart as he did pulverize me and scatter the remaining dust to the dark corners of time. Link can certainly beat Kirby, but I didn’t know anything at this point. It would be simpler to say I lost, but for at least one game, I wanted to break down how badly I lost and why.
I can simplify a summary of the next two years by saying that I lost ninety-nine percent of the games I played. I spent my childhood losing to David. Sam played too, but he almost always got second place. We usually played late afternoon, once all three of us were home from wherever, in the hour or so before dinner. Whoever got to the playroom first would just yell “SMASH” and the other two would come running. Actually I don’t think I had summoning powers, but I was there regardless. That’s when all the Metallica-listening happened – it turns out thrash metal and Smash go well together.
It didn’t take long for us to settle into our preferred characters. Sam played Captain Falcon, which was a good fit for him – muscular, extroverted, and a bit haughty. I spent the most time playing as Pikachu. Yeah, I was in a Pokémon phase, but the lightning mouse was also fast and had a good jump. It put me in better standings than anything else I tried, although I remember dabbling with Fox as well.
I wanted to play Kirby, but David wouldn’t allow it. He owned the character and made him seem overpowered. Sam and I referred to him as pink marshmallow Satan, largely because he had mastered a technique called spiking, which is easy to picture if you’ve ever watched volleyball. Just substitute the ball for my character.
“All right, no more. None. We’re banning that move,” Sam said about two months after we got the game.
“Stop cheating!” I would say, helpless to save my character from another drill-kick.
After enough whinging, David stopped using the move. He won anyway.
There were fluke instances where I came in first. It was never because I had improved enough, but more likely I got lucky with items, or Sam had managed to get the jump on David. Either way, if I won, David usually put down his controller and said, “Well I think we’re done for the day,” and Sam would agree, “Yeah, it’s time to study.” The following day, we would resume playing and I would resume getting third place. That dynamic would remain the same, even when the game changed.
Super Smash Bros. Melee came out in 2001 and was the best kind of sequel, improving on the first game in every way. It’s the deepest game in the series, with the greatest potential for self-expression and the highest skill ceiling. Melee is a game that inspires people, and its unprecedented growth in recent years is a testament to its wider impact.
The Smash Brothers documentary linked above was crowdfunded by 42 backers who raised just short of $9,000 (and a substantial sum of that was the producer taking out a loan to reach his funding goal). Last fall, a feature-length sequel to the documentary was funded by 931 backers, raising more than $34,000.
For Melee to be included at EVO 2013, the community had to win a charity drive, raising money for breast cancer research. The Smash community donated almost $100,000 of the more than $225,000 raised. More than 130,000 people tuned in to watch the tournament finals.
A hundred entrants used to be a benchmark for what was considered a really big Melee tourney, but from 2013 to 2015, there were forty-eight such tournaments worldwide. There have been so many events that exceeded one hundred entrants in this year alone that at least one leading tournament organizer is no longer accepting it as a significant metric.
It’s still my favorite game in the series, yet for a number of reasons, I didn’t have a chance to develop as a player when I was younger. My nostalgia for Melee is nigh unconquerable, but I have to acknowledge that it was a short-lived phenomenon in our house. We played constantly for the year after it released, but soon David and then Sam went off to college. After that we could only play together during short breaks when they were home.
College did little to help Sam’s skill level. He’s always been the most socially involved of the three of us, and so he put his time into other things. When he came home, that was reflected in his record. David I think just got bored of winning. He was virtually uncontested for the better part of the time we spent playing, and I think he felt he had nothing left to gain from the game. At a time when I could only improve, when I could only push myself further in the game that most allowed for it, my two most reliable sparring partners hung up their controllers.
I entered high school uncertain about a lot of things, leaving behind most of what defined me (or rather failed to define me) in middle school. I put my trumpet away and started playing football and lacrosse. I slowly shifted away from science and math toward English and history. I made a lot of new friends and reconnected with a lot of older ones from elementary school, and it just so happened that the best of those friends were fans of a game I was intimately acquainted with.
Though I had plenty of friends on the football and lacrosse teams, the guys I actually hung out with were friends that I made in class. They were on the cross country team.
XC was a strange phenomenon at my school. The joke was that they were a cult, but they were closer to the high school equivalent of a fraternity. In Smash lingo, one might even go as far as to call them a crew. Their team was characterized by an obsession with inside jokes and traditions, and their leadership was very much class-oriented. The seniors shaped the attitude of the team from the top down with the reins being handed down after each class graduated. If I’m not mistaken, they even had a bundle of documents and scriptures that was passed from captain to captain and still is to this day.
As no small side effect of this mania, they were winners. Our junior and senior year, they were back-to-back North Carolina AAAA state champions. Cross country is a sport that is as much about personal triumph as it is about team victory. It’s not enough for one person to succeed. Everyone has to cross the finish line, and so they all pushed each other to do better. This cooperative/competitive atmosphere covered all things, running and otherwise. It was infectious.
One of their traditions involved an annual Smash tournament at their summer training camp. As far as I know, it started before the guys my age joined the team, and so it was upperclassman who had decided XC would stick with Smash 64.
I hadn’t touched the original game since Melee came out, so I didn’t hesitate to ask why they would rather play the older game, and they would all give the same answers. Melee was too fast. It was too confusing. They would try playing and “have no idea what was going on.” There were too many characters, no good items, no fair stages. It was frustrating to hear so many copouts and excuses for what I saw as a lack of willingness to push themselves. There was just something odd about a crew of runners complaining about something being too fast-paced.
But it wasn’t like I was going to sit out. Not playing Smash was not an option, regardless of which format was preferred in the group. I readjusted to the old controls and then found that there was something different about the old N64 game: I could win now.
I started with Kirby, the character who had always been off limits when I was younger, and I quickly gained a reputation for being as big of a bastard as David had been. Later on I switched to Samus, which offered more rewarding victories, but soon I realized that the only real reward was beating Barrett.
I could never claim to be the best in our group, not if Barrett was in attendance, and if we were smashing he almost always was. While our other friends were more gimmicky players, meaning they would hone in on one tactic and stick with it to a fault, Barrett understood the game at a fundamental level. He could read people, play real defense, and he knew exactly which move to throw out in order to counter you.
We had more in common than a love of Smash. Barrett is also the youngest in his family, and he’s calm and collected, ever the strong, silent type. We’re also both huge nerds, which played a large part in us hitting it off. If our group was hanging out, most of the guys might be talking about running, or some tv show, or girls, none of which were very interesting to me. It was great then that I could count on Barrett to talk video games and anime in hushed tones, just outside the main conversation.
Barrett was and is most formidable when playing as Captain Falcon, which was at odds with my impressions of the character. I was used to Sam’s aggressive style of play, always charging in and trying to kick everyone at once. Barrett had a totally different style, preferring to make his opponents attack first and then countering. Sometimes one hit was all it took, then he’d go off on an unstoppable combo. You would be dead because Barrett had touched you.
His penchant for smart play put him in a league almost his own, and though Captain Falcon was his main, Barrett is also the closest we had to a master of diversity. He would start a smash session by playing as Falcon and then move through the rest of the cast, bouncing around the character select screen. It was all in good fun, but he still won nine times out of ten.
By the end of sophomore year, Barrett and I had pulled away as the two clear best in our friend group. It always came down to the two of us in the end, and most of the time he would edge me out. I could never quite surpass him, and no one ever approached our combined skill level with any consistency. Our rivalry is the stuff of legends, one that started in high school, carried on into college, and continues to this day. Although I still refer to him as my nemesis, he’s really one of my best friends in the entire world.
There’s nothing more invigorating than a worthy opponent, and Barrett is what made the game exciting to me. We’ve always said to each other that something new happens every time we play the game, but it’s only through playing each other and testing the boundaries that we discover those things. Whenever Barrett and I hang out, it’s understood that we’re going to smash, even after all this time. He stepped in to fill the role that my own brothers no longer could.
That would almost bring us up to the present if there wasn’t another chapter of Smash to tell, one that overlapped the other.