Logic might dictate that this chapter begins with the release of the third installment in the Smash series, Super Smash. Bros Brawl, and that’s half-right. Where it actually begins is the release of the Super Smash Bros. Brawl trailer on May 10, 2006, the end of my freshman year.
Before seeing this, I was on the fence about Nintendo’s revolutionary new console. I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one, either, which is why it was so brilliant for them to save it for their last hurrah at that year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3. After watching that video, I was sold. I probably watched it five times in succession. Then when I got home I watched it another ten times.
Brawl looked amazing. It wasn’t even the allure of a graphical update that made it look that way. You could tell that they were using in-game footage in the trailer, and the movement looked crisp and coordinated, a natural evolution of Melee but perhaps in a way that was easier to control. There were super moves, too, an exciting new game mechanic by all accounts. It could be a game for everyone, one that all my friends would want to play.
Also they confirmed Meta Knight, one of my favorite characters since childhood.
Meta Knight is Kirby’s masked rival, sometimes nemesis, sometimes ally. He uses a sword, he has a strict code of honor, and he has a lot of purple in his color scheme. These are all things I admire.
I was hungry for more information on the game, but Nintendo had done what they set out to do in whetting mine and others’ appetites. There was no further news for months, aside from another brief trailer.
I checked IGN every day, browsed the Nintendo website, and did some googling. I don’t even know what other kinds of gaming journalism sites were up and running back then, but it wouldn’t have mattered. There was no new information.
My friends had all seen the trailer, but none of them wanted to speculate for hours on end. They didn’t spend their free time thinking about the game, and I’m not sure it was quite in their head as much as it was for me. My brothers weren’t around to talk about it, and even Barrett would only carry on with the subject for so long.
In January of 2007 I visited GameFAQs on a whim. GameFAQs isn’t a news site but rather a database of walkthroughs and strategy guides for any game you can think of. I found their page for Brawl and checked through the various info tabs. They were all blank. The release date was still shown as TBA. The existence of the page meant only that the site was acknowledging the game would exist. There was nothing to be gained by being there, not at first glance. Then I clicked on the last tab, the message boards.
I was not the only one who had come to GameFAQs looking for news. It turned out there had been a message board set up for a while now, even predating the first trailer from a year before. For some time it had gone under the name “Super Smash Bros. Revolution” – for the Wii’s code name – and the trailer’s release had prompted an explosion of activity.
Scrolling through hundreds of topics and reading over thousands of messages was over-stimulating at first. It took a couple of days of lurking to figure out basic etiquette for posting (there was none) and to get a feel for what I was really dealing with, but the one thing that was immediately clear to me was that these were people. They wanted to know more just like I did. They wanted to talk about Smash in past, present, and future tense. I dove in headfirst.
My first topic was called “Where is the love?” I hadn’t seen anyone talking about Meta Knight.
I joined a wave of users that kept building and building. There was a cycle where some new tidbit would be announced, and that would bring in a new influx of users and generate new hype for the game, which in turn fueled speculation leading up to the next announcement, which would generate even more hype. The cycle kicked into overdrive, increasing by a thousand-fold once the developer began posting daily updates to the Smash Bros. Dojo, Brawl’s official website.
Already the Brawl board had a very social character. Although the topic for the Brawl General Board was Smash, a large percentage of the front page always consisted of what the moderators would call off-topic content. It’s natural. Yes, the game is what brought us to that place, but that isn’t what made us stay. We stayed because of each other. Nerds, one-track-minded as we might be, still talk about other things. We each had our own lives, our own perspectives, our own reasons for sticking around.
It only took a few months for many of us to identify our core group, and it took just as long for us to realize we needed more independence than what GameFAQs offered. We left and settled in a user-generated forum, hosted for free on an ad-supported site.
This new forum was set up to have main discussion boards for Smash, but it also had social boards for talking about music, TV, movies, and other games. The place was a paradise compared to where we came from, which helped us decide on a name.
I spent a lot of time on the music board, hanging out with a fellow Metallica fan called GanonFloyd, a guy who has roughly equal influence over my taste in music alongside my own brothers. The anime board was another one I frequented, soliciting recommendations from the likes of Upgraded Form and other people who liked to give me shit for watching shows dubbed in English instead of the original Japanese.
I’m also still close friends with Sasori, the guy who made the site. He was all over the place trying to keep the site running without conflict, though he had help from an administrative staff, which I was a member of. Mostly he was just another one of the guys. Near the beginning, he started twin topics, one called “What made you smile today?” and the other called “What brought you down today?” These have been pinned to the top of the social board for the past eight years, and the smile topic has always had more than twice as many posts in it as the other one.
Our site was an intimate space that has come to have a history all its own, one that is too long to get into here. It served as my main base for friends then and to an extent even now, and when I say friends, I mean that in the full extent. There may have been a time when I differentiated between Internet friends and “real world” friends, but I’m way past that.
The distinction doesn’t even make sense. The friends I’ve made online aren’t from cyberspace. They’re from Georgia, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota, California, Ohio, Manitoba, British Columbia, the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Australia. I’m speaking from a point after the heyday of all these forums, but I still keep in touch with many of my favorite users, either through social networks or instant messengers. We all made a journey together and it wasn’t for nothing, though the game we were all so hyped for turned out to be something of a bust.
Our Smash board had a sub-forum on it where every day, someone would post the text and images from that day’s Dojo update. Then we could discuss the update in the ensuing thread. One of my friends took it upon himself to stay up until 2:00 a.m. every night when the Dojo post went live from Japan so that he could transfer its contents to our site. His grades suffered long term, and he went from being an honor student to dropping out of school for a year. What for?
Brawl, the game we spent so much time discussing and debating and devoting our collective energy to for eighteen months, was merely whelming. It was released in the US on March 9, 2008. This was after having been delayed twice because it needed more fine tuning. Friends in Europe had to wait until June for their copies.
Brawl isn’t a bad game, but it became clear after only a few weeks that it wasn’t meant to be competitive. That in itself would be fine if it wasn’t such a mess even when playing for fun.
One of the marquee features of the game was online matchmaking, a way to play other people via the internet. It was a new feature for the Smash series, and it opened up options for people who might not have had friends to play with at home. It also never really worked. The game lagged like crazy, which isn’t news for anyone who has ever played a game online before, but it made it especially hard to improve. Playing online was a lark, but it wasn’t a measure of skill or really even an accurate means of self-expression.
I think among our forum community, we probably played Brawl in high doses for a couple of months and sparingly until the end of the year. This was without a doubt the biggest personal disappointment for me. In the leadup to release, much of the discussion on our forum had centered on playing each other online.
“My Ike against your Dedede, four stocks on Delfino Plaza. It’s going down.”
“You and me, a battle for Meta Knight supremacy on the Bridge of Eldin.”
“Free for all, bring your best character. Final destination, no items.”
We even had a rival forum that we were planning a tourney with, but it never materialized because the online services made it impossible to coordinate such an undertaking.
Back in “the real world,” some of my friends had picked up Brawl as well. I thought that since it was slower than Melee, it would be more their speed. They seemed to like it for a couple of weeks, but after that it was just the same old song and dance. They didn’t like all the new characters. They didn’t like the new items. Even Barrett when asked about Brawl will still say “Yeah I have no idea what is going on when I play that game.” Brawl had an even shorter shelf-life offline than it did in my online circles. We played it until the end of our junior year, and by the time summer was over and we were back together, everyone was playing Smash 64 again, including me.
There are no pictures of me playing Smash. This picture of the results of a 99-stock match back in 2009 is the only thing that comes close.
A lack of documentation isn’t a problem in and of itself, but while reminiscing I have found it odd that there just aren’t any pictures. I’ve been playing Smash Bros. in one form or another for the past fifteen years. Nothing else has been such a constant. I can’t name another activity that I’ve stuck with for that long. And while I’ll always be able to go back and look at pictures from when I played lacrosse, or watch the video of my Gram-o-rama class’s performance, or read journals from when I traveled to Europe, I don’t have that for Smash. That’s a large part of why I’ve had to write all this down.
More than reflection, I am motivated by a need for revelation, both to myself and to others.
I put Smash on a pedestal. It’s similar to the one I put Metallica on, except taller. I can gush about this game, going on for pages and pages. If you ask me why the game is so important, I could sit you down and show you any number of videos about how cool it is. We could watch the whole Smash documentary together, and then I’d sit you down and play it with you, trying to teach you all that I know (which isn’t even that much). Even after all of that, I’m still not sure I could explain why I spent entire days playing this with my brothers and my best friends and even just talking about it with people I found on the internet.
A game like this is only as important as the people you play it with.
Perhaps that’s obvious, but I think it’s one of those things that’s easy to lose sight of, especially entering into this liminal period after graduation where it feels like part of my life has ended but the better part has yet to really begin. It feels weird not owning the most recent Smash game. Most of my friends have left town, and having no one to smash with leaves me in the lurch.
Less obtusely, I’m still stranded between childhood and adult life, and I’m struggling to manage my relationships with people while working a full-time job. It’s a balance that I’ve yet to figure out.
I’m left with the question of what’s next. If I hold onto Metallica as the way I bonded with my brothers, and I keep Smash as the thread that binds me to so many of my closest friends, what will I do to relate to people in the future? What is the next big step for me?
In the interest of revelation, the final part will cut to the heart of that question.
Correction: I had remembered Barrett playing as Fox in that 99-stock match and coming in second. He told me I was wrong and that he played as Pikachu. I don’t doubt him.