Super Smash Bros: The Story of Nintendo’s Premier Fighting Franchise

The Super Smash Bros. franchise has turned 20! We celebrate by looking back at the key moments in the franchise's history.

A Smash Ball appeared on the screen and the entire internet lost its collective mind. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate‘s sneaky debut at the end of a Nintendo Direct in 2018 loaded the entire Smash Bros. community onto a hype train that wouldn’t stop until the game’s release the following December. Twitch chat freaked out, grown men wept and many, many memes were crafted.

But this sort of passion for Smash Bros. is nothing new. Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64 was an immediate success upon its release on Jan. 21, 1999, and the franchise’s popularity would explode further with the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Nintendo GameCube. You can even make the argument in 2019 that Smash gave Nintendo one of the first immensely successful eSports followings long before eSports was a word.

What is truly remarkable is how Smash Bros. got its start. The developer who created what is arguably Nintendo’s most popular franchise next to Pokemon didn’t originally have Nintendo’s approval for what he wanted to do with the game.

This is the story of how Nintendo’s legendary fighting franchise was born:

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Super Smash Bros.

Masahiro Sakurai was not impressed.

As the creator and director of Nintendo’s Kirby franchise looked around at the gaming landscape in 1998, he was puzzled. The success of games like Mortal Kombat in the early ’90s had caused a fighting game boom. But Sakurai, then at a studio with close ties to Nintendo called HAL Laboratory, thought that the fighting game titles flooding the market were of low-quality and obviously trying to cash in on the genre’s popularity.

Sakurai loved fighting games, but he wanted something new. With the help of a HAL Laboratory coder named Satoru Iwata, Sakurai came up with an idea to turn the standard fighting game format on its head. His game, “Dragon King: The Fighting Game,” would not focus on depleting your opponent’s health bar, but rather “ringing them out” by sending them off the stage entirely. They also came up with the concept of four-player matches instead of just two to further differentiate the game from Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter.

Then, late in development, Sakurai decided to feature Nintendo characters in the game because he felt that would provide a better “atmosphere” for the title. But would Nintendo go for it? After all, this was a company that closely guarded its famous icons. The concept of Mario stomping all over Link was definitely not canon. Sakurai rolled the dice and placed the characters in the game, without Nintendo’s authorization, ahead of showing the publisher his demo. Better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission, I guess.

As luck would have it, the suits at Nintendo were looking for another opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the Nintendo 64’s controller compared to the competition. Super Mario 64 had made the launch of the console in 1996 a success, but the company was still having difficulty fending off Sony’s PlayStation, which had a two-year head start on Nintendo during that console generation. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was still in development at the time, ahead of its November 1998 launch. Needless to say, when Nintendo saw Sakurai’s project, the publisher was enthused.

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“The Dragon King” was pushed aside and Super Smash Bros. was born. Nintendo was cautious though, giving the game a smaller budget than its other top titles. The game released in 1999, surpassing all expectations to become one of the best-selling titles on the N64.

Sakurai’s gamble on making a new kind of fighting game paid off. While games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter required players to learn complex combos if they wanted to be the best, Smash Bros. was much friendlier to newcomers.

While you could certainly chain multiple hits together, the concept of combos didn’t really exist, at least not in the traditional sense. Players felt like they had much more freedom to move around. Games like Tekken required players to learn a different set of button combinations for each character, but with Smash Bros., all button combinations were universalized across all fighters. If you knew how to play one character, you immediately knew how to play all of them…. or at least had a general idea down.

The ring out concept made it impossible to pin an inexperienced player on the edge of the stage, a common strategy in many two-player titles. The game’s power-ups and weapons helped even the odds and made matches unpredictable. The sight of four players tossing out mayhem across a stage was decidedly a fresh but frantic experience.

The original game featured eight characters at the start with another four unlockables, now a series staple. Players could battle across stages inspired by popular Nintendo games, such as the Mushroom Kingdom stage. The game did feature a single-player mode where players could battle against CPU opponents, but the heart of the game was the four-player Versus mode, a trend that would soon continue.

Super Smash Bros. Melee

When Super Smash Bros. blew up, Nintendo wasted little time getting to work on the sequel. Sakurai was tapped again to lead development out of HAL Laboratory for what would become Super Smash Bros. Melee.

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Nintendo aimed to use the popularity of its new franchise to help launch its next console, the GameCube. Sakurai’s first task was to create an FMV (full motion video) that would demonstrate the leap in graphics from the N64. HAL worked with three different graphics studios in Tokyo to come up with the iconic opening.

Sakurai stated in interviews after the game’s release that he felt a great deal of pressure to succeed. The original Smash Bros. was just a side project he did for fun, but all of a sudden he was in the driver’s seat for one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises.

That stress was likely increased by the fact that Sakurai now had to negotiate with other company executives as well as industry figures outside of Nintendo who wanted to get their own favorite characters into the next version of Nintendo’s new hit franchise. Hideo Kojima notably requested Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid to be included, but the game was already too far along in development. The process of creating a Smash Bros. roster was time-consuming and many revisions took place.

The game would eventually include 25 characters, more than double the roster of the N64 game. 14 were available at the start with the others unlockable as players progressed.

Many of the game modes from the original returned. A popular new addition was “trophies,” an update of Super Smash Bros. plush dolls. Players could collect a wide variety of trophies, including action hero figures of their characters as well as accessories and other items. Most trophies included some background information on the lore of the item within the history of Nintendo.

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Nintendo promoted the game heavily, including a tournament for players ahead of the game’s release, a sure sign of things to come. The game released to even better reviews and sales than Super Smash Bros. It sold more than 358,000 copies during its first week in Japan, making it the fastest selling GameCube game at the time. It would go on to become the first GameCube title to hit 1 million copies just two months after release. Today, Melee has sold 7 million copies, making it the best-selling game on the GameCube.

While many players had fun battling their friends with the N64 version of Melee opened up an entirely different realm for the franchise. Melee tournaments started popping up all over the country, some of them featuring prize money. The IVGF NorthWest Regional Gaming Festival became the first major Melee tournament in March 2003. IVGF gave out a total of $12,500 to the top 3 finishers. By 2004, Major League Gaming had added Melee, solidifying Super Smash Bros.‘s place on the eSports circuit.

Gamers have often cited Melee as one of the titles that helped eSports and the fighting game community expand its reach in the last decade. Just like the original, Melee was much easier to learn than many other fighting games, opening the tournaments to a much greater number of players.

Professional gamers also took to Melee thanks to the extremely precise controls. Even Sakurai has said that the GameCube controller still offers the most precise control out of all the titles in the series. No surprise, then, that Nintendo has continued to manufacture GameCube controllers for its latest consoles.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl

At Nintendo’s pre-E3 press conference in 2005, Iwata, now Nintendo’s president, announced that the next version of Super Smash Bros. would be in development soon for the Nintendo Wii. This came as a bit of a shock to Sakurai, who had left HAL in 2003 to start his own company. He had been told by Iwata when he left HAL that if there was ever another Smash Bros. game, he would have an opportunity to be a part of it. Yet, Sakurai received no prior warning about the E3 announcement.

Fortunately, Sakurai did end up participating in the development of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, leading a team assembled from a variety of studios, including Monolith Soft, Paon, Game Arts, and Sakurai’s own Sora.

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The big new feature for Brawl seems silly in retrospect, but it was a very big deal at the time. Nintendo has always lagged behind when it comes to taking advantage of online functionality in its consoles, so when Iwata announced that the next Super Smash Bros. would be playable online over the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, it created a lot of excitement. You would no longer have to go to a Smash Bros. tournament to play with people from all around the world.

Brawl once again expanded the roster of characters, this time to 39. Sakurai agonized over all of the choices and listened to feedback from fans online. Kojima succeeded in getting Solid Snake included in the game this time around. Sega also lent Nintendo Sonic the Hedgehog for the game. Snake and Sonic were the first ever third-party characters to be playable in Smash Bros.

This sequel also attempted to flesh out the franchise’s weak single-player element, with the addition of a campaign called The Subspace Emissary. This new Adventure mode featured unique storylines with numerous levels and bosses to battle. The mode has its own exclusive enemies called the Subspace Army that are not found elsewhere in the game. It could also be played cooperatively with friends. Sakurai had always wanted an impressive single-player campaign to match the franchise’s exciting multiplayer, and Brawl delivered, with the single-player campaign getting decent reviews. To this day, many fans continue to clamor for a true sequel to The Subspace Emissary with every new installment in the series.

Further Reading: 25 Underrated NES Games

At the time, Brawl became the fastest-selling Nintendo video game in Nintendo of America’s history, moving 1.4 million units in its first week upon release in 2008. Brawl has sold more than 13 million copies worldwide September 2018.

While Brawl was a major success for Nintendo, some gamers felt that the overall Smash Bros. experience had taken a step back. Gameplay felt slower, physics didn’t feel as fluid as Melee‘s, and some characters were not properly balanced. Some professional Melee players thought that Nintendo had reworked Brawl to be even friendlier to casual players, adding in more randomization and unpredictability, instead of focusing on skill-based play. Most notorious was a “tripping” mechanism where fighters would sometimes stumble and fall when trying to quickly change directions.

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Thankfully, there was a way to fix this. Gamers discovered a way to mod the game, using an exploit within the game’s stage builder. Fan-made patches could be loaded into the game with an SD card and inserted on top of the original data, adding fun things like alternate costumes for the fighters.

In 2011, a team calling themselves the Project M Back Room set out to make Brawl play more like Melee. Project M also brought back the characters Mewtwo and Roy, who were in Melee, but did not make the roster in Brawl. Characters were re-balanced across the board. This mod received multiple updates and generally garnered great reviews. Project M had more than 3 million downloads and had an active player base of more than 500,000 at its height. It was featured in professional tournaments and streamed to tens of thousands of viewers on Twitch. Not bad for a mod.

Development on Project M stopped on Dec. 1, 2015. There were rumors at the time that Nintendo had sent a cease and desist letter to the development team, but the developers’ official response was that this was not true. Still, one member of the team did eventually admit that, while the project was not under immediate threat, Project M was shut down to avoid future legal issues.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS

Nintendo announced Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS in 2011, but development did not begin until Sakurai was done with Kid Icarus: Uprising for the 3DS in March 2012. Both versions of the game were developed by Sakurai’s Sora Ltd. in conjunction with Bandai Namco Games. Development proved to be a massive undertaking, with Sakurai attempting to get gameplay to feel as similar as possible between the console and handheld versions. Notably, this iteration of Smash is the first time Sakurai asked other developers for help with balancing the characters. 

Notable third-party additions included Capcom’s Mega Man and Bandai Namco’s Pac-Man. Sonic the Hedgehog also returned and gamers even were able to battle as themselves by playing as their Mii avatars. 

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One huge new feature in this iteration of the franchise was official support for Nintendo’s Amiibo toys. Every fighter in the game had their own Amiibo that could be loaded in through into the game through the system’s NFC chip. While Amiibo battles never really became more than a sideshow to the main game, the concept certainly helped push Nintendo’s new toys-to-life product line towards long-term success.

As of September 2018, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS has sold over 9 million copies while the Wii U version moved 5.35 million units. Oh, and if you’re wondering, these versions got rid of that annoying “tripping” mechanic.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

As the name implies, Nintendo and Sakurai really pulled out all the stops for the latest version of Smash, which released for the Nintendo Switch on Dec. 7, 2018. The title’s roster features every single Smash Bros. fighter that has ever appeared in the series as well as some notable newcomers.

The full roster includes 74 playable characters (or 76, if you count Pokémon Trainer’s three Pokémon individually). The game also boasts 103 stages and more than 700 music tracks from throughout the franchise’s history. Sakurai’s Sora and Bandai Namco returned for the development, making the transition from the Wii U game quite a bit easier.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also features a single-player mode called World of Light, which is much more robust than the single-player offering on the Wii U and has drawn some comparisons to Brawl’s beloved Subspace Emissary as far as the overall quality. Various arcade-like modes are also available.

Players are also tasked with collecting various “spirits,” which replace the trophies from previous games. This time around players start with just the eight original characters from the 1999 N64 game and must unlock everyone else through gameplay.

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Further Reading: 25 Best Japanese Games Not Available in the U.S.

The long-term verdict on Ultimate likely won’t be rendered for a while. There will always be some in the Smash community who will continue to light a candle for Melee, but there are also those fans who have declared Ultimate the best Smash Bros. game Nintendo and Sakurai have ever made. At the very least, Ultimate has toppled Brawl as the fastest-selling game in the series, with 3 million copies sold in just the first 11 days.

Do you know what would have made it even better, though? Playable Waluigi. But I digress. Wah.

It’s really quite remarkable what Sakurai has accomplished over the last 20 years. What was once just a side project is now a worldwide phenomenon that has only grown bigger with each release. The Smash community remains as passionate as ever and Sakurai has earned an almost cult-like following among the franchise faithful, thanks to his willingness to lean in when it comes to fan service. (Hello, Ridley.)

What are your favorite Super Smash Bros. moments? Let us know in the comments.

Jason Gallagher is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here