Super Smash Bros won’t die, but it won’t grow either
Does anyone remember that Sony PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale game? If you do then, maybe you remember some other classics like Marvel vs. Capcom 1, 2, and 3. Their predecessors before that, X-Men vs. Street Fighter, X-men Children of the Atom, Marvel Super Heroes (another Capcom based fighting game). But what people in the United States may NOT remember is one of the other fighting game franchises that smashed a bunch of characters from different games together from one company under one roof : The King of Fighters. But if you saw that picture above this article immediately under the title you for sure remember Super Smash Bros: Melee.
There’s at least two things the Super Smash Bros franchise has in common with The King of Fighters: they combine characters across a company’s vast roster of games, and they used cheap technology to get a bunch of people to buy their games. That last part though, happened in completely different contexts. SNK was the rival to Capcom back in the old arcade days, more importantly in the 90s. The biggest difference is that SNK arcade cabinets flourished in Latin America while Capcom’s arcade cabinets saw their customer base in the United States grow. Both of these companies had much more success in Japan, but to be a competitor worldwide you NEEDED another market and so this is tale of how Nintendo flourished in a market with a customer base of console owners, and SNK flourished in a market where consoles were deliberately made expensive by tariffs but shop owners found a saving grace in a company that allowed their arcade cabinets to be much more affordable.
Currently I should be writing about how NAFTA & international trade in the 90s was one of the most fluctuating things of the 90s. Politics and negotiations aside, this era did manage to bring in a lot of pop culture that had before previously been piecemealed. The beginning of the anime introduction to children was just about to become bigger with programming blocks like Toonami, and gaming companies were putting themselves in high gear to churn out consoles that would compete in an American market for the most dollars children could get their parents to spend on. The comic book crash of the 90s meant that superheroes were something you had to find on the television instead of a newsstand. But across the southern border a different kind of culture was taking shape, one that didn’t have many of these American culture influences.
Of course there were some American influences in Mexico & Latin America but with talks of tariffs on some products this would mean that any American product would also be far more expensive there than what the American consumer was paying overseas. There were costs that Latin America had to skimp out on, and they weren’t choosey about the type of content their children would watch. Unlike American markets, parents in these countries didn’t see the type of censorship in programming that their American counterparts did. Kids in these countries would see American made cartoons & products as the stuff of children. It was a grittier scene that many children in America never saw, unless you had a local arcade. Then you might understand the brutality of paying money at a machine only to get demolished/bodied by a kid who skipped 2 classes to practice just a little bit more.
The arcade scene in the United States was closely tied with malls, but malls are somewhere that only middle to upper middle class families could go to on a regular basis. Everyone else played on consoles. This might not make that much of a difference but in the long scheme of things, it does. Alluding to tariffs earlier, American consoles in Latin America were EXPENSIVE as were the type of arcade machines that American children were used to. Because of this you had two types of arcade scenes: one where the someone had bought a console, whether it was the USA or some knockoff, and had hacked games running on them for a price; and the other scene, las maquinitas. The real arcade scene of the Latin America.
Of course this can vary from place to place, city to city, country to country in Latin America, but generally most families didn’t buy a console for their children. Therefore the kids would play video games in these little shops, stores where shop owners were trying to get the children to spend their pocket change. If you’ve ever lived in the southern part of the USA you can see something pretty similar to them, the slot machines in the corner stores. The abarrotes stores I used to frequent as a kid are everywhere in Mexico. People need groceries, and big chains like HEB or Walmart aren’t as frequent as Americans are used to. Because of these small differences there are children who went to them more, and therefore played those games a lot more. The parallel is uncanny of course, American grocery stores have these too. But theirs tended to be expensive prize grab machines, maybe a TMNT arcade machine or if you’re lucky a fighting game or an old arcade machine from the 80s. The types of games matter, American arcade machines where generally the more high quality Capcom arcade cabinets but in Latin America they had the handy swap out cartridges from SNK.
That little difference, being able to swap out cartridges instead of whole machine. It matters. It’s the difference between a shop owner who can watch kids play on that same machine over & over again & thus switching games when they needed to, to a machine that only plays one game that goes out of style after awhile. It’s why consoles are preferred still to this day, why the arcade scene in the USA died. Why arcade cabinets are to us something nostalgic, that our children will only learn if we take the time to introduce them to it. This phasing out of technology, this is only part of the reason Smash Bros as a genre will stay in it’s grassroots. Though it is not the whole reason.
I love fighting games. I’ve fallen off from playing them so many times, but this is genre that will have my heart until the end of time. As with most things, it started with beat’em ups. My very first game I can remember passing wasn’t actually Sonic 3 (though it was the hardest for my 7 year old brain), it was TMNT: The Hyperstone Heist. I do not remember the series of decisions my mother told us to why we got the Sega genesis instead of the super Nintendo. But I do remember the only reason I wanted that game, the cover art had all 4 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on it. That’s it lol. The drawback to the genesis was the controller, I do remember thinking I didn’t want to buy too many fighting games because I didn’t have the fight buttons and combos were hard. I mean sure, I tried playing fighting games whenever I could, just not on my Sega genesis. Because of this, I think a large portion of my family thought I was only into video games for the fun. But competition is where I actually reside, this I know now. But a different controller to learn the different moves more readily, this does makes the difference.
A controller is a huge reason I stayed playing Super Smash Bros: Melee long after everyone else moved on to first person shooters. Why I still want to believe in this community. Why the Nintendo Gamecube sold so well. And why the Super Smash Bros community has another reason for not being able to grow past the grassroots level. But again, not the only reason.
I set up all of this talk about fighting games because of the community that is around them. The fighting game community (FGC) is unlike any other one, they practice their games, alone if they have to. The compete, alone. When they lose in a tournament, it can be that personal for them. This community for the greater half of the early 2000s was utterly alone, a dark period in the community that wasn’t revived until Street Fighter 4 came out in 2018. It’s really hard to describe how utterly alone the community felt around this time, but it led the way to think differently about fighting games. It is in this time that the community around Super Smash Bros (Melee) grew to what it is now. A period when wonky controls in Mortal Kombat games were the norm, and when 3D fighting games were all the rage. It’s better to call this a period of growth than a dark age, lot so mistakes were made before people were ready to return back into an age of 2D fighting games. But this time was a period of growth for the Super Smash Bros community. It can argued that Melee & the titles after it were the biggest fighting games of their time. But they did this in a vacuum, they built a strong and resilient community outside of the larger FGC and because of this, they are and they aren’t part of the FGC. They’re the half brother the FGC knew about but they didn’t grow up with because of family drama. And Nintendo as the big parent of this scene, is the biggest factor to why they can never get past a grassroots scene.
We have an American market that was largely left outside of the international scene. A series of games that beg you to play with controllers that have long since been discontinued by the parent company. And a grassroots competitive scene that is and isn’t part of the larger FGC. Now add a publisher like Nintendo that refuses to help that particular competitive scene due to old business practices and you have the perfect recipe for a genre of games that will die out if the larger FGC, no, the larger gaming community doesn’t embrace it more. Super Smash Bros Ultimate(SSBU) will be the last game in this series if Nintendo doesn’t support it’s competitive scene a lot more. The very things that let Nintendo see success with this flagship title, will be the very downfall of that title if they are not careful.
I understand that Nintendo is a business, that they won’t change their practices because of one medium article. But if the larger FGC cares even an iota about variety in their genre of games it needs Super Smash Bros to stay alive. Their are titles trying to take it’s place, Rivals of Aether & Brawlhalla are the two most prominent ones now. But for now, they remain regulated to the niche market that is disaffected by SSBU. The pandemic changed the FGC too, no longer will the offline competitive market be enough for players. Some games got a spotlight of what good netcode could do for a boost in their competitive markets. And whether publishers like Nintendo like it or not, esports is the new wave for gaming. It’s easy, it’s accessible to people who have never competed before in the past who might want to, and after the pandemic competitive communities are HUNGRY for more.
For a long time I didn’t understand why people compete in sports, especially contact sports. People running around in uncomfortable gear trying to hit each didn’t resonate with me. Most people will stop playing a fighting game with you if they aren’t at least on the same level as you. I mean it makes sense, a little league pee wee player isn’t going to want to play against even a high school player when they’re serious. But video games can reduce that gap, a five year old might actually beat a high school student if that 5 year old practiced and the high schooler didn’t in a video game. The accessibility can be a good opportunity to grow a community, or the gatekeepers can moan and whine and say how “this isn’t how it’s supposed to be”.
All the things that make Super Smash Bros great can be used to propel it into the same competitive legitimacy as other fighting game titles of today. This game could see the player base grow as the FGC grows to finally see itself as an esports genre that draws the same numbers as others. But some things must be addressed.
Though the larger FGC has a problem with inappropriate sexual behavior, the Super Smash Bros scene is ESPECIALLY egregious in this category. I cannot blame Nintendo for not wanting to work with this grassroots scene after the summer of allegations that came out. I won’t point every single one out, I do not think every person in this competitive scene is at fault. But I do think the community is at fault, and twitter isn’t helping them much either. Of course Nintendo is at fault as well, but the everyday people who work there don’t have the power to fix things as the community thinks they do. They still need to catch up in offering good online products for their customer base, while still trying to maintain their image as a family friendly toy company first. That’s right, remembering how they actually orient their business model is the number one thing to remember, and they still think they’re for children first. And that is probably NOT going to change anytime soon, and kids don’t need good netcode to play online with their friends. They just need to play with their friends.
Until these issues are addressed the Super Smash Bros scene will remain as it is. With all it’s faults and promises, this community could be a lot more than it is now. But as I see it now, it won’t. They’ll be left behind again as the FGC prepares for the next phase that it’s community will head into. I wish I could say the FGC owes the Smash Community any spotlight, but business is business folks. Nintendo MIGHT owe them something, but business is business folks. Today is crucial for the Smash community to stay where they are, or they can keep doxing social scientists they think are clout chasers. The choice is really up to them now. Me, I just entered a Tekken tournament for next week. I know which community will move forward, and which will not.
Edit: at the time of writing this essay/article, Nintendo had not officially backed any eSports circuit for any game in the Super Smash Bros franchise. That has changed as of November 18, 2021 (here’s an article from geekwire about it: https://www.geekwire.com/2021/nintendo-is-finally-creating-officially-licensed-esports-tournaments-for-super-smash-bros/). They are partnering with “Panda Global” an eSports team that focus primarily on Super Smash Bros. Though this reflects a noticeable shift in how Nintendo views its games in the competitive eSports teams, I maintain the position I did at writing this article.
Because this also represents a risk on the part of Nintendo, albeit a calculated one. Panda Global has everything to gain, with Nintendo having more to lose than them. Any incidents or bad press on the part of the Smash Bros Community, and Nintendo will pull out. Here’s to hoping Panda Global is able to maintain a good image, with none of their players getting into any trouble.