February 2002

A group of about 75 students gathered in a lecture hall in the physics building Wednesday evening. They weren’t there for a physics lecture, though. They were there to shoot each other.

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You’re standing in the middle of a deserted graveyard. Suddenly, a coffin rises from the ground and an armed, animated skeleton comes running towards you. You try to flee, but your progress is hindered by the disembodied hands grabbing at your ankles through the damp moss. Turning around, you plant your feet, unsheathe your mighty sword and prepare to fight the first of an army of undead creatures that await you.

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Why does everybody love Super Smash Bros. Melee so much?

To put it differently: Why have sales of Nintendo’s GameCube gone up significantly just after the release of a game that many players beat simply through button-mashing? Why have people, myself included, spent thousands of hours repeating the same repetitive tasks over and over and over in hopes of collecting that last elusive trophy? Why does everyone, again, myself included, seem to be so obsessed with what is, when it comes down to it, a pretty basic fighting game?

In short: What does Super Smash Bros. Melee have to it that other games don’t?

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently, and reading every review of the game I could find to come up with an answer. Many reviews have pointed to the game’s amazingly cartoony, yet lifelike, graphics and sound effects as the main reason for its appeal. Others have pointed out the excellent soundtrack and an amazing, almost hidden depth in the seemingly simple fighting engine. A few have simply pointed out the sheer amount of stuff in the game: 25 characters; 29 fighting arenas; 290 trophies to unlock; three full one-player modes plus mini-games; an impressive array of multi-player options, etc.

As I read these opinions, I thought that all of these features, in their own way, contributed to the intangible feeling that I got from playing Super Smash Bros. Melee. Yet none of them separately, or even all of them put together, fully encompassed what made the game so special to me. Then, while I was sitting in a particularly boring economics lecture this morning it hit me:

The much-ballyhooed “Nintendo Difference”, the one that makes Super Smash Bros. Melee so special, is character.

Notice that I didn’t say the difference is ‘the characters’, meaning the 25 combatants that you can fight with in the game, although that is a big part of it. Rather, the integral element of the game is its inherent sense of character; the feeling that the game draws from each of the characters’ disparate previous games and back-stories.

You can see the character oozing out of every element of Super Smash Bros. Melee. It’s in the way Dr. Mario throws pills instead of fireballs. It’s in the way the Ice Climbers target test mimics their classic game. It’s in the way that Super Mario Bros. 2 boss Birdo randomly appears and fires eggs from his mouth in the SubCon stage. It’s in the way HAL Labratories remembers characters like Balloon Fighter and the ducks from Duck Hunt in the trophy room. It’s in the little details that show HAL paid more than lip service to what makes these characters special.

But wait,” I’m sure some of you are saying at this point, “Those things only minimally affect the way the game actually plays. Are you saying that hidden Nintendo fan-boy in-jokes are the only thing that makes this game special?” Not at all. These hidden in-jokes are just examples of the rich sense of style and character that Super Smash Bros. has to draw from, by virtue of the myriad games it represents.

Much like the way Marvel’s Onslaught series brought together the whole Marvel universe into one storyline, similarly Super Smash Bros. Melee brings the most popular characters, environments, and items from the Nintendo Universe, albeit in a slightly contrived way. After all, it would be hard to come up with a story that motivated all 25 of these characters to suddenly develop a desire to kill each other and thus set up a tournament to that effect. So HAL put together a skeleton of a story involving an ambiguous “Master Hand” who is staging these events by animating trophies of each of the characters and making them do his will. This story, in itself, presents an interesting commentary on how, as video game players, we are in effect doing the same thing as Master Hand, but that’s for another article.

Apart from this weak premise for getting all the characters together, HAL has done an amazing job combining the varied worlds of all these characters into one game. From each character’s distinctly structured fighting arena to items ripped from their previous games, all of the game’s elements are sure to evoke a tangible feeling of nostalgia to anyone who is familiar with the characters and their games. Even those who aren’t gamers traditionally are likely to be drawn in; A few of my non-gamer friends have been enticed to give Super Smash Bros. Melee a try after recognizing Pikachu or Kirby or some other character that they wanted to try out.

This sense of character doesn’t come exclusively from the game environment. The characters themselves are full of character as well. Granted, we’d rarely seen Fox McCloud do anything but fly a spaceship before the original Super Smash Bros. was released, but it’s not a stretch to imagine him as the quick, gun-toting fighter that you can play in Super Smash Bros. Melee. The way Peach floats in mid-jump, as she did in her last fully playable appearance in Super Mario Bros. 2, and the way Mr. Game & Watch’s moves feature only a few frames of animation, as his Game & Watch appearances did, are also indicative of HAL’s efforts to maintain each character’s character.

Perhaps the best example of Super Smash Bros. Melee’s character comes from the one-player Adventure mode. This mode lets you choose any one of the game’s characters and play through levels inspired by various classic Nintendo games. One level has you fighting goombas and koopa troopas in a stage reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. Another has you searching for the triforce in an underground dungeon maze, similar to those in the Legend of Zelda series. Yet another has your character racing on a track from F-zero, avoiding the passing hover-cars as you go.

These adventure levels help turn Super Smash Bros. Melee from a simple fighting game into a sort of interactive Nintendo history book. The adventure mode captures the most quintessential moments from Nintendo’s rich history of games, updates and alters them slightly for a new generation, then puts them together into one amazing play experience. HAL should be proud for capturing the Nintendo essence so perfectly in these levels.

Just think: What would Super Smash Bros. Melee be like without this sense of character? What would it be like if all the characters were replaced with generic, wire-frame models (such as those you fight near the end of adventure mode)? What if instead of getting Nintendo-history inspired trophies, you simply received gold medals for your various achievements? How would the game be changed if the arenas had no backgrounds, or the items were replaced with generic, non-Nintendo-related equivalents?

The basic gameplay would be unaltered: Characters would have the same moves, arenas the same dimension, and items the same effects. The graphics, music and sound would remain just as technically flawless. Everything usually considered integral to what a game is would be unchanged.

But it just wouldn’t be the same.

Without its character stripped, Super Smash Bros. Melee would simply become another derivative fighting game. It would likely garner some attention for its innovative play mechanics and high production values, but it definitely wouldn’t be the system-selling phenomenon it is in its current form. Without its character, Super Smash Bros. Melee would be nothing.

Say whatever you want about Nintendo. Say their hardware is underpowered. Say their games are derivative and overly cute. Say they’re too focused on producing mindless sequels than anything truly original. But no matter how much you deride Nintendo for these and other flaws, there’s one area in which they are untouchable.

Nintendo games always have been, and always will be full of character, and this difference will let them retain their popularity far into the future.

Well Bob, while I can tell that this competitor has obviously put a lot of effort into production, the result just isn’t up to the standards of the other games competing with it today. Salt Lake 2002 has enough to be mildly entertaining for a little while, but it just doesn’t have enough staying power to compete with the highly trained and polished games that other developers are putting forth in this competition.

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I just killed 93 people.

Before you judge me, consider that six of them were criminals, and 14 were gang members. Also consider the price I had to pay: Twelve visits to the hospital and five shorts stays at the local jail. Finally, consider that all these events didn’t really happen, and only took place in a video game.

Yes, fortunately, my life of crime has thus far been limited to the controlled mayhem of Grand Theft Auto III for the Playstation 2 game console. Unfortunately, there are people out there who want to stop me and others like me from playing this game as they would if the crimes were real.

Some background: Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3) is Rockstar Games’ latest entry into its series of games that let you play a freelance hit man of sorts. The game centers on your unnamed character, who goes underground after being set up by his girlfriend and proceeds to perform odd jobs for Liberty City’s local crime bosses and crooked cops. The games advanced 3D graphics, quality storyline and voice acting, and unmistakable sense of style have earned it consideration as Game of the Year by many trade publications. All of which makes it harder to stomach that Australia’s Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) has effectively banned the game in that country.

The OFLC offers four possible ratings for computer and video games, the highest of which (the MA-15+ rating) restricts play and access to those 15 years and older. If none of these ratings is suitable for a game, the OFLC can ‘refuse classification’, as it did with GTA3, and give the Australian government the authority to remove the game from store shelves. According to the OFLC’s guidelines, games can be refused classification for reasons including nudity, bestiality, promotion of pedophilia, or, in the case of GTA3, the relatively minor problem of “excessive and serious violence.” (Incidentally, the American Entertainment Software Ratings Board gave GTA3 a Mature rating, for 17 years and older).

The OFLC is worried that, if the game were given the maximum MA-15+ rating, it would be accessible to 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old game players who do not have the mature perspective that the game requires. Never mind those game players 18 and over, who, as a group, make up seventy percent of the computer game playing population according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Are the interests of these game players trumped by the minority of immature gamers who would have access to the game under an MA-15+ rating?

The OFLC obviously thinks so. Defending its decision in a Classification Review Board report, the OFLC cites a rule from their Computer Game Classification Guidelines (CGCG) which states that “minors should be protected from material likely to harm or disturb them.” The report also mentions, and then seems to quickly forget, another guideline from the same section of the CGCG which states that “adults should be able to read, hear and see what they want.” An outright ban of the game obviously fulfills the former guideline, while failing to address the latter at all.

The same report includes a recommendation that classifications for video games “be applied more strictly than those for the classification of film and Videotape,” because “their ‘interactive nature’, may have greater impact, and therefore greater potential for harm or detriment, on young minds than film and videotape.” Despite this fact, the OFLC offers fewer possible ratings for computer games than for films (Four compared to six) and the CGCG is less clear on how these ratings should be assigned than the corresponding film guidelines.

Outside of these self-contradictions, the OFLC guidelines seem to try to presume what sort of content a reasonable adult would and would not want to see. The Classification Review Board report asserts that “the impact of the violence [in GTA3] goes beyond that which most people would consider reasonable,” citing a scene which contains a “person splitting in half and transforming into a puddle of blood.” The report states that this scene “goes beyond high-level violence, and could be described as excessive and serious violence.” I agree that minors should be prevented from seeing such extreme violence, but as an adult, I would like to be able to decide for myself what constitutes “excessive and serious violence,” without the government deciding for me. If I lived in Australia, this would not be possible.

The report does offer some hope, however. In the final line before the summary, the Classification Review Board proposes that “the Ministers responsible would give consideration to an R rating [restricted to those 18 and over] for computer games, as is available in films and videotapes, so that adults may see and hear and play what they want – legally.” Until then, I’ll be glad I live in a country where I can gun down as many virtual gang members as I want without the government trying to stop me.

GameSpot: Playstation 2 Reviews: Grand Theft Auto III Review

WomenGamers.com: Video Gaming: Myths and Facts

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Classification Review Board: 40th Meeting Notes

Office of Film and Literature Classification: Guidelines for Computer Game Classification