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.