Lessons From The Success of Super Smash Bros.
Nintendo had never been known for its fighting games, had rarely set foot in competitive play, and had focused on storytelling as a primary aspect of gameplay, and thus took the world by storm with the whirlwind success of Super Smash Bros., originating on the Nintendo 64 entertainment system and producing three sequels to date. With fighting games sales lagging behind the rest of the market, the ongoing installments have somehow pulled head-and-shoulders above the competition. When placed in the same ring with more traditional fighting games, such as the Tekken series, the Soul Caliber series, or the Street Fighter series, Nintendo’s contestant sticks out like a sore thumb, but those aspects which make it different–and make it a uniquely Nintendo product–are exactly those which make it the reigning champ.
Primarily, the aspects that deviate most from the industry standard are the percent-based damage system, the largely combo-less play, and independent interactions of the characters, all of which lend themselves to an effective atmosphere of second-chances and unbelievable moments. While playing a few games will attest to how fun this set up is, it will require a more in-depth approach to actually explain what makes Super Smash Bros. enjoyable. Plus, by challenging what is conventional in this specific genre, Nintendo has provided a perfect window into what, exactly, makes the fighting genre fun, a study that competitors would be wise to take note of. All of this is possible because, regardless of what may superficially appear to be the case, Super Smash Bros. has highlighted the defining reason we play fighting games: fighting games satisfy a need to feel capable.
The Percent-Based Damage System
In the newest Mortal Kombat game, the player can safely expect that victory will be determined by depleting the enemies life bar, an assumption shared by the vast majority of the genre. Super Smash Bros. provides an alternative format, where combat is not a subtraction of health, but an addition of damage, counting upwards to 999%. While the game modes differ slightly in exactly how victory is measured, they all focus around a basic premise: knock your enemies from the stage. Defeat is not measured by a hard limit in this series; as damage accumulates, characters become less able to resist the forces of attacks and are knocked further and higher with each attack, until someone is knocked off-screen and removed from the fight.
Of course, this does mean that fights have no set end, and that an opponent that has been losing throughout the entire match could make a comeback. This is intentional, and does not detract from the meaningfulness of each hit. The power of each hit has absolutely no value without the percentage added from every previous hit, so landing a few weak attacks promises that a later strong attack will be that much stronger. In fact, Nintendo has developed the game to highlight this particular aspect. Visual effects enhance the collision of attacks at critical levels of damage, such as red-and-black lightning or stuttering, slow-motion framerates. This is not to reward the use of heavy attacks, however, as a heavy attack used ineffectively produces no effects. In this way, each attack’s value toward the fight is made somewhat vague, as it is dictated by all the other attacks. Instead, the focus is on creating high-tension moments by highlighting when a character has reached a critical level of damage or exposed a weakness.
This tension spreads throughout the entire match which crescendos as the combatants become more susceptible to attacks. However, this use of tension also rewards moments of skillful play more than traditional damage meters. The moment of victory is indefinite here, meaning each successful dodge, well-executed counterattack, or glancing shot could be the most important action of the game, leading directly to success. Advantages are also shifting and inspecific; in the traditional game, the character with more health clearly has the lead of specifically that amount of health, but in Super Smash Bros. a player must still be wary when fighting an opponent with double the damage, increasing the drama and making both players still feel relevant, even when apparently behind. Yet measuring by percentages also allows the leader to be visually rewarded for leading the fight without sealing the fate of the other.
This goes into satisfying the player’s need to feel capable. Through all of the manners discussed, Nintendo has shifted focus away from the moment of victory, and placed it squarely upon the play itself. A player can be rewarded even in defeat by the memory of a particularly talented dodge which, as far as all players can know, may have prevented a premature death, or by the understanding that the next hit could have turned the tables at any point in a fight. The existence of doubt about exactly how close the fight actually came and the malleable worth of any particular action prevent losses from being especially condemning, and make every game a close one. Thus, Victory is neither meaningless nor conclusive in Super Smash Bros.
Combat Without Combos
Comboing attacks is a specific concept within the genre, the idea that certain button combinations are designed with the intention of being used together (usually requiring a certain combination of reflexes, timing, and memorization to successfully do) which tends to end with a particularly powerful attack at the end, one which is otherwise inaccessible. Super Smash Bros. does not utilize any part of this idea. In this game, combo attacks are simplified to the lowest common denominator: either the attack requires the repeated pressing of a single button, or the pressing of two buttons in conjunction. Moreover, since all combos for all characters are assigned to the same buttons, there is little need to memorize to play a character. There is no skill required to powerful attacks; skill is only required to use them effectively.
The divide between skilled and unskilled players is easier to bridge in this gameplay, and refocused to be more comfortable for newer players. For some, being the victim of a combo can feel debilitating, as one is unable to interrupt the flow of attacks from their superior opponent. By reducing combos to this simplified state, Super Smash Bros. has changed the importance from knowing the attacks to knowing when to attack. Even if a novice player is outclassed, they can only fear individual attacks at a time, with opportunities to recover and counterattack as a natural, intrinsic parts of the system. The player is always able to land a couple of attacks or escape from their opponents follow-up, leaving the feeling that one could do something, one is capable of doing something, even if ,they are unsuccessful in the end.
This does not jeopardize the value of skill, however. Much like dealing a higher damage percentage makes one feel more comfortable and likely to win, so does experience with the game increases the chances. And, since combos are limited to simple inputs that must be combined with careful planning and manipulation of character placement, attack knockback, and other indicators of ability in order to take full advantage of each attack, competitive players can see greater returns on practice than in other fighting games. Overall, this means that both new and old players are benefited by Nintendo’s approach when keeping the idea of capability in sight.
Independent Movement and Interaction
Initially, it seems odd to design a fighting game in which players are not focused on their opponents. The classic layout is to place the fighters on opposite sides of the screen, facing each other and automatically targeting all attacks towards each other. Even the advent of 3-D did not dramatically affect this trope, as Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, Soul Caliber, and other newer fighting games simply rotate the camera to keep this opposition the same. If defeating the opponent where the end goal of the game, this arrangement makes sense, but Nintendo sees deeper into the genre and understands that victory is just one means to feel capable and powerful. By freeing movement, Super Smash Bros. also frees up options for the player to satisfy their need in a match.
After the starting bell, a player is free to move without relation to the opponent; there is no difference in attacks facing an opponent or facing away from an opponent, attacks are not drawn inexorably towards the foe, and a player can move as far from or as near to an opponent as they like. As a compliment to the previous points, this allows for more variables during a battle. One’s position plays into the value of an attack: a skilled player would use stronger attacks when opponents are nearest the stage’s edge, to increase the chance of knocking them off and making the success of the attack more valuable. Landing that attack, without the game automatically focusing towards the opponent, is indicative of a player’s ability (or luck) and more rewarding because of it. Just the same, dodging or defending against an attack is an option, but one reliant on the player using their timing or positioning effectively. Either way, the outcomes are placed squarely and explicitly in the players’ hands, increasing the tension of a match and the ways in which a player can feel capable, even without victory.
Moreover, independent interaction allows for a greater breadth and depth of strategies during a match. Players can use attacks with the intention of forcing an opponents movement, or as unexpected methods of escape, or in whatever other ways one can think of. Instead of the opponent, players can target the stage, items on the stage, or the open air, which is incorporated intentionally by Nintendo’s tendency to make certain attacks effective for returning to the stage when launched, and the way that free movement can be temporarily lost to perform risky attacks or punish wanton use of abilities. This further adds to the vagueness of value in each attack, since a missed shot could be useful for repositioning, and powerful abilities can require the opponent to sacrifice movement. In both cases, opportunities are created to do something impressive even in defeat, never leaving the player feeling incapable.
All of these paths lead to the satisfaction of the need to feel capable. Interestingly, each of these three points either furthers the opportunities for a critical moment or rewards the exploitation (or prevented exploitation) of these opportunities, if not a little of both. It should come as no surprise; in daily life, many people would feel unsatisfied if they were unable to get ahead, or if their achievements went completely unrecognised. In the context of Super Smash Bros., the need to feel capable through opportunity and recognition boils down to these highlighted ideas in a way that isn’t present in the competition. In focusing on finite health limits and the defeat of one’s opponent, many fighting games have stifled their own ability to satisfy players, which Super Smash Bros. has taken full advantage of.
Of course, this is not to say that these ideas are exclusive to Super Smash Bros., nor that it should be. There is a niche for video games, and a seductive one at that, to address precisely the sorts of stories and emotional needs that other forms of art and entertainment are incapable of doing. Nintendo’s interest in making the players feel capable in this series has arguably led directly to the success of the game and, more importantly, to greater enjoyment overall. By capitalizing on these sorts of topics, video games can be brought to points of commercial and critical success.
The success of Super Smash Bros. is worth noting beyond the boundaries of fighting games, as well; what is the point of a shooter if not to make a hero of the player? Why build a character in an RPG if not to indulge our desire for rewarding our improvements? Exploring how these ideas play out in other genres will advance the ways in which game designers and players think about the games they play, much the same way movies and books can encourage self-reflection or critical analysis now. Expanding the range of emotional and intellectual needs which games can satisfy will bring them to a larger base and solidify their place as art in culture. And, of course, understanding all of this will to more games as fun as Nintendo’s quirky fighter.
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