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Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo 64) artwork

Super Smash Bros. (Nintendo 64) review

"Birth of the Smash Spirit"

Super Smash Bros. Melee, Brawl, and Project M reviews are available, as well.

Although Super Smash Bros. is a household name in the gaming community today, there was once a time when the concept of such a series was but a silly notion. This colossal crossover began as Dragon King, a new Nintendo fighting game IP designed around the N64's unique joystick. This oddball project was elevated into legend when director Masahiro Sakurai (of Kirby renown) took initiative and build a prototype of Dragon King featuring famed faces of Nintendo's pantheon, with Mario and Samus and company in the place of some nondescript polygon men. The rest, as the say, is history.

Sakurai's gambit carried with it a multitude of advantages. Having the likes of Link and Pikachu as characters in one's fighting game isn't just a great way to reach out into existing audiences; it gives the development team a template with which to build a moveset upon, as well as creative battlegrounds. Who wouldn't want to do battle by means of Mario's fireballs, Kirby's copy abilities, Ness's psychic techiniques, and so on while fighting on a spaceship cruising thorugh outer space, as opposed to doing battle in the then-oversaturated market of more traditional fighters, what with Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, King of Fighters, and such in concrete streets? Having familiar faces using familiar techniques is a sure-fire way to get an audience, but this resulted in little complacency from the design team, as the strange mechanics of Smash Bros. can attest.

The Nintendo 64 controller's joystick was a point of focus for development, and this was captialized upon by making the gameplay movment unrestricted and omnidirectional, as opposed to how other 2D fighters used a locked focus on the opponent. This is a far more intuitive approach than most fighting games offer because it is similar to that of most 2D platforming games; if you know how to move around in Super Mario World, you won't have too much catching up to do for Super Smash Bros. Yet even with SSB's simple attack movepool, there is still the potential for much more depth than other fighters can afford, for instead of rote memorizations of combos to excute and enemy strategies to circumvent a la chess, Smash Bros. has the added layer of unfettered movement to take into account. Already we see the core strength of the gameplay of Super Smash Bros.: a low skill floor and a high skill ceiling. Newcomers can join in easily, while the dedicated have a great deal of growth they can achieve.

Amazingly enough, neither the unfettered movement method nor even the four-player compatibility is not the single most unique aspect of the game, which would have to be the health system. Instead of beating up the likes of poor little Jigglypuff until they crumple into a helpless form, the goal here is to achieve a ring-out. To meet this goal, one must take advantage of the unique health system; as opposed to simpoly depleting a foe's health points, your attacks will increase a percentage guage. The higher a player's percentage, the farther getting hit by an attack will knock them back. Therefore, one is wise to begin a match hitting the opponent with attacks that keep them not much further than arm's length, only to follow up with attacks that will send them flying, once the time is right. While some of the features of Super Smash Bros. were precedented by the likes of Namco's Knuckle Heads (1992) for arcades and Treasure's Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyou Toitsusen (1992) for the Sega Genesis, a combination of unique variation and execution makes Smash Bros. stand out from the crowd.

Another distinguishing trait is a vaguely party game-esque quality. For instance, items ranging from Kirby healing tomatoes to ally-summoning Pokeballs will litter the match, and as fun as it can be to recognize MacGuffins of games past, it's frustrating that in this game, one is afforded the option to disable such wild factors only after playing 100 matches. Sakurai always intended to make the series a more casual experience than your Street Fighters and whatnot, sometimes to the detriment of the games, but the winning formula of Smash Bros. is that the steps taken to make Smash Bros. more welcoming make no compromise towards its depth. Aside from the aforementioned intuitiveness of the unfettered movement, even that unconventional health system makes for less stressful play, as a losing player has much less pressure from dealing with high knockback than from the far more certain doom of a low health bar. He has more options to work with, and that means there's more depth to the dynamic gameplay. Interestingly, there already existed such techniques a Z-cancelling (which basically gives you a means to cut certain animations short), and the fact that this even has an in-game tutorial screen is an indication that the franchise was never wholly intended to be some shallow party game fare.

Of course, Smash Bros. evolved its formula over time, so the original N64 is largely overshadowed by its successors. The roster, in particular, is relatively insubstantive, and there's perhaps less creativity in the movesets here than future titles would possess, in both concept and execution. Compare how every move Mega Man can perform in Smash 4 directly relates to an ability he picks up in the games, whereas Donkey Kong is stuck with a bunch of fairly nondescript punches. Here, characters have only three special moves as opposed to the current standard of four, and the physics and weightiness can be off-putting to return to. Getting hit even while your shield is up leaves you vulnerable for a few seconds, and there was not yet any dodging function to save you in the air, meaning that it can be hard to save yourself once you're under heavy enemy fire. The four-player mode is chaotic enough to be an equalizer, but the uneven nature of the gameplay hurts Smash 64's staying power.

As far as the competitive scene is concerned, there actually is one for Smash 64, but it's pretty meager, as the mechanics here had not yet been fine-tuned to their best. In a way, the roster here is actually the most balanced in the series; everyone is equally dead once the opponent starts wailing on them faster than the vulnerability frames will go away (although Pikachu is considered the best here). If Brawl suffered from being all feinting cat-and-mouse mindgames with the opponent until you hit or got hit once only to go right back into defense, S64 suffered from being all feinting cat-and-mouse mindgames until you hit or got hit once and the combo apocalypse took off. Furthermore, having just one general approach to work with doesn't mean the game is the best in that regard; Melee, Smash 4, and Project M are all more complex in regards to offensive and defensive play while being more cerebrally engaging overall. Smash 64 having 60 FPS gameplay even at the cost of visuals was a impressive feat that helps skill-based gameplay -- take notes, game industry -- but on the whole, it's clear that Super Smash Bros. thoroughly topped itself down the road.

But what a foundation Smash 64 set! A perfect blend of intuitive and deep design. A plethora of neat game modes and unlockables. A crossover of astounding proportions. Super Smash Bros. 64 was an unprecedented package, and it embodies the Smash Spirit: bringing people from all sorts of communities and backgrounds together, introducing them to great games they may never have tried before, and giving them one heck of a battleground to duke it out in.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (October 14, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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