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Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube) artwork

Super Smash Bros. Melee (GameCube) review

"Evolution of the Smash Spirit"

Super Smash Bros. 64, Brawl, and Project M reviews are available, as well.

After the successful experiment that was Super Smash Brothers for the Nintendo 64, our hero Masahiro Sakurai found himself with a 13-month development cycle in which to produce a bigger and improved sequel on new hardware. With each entry in the series proving a crossroad of sorts, Super Smash Bros. Melee could have been a great many things. It could have been but a plus-size version of SSB64, content to stick to every aspect of the established formula, expanding content and applying some graphical facelifitng. It could have dedicated itself to being a purely simple experience, with not deepened gameplay but instead a new bag of party tricks to get old and be disposed of once the next entry came 'round. It could have been the perfect realization of whatever Sakurai's nebulous image of the spirit of the series was meant to be. What Melee was was a slightly unpolished, imperfect vision, and what Melee is is a truly remarkable community phenomenon that rose from this.

If I were to describe what makes Melee work in one word, that word would be minutiae. The overall structure set by Smash 64 needed few, if any, alterations; the work that was to be done related to keeping the gears of the machine well-oiled and in proper place. The foundation's still there -- unfettered movement, ring-out combat, four-fighter free-for-all frenzy, more fan service than you could shake a Home-Run Bat at -- but the altercations made to Melee's physics and engine make the sequel a decidedly different beast for players to tame. The tactile feel of the gameplay is exquisite: inputs snapping into action with hardly a frame to spare, jumps containing perfect preservation of momentum, a array of animations for movement and action alike, attack impacts demonstrating the right type of quality and quantity of particle effects and momentary stun to just seem right. If anything, the movement is too responsive; try to put in another imput the second before a Falcon Punch animation is complete, and the game won't bother to serve you up a jump or whatnot. You don't have to memorize frame counts and all that to have some good fun in the game, but mastery of Melee demands precision, dedication, knowledge of mechanics.

Melee is legendary for its stratospheric skill ceiling, and this is because Melee is designed to be as deep and flexible a sandbox as a fighting game can be. Much of this is easy to recognize on a surface level; take a gander at the expanded roster. Sure, the new character count is an addition of only about eight once you take "clone" characters with largely identical movesets out of the equation, yet the variety and creativity on display is remarkable. No lack of imagination could have produced the likes of the Ice Climber duo's simultaneous control of two characters, Mr. Game & Watch's eccentric and floaty animations, Marth's swordplay inflicting varying knockback and damage depending on which part of his shining blade strikes his foe, Princess Zelda transforming into her ninja alter ego Sheik and vice versa. While there are some weak links in the roster, the amount of effort making each character unique and viable is difficult to fathom.

Even more difficult to fathom is the sheer amount of depth to the gameplay due to tiny but significant gameplay quirks. One immediately obvious godsend is directional influence (DI), which allows one to control his trajectory when being knocked back, introducing more mindgames and survival options. Other elements are more obscure; to alleviate SSB64's problem of players getting indefinitely juggled by opponents once in the air, Sakurai added an air-dodge function that just so happens to have a sort of diagonal sliding effect when used during a hop ever sop slightly off the ground, resulting in new (not necessarily overpowered by any means) ways to approach combat since this allows you to charge attacks as you move forward. Then there's L-cancelling, which basically eliminates landing animations upon hitting the ground. Sakurai acknowledges being aware of the former during development -- he decided to keep it in the game -- and the latter is obviously intentional due to having specialized animations and even a tutorial in Smash 64. For whatever reason, the same Masahiro Sakurai who later decided to lower the skill ceiling and make the series less competitive also decided it was cool to have these and many other seemingly inaccessible techniques in Melee (the only one that could be unanimously considered outright broken being an infinite grab combo the Ice Climbers can pull off). It's hard to tell exactly what Sakurai intended Melee to be -- the dumbing-down of Brawl proved he didn't mean it when he said he wanted each Smash game to be played the way the player wanted to play -- but whatever he wanted Melee to be, it's certain that the player community has had at least as much of a say in the matter.

Brawl was a game that catered to casual audiences, resulting in a large one that lasted for a good while yet whose staying power is long gone now; it didn't care one bit for players wanting to hone their skills, and therefore it never got much of a competitive scene in the first place. Melee saw that its fan service already appealed to all types, even though its also massive casual audience eventually moved on; Melee's embrace of depth, intentional or otherwise, has resulted in a competitive scene spanning 15 years and counting. It makes perfect sense; anyone can have fun with a game like this, just as anyone can have fun with chess without being a Casparov. Those willing to walk such a path can see their abilities grow over a course of years, learning new ways to play all the while. Few other sandboxes are as ideal; even the most dry of scenarios contains the library of variables including the space between players, the characters being played, what hitboxes are at each other's disposal, the environs, how one will DI if hit, if X or Y player decides to shield or move or feint or dodge or attack in one of any number of manner of ways. There's no memorizing and reciting combos here; adaptation and flexibility are as important as knowing what you and your foe are capable of, and new strategies and even gameplay techniques are being found to this day.

This depth not only aids replay value; it makes the competitive scene an astounding spectacle. There's only about 8 characters one can work with to realistically stand a chance of winning a national tournament, but even in these few there is much variety, checks of power, and above all variety of possible playstyles even for the same character. Fox from Starfox is the guy to beat -- although he's never been as OP as Brawl's Meta Knight -- but nothing's impossible if you got skills; recall the defeat of Mew2King, an almost-never defeated foe, at the hands of a dedicated player deftly wielding the unassuming Yoshi. Melee's competitive history is full of moments like these, and it wouldn't be possible if just anybody could pull off these feats of skill. Yet anybody can appreciate the athleticism, and anybody can have fun with Melee in any circumstance.

I don't think it'll ever be certain if Melee was a product fine-tuned in all the ways it needed to be in order to realize a certain vision or if it was a product of happy circumstance. But what Melee is today is a community, ever-increasing in size, ever-shifting in its own harmony of heroes, ever-discovering new ways to maneuver within the labyrinthine law of this remarkable game's mysterious code. And that is the Smash Spirit: growing, adapting, improving.


Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (October 21, 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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