Apex of the Smash Spirit: Project M and its Legacy (XP)
October 29, 2018

IMPORTANT! Be sure to check out this review's Super Smash Bros. Brawl companion article, as well as the reviews for Smash 64 and Melee for context, if you wish.

Of all mediums of art, video games have some of the most apparent and flexible ways of being consumed, particularly in how consumption of video games can be modified. One can rewrite a book, re-edit a film, remix a song, re-paint a painting, and so on, yet video games are unique in how they can be re-coded to achieve any number of aims. We take that aspect of a video game for granted: it is code, and like all codes, it can be tinkered with by someone with the right tools. There are limits on how much one can adjust film or text or canvas while still being faithful to tone and aesthetics, much less the overall identity of that work as a whole, but game modification, while extremely difficult in its own right, allows for endless possibilities of changing and expanding the gameplay, setting, and other aspects of X game while still being fundamentally X game. While not everyone would word this in the jargon I provide, the true masters of modding have that intuition to expand a concept without breaching its identity, and among the most elite of these coding kings can be found in the modding community for Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

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Birth.

On February 7, 2011, a miracle occurred; Project M came to the world. There had been traces of Super Smash Bros. Brawl modding before it, thanks to an easily exploitable glitch in the game's Stage Builder function, but PM, which had started out as just a modification of the Falco character, was something entirely new. Fans had decried Brawl's petulant backsteps in game design, but Project M fixed glitches, removed such awful design choices as random tripping and input delay, upped the gameplay speed, re-balanced the characters, and threw in a boatload of new characters and stages to boot. Adding new content to a game is nothing new to the modding scene, but Project M offered an astounding level of quality; their ports of the previously removed Mewtwo and Roy characters to Brawl feel as natural as they did in Melee, if not more so. That leads into what's so special about Project M: the feel.

Even after reading about the hundreds of hours of work put into crafting each character, I can't quite fathom the effort the Project M team took to get this mod to feel the way it does. The weight, the impact, the momentum, the speed of running -- it all just works. Everything is meticulously tinkered to perfection. This is a game in which simply moving about is satisfying, and it elevates the experience as a whole. Of course, for you MLG Pro Gamer types out there, wavedashing and other advanced techniques are back to elevate the heights your dedication can take you, and the little quirks introduced in Brawl, such as footstooling (jumping on an enemy's head to stun them) make the gameplay all the deeper. It's glorious.

Despite the skill ceiling being higher than ever, Project M is still quite approachable simple due to the fundamentals of the Smash Bros. series being intact; when your core gameplay is intuitive as it has been since Smash 64, you can afford to up the ante in terms of skill ceiling. And what player, casual or hardcore, isn't going to want to see the new content PM has to offer? New stages, new music, new costumes; even without all these new (and returning) goodies, the slightly adjusted character movesets are worth checking out, too. Balance is better than ever before, and everyone feels yet more intuitive to pick up, with no one vastly outmatching the other. Yes, you can beat a Fox or Meta Knight with an Olimar or a Mr. Game & Watch here. Isn't better balancing a superior method of accessibility than reducing how far skill can take you?

Thus the fans decided to do what Nintendon't, taking a game that was already fairly fun on its own merits and making it legendary. Hundreds of thousands of players of all kinds tried out the mod and were not disappointed, and the mod was downloaded over three million times across its various versions. Project M got so far into the mainstream that mainstream news outlets such as Kotaku, Wired, and GamesRadar poured out greatly deserved praises, some of them claiming the mod to be the apex of the series. Speaking of Apex, the massive competitive community -- from which was born the most well-known Smash personality on YouTube, Alpharad, -- helped Project M get a well-deserved spot at the international fighting game tournament expo, Apex. As the mod required the Super Smash Bros. Brawl game itself to run, Project M could hardly be considered illegal, Nintendo never took any action against Project M, and so the Smash Bros. community flourished in having found this new facet of itself. The magnificent mod's magnanimous massiveness was almost too good to be true, but for a moment, the party did indeed seem to be over.

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Death.

On the bitter day of December 02, 2015, Project M ceased development and shuttled all content on its website, including downloads. In the place of the lovely web design and gateways to modding memories lie a forlorn farewell to its fantastic fanbase. According to the message, the "excruciating call" to end the growth of a project responsible for "unforgettable connections and friendships," this provider of "life-changing lessons in communication, team work, professionalism, work ethic, and more" was to simply end the seminal six-year sensation on a high note rather than see it decline in the competitive circles. There are also promises of some "entirely new venture" to look forward to upon the demise of Project M, but from what I gather, this promise has not yet been fulfilled since all those years ago.

Naturally, the ever-active Project M fanbase were shocked and saddened to see the sudden and confusing end to the development of a community treasure. It's uncertain as to what is to blame for this unfortunate undermining, but the immediate impulse implicates Nintendo. The mega-corporation had refrained from making any statement on the work, with the closest thing to a stance being the unreasonable banning of people discussing the mod on Nintendo's now-dead Miiverse platform. The bans were under the pretense of "criminal activity," despite legal precedent frowning upon this libelous accusation; as they do today with their egregious flouting of copyright law, Nintendo demonstrated back then their illiteracy in legal matters and consumer rights. Perhaps even worse was the possibility of their censoring people on Twitch. There is no legal case for Nintendo to take a stance against works Project M. It is simply the delusions of a company who, having perhaps more power in these regards than it should over in Japan, is so out of touch with U.S. law (to say nothing of ethics) that it tried to sue Game Genie for allowing players to use cheat codes on the games they bought. As lawyer Steven McArthur put it, "It is legally unnecessary and also a terrible business and marketing policy for game companies to shut down all fan-made projects celebrating their IP."

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Still, the actual PM site message seems to suggest that the possibility of a waning competitive scene was to blame; I know of no certain way to quantify this claim, although I do know Project M was a big deal at Apex '13 and '14, and its cancellation at '15 certainly resulted in some... mixed feelings. Yet I think it more revealing that the Project M Team's legal consultant -- because you need one of those when it comes to modifying a product you already bought -- says that they never got any direct threats from Nintendo, but the threat was there. And, heck, as for that Apex cancellation, who's to say that the same Nintendo that interfered in Apex 2013's Melee charity stream, thereby egregiously wronging the people who joined together to donate dozens of thousands of dollars to get Melee to the prestigious position, wouldn't use its influence to hinder the people who just want to voice their passion for Nintendo's own products here, either? I suppose having a series that invariably sells millions of copies to a loyal fanbase isn't good enough for the big N; gotta stamp out those community passion projects that aren't even hurting the sales numbers or posing any threat to trademark!

So that's Nintendo for you. In an era in which the likes of Valve and Sega embrace their communities and bring their hard work to a wider audience for more to have fun and make memories together, Nintendo puts the squeeze on those who have naught but admiration for them. It's not even financially motivated -- at least, not smartly so. I suppose I'll never understand the type of delusions that Nintendo the publisher operates on that just makes things worse for Nintendo the developers and Nintendo the community, but I'm not the one with millions of loyal supporters and millions of dollars streaming in from them, so what do I know? All I know is that it was a dark day when the book closed on Project M, the most remarkable video game mod ever made. It brought back the ill-devised Brawl from the dead, only for Nintendo to shove it back into the grave. Such is life.

But Project M had more than one life.

Legacy.

See, you can snub out a big mod like Project M, but it takes a lot more than that to knock out the Smash Spirit. The Brawlvault.com modding community still lived on, and there was no slowing down the people expressing themselves by creating original content and translating their favorite works into a game they love. New variations on Project M's themes began to pop up, the results of people's custom mod setups, more personalized than polished, but nevertheless fun. But it was destiny that an especially remarkable new work be birthed, drawing inspiration from Project M's innovation all the while turning it into something new and wonderful. A new challenger approaches: Super Smash Bros. Legacy XP!

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The Goliath of a mod that is Super Smash Bros. Legacy XP -- yeah, that really is the title -- had fairly humble beginnings as a few different projects that would eventually become one under the guiding hand of one Mr. David. V. Kimball. Project M XP and Smash Bros. Legacy were once but two of the increasingly samey (and confusingly named) Smash Bros. mods floating about on Brawlvault, but upon hearing of the shutdown of Project M, Kimball helped unify the efforts of modders. Legacy XP was never intended to continue Project M's development, as David and his teammates will readily attest, but more of a "best hits compilation" of the best the modding community had to offer. Even in these early stages, Kimball and crew had a more coherent vision than the likes of such failed groups as "the New PM Development Team." In the words of Mr. Kimball -- whom I interviewed alongside other prominent modders Shockbound, codes, and HyperL!nk -- "Legacy XP survived because it didn't claim to be a Project M replacement."

A "best hits compilation" is nice and all, especially when you're working with the creations of the ever-creative and diligent Brawl modding community and especially if you're as open about development process to your fellows as the Legacy XP team is, but is that enough to carry Legacy XP to its current distinction as the most notable Brawl mod currently in development? The Legacy XP team wasn't complacent; after gaining community respect and connections by showcasing content from around the Brawlvault website, they used their acquired clout to obtain help to create original content. And what wonderful content there is in Legacy XP!

One of the defining traits of the Brawl modding community are new playable characters, -- look no further than the freakish fun of Smash Bros. Infinite for evidence of that -- yet there's no denying a lack of polish. Legacy XP's focus, however, proved enough to result in the creation of additional characters of impeccable quality worthy of comparison to official mainstays. Thought Project M's re-additions of Roy and Mewtwo were impressive? How much more of a Herculean task must it have been to introduce the likes of Geno, Metal Sonic, and, yes, even Waluigi to the same level of polish to be expected from a triple-A studio effort? Yes, it's true; everything here feels as right as the lofty standards the series has set for tactile gameplay. There's no lack of creativity here, either; every character is his own beast, even the newly de-cloned versions of Dr. Mario, Lucina, (Mage) Ganondorf, and so on. Having over 50 unique characters is no obstacle to replay value; 300 hours never went by so quickly.

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Of course, one wants to have plenty of battlegrounds to do all that brawling in, but that's the beauty of Legacy XP being both an expansion of playable characters and stages -- you get a lot more toys to play with, and a lot more battlegrounds to do so in. Every stage in prior Smash history is here, as well as a few from Smash 4, despite the Legacy XP team's general philosophy of staying away from including content of recent games in the interest of uniqueness and not imposing upon physical releases. For you purist types, there's variants of stages that have their hazards removed, allowing one to appreciate the sights and focus on fighting only the actual opponents. Then you have those wonderful community-made maps; aside from rapturous re-skins (such as the Bridge of Eldin from Zelda: Twilight Princess being constructed of Mario Bros. block and lit by an angry SMB3 sun), there's Bowser's Castle from the Mario games, Windfall Island from the Legend of Zelda, the Sky Pillar from Pokemon... how about I save you the time of a lot of naming and just tell you that this mod has 875 stages? Yeeeep.

It's a wonderful thing; Sakurai made Brawl to be little more than party-game spectacle, then Project M came along and said "Here's how you do that without the gameplay being inferior." After Project M got the ax, yet more passionate Nintendo fans came along and not only continued Project M's legacy; they beat Brawl at its own game of showmanship, all the while maintaining gameplay excellence. And the momentum's still going; Legacy has a slimmed-down, easy-to-install Tournament Edition (TE), a package that's very approachable for newcomers to the modding scene to set up and one that that's been making waves in the competitive scene, carrying on the presence of Project M, in a way. That brings me back to my opening statement about mods being such a precious element unique to gaming; where else do you see something like this? Where else can one see fans being united by a good game, only to band together to help a misstep become a masterwork? Even Nintendo seems to have taken notes, with Smash 4 raising the previously collapsed skill ceiling that Project M demonstrated the demand for, and the upcoming Smash Ultimate trying to approximate the sheer mass of quality content that Legacy XP offers. By making these amazing works of self-expression, the official series had to raise its standards, thereby giving us all even more to enjoy! That's what so wonderful about works like Project M and Legacy XP; they challenge and realize innate potential, elevating the unassuming to the undefeatable.

And that's the Smash Spirit.

Feedback
hastypixels hastypixels - November 10, 2018 (12:18 AM)
I have seen more than a few instances of fans taking better care of legacy IP than the studios that own and/or create them, and though that's because it was harder to make money on legacy IP than it is now, somewhere between the extra work, cost and market saturation, the point of doing it was lost.

Yet there's one darn good reason for supporting older games, especially within franchises, and that's brand awareness. Some development houses and publishers get it. Exposure counts, and we've had some real treats of games land in our laps as a result: Mighty Gunbolt Burst is one such example, one half a laughingstock-become-legitimate fun.

Project M was a breath of fresh air at just the right time, and I was amazed at how much was possible on a "locked down" platform. I'd modded my Wii, sure enough, but nothing the community presented had such polish! It was as if Nintendo had realized all of its mistakes and released a new patch, ala-PC style gaming. It's not unusual for a PC game to undergo at times strenuous overhauling, but certainly not Nintendo's titles.

Even now we get modest patches, which is a testament to their quality assurance process, more than anything else. Fans have done much more than ensure a game will run on an Operating System that post-dates it by a couple of decades, and that continues to be a fascinating aspect of gaming. Transformative but wholly faithful.

I agree. Try re-writing Shakespeare and having it reflect the work accurately. Yes, it's do-able, but that's because it's the endeavor of a fan!

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