The Musical Joy of Super Smash Bros.
I would say the first game with a somewhat high skill ceiling in which I achieved some level of mastery was Dark Souls, and it was a feeling like nothing else. Just like a lot of people, Dark Souls required multiple attempts for me to really get it. I believe my first sticking point was fighting Quelaag with a +1 Drake Sword and finding I simply did not have the damage output that seemed necessary. But when I came back to it many months later, armed with a cursory knowledge of how to speedrun the game, I realised something quite remarkable. I was good.
Of course, knowledge is everything in Dark Souls; when I talk to people who are thinking about playing From Software’s magnificent RPG, I tell them to forget what they’ve heard about the difficulty, and more importantly, forget everything they’ve learned about videogames, because getting good at Dark Souls is far more comparable to learning a foreign language than beating F-Zero GX. It’s about adopting the grammar of the game, discovering that there is a cast-iron logic to everything that happens. Trying to play Dark Souls as though it’s Skyrim or another contemporary is going to go about as well as directly translating each word of a sentence from English to Japanese; you might muddle your way through, but both parties are going to be left deeply embarrassed by the experience.
This is significant because as more people playing games learn more about game design (a trend which I’ve noticed in the past ten years as developers become more open about the process of making games, and which I first encountered listening to the in-house Bungie podcasts where people such as Luke Smith would talk in-depth about how they designed multiplayer and campaign maps), there could be a tendency to see games like Dark Souls which deviate from the design norm, whether intentionally or not, as somehow weaker or poorly crafted. What I want to talk about is what happens when a game is such a bizarre, genre-defying, seemingly BARELY designed mess, that it produces the most dynamic and electrifying fighting game on the market.
I want to talk about how music affects the way I play Super Smash Bros.
First let’s go over music; I’m a drummer who plays bass and a smidgen of guitar and piano, so my sense of rhythm is strong. I am also autistic, so when I like something I tend to really, really, really like it. It’s an oft-repeated cliché that you lose yourself in the music. When I play music with people however, I find myself. The Rosie who has no inhibitions, who hasn’t been beaten down by the world, who exists for one joyous purpose, bubbles to the surface. Like Margarita seizing a broom, throwing off her clothes and flying out into the sky one Moscow night, my soul is made manifest.
It is without a hint of exaggeration then, that I say Super Smash Bros. has the capacity to make me feel the same way.
What a creative and open-ended game! Where the mechanics are so simple and easy to understand, but the applications of said mechanics are so outrageously wide reaching! A game with a cast of at least twelve characters (dependent on which iteration you’re playing), who all feature such radically different movesets, movement and playstyles, that the possibilities for even a single character match-up are endless! (if you don’t believe me, watch videos of Fox dittos from 2007 and compare them to matches from 2016). 2003’s Super Smash Bros Melee is the rare videogame where true mastery is simply not forseeable; the systems are too dense, the inputs required too fast. Therefore, no player can be realistically expected to be perfect; only Mew2King, arguably the Melee player whose career has had the most longevity, can lay claim to his gameplay being “perfect”, but when you watch his many losing matches you can see that to play so flawlessly is not possible consistently. Nobody plays like Mew2King, but in 2016 it’s rare to see even Mew2King playing like Mew2King. The mental and physical strain is too demanding. His career is reminiscent of an archetypal jazz prodigy; he burst onto the scene displaying astounding technical ability, but mellowed out over the course of his life, instead honing his creativity and mental game.
Ian Danskin points out in his wonderful video essay ‘Things of Beauty’, that because many of Melee’s intricacies were in fact glitches discovered by the community, it isn’t comparable to a game like Street Fighter, where top-level players like Daigo can parry every hit of a super move. The things that players do in Melee are so far removed from what the developers intended that only a select few Melee players have made the transition to subsequent Smash games such as Brawl or the 3DS/Wii U iterations, where mechanics like wave-dashing have been removed in order to make them more accessible (not a move that I necessarily disagree with, by the way). The potential for incredible self-expression isn’t there in those games, at least not for the top professionals who play Melee.
But for me and my friends, and the majority of people who play the Wii U version online, there is still ample room for joyous, riotous creativity. Fighting games are predicated on prediction of the other player, and with so many options at your disposal (I believe it was Jeff Gerstmann who pointed out that Smash is one of the few fighting games where you can attack away from your opponent) it’s possible to mix up your movement and patterns to the point that you are impossible to predict. This ability to play your character in a way that is unique, the fact that I can watch my friend play Yoshi and think “that up-smash was so Cameron”, is what makes Smash such a special game. It’s why I can apply things that I’ve learned from playing music to playing Smash, not dexterity or finger speed, but when a certain chord might be appropriate, or when my pace must slow, drop it down to a different tempo, and take a more thoughtful approach. These are songwriting techniques, and that’s why they can be applied to Smash; because both are about doing the unexpected, and executing on them as perfectly as possible. But of course, perfection is always out of reach, so we do the best we can, and everyone has a different idea of ‘the best’. We argue and snipe and compete, trying to prove our way is the best, always pushing things forward. It’s a beautiful scene.
If this has at all piqued your interest in the world of Super Smash Bros., I recommend the 10 part documentary series ‘The Smash Brothers’, and the aforementioned Ian Danskin video ‘Things of Beauty’, for more in-depth looks at the scene surrounding Super Smash Bros. Melee.