An Orchestral Soundtrack Made Super Smash Bros. Melee Larger Than Life
The second edition of Smash Bros. can thank its intro for its cult following
When I say Super Smash Bros. Melee, what’s the first thing to come to mind? Is it the host of new characters, like the newly playable Princess Peach or the Prince of Darkness Ganondorf? Maybe it’s the North American debut for Marth and Roy, formerly sequestered to the Japan-only Fire Emblem. Or, it could be the intense amounts of crunch that game director Masahiro Sakurai endured over a 13-month stretch to deliver a worthy sequel to his mash-up fighting game?
For me, it has to be the game’s debut.
Unveiled four months before the Nintendo Gamecube’s debut at E3 2001, the trailer would eventually become the intro video for Super Smash Bros. Melee’s proper release. It used pre-rendered graphics — higher quality than the in-game character models to re-introduce the concept of Smash. The in-game graphics were great too, but the cinematic polish thrown on the Melee intro movie helped the series skyrocket in perceived production value.
Taken with the deeper gameplay — Melee introduced multiple single and multiplayer modes, as well as moves not present in its prequel (hooray, wavedashing!) — the game quickly became a virtual crossover space in which your wildest video game fantasies could become reality.
Pleasing as the updated graphics were, Melee’s intro movie caught my attention through sound. On the Nintendo 64, audio memory was a luxury. While previous Nintendo systems featured dedicated memory for song and sound effect data, the N64’s audio ran through the same processor that managed graphics. In theory, the console could play some 100 audio channels at CD quality. In reality, the chip pulling double duty meant certain concessions were made. Like F-Zero X and Donkey Kong 64, some games would rely on the N64 Memory Expansion Pak or the N64 Disk Drive add-on for improved performance, while companies like Factor 5 would learn to split sound functions between the coprocessor and the CPU.
The GameCube also featured its audio processor integrated with its graphics, but the addition of audio-specific RAM allowed for storage of greater quality music. So, raw sound data could be stored on the Audio RAM and called on as needed to be mixed into the two channels that the game sends to your speakers or headphones.
The important part here is that games like Smash Bros. could evolve from the bottlenecked N64 compositions to feature full-blown orchestrated pieces.
In Melee’s case, that’s exactly what happened. Series composer Hirokazu Ando, previously of Kirby soundtrack fame, kickstarted what would become a mainstay in the Smash series with Melee: orchestrated music. In contrast to Smash 64’s horn-heavy, jazz-funk intro song, Melee’s boasted articulated music catered to capturing each featured character's style and nature.
Though Kirby creator Masahiro Sakurai is responsible for the series, the belting choir immediately welcomes Mario as the star of the show. But despite introducing the game in grandiose fashion, the orchestral arrangement breaks for a softer woodwind section as a rose-colored background and stardust effects welcome series newcomer Peach.
These contrasts, between the delicate and gangly, raise the stakes of the Melee intro. While the original game was rooted around wacky, brain-beating action, the game attempts to recreate each of Nintendo’s game worlds as seamlessly as possible. From character designs to level layouts, Melee makes it believable that Luigi could explore Zebes, or Yoshi could race down Mute City.
Musically, the intro plays into that stylistic choice. The woodwinds that whisper as Donkey Kong leaps onto the screen comport with the naturalistic setting of DK’s games. Or the horn section that bellows as Link is introduced motivates the regal motif of the Zelda series, painting Link as the Hero of Time, even in this mashed-up world.
Though Smash Bros. wouldn’t receive a proper story mode until the following game, the Melee intro is a prophet of its arrival. Melee’s sound inspired the feeling that the game is larger than any single franchise, while still accentuating the traits that made each character unique. Shiek and Zelda’s majesty can credibly coexist with Ness’ general obliviousness. Bowser can transform into Giga Bowser and the foursome of Mario, Link, Pikachu, and Kirby feels like an appropriate team to stop him.
Orchestrating these new acquaintances in the intro movie created the closest thing Nintendo has to a cinematic universe. And as evidenced by the most recent game’s 80-some characters and even deeper music library, the ever-growing soundtrack helps power even the most unlikely of crossovers.