The Super Smash Bros. series is an undeniable hit. It has sold a combined 21.2 million copies worldwide since the release of the original in 1998, according to VGCharts. For comparisons sake, the Soul Calibur series began roughly contemporaneously and has more games on more systems but has sold just under 7 million copies in total. Yet, no other company has attempted to emulate the series’ unique take on fighting games. Other successful, innovative games like Street Fighter 2, Mario Kart, and Super Mario 64 (to name a few) have been shamelessly copied to no end. What makes Super Smash Brothers so different?
You might be thinking, but Chris, the series has had its share of shameless copies. But, as much as the developers seem to think they are copying Smash Bros., they are nothing like the game they attempt to emulate. Take the most recent attempt, TMNT: Smash Up. Ubisoft is very clearly not trying to hide the fact that they see the game as a SSB clone. They contracted Game Arts, one of the studios that collaborated on Brawl, to make the game (a point Ubisoft includes in basically all promotional material). It is set in the same 2.5D perspective. It even has the word “Smash” in the freaking title. But it is not a Smash Bros. clone. Not even close.
The fundamental misunderstanding of Ubisoft, as well as its predecessors, is to assume that the core allure of Smash Bros. comes from two things:
- The capacity to play with up to four players
- Frentic, hard to follow action
But these are only incidental to the fundamental innovation behind the series, or in the second case probably detrimental, and why it has remained so popular for the past 11 years. The four-player “party” scheme, for example, is almost completely ignored by the huge tournament scene that arisen around Melee and, to a lesser extent, Brawl, where the focus is on more traditional 1v1 bouts.
The true key to the success of Smash Brothers is its innovative damage system. Instead of having a life bar that is slowly whittled like every other fighter, including every single attempted Smash Brothers clone, the series employs a damage counter that goes up with additional damage. The higher the damage counter, the further one flies when hit, with the ultimate goal of knocking the opponent off the stage/screen. This system weakens the effectiveness of spammy damaging moves while adding a whole new layer of strategy around avoiding falling/flying to ones death while enacting the same fate on ones combatant. This way a heavily damaged player can easily defeat less damaged foes through strategic use of edgeguarding/spiking, a balance that almost all other fighting games since Street Fighter have achieved through incredibly complex and hard-to-implement combos and unblockable moves.
The other key innovation of the Smash Brothers series not picked up by its putative copycats is the control scheme. Most fighting games have very intricate move setups that rely on half/quarter circles on directional pads or multiple button press combinations, largely because they have the (long dead) arcade audience in mind. Smash Brothers, never aiming for the arcade crowd, implemented a simple move system that:
- relied solely on combinations of one button press and one directional input, which made moves more immediately accessible and intuitive
- used the capacity of the then new thumbsticks to distinguish between the force applied to by the player calibrate the relative strengths of moves
- was universal for every character, with every button press being usable for very character and doing roughly similar things, making switching between characters and understanding their relative strengths and weaknesses much easier.
Because the traditional fighting games appeal to both arcade and d-pad fetishists, they are locked into their overly complex input schemes. But one wonders why Smash Brothers clones feel so similarly compelled.
The saddest part of this whole thing is that the Smash Brothers series as a whole is incredibly poorly executed. The games are glitchy, poorly balanced, and wracked with incredibly unoriginal character designs. They all basically trade on the uniqueness of their scheme and pure Nintendo nostalgia to get the sales they do. A well-made straight-up clone would probably sell incredibly well, even without a strong license, largely due to the miserable quality of the competition. Yet no one has ever tried, contenting themselves to failed four-player frenzy fests that completely miss the point.