20 Years in the Making: How Smash Bros dominated the Fighting Game Community

Original Smash Bros cover art | Courtesy of Nintendo Life

Chances are if you’ve heard of the term ESports, games like the ever so popular sports-based FIFA and first-person shooter Overwatch come to mind, as those are the most popularly televised competitive video games in the industry. However, despite their popularity, no game has ever created such a widespread cultural phenomenon as Nintendo’s famous series “Super Smash Bros.” This prime time crossover fighting game consists of famous faces such as Mario, Donkey Kong, and even third party characters like Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter. Spanning five different games and still securing a spot as one of the most popular fighting games for the past twenty years, it’s kind of confusing as to why a game of such praise and popularity hasn’t received more televised competitions in contrast to other fighting and sports games.1

Masahiro Sakurai | Courtesy of Nintendo Life

Enter the creator of Smash Bros himself: Masahiro Sakurai. From a very early age, Sakurai knew he wanted to do something with technology as his desired career path. His first attempt at a technology centered career was a small amount of time spent in school studying electrical engineering, a line of work he quickly realized wasn’t for him. Instead, he wanted to do something that allowed him to have fun and express his creative ideas while he did his job. Of course, he didn’t realize he wanted to work in video games until he started asking himself “At the end of the day what do I really want to do?”2 It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1989 when he was only nineteen years old, that Sakurai decided to apply to the HAL Laboratories company for Nintendo.3

Within his first year of work, Sakurai designed his famous character Kirby, a face that higher-ups in the company came to quickly love. Management assigned their newly hired worker to direct three games for this character, and all received praise for their simple controls and unique level design. While directing the three games was the jumpstart for his career, his biggest influence came in the form of his late friend Satoru Iwata, who was both Sakurai’s mentor at HAL Laboratories and the president of the company. Moreover Iwata was, and continued to be, Sakurai’s biggest supporter all throughout his time working with the company. Their close friendship sparked the idea to create the Smash Series, since Sakurai had been wanting to stray from his usual line of platforming adventure games.4

During the mid-nineties, fighting games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat had revived the novelty of arcade games and swept the world with their innovative ideas and controls, shutting out other games that were based around fantasy and adventure, like Mario, Zelda, and Kirby. This widespread popularity, coupled with the positive relationship with his mentor and boss, was what influenced Sakurai to propose the idea of creating a fighting game that he claimed would be “like no other.”5

Original Smash Bros cover art | Courtesy of Nintendo Life

Development for the game began immediately, with Sakurai in charge of the design aspects while Iwata himself handled everything that had to do with coding. The early stages of the game didn’t get the name Super Smash Bros until much later in development. The game started off under the name “Ryouh: The Fighting Game,” which featured strange “Pepsimen”-like individuals who fought in a simple arena and utilized an idea of percent based combat, which meant that the higher the players percent the easier it was to launch them into the game’s “blast zone,” which were the areas all around the screen that would signal death if launched too close to its perimeters. After the beta of the game was presented to the higher ups of HAL Laboratories, Sakurai and Iwata decided to use the models of Mario, Donkey Kong, Samus, and Link, instead of the Pepsimen that they had used for the beta. They even renamed the entire series itself into the famous name we know now: Super Smash Bros. Upon release, it was praised worldwide, and while it sold over 5.5 million units, Sakurai wasn’t done with this project just yet. The first iteration of the Smash Bros series was only a glimpse at what was to come in the future!6

Super Smash Bros Melee cover art | Courtesy of GameTDB

With the immense fame Smash Bros brought, came an increased pressure to please fans with the possibility of any and all sequels. Just two years later, the second iteration of the series, dubbed “Super Smash Bros Melee,” was released, and it was praised for its high speed play style and the broad selection of 26 different playable characters. Even though the sequel received notably high praise for being what many fans considered the “pinnacle” of Smash Bros, the game went down in infamy as one of Sakurai’s most hated creations. He despised the game so much that he left HAL Laboratory a few years after Melee’s release to form his own company, Sora Ltd. The company was founded for him to experience what it was like to work with different content creators and develop his own games. However, the original idea for his company was extremely short lived as his old mentor and friend Iwata, who was now president of Nintendo, told Sakurai that the company planned to create more Smash games and wanted to bring Sakurai’s team in to work on them. Sakurai was reluctant at first, but he knew this would be his only chance to create a solid foundation for his company, and for the next decade Sakurai and his team continued to work on various different Smash Bros titles. While he expanded on the games’ character roster, stages, and game play improvements, it never really felt “good” or “satisfactory” for Sakurai; especially given how much he enjoyed the original iteration of the game and its fun simplicity.7

Smash Ultimate cover art | Courtesy of Eurogamer

The work was grueling and physically taxing for Sakurai, who was now in his mid-40s and was having an increasing difficultly working due to back pains and other physical sores that slowed down the developmental and polishing processes. It was evident by his physical appearance, which was more sickly and rigid, that he needed to find a way to wrap all of this up as fast as possible. He needed to create a game that would act as the possible final Smash Bros send off for the foreseeable future, one that could please fans both new and old, a game EVERYONE could enjoy! This birthed the idea of the fifth and supposed final installment of the franchise: Super Smash Bros Ultimate, a game that had all of the fighters from the previous games and then some to truly please as many fans as possible. Sakurai’s idea was ambitious and daunting, but not at all impossible.8 The hardest thing about all of this was his physical limitations and how much he taxed himself slaving over a computer to code. He also needed to contact various companies to see if it was possible to receive licensing to use characters that his fans wanted; and while a roster of 70+ characters was truly impressive for a fighting game, deep down he knew that people would likely be disappointed, due to the lack of one or two characters.9

The next two years were spent on polishing the finer details for the game and wrapping up coding that hadn’t been overseen during initial development. Thankfully, the fruits of their efforts were rewarded generously, as only a few months after the game released, Smash Ultimate not only became the number one selling game on Nintendo’s newest console, but also replaced Melees as one of the top competitive fighting games.10 Hopefully with all of this said and done, Sakurai can finally rest.

  1. “Timeline of Masahiro Sakurai’s Life,” Source Gaming (blog), October 23, 2015, https://www.sourcegaming.info/2015/10/23/sakuraitimeline/.
  2. “Timeline of Masahiro Sakurai’s Life,” Source Gaming (blog), October 23, 2015, https://www.sourcegaming.info/2015/10/23/sakuraitimeline/.
  3. “Masahiro Sakurai | Revolvy,” Revolvy.com (blog) accessed January 28, 2019, https://www.revolvy.com/page/Masahiro-Sakurai.
  4. “Super Smash Bros: The Story of Nintendo’s Premier Fighting Franchise,” Den of Geek.com (website), accessed January 30, 2019, https://www.denofgeek.com/us/go/241515.
  5. “Super Smash Bros: The Story of Nintendo’s Premier Fighting Franchise,” Den of Geek.com (website), accessed January 30, 2019, https://www.denofgeek.com/us/go/241515.
  6. Ethan Braun, “A Brief History of Masahiro Sakurai,” Culture of Gaming (blog), June 22, 2018, https://cultureofgaming.com/a-brief-history-of-masahiro-sakurai/.
  7. Ethan Braun, “A Brief History of Masahiro Sakurai,” Culture of Gaming (blog), June 22, 2018, https://cultureofgaming.com/a-brief-history-of-masahiro-sakurai/.
  8. Nick Santangelo, “Super Smash Bros. Director Talks Character Process and Development,”IGN (blog), November 21, 2018, https://www.ign.com/articles/2018/11/21/super-smash-bros-director-talks-character-process-and-development.
  9. Andrew Webster, “Why Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Was Such a Daunting Game for Its Creators to Build,” The Verge.com (blog), June 12, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/12/17453214/super-smash-bros-ultimate-nintendo-switch-masahiro-sakurai-e3.
  10. “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Development Started In 2016,” NintendoSoup.com (blog), accessed January 28, 2019, https://nintendosoup.com/super-smash-bros-ultimate-development-started-in-2016/.

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This Post Has 57 Comments

  1. Avatar

    It truly was a pleasure coming across an article that acknowledged the hard work of the developer that made one of my favorite childhood games. I loved playing Super Smash Bros growing up with my sister, and it was very pleasing to read about how it has evolved into a competitive game for the ESports community. I also admire the passion that was held in the writing of this article, because I haven’t seen any other articles that covers this sort of topic. Very well written article.

  2. Avatar

    Finding out the history behind a video game that is so immensely popular that is has national competitions was fascinating. I did not know before reading this, for example, that the creator of Smash Bros. was Sakurai, who actually created the character of Kirby. I think the idea of including all kinds of characters in a game is what revolutionized the sales and popularity for Sakurai. Personally, I enjoy the game and I am happy that someone divulged into the history.

  3. Avatar

    Despite his hardships and struggles that he is still dealing with today, he managed to pull through and create very successful and entertaining games, ones that are very different from most games in their genre, which I think that is very inspiring. Additionally he was able to retain a growth mindset and try to improve upon the previous game until he produced something he felt was better than the last one despite his physical limitations.

  4. Avatar

    Super Smash Bros. was one of the first games I remember playing and enjoying. All my cousins would gather around and play brawl on the Wii together. Fast forward a couple of years later and it’s still a highly successful game today (although on a newer game system and version of the game). So learning about how long the franchise has been successfully running shouldn’t be surprising to me but it is. It’s also a little dishearting to read about how the work has been costly for Sakurai as it has been something many have felt joy from. With this information though it eases my sadness about the potential of no more smash versions in the future.

  5. Avatar

    Despite the amount of unsatisfied fans when it comes to the lack of certain characters, Super Smash Bros. has one of the most loyal followings than any other game, including games outside the fighting genre. Masahiro Sakurai definitely deserves his recognition, and arguably more for his devotion to keep his fan base content. We all are a little selfish when it comes to our favorite characters and their representation in the games, yet its important for all players to see the bigger picture and the intentions of Sakurai himself.

  6. Avatar

    I remember back at home, I would play Super Smash Bros with my sister on the Wii and with my friends on the WiiU. It was shocking for me to learn more about the creator of Super Smash Bros. I learned that he designed Kirby who is my favorite character. I also learned about the challenges that Sakurai faced such as having one of his games be known as his most hated creation and facing physical challenges as he got older. In the end, Sakurai did not let those challenges get to him and he was able to release Smash Ultimate which smashed records.

  7. Avatar

    This was a cool article to read considering how I myself just got into the Smash Bro’s games. It’s crazy how the game we know and love today originally started as a generic fighter which was only created to compete with Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Without Sakurai’s vision and hard work the game we all know and love would have been just another fighting game.

  8. Avatar

    Of course I have played the game of Super Smash Bros as it brought a lot of competitiveness among my cousins and I. I remember loving the game and wanting the new version of it all the time. It is interesting to see how it was created and the ideas that went into such craft. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience it and think that the creators did a wonderful job of including everything that people wanted out of a video game; familiar faces, violence, competition and fun, what more could you ask for? I’m glad the author brought forward this topic that I thoroughly enjoyed learning about.

  9. Avatar

    Amazing article. Super Smash Bros I think everyone has been through this game. It is the most amazing game in history. I can most likely be sure it is the most amazing game to many and not just me since it is a game that has been so popular even after decades. It was really interesting to know the story behind the creation of this popular game. It was interesting knowing even with his ill he didn’t give up and it was mostly like an inspiration. A reason for living.

  10. Avatar

    I liked the introduction but I think my experience with gaming and the gaming community made me have a vested interest in this article. I do like the amount of detail the author put into telling the story behind the first smash bros game and the aftermath of the first game. I do wish, however, that the author had delved into some of the other smash bros games/iterations. I remember this one story with a man who worked on smash bros and played some of the earlier designs and iterations with his son. The son loved playing the game and playing Metal Gear Solid, so the father tried to get his boss to include the main character from MGS, Snake, into the upcoming smash bros game. Unfortunately this would not happen until later iterations of the game were developed.

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