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

    This game is legendary! I know growing up with a twin brother we used to play this game a ton. Its interesting that creator was able to create such a variety of characters to play with. Some of these characters being Mario, Kirby, and Donkey Kong as the article says. The newest game being Super Smash Bros Ultimate is a very popular game with over 70 plus characters. That’s a ton of characters to play with which makes the game very fun to play!

  2. Avatar

    I am in shock as to reading how frustrating and difficult it was not to just create more games after Smash 64 but to fulfill that lf every individual who purchased the games. I played these games with my cousins and would always have a blast at beating each other up with different characters and fighting to see who was the all time best. Reading about Sakurai’s ambition going down changes my perspective on the game as a whole. It must’ve been difficult to recieve all of the licensing’s that were approved but also for those that were rejected. Imagine spending long hours coding and creating move sets for characters for them to interact with one another and to make unique and determine the hit range, damage done, frame lag, etc. The series was amazing and receives much backlash when a few standards are not met. Sakurai’s hard work has built him a loving fan base and has created memories for those who grew up with his games.

  3. Avatar

    Super Smash Bros. is truly a classic game loved by many, the memories made by playing this game with friends and family alike are ones you hold close. Super Smash Bros. is game made for all to play with its wide variety of characters from various games and its cartoon violence made for all ages. I remember playing this game for the first time on my friend’s Wii playing this game with a group people you know or don’t know even is still fun to be had and overall a great time.

  4. Avatar

    Super Smash Bros. is an all-time game that you can ask almost anyone who is a gamer if they’ve played and who their ” main ” is. If anyone is to ever have a party or get together with a couple friends, this game can always break the ice with people who hardly know each other or could give the biggest competition between the closest of friends. At the end of the day this game does its job of bringing people of all interests together and have a great time with anyone.

  5. Avatar

    Wow! Smashbros is a classical game and very popular. A lot of people have played it as it is a great game and everybody likes it. I really like playing Smashbros but I never knew the story behind it of how it was created. Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of Smashbros, dedicated a lot of time and just wanted to complete his dream of combining games and technology. As a electrical engineer he could do all this and actually create one. His first character was Kirby, and then the rest of the characters were later on created. I really enjoyed reading this article and getting to know how Smashbros was created and designed.

  6. Avatar

    When I was a kid, I would play the game with my cousin who had the GameCube console and now we try to play the video game together on the new Nintendo Switch. He had an influence on gaming and it made me love videogames. Sakurai put in a lot of hard work as an employee in Nintendo and then created two more pieces in the future. The way he decided on what he wanted to do as a career was amazing. He had artistic values and put it in hand into creating video games.

  7. Avatar

    I knew Smash Bros.was popular, but I never knew to what scale it actually was. The developer’s dedication to their craft must be why it was always so well received once a new edition was released. The impressive roster of the game has cemented itself as the one and only fighting game.

  8. Avatar

    Wow, I had no idea about any of this behind-the-scenes information regarding the production of the Super Smash Bros games. I grew up playing Super Smash Bros Brawl, and I didn’t even realize that there were multiple games that went before it. It is really sad that Sakurai endured so many physical and mental setbacks during the creation of all these successful video games, and most of the public probably doesn’t even know about it. This article was very entertaining and relevant since these games are played every day by SO many people around the world, myself included.

  9. Avatar

    Before I even started reading I knew that I was into this article as one of the biggest fans and owner of all the smash bros games its truly amazing and incredible to read about the way it was made how it almost ended and the sad reality of its over I grew up with these games and loved how I got to read and feel what could have happened if they stopped at the 2nd one this is a article that hits close to home for me and I’m sure many others amazing work on this article it truly is a amazing story to tell

  10. Avatar

    Oh how can I forget the late nights of fun and arguing over this legendary game?! This article is a really good one. I learned a lot about the creator and Nintendo’s former president. This game goes down in history as THE fighting game. Anyone who has played it in the past will recount many vivid and happy memories with this game because I certainly do. The article is very informative and very entertaining. I love the series and I love this article. Congrats!

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