Super Smash Bros is about as synonymous with the Nintendo brand as Super Mario is. Justifiably so. It’s the battle royale of all our favorite Nintendo and gaming icons coming together for a glorious smackdown. It pioneered the platforming fighter subgenre, dominated it, and became the cultural pillar through each of its successive games all trying to outdo the last.
Smash Ultimate is by all accounts a miracle of a game that should not have been possible; and it almost wasn’t. But by doing so, Nintendo may have shot themselves in the foot moving forward.
The Smash Ultimate Hurdle
Game director Masahiro Sakurai has always iterated how grueling and hard the development and support of Super Smash Games are. Everything from character portrayals, stages, and guest inclusions have to be run by and approved by IP owners whenever Sakurai pitches an idea.
There are many wonderful guest ideas but the practicality and possibility question always acts as a barrier of entry in Smash. It was why, despite winning the Smash 4 character ballot, Sora was not included in-game, replaced by Bayonetta (the next runner-up).
It is also why Cloud Strife’s inclusion in Smash 4 was such a big deal. Due to Nintendo and Square Enix’s rocky relationship since the 90s, getting one of Square’s flagship characters in a mainline Nintendo game was a pipe dream up until that teaser stormed the internet.
Sakurai also spoke at length how, despite working his magic to get Cloud in Smash 4, trying to get Cloud again for Ultimate was almost a fruitless task. And up until Sephiroth made it into Ultimate, Final Fantasy representation in Smash was lackingly pitiful compared to other guests.
Sakurai revealed after Sephiroth’s inclusion the difficulties of acquiring the licenses to use music from certain IPs. He explained how he had to go through and get approval from all the copyright holders of certain tracks just to get it featured in Smash Ultimate, which inevitably led to notable and iconic songs not making the cut.
It can be implied that this level of consent extends to stages as well. Sora’s stage murals all lack the portrayal of Disney characters, despite many of them playing an integral role in Kingdom Hearts and its story. Sakurai and his team are renowned for their attention to detail and would not have forgotten such key elements, making it likely that people with higher authority than they did prevented them from doing so.
This degree of control extends almost to degrees of parody as well. When Sora finally joined the roster, many fans assumed that the reason it took so long for the Keyblade warrior to enter the fray was because of Disney’s mingling.
In actuality, Kingdom Hearts creator Tetsuya Nomura has stated that it was HE who was the biggest opponent. Nomura was conflicted with Sora joining Smash because he felt that it would clash with Sora’s portrayal in his home games and established lore. Disney on the other hand were EAGER for Sora to jump into Smash Bros.
Sora almost didn’t make it (again) because his creator thought that it wouldn’t fit with Kingdom Hearts lore.
That just goes to show how intricate, complicated, and mind-rending Smash as a project is. There are so many variables to consider, people to please, benchmarks to reach, and challenges to overcome. The developers have constantly been outdoing themselves since the series first humbly began in 1999, with each game trying to improve and expand upon the last. Smash Ultimate is a culmination of all those efforts, but it has set the bar high, higher than most would ever dare challenge.
Ultimate’s biggest hurdle may have been approval, but Smash’s biggest hurdle of all may be Sakurai himself.
Smash and Sakurai
Masahiro Sakurai is undoubtedly one of the most respected and revered figures in the gaming industry. From his tireless work on projects he’s involved in to his free YouTube series dedicated to helping out game developers and people curious about game development, Sakurai is an industry veteran deeply passionate about his craft.
But as such, there is a certain level of expectation he has, both out of the games and himself.
Throughout his YouTube series, “Masahiro Sakurai on Creating Games,” Sakurai talks at length about his time working on Super Smash Bros. Brawl and the circumstances surrounding that event.
In the upload titled “The Team Behind Super Smash Bros. Brawl [Grab Bag],” Sakurai provides a behind-the-scenes look at how Brawl came together beyond a developmental perspective.
From this video, we learned how Super Smash Bros. as we know it almost never happened.
Sakurai explains how the massive popularity of Smash after the success of Melee demanded Nintendo to make another game. So much so, Nintendo announced a new Smash game without Sakurai’s foreknowledge, who had already moved onto freelance work (and still technically is) after Melee’s conclusion. In fact, he was among the stunned onlookers in the audience at E3 2005 when the announcement was made.
Sakurai sought then Nintendo president Satoru Iwata to get a better grasp of the situation regarding the next Smash game.
Iwata said that though he would like Sakurai to be involved with the new project somehow, he also made it clear that Nintendo would go forward with the next game regardless of Sakurai.
The following is perhaps the biggest insight into Sakurai’s mindset regarding Smash.
Sakurai asked what the next Smash game would look like if he did not get involved.
Iwata said that, at worst, the new Smash game could be a rehash of Melee and all its 26 characters ported to the Wii, with virtually no difference across games except for the much desired network feature fans were clamoring for.
To Sakurai, this “new” Smash game did not sound new at all and perhaps his biggest impetus to sign onto the project, enough to make him forgo his previous obligations as a freelancer.
It became clear that Smash could not reach new heights without Sakurai being there to guide its helm—and he was not the only one who thought this way.
Even Eiji Aonuma of The Legend of Zelda fame made a published statement on Weekly Famitsu saying that a Smash game without Sakurai would spell the end of the franchise.
With this, we can see the two-fold problem Smash Bros. possesses.
First, in Sakurai’s mind, we see that, for there to be a sequel to a game, the project needs to be a worthy successor, not a carbon-copy port. Otherwise, there is no justification for it to be made.
Secondly, everyone (that matters in this context) counts on Sakurai when in regards to Smash, and it is not hard to see why.
The man has high standards and a supreme work ethic that few could rival.
Brawl’s entire development staff was built around HIM, the freelance director, because that’s how integral he was to the game’s development.
But most of all, he is passionate about his work. This love and dedication oozes from the works he and his team creates, and it shows. In a cutthroat industry as gaming, where we constantly see developers and publishers cut corners to make a quick buck, a mind like Sakurai’s is a rare thing to come by.
Sakurai has gone on an interview with Katsuhiro Harada (as part of Harada’s own YouTube series: “Harada’s Bar”) and said that he will keep working if there is a demand for what he does.
His completely free YouTube content is testament to that.
So, the question remains:
What happens when you combine a director who always aims higher and a game that has reached such heights as Smash Ultimate?
A nigh insurmountable summit.
Where Does that Leave Us?
Sakurai has made it abundantly clear that there is no one else who can fulfill his role, and the time he has spent tirelessly working on the series has also made it hard to find and mentor a protege.
“At present, we don’t have someone who can simply take the reins.”
However, Sakurai has also said that he cannot envision a Smash Bros. game without him being involved, which means whatever game comes next will have his input in some capacity. Given his work on the series, anything less than the director position will probably be unimaginable. It was his tenure as Smash’s overseer that got the franchise to where it is today.
As stated before, Smash’s immense popularity has made it all but impossible to not create a sequel. The near 32 million units Smash Ultimate has sold is enough proof of the series’ massive staying power. However, how do you topple a game like Smash Ultimate?
The Smash games have always unofficially outdone each other with each iteration, featuring more characters, stages, and content as the games evolved. Of course, there are detractors who are critical of the direction the games have gone after Melee, citing the “dumbing down” of mechanics for more casual players, but only focusing on the fighting game aspect of Smash is missing the bigger picture.
Ultimate stands as the ultimate celebration of gaming, with its massive 89 character roster, a dream gathering breaching the lines of MUGEN territory. Smash 4 walked so Smash Ultimate could run. All the names of copyright holders in Ultimate’s credits show how many branches of the gaming world came together to make this game happen.
Ultimate also stands as a different celebration, particularly for Sakurai. Before he passed in 2015, Iwata tasked Sakurai with a mission that became Smash Ultimate. In an interview with Mother creator Shigesato Itoi, Sakurai said that finishing Ultimate would be the “best way [he] could make it up to Iwata-san.”
That’s why Smash Ultimate’s tagline was “everyone is here.” Smash brought all corners of its games into one singular package as a way to pay tribute to Satoru Iwata, who was a prominent pillar in each of the games whether it was actual programming or advertising, and honoring the late CEO’s legacy on the franchise and gaming. It is also probably no coincidence that Smash Ultimate was released a day after Iwata’s birthday.
So, in that regard, there may never really be a worthy successor to Ultimate because the circumstances surrounding it are vastly different than merely just creating a sequel. By the unlikely chance Ultimate IS the final game in the franchise, that is something we as fans should make our peace with because there will never be another game quite like it.
We are currently living in the twilit golden era of Smash, and we shouldn’t want to leave it so soon.