Super Smash Brothers!

An overview of the hugely popular N64 beat-em-up.
December 24, 2006
As I type this, the date is the 22nd of December, 2006, and a lot of people here will be looking forward and backwards to Christmas. Chances are you're feverishly anticipating what you'll unwrap on the morn of the 25th. Chances are you may also be breaking bread with the ghost of Christmas Past, so to speak.

I'm writing this article because I wanted to talk about a previous Christmas which was very special to me. Unfortunately, the best Christmases occured when I was too young to remember all the details. Rose-tinted glasses are all that's left. Luckily, I can still remember the year 1999. For the past several years, I spend the runup to Jesus' birthday at my father's house (divorce situation, relatively clean-cut) and then get dropped off back 'home' late on Christmas Eve. Any presents I received at Dad's would have been feverishly opened and toyed with in the meantime.

Long story short, I received a very special game on that Christmas Eve of 1999. Now... what can you say about a game which turned the beat-em-up on its head? A Nintendo 64 game which rivalled the Millenium Bug in terms of hot news, and favoured frenetic fighting fixes over energy bars and super special combos? Actually, if you've never played it before, or you're seeking a fix of nostalgia, there's a lot to say about it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Super Smash Bros.

The title screen... in English anyway.

So how does this game differ from the other contenders in the beat-em-up genre? With a gimmick. Street Fighter II has combos. Mortal Kombat has blood. Primal Rage has, well, dinosaurs. Super Smash Brothers gives the finger to the one thing that united just about every button-basher before it - energy bars. What's the Super Smash substitute? Percentages. And wouldn't you credit it... it's a gimmick that works.

Each character starts the battle with a percentage counter set to 0.

Suck up a few punches and in turn the counter will go up a few points.

As you incur more damage, your character gets knocked back further, and it's easier for them to soar into the air or even off the stage.

Fatalities aren't the key to victory here - you'll have to literally sock your foes off the side of the screen to gain a point. You can generally tell when someone's bought the farm - if they've plummetted downwards or hit left or right-ways, you'll get a rather nifty special effect, and you'll gain a point (with your opponent losing one in the process). Hit them for six, and they may take to the skies and disappear with a little twinkling start indicating their loss.

You'll find that sometimes it's easier to knock someone sideways instead of up, up and away, depending on what level you're playing. The stages themselves aren't just limited to a horizontal plane like most 2-D pummellers; in comparison they're much larger and filled with unique obstacles, though each one still shares the theme of a playable (or non-playable) character.

Sector-Z takes place on a giant ship, the Great Fox, and you'll find yourself having to dodge laser-toting Arwing ships as you fight.

Planet Zebes seems to take place above a rising acid pool, and the players must take care to ascend to the top platform, lest they find themselves with scorched buttocks and a potential one-way ticket to the heavens.

Sometimes the obstacles are a touch more subtle - Donkey Kong's level has a hovering barrel underneath the main stage which can propel any fallen characters upwards (or possibly downwards!) and back in action.

So, what about the actual fighters? A fighting game can live or die depending on its playable roster, and no-one really wants to control the beat-em-up equivalent of Gex the Gecko. Well, each character in SSB has been transplanted from a famous Nintendo series. Not a lot of room for third-rate common-or-garden ninjas here - you've got Mario Mario the fireball-throwing plumber, Link the Hyrulian hero with bombs and a large sword, Pikachu the world-famous PokeMon mascot, and the aforementioned king of swing, Donkey Kong.

They're all able to make quick blows with the A button, and jump whilst hitting Up (usually jumping several times with the aid of the Up + B combination) - alongside hitting the L shoulder button to taunt, the R shoulder button to grab someone (and throw them around a bit), and Z to hit the Shields. Each character will also have some abilities unique to them - Kirby can literally suck up to his opponents, and copy their abilities; Yoshi can gobble up a character and dispense an egg holding them captive; Pikachu can zip through the air like lightning and save his bacon from falling off the level; and Donkey Kong's the only character strong enough to move around while carrying barrels and crates... alongside other characters.

Wait. Barrels?
That's the other factor which ensures SSB is different from your friendly neighbourhood beat-em-up. Items are spawned throughout each battle which range from fire-throwing flowers, to PokeBalls which summon various monsters to hinder your opponents' progress, to Heart Containers which can reset your damage counter to 0%. A lot of the items can be picked up, and in the same way can be thrown at your opponents for a strong attack. However, dropping or throwing an item a few times will result in it disappearing from the level.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Some of the more unique items you'll find in play include the Star Wars-esque Beam Sabre, the instant one-hit-KO Home Run Bat, and the Hammer. Grabbing this weapon doesn't make a crazy man appear on the screen and yell, "STOP! HAMMER TIME!" but the damage you can incur is pretty vicious enough. If you've got it, you'll lose the abilty to perform any other attacks while holding it, but you can hit anyone else for six with one blow for a certain period of time. Your chosen fighter will also glow funny colours while an 8-bit song plays in lieu of the background music.

Background music... what can I say about it? Be prepared; eight times out of ten, a popular song associated with the level will be remixed for your pleasure, and these are tunes which are surprisingly hard to vacate from your mind. Of course, there's plenty of original music in here, so don't feel the need to yell "Cop Out" at the sound production team.

The main menu, conveniently enough.

You'll probably want to hear about the different modes of play. That would be useful. You've got 1 Player Mode and VS Mode, along with the generic selection of options. We'll discuss VS Mode later; for now we talk of going solo. Training is just that, allowing you to pick a character and square off against a punching bag of an opponent, just to test your moves. Bonus Practice lets you have another try at the - drum roll - bonus stages you'll encounter during the Story Mode. And as for the Story Mode itself...

Text break! Aficionadoes of the Sonic series may recognise this finger waggling pose.

We don't get much in the way of backstory. From the introduction sequence we see a kid's bedroom and a magical hand glove rearranging dolls and props. The props turn into background objects, and the dolls come to life, becoming the playable roster. We're left to assume that the Master Hand is somehow a manifestation of pure unadultered evil - what with him being so despicable as to, you know, giving you life - and so you must kick seven shades of shoeshine out of your recently-revived rivals in order to face off with the five-fingered fiend.

You'll need to fight 8, 18, and even 30 opponents in certain matches. But in terms of missions, the main goal is always to stay alive and ensure your opponents don't.

Story Mode, then, is pretty much the generic Arcade Mode found in most beat-em-ups. Fight, fight, bonus round, repeat. Occasionally the odds are against you in terms of opponents, and sometimes you'll have an ally or two in order to best your opponent. Bonus points are gained for specific reasons, such as not losing a life, protecting your allies from damage, or finishing the fight with a taunt. You'll also find some levels and characters here which can't be used later in the VS Mode, but it's more than good enough anyway and besides beggars can't be choosers.

Drama! Action! Electricity! I should have taken this screenshot a few seconds later than this.

And so we hit the multiplayer mode, and the strongest argument ever made for having four controller ports on the N64. You can have 2 to 4 characters per fight, and you can substitute a human friend with a computer-controlled combatant whose prowess can be tweaked with somewhat. You can switch between Stock (everyone having a set limit of lives, so to speak) and Time (wherein the person who has the most points from killing their foes, wins), and you can also designate teams for the characters. Fancy a game of 2 on 2? Perhaps if one person is good enough, you can give them a handicap by having the other 3 team up. Otherwise you can simply choose to go Free For All and let havoc commence.

The person who pauses the game will find that the camera homes in on their character, allowing them to wiggle the control stick and rotate the view of the action. Here, Kirby sodomises his opponent.

Suffice it to say, it's more fun laying into humans rather than just the CPU fighters, but it's still possible to have some of the best multiplayer fun on the N64 all by yourself. Shields and potential combos allow the veteran a good opportunity to win the match, but even the absolute rookie has a fighting chance, what with the items and the fairly simple controls to get the hang of.

And that's part of the beauty of Super Smash Bros. Everyone's fair game. It's addictive as hell. You can play one game and find yourself playing another game, and another, and another. And then you suddenly realise years have passed and you still turn on the console every now and then for a quick scrap. It's not even as though you have that wide a range of options to play with, really... quality over quantity definitely rings true.

Incidentally. In case you're curious about the legacy of this game, there's a well-known sequel available for the Nintendo Gamecube. It's called Super Smash Brothers Melee, and adds more characters and gameplay options, alongside accidentally knackering the free-for-all gameplay with some glitch-abusing tactics like "wavedashing". The recently-released Nintendo Wii also promises another installment in the franchise - Super Smash Bros Brawl - sometime next year.

For the popular handheld console, the Nintendo DS, the only thing even similar to this game is the Jump Stars series (Jump Super Stars and Jump Ultimate Stars), which utilise series from the popular Japanese magazine, "Shonen Jump". Both games are extremely popular in Japan, and are finding a niche audience in the USA and Europe where it's easy to import, difficult to understand, but still easy to enjoy playing the games. Perhaps one day we'll see a Super Smash Bros DS?

The End. Ha, I know. Reusing the first screenshot? How cheap can you get? I don't want to find out...
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