Analyzing the Smash Roster — Super Smash Bros. (N64)

What are the criteria for a character’s inclusion in the Super Smash Bros. series? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but in the decade and a half since the first game’s release it’s been a lot of fun to speculate. The topic itself isn’t inherently exciting — the answer is probably something close to “the characters most popular with our current target market” — but it tangentially touches a lot of side-topics which are quite interesting indeed. Things like, what makes a popular video game character in the first place? And what keeps them there? How are those characters defined and categorized in our communal consciousness? What is each character’s role in how games are played and perceived? Are these even important questions to ask?

The Smash series has a lot of characters to pick from. Sixty-two at the time of this writing, with more on the way as DLC for Smash 4. Way too many to look at coherently in one article. So for now I’d like to stick to the original Super Smash Bros., released for N64 in 1999 to a different generation of gamers.

The Original 8

Originally, there were only eight fighters in Smash:

Defining the criteria for this cast is easy, but not trivially so. At first glance you might say it’s something like “the eight most popular Nintendo characters at the time”, but that is incomplete. For one thing, it’s hard to argue that Fox, only two years removed from what is still considered his best game, was more popular than the fourth most popular Mario character, or the tenth most popular Pokémon. If that were all there was to it, Smash 64 would have been four Mario characters, five Pokémon, and Link.

And it clearly wasn’t “the most popular Nintendo 64 characters”. Donkey Kong 64 was still ten months out. The next Metroid game wasn’t even destined to beat the next Smash game to market.

How about “the most iconic Nintendo characters”? That’s closer, but still fuzzy. Characters like Pit and Little Mac are absolutely iconic of a particular era of Nintendo history; what caused them to be left behind? What about Marth, the main hero from the first game in Nintendo’s only tactical RPG series? Yoshi is iconic for sure, but he got his start as a sidekick and then earned his starring roles only after a period of time. Couldn’t the same be said for Wario, who made the transition from quirky villain to lovable anti-hero? And then we have Samus, who is undoubtedly iconic and did make the cut, but who hadn’t had a starring role in five years and whose series looked to be on the decline. When selecting between icons, neither past success nor future success looked to be a good indicator.

So we can’t boil the criteria down to a single, decisive trait. What we can do is look at those traits all these characters have in common. Only then does a pattern emerge. The original eight were:

  • first-party Nintendo characters
  • with prominent roles
  • as good guys
  • in at least two titles
  • that are available in all three major markets
  • and who aren’t joined by anyone else from their own game series.

Adding up all these traits gives us a much better final roster than going with “most popular”. It gives us a nice cross-section of Nintendo history, representative of characters both old and new, from a wide variety of genres and visual styles. It has a nice “makes sense” quality, the kind of thing which only looks effortless. It’s really hard to make a case that any other character deserves one of these eight spots. I had never played a Pokémon game when Smash 64 came out, and had no particular affection for Pikachu, but I immediately recognized why he was there and knew he deserved his spot.

The criteria were loose enough to catch necessary edge cases like Pikachu and Yoshi, but tight enough to give the game a very structured feel. There weren’t just eight characters, there were eight stages, and everyone had their own home turf. Everyone had a unique icon, an instantly-recognizable emblem from their games that sat underneath their health indicator. Everyone had their own unique victory music which played when they came out on top in a fight. Rather than the hodgepodge the series would eventually become, Smash 64 is cleanly and equally divided among the Original 8.

I think this is key to understanding the role of Smash 64 as a part of its own series and in the video game landscape as a whole. It was originally a quirky cross-over game, not a vast and all-inclusive celebration of all things Nintendo. This is noticeable in the game’s cartoony art, where all the characters are drawn in a style distinct from the games they came from. Pikachu is a little too big, Samus a little too small. Mario and Link have weird noodle appendages. Nothing was quite cutesy enough for Yoshi or Kirby. In other words, Smash 64 is its own little world, and the fighters are all just visitors here. A round table with eight places set.

The fighters in Smash were there to serve the game itself. It was not yet true that Smash was there to serve Nintendo and its community.

The Original X

Why stick with 8? It’s a nice number for a fighting game roster, sure. Enough characters to offer some variety, but not so many that you’re overwhelmed with options and styles. The original Street Fighter II had 8 fighters to pick from. It makes for a nice, clean 4×2 selection grid.

But let’s say sticking with 8 wasn’t necessary, or desirable. Keeping the original criteria in tact, what other characters might have made the cut? Or, phrased another way, which characters from future Smash titles might have gotten in earlier, had the roster been larger and the original criteria adhered to?

My research wasn’t exhaustive, but I found four obvious candidates that don’t break any of the criteria:

This roster looks a little weird, though. It no longer has that “makes sense” quality, even though we’re still in the bounds of our criteria. Pit and Little Mac are both well-known for their NES appearances, but their sequels weren’t nearly as enduring. (How many of you even knew Kid Icarus had a Game Boy sequel?) Wario gets in under the same technicalities as Yoshi, but he somehow just doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe his design is just too reliant on Mario’s to work? Or maybe most players continued to see him as a villain, despite having two adventures of his own? Captain Falcon came from a much-loved series, but the series is loved for its speedy gameplay and not its characters. Maybe that sets him apart from Fox, who also spent all his time sitting in a ship?

Expanding the roster out to twelve, it starts to become clear just how arbitrary the original criteria are. You start leaving room for the type of questions that plagued the roster reveals of Melee and Brawl. You know, the “Why X and not Y?” questions. Surely Marth is a better pick than Mac, never mind that nobody outside of Japan knows who he is. Should we really be including Pit, who hasn’t had a game in eight years, when loosening our “one character per series” requirement would open the door for Peach, or Diddy Kong, or any number of Pokémon? Wario’s kind of a good guy, but also kind of a bad guy, so why not go full bad guy and add Bowser?

Are we sure we can’t sneak in a character from Excitebike or Pilotwings? Or Tetris?

In the end, the 8-fighter limit is, itself, part of the criteria. It’s what causes that “makes sense” quality the roster ended up having, by not getting too messy with the edge cases. The answer to any number of “Why not X?” questions was: “Because there were only so many spots.”

The most ardent Wario fans in the world, if being honest with themselves, will be able to see why their guy lost out to a blockbuster like Yoshi. In later years, it was a much harder pill to swallow because left-out characters were being measured against the likes of Meta Knight and Dark Pit.

Secret Characters

Of course, Smash 64 really did end up with twelve characters. It began the series’s proud tradition of locking up some of its fighters behind gameplay challenges, and is one of the earliest trend-setters of the kind of unlockable content that became so pervasive in the industry, for better or worse. But who to include?

We could have ended up with something like the roster above, which sticks to the rules but starts introducing uncomfortable questions. That’s not the direction Smash 64 went. Instead, it very purposely bent the criteria just enough to sneak in a couple more edge cases:

First off, Captain Falcon immediately made the cut, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike Wario Land and Kid Icarus, the F-Zero series was modern and popular. He’s a good example of what the top of Nintendo’s B-List looks like.

The other three secret characters each break one of the criteria, but in an enlightening way. Each of them feels like a character that would have been in the Original 8, if there were no criteria to follow. And the ways in which the criteria were bent offer some insight into how the roster would grow over the years, as it ballooned up from 8 to 62.

Luigi is the most obvious choice, the clear counterpart to his big brother. Mario’s level in the 1-player mode includes Luigi as a CPU partner, and unlocking him is as easy as playing the bonus practice with the Original 8, something every player is likely to do within two hours of turning the game on. Any game with unlockables needs one as easy as this to get the player comfortable with the idea. And having one fighter be similar, but not exactly identical to, the “main” character is a fighting game tradition dating back to Ryu and Ken.

Jigglypuff and Ness are the most interesting choices, though. They each represent fan favorites, characters that made some fraction of the player base really happy. What these two characters possess, though, is a whimsical design that speaks to players who don’t know who they are yet. Appealing to fandoms and creating new ones both became important aspects of roster selection in future Smash titles.

I can go a little deeper into this idea, because I’m representative of both sides of that coin. I was a huge fan of EarthBound when Smash 64 came out, and was over the moon when I got the game and found out he was in it. His inclusion was so left-field unlikely that it seemed like a miracle to me. They even got his victory fanfare exactly right! My favorite part of the Sound Stone ditty. I used it as my Windows 98 startup sound for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I had never heard of Jigglypuff and was initially a little put off that they’d include such a nobody. But actually playing the game turned me around on the character in a big way. She has a cute design that’s hard to dislike, adorable sound effects, and a fun gameplay style that really clicked with me. What I came to realize is there were players out there who felt about Jigglypuff the way I felt about Ness, and vice-versa.

Secret characters are a good place for a fighting game to get a little crazy with movesets, and Smash 64 was already pretty crazy. These characters are a little more unconventional in how they move and what they can do. Ness lacks a traditional recovery, requiring both planning and accuracy to keep himself on the stage compared to the third jumps of the Original 8. Captain Falcon has both a powerful but non-variable wind-up as well as a mid-air grab. Jigglypuff has a one-hit kill that only works at point blank range. These are characters a player might not want to try until they’ve already mastered the basics.

So the game needed secret characters, and the selection process for vetting them made some pretty interesting choices. All of these ideas informed how the series would grow over time.

Smash 64’s Legacy

I think they got Smash 64’s roster as close to exactly right as they were ever likely to get it. They split the difference between making the game feel like the sum of all its component parts, while still pandering to important sub-fandoms in the greater Nintendo community. Every character was fun to play as, and nobody was so weird or quirky that fans of the character couldn’t reasonably use them. The roster definitely didn’t happen by accident; it only looks like they made all the obvious choices.

Most importantly, remember that there were no guarantees in 1999 that there would ever be a Smash Bros. 2. There clearly had to be room to grow outwards, and the secret characters showed fans some tantalizing ways that growth could happen. The roster had to be strong enough that players in 2015 could look back at the one and only Smash Bros. game and know they got it right. We don’t live in that world, but I still think it’s safe to look back from 2015 and say that.

Smash 64 has the best roster in the series. There are no dud characters, no shameless clones, and no obscure head-scratchers. It doesn’t feel bloated or overcrowded. It feels like they hit all the high notes without leaving anybody out.

And it gave Metroid fans reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, Nintendo hadn’t forgotten about them after all.*

*(My apologies to EarthBound fans, who actually were forgotten, and would remain so indefinitely.)

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2 comments to Analyzing the Smash Roster — Super Smash Bros. (N64)

  • This was a really cool post to read, and I’m excited to see how you tackle the rest of the series!

  • Destil

    Little Mac really doesn’t belong in the initial 12 by your criteria because he was basiclly unknown in Japan. NES PunchOut was some sort of weird promotion cart or something there, they never got the arcade games. All they had at the time was Super, which is arguably a different protagonist and didn’t come out until 1998 on some sort of weird flash cart.

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