Super Smash Bros. – 1999 Developer Interview
In this interview with the short-lived Nice Games magazine, Kirby series creator Masahiro Sakurai discusses the inspiration behind the newly-released Nintendo 64 4-player fighting game, Super Smash Bros, and the challenges that faced him both before and after release: game balance, marketing, critical reception and the surprising liabilities that came with adopting a Nintendo All-Stars conceit.
Masahiro Sakurai – Director/Designer
—To start things off, please share your history in the game industry up to now.
Sakurai: I joined HAL Laboratory when I was 19, and soon after I was hired, I created the planning docs for Kirby’s Dream Land.
—Really? You got right to work on Kirby?
Sakurai: Before Kirby, I had been working for several months on a different Game Boy game, where I created enemy movement patterns and the movement for the player character.1 Actually, the original plan had been for HAL Laboratory to publish Kirby’s Dream Land on our own. But when we went to take prospective orders for Kirby, the demand was tiny: a mere 20,000 copies. (laughs) Then, right as I was getting desperate to finish the game and was thinking I would have to use all my accumulated vacation time, someone from sales came over and told me “We’re cancelling the release.” (laughs)
The reason, however, was not because there weren’t enough orders; it was because Nintendo had stepped in. Nintendo said it would be a waste to see such a good game only sell 20,000 copies, so we asked them to be the publisher. Nintendo also changed the title and created commercials for the game… as a result, it ended up selling 1.5 million copies.
—It’s amazing that your debut work was such a huge hit.
Sakurai: I was very lucky. When Kirby’s Dream Land came out, the Game Boy was in a relatively solid position, and Kirby sold equally well in the Japanese, American, and European markets alike. That’s a very rare thing. And I think it continues to sell well there even today. The development concept for Kirby was “an action game for beginners”, so I like to think it’s a perfect introduction to video games for young children, or brand new players.
—What was your next game?
Sakurai: Next I made the Famicom version of Kirby. We added Kirby’s “copy” ability for that game. The idea was that this system would allow both beginners and veterans to enjoy themselves; new players could have a good time just inhaling and exhaling enemies, while for advanced players, the copy abilities would broaden the scope of the gameplay itself.
We also had a large staff for the Famicom development, and we were instructed by management to finish the game in a short period of time.
—Was there a lot of pressure?
Sakurai: It was definitely very challenging, but I didn’t feel pressured. My thinking was, I’m just going to do my work the very best I can. (laughs) After that, I worked on Kirby Super Deluxe (Kirby Super Star) for the Super Famicom.
—Wow, you’ve worked on the Kirby series for so long now. Did you work on anything else during those years?
Sakurai: No, and the next game I did was Smash Brothers. HAL made lots of other games besides Kirby during this time, of course, but I didn’t work on any of them.
—Well then, let’s get to Smash Brothers. Can you tell us what the planning phase was like?
Sakurai: In the beginning, we had plans for four different kinds of games. With Satoru Iwata’s help, of those four, we created prototype versions for two of them: an action-adventure style game and a competitive fighting game. It took a lot of time, but having a working prototype like that makes it much easier to explain your game to other people.
We actually had decided on making the action-adventure game, but right around that time, the other game I had been working on, Kirby’s Air Ride, was abandoned. So we found ourselves needing to hurry and release something, and we chose the fighting game prototype because we thought we could get it done faster. That game, of course, would be the prototype for Super Smash Bros.
The basics of the game system were all there: the way you accumulate damage, the tilt attacks, pressing Z to guard, and so forth. However, in the beginning the characters were just normal human models. Nintendo only let us use their characters later. Of course, during that time, we thought of a lot of different possibilities. We considering asking someone else to design all the characters, or to make all the characters dogs—the first dog fighting game. (laughs) I also thought about using all Kirby characters. Out of all those ideas, we eventually came to the conclusion that using Nintendo characters in a “battle royale” format would have the most punch.
—Yes, it definitely made an impact. So you had the idea of using Nintendo characters for this from the early planning phase, then.
Sakurai: Well, there were various candidates, as I mentioned, and using Nintendo’s characters was one of them to be sure… but turning that idea into reality was another matter entirely.
—When did it take concrete shape then?
Sakurai: It was after we showed the game to Miyamoto himself, in person. We thought if we asked him outright if we could use Nintendo characters he would probably say no. So we did our own research and finished (to an extent at least) four Nintendo characters, then we showed him a four-player fight with those characters: “Now what do you think of this?” (laughs)
—Did you run into any problems with getting permission for the characters?
Sakurai: The first person I asked for permission was Shigesato Itoi. Next was Shigeru Miyamoto. When he saw our work he said, “Hey, you’ve got Mario down pretty good!” The Pokemon characters took the longest to get permission, because their image is tightly supervised. I broached the subject with Pokemon Company president Tsunekazu Ishihara, but the impression I got from him was that it would probably be difficult. Satoshi Tajiri was more encouraging—he was like, “this looks cool!”
Personally, as the creator of Kirby, I understood how they felt: I would feel be really upset if Kirby was featured in a game that people ended up disliking, or if the people got his image and movements wrong. In fact, there had been times when I’d been kind of annoyed by the way Kirby was depicted in someone else’s illustration or as a game cameo. Smash Bros. was conceived, in part, as a reaction against that kind of sloppy handling. I imagine anyone who creates a character feels similarly protective, but Smash Bros. brought an unprecedented number of different characters together and it was of the utmost importance to us that we re-create their personalities and characteristics faithfully. I absolutely did not want to betray the original characters’ creators.
—What were some of the challenges you faced during the development?
Sakurai: For many people, the words “a fighting game with Nintendo characters” makes them think of something cheap and tawdry. Our biggest challenge was issue was overcoming that preconception, or misunderstanding. A cloud like that hanging over your game can really affect the way it’s received. Of course, now that Smash Bros. is popular, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks its a crappy game. (laughs) But the buzz before it was released was all very negative, and we worked really hard to overcome those early impressions.
The reception within Nintendo was not very good either. It was like, “Hey… should Mario really be hitting Pikachu? Is that ok???” (laughs) When it first went on sale, there were people complaining about the idea of Pikachu holding a gun too. (laughs) But in Smash Bros., your goal isn’t to defeat or physically beat your enemy; it’s more like a sports game where you score points by knocking people out of an arena. That’s why, when someone wins, I made sure to include the sounds of applause for the victor, and I didn’t include dead bodies or anything like that when players lose all their health. It’s all a matter of perception, you see.
—Yeah, and to be honest, I didn’t have a very good impression of the game at first either. I think the image most people had of Nintendo back then was stuff like Mario Party and Hey You! Pikachu….
Sakurai: The reception overseas really surprised me. The reviews were like, “The best strategy is to just mash the A button to win. Grade: F.” As the creator, I was crestfallen when I read that. We spent a lot of time thinking about tactics (the same kind of tactics you can see people using at the tournaments now, actually), so it really hurt to see people completely unaware of that, saying you should just mash the A button… you know? (laughs)
—Smash Bros. has sold over 1 million copies now, but it was a slow burn, wasn’t it.
Sakurai: Yeah, when you compare it with other 1-million sellers, it probably was a slow starter. On the other hand, I think it’s also proof that people have really come around to recognizing its actual merits.
—Do you think Smash Bros. appeals to a younger age group?
Sakurai: No, I wouldn’t say that—at least judging from what I saw at the most recent tournament. The “height gap” between players was funny: you had adults playing matches with kids half their size. Of course the core players are middle school and elementary age, but I’ve seen kids as young as 3 and adults over 30. I would say Smash’s uniqueness lies not so much in appealing to a wide age range, as it does a wide variety of skill levels. I’ve had people tell me it’s a huge hit at their preschool, and other people tell me how great the combo system is for a versus fighting game.
—Was it a struggle balancing all the different characters?
Sakurai: We had the HAL debug team do test matches, and more or less based the balancing off those results. People have been telling me at this last tournament that Ness and Kirby are too strong, though. The thing is though, take Ness’ PK Thunder ability, for instance… in a 4-player game it’s extremely effective. But in a 2-player battle situation it becomes practically unusable. The effectiveness of the abilities totally changes depending on how many players there are, not to mention all the difference in rules between time and stock matches. For that reason, it’s an incredibly difficult game to balance.
Then you have abilities like the Meteor Smash, which can be suicidal, and probably isn’t used much outside of the time matches. I think it shows that players will embrace (to an extent) a wide variety of playstyles though, which is probably a good thing.
That said, I’ve realized now that we probably should have nerfed PK Thunder.2
—I was also very impressed by the auto handicap feature, and how it lets skilled players and unskilled players play together.
Sakurai: The truth is, more than trying to balance the different characters to all be equal in strength, we spent more effort on developing the auto-handicap system. I really wanted to create a system where beginners and skilled players could play together.
The thing about fighting games is, even if they’re popular at the game center, if they don’t release a console version, or that console version doesn’t sell well, they’re soon forgotten. I thought a lot about how to prevent that same fate from befalling my fighting game, and Smash Bros. represents my best answer to that problem. I intentionally designed it with simplicity in mind. It’s the antithesis of other games today which heavily emphasize CG graphics, in the same way that Kirby was a rebellion against character games that were too difficult.
—I’ve heard people say playing by yourself is boring, but I don’t think so. I think it’s fun to try and get better times and scores.
Sakurai: Yeah, some people are super into the time attack and score attack. These days in Japan, the market is demanding games that you can play across several days in small chunks, saving your progress as you go. The 1-player mode in Smash Bros. was created in the very last month of the development in a mad rush. I do think it’s decidedly more interesting than the typical “arcade mode” in vs. fighting games, where you just fight opponents. But actually, a lot of those fighting games, when they were ported to consoles, would add “quest modes” where you could save your progress. Maybe, compared to that, the single-player mode in Smash Bros. is a little boring. From a commercial standpoint, not having something like that was definitely a flaw.
—Have you had any thoughts about a sequel?
Sakurai: If we make a sequel to Super Smash Bros… yeah, I’m honestly unsure about what we should change. If we add a new elements to the gameplay, there’s always a chance fans won’t like it. Plus adding new mechanics would only make things that much more complicated–and there are probably people out there who believe the simplicity of Smash Bros. is precisely what makes it so fun. On the other hand, if we change nothing and just increase the number of characters, that would practically be like releasing the same game again. (laughs) It’s a tough problem, as you can see… and you can’t please everyone.
We were only able to include about 60% of what we had planned for Super Smash Bros, sadly. If we do make a sequel, I’d like to aim for a more complete, polished game. We had to cut a lot: various items, as well as a “Destroy the Target” gameplay mode. That was going to look something like the Birdman Rally competitions: you’d be standing on a platform with a dummy target, and you’d have 30 seconds to do as much damage to it as possible, and then the target would be launched into the air, flying further the more damage you did. (laughs)
—Please give a final message to our readers.
Sakurai: Hmm, what to say… please check out the “Smash Bros. Ken” website! (laughs) I actually created it to address a lot of the misconceptions I mentioned earlier, to disprove what people were saying at first about Smash Bros. being a shallow game. Most of winners at the Smash Bros. tournaments are familiar with the site, actually. It contains about 2-3x more info than what you can find in a strategy guide, so there’s a pretty big difference between players who know those tricks and those who don’t.
Anyway, be sure to check the site out. If more people learn the info there, it will help expand what we can talk about.
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Trax, known in Japan as Totsugeki! Ponkotsu Tank (“Chaaarge! Piece’o’junk Tank”); a comical shooting game featuring a tank whose turret only turns in one direction; the tank would later make a cameo as the “Moto Shotzo” enemy in Kirby Super Star.↩
Sakurai’s specifically referring to the technique known as “PK Thunder 2” by English players, whereby Ness players hit themselves with their own PK Thunder attack, causing Ness to blast away like a human projectile in the opposite direction of the original attack. This technique does not seem to have an official designation; the developers would refer to this move internally as “jibaku (suicide-bomb)” in later installments but that name did not proliferate publicly, and Sakurai himself uses the generic descriptor “karada-atari (body blow)” in this interview and on the Smash N64 Ken website.↩