A Brief History of Smash IV

Full disclosure: I was a Super Smash Bros. tournament organizer and competitor in the Western New York state region between the years 2004 and 2014. I stopped hosting tournaments and removed myself from the community shortly afterward.

 A Brief History of Smash III

After EVO, the big moments for the Smash community were the releases of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS (known henceforth as “Smash 4”). Smash 4 delivered on the promise of its series creator and several teams, including the prestigious Namco-Bandai, that the series would be friendly to newcomers while making concessions to competitive players in the reworked nature of the game’s core mechanics. With this new entry to the series, Smash was able to combine dynamic aerial gameplay with solid and thoughtful game mechanics that allowed for critical thinking and smart competitive play without disturbing those who would never see that side of the game. With Smash 4 came surprising news, however. Not only was Nintendo considering competitive play during the development of the game, but was making moves to recognize and sponsor actual Smash events. The next stage of evolution for the Smash community had already begun and the next hurdle was APEX 2015, the big fish of Smash tournaments.

Nintendo sponsorship. It’s what the community has wanted for a long time. More so than the actual sponsorship, what they wanted was the recognition. Safe within the realm of ignorant delusion, the Smash community insisted that had been purposefully ignored, not given a voice and left on the sidelines. Now, with not only Nintendo sponsorship, but also actual recognition from the parent company, Smash players could officially hit the prime time! The eSports dream was within reach. What could possibly go wrong? 

APEX 2015’s game lineup was announced (with the event to take place in January) and the realization had set in. This wasn’t what the Smash community actually wanted. What I’m talking about is the exclusion of Project M from APEX 2015’s lineup. As with most other things, the community should have seen it coming, but couldn’t possibly fathom the implications of real business and real money affecting real things like public tournaments sponsored by a parent company. In fact, since Nintendo passed an olive branch to the Smash community, Project M footage was becoming scarce, with some events opting to leave Project M out of their lineups entirely. What is Project M? Let’s talk about that for a bit. 

Let’s clear the air about a few things regarding Project M. Project M is an effort by a subset of the Melee community to use Brawl’s resources to re-invent a new game in the form of Melee 2.0. Project M is a modification of Super Smash Bros.: Brawl that uses the Brawl disc, Brawl assets, a modified Melee gameplay engine, a combination of Brawl and Melee characters, some characters new to the Smash franchise and a whole host of other changes. The game is an imagining of what the community would have expected, or wanted, Brawl to be (despite repeated statements from Sora, Ltd. that Brawl would not be what the Melee base envisioned). Project M’s initial goal was to make Melee 2.0 with Brawl’s character roster, but quickly took a turn when the team probably realized how hungry the community was for a game like Project M. Project M evolved from Melee 2.0 to a community-balanced version of Melee, attempting to make the ridiculous characters a little less ridiculous and the less ridiculous characters a bit more so while retaining the fast input-heavy gameplay of Melee. From there, Project M began taking on its own identity, including characters that haven’t been in Smash Bros. as playable characters before and re-imagining existing characters. 

Of course, Project M was released without any permission granted from the appropriate authorities. Nobody should have been surprised when Nintendo sponsorship meant a lack of Project M, but the Smash community never ceases to amaze. Nintendo had actually been privy to Project M for quite a while; a mod that popular of a game that popular doesn’t go unnoticed. Nintendo, however, was playing the benevolent authority and chose to not take explicit action against Project M as long as no money was trading hands or anything extremely illegal was going on. With the arrival of the opportunity of sponsorship, Nintendo had to take a more definitive stance and tried to do so without crushing the game. Instead of issuing a C&D and attacking Project M through legal channels, Nintendo just had Project M not appear as an official game at major events it chose to sponsor. What would be a perfectly reasonable deal to any functioning adult became a point of contention for the Smash community and all of a sudden they realized, “This isn’t what we wanted.” 

“What does Nintendo even do when they ‘sponsor’ these events, anyway? Provide a station for ‘Splatoon’? Provide setups? Maybe this isn’t even worth it.” Many comments regarding Project M’s removal from the Smash mainstream came flooding in before and during APEX 2015. “But look at Counter-Strike and DotA! They started as mods, too!” With reach after reach, the Smash community kept clawing for reasons, for answers or for whatever would calm their feverish disbelief in the current situation. Project M has lived most of its life on Nintendo’s whim, and has every likelihood of being shut down at any moment if Nintendo chooses so to do. Project M has no basis for standing on its own legally. None. Being allowed to still produce and update the game on its own is a small miracle you wouldn’t see in too many other cases. And let’s talk about those “other cases” (which really aren’t other cases). Counter-Strike, a modification of Half-Life, and Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a modification of Warcraft III, were both individual modifications among an entire host of community-made mods for their respective games. Both games supported community modifications with a publicly available software development kit (SDK). Technically, DotA isn’t even a modification, but a scenario that a player can create and distribute freely through Warcraft III’s in-game World Editor mode. After its initial creation, Counter-Strike got official development help and support from Valve. In both cases, Valve eventually hired some of the mod’s developers and officially acquired the intellectual property to seal the deals.

Project M has had no such history. Smash has no SDK. Up until 2014, Smash has had no post-release support from Nintendo. Smash barely even has any support for its in-game stage editor, which is as customizable as the game lets a player get with it. Project M was not an inspired scenario or a different take on Smash; it was built as a public response to Brawl and in an effort to revive what was, at the time, a suffocating Melee scene. Project M continues to operate, and the fact that it does should be a cause of daily gratitude from the game’s community to both the game’s development team and to Nintendo for letting it continue. Project M will leave no legacy, however, when it vanishes from the gaming landscape. It is the bastard child among the royal progeny of Nintendo’s longest lasting icons. Breathing is its luxury and its life is its own reward. 

Shofting back to APEX, APEX 2015 was the hotspot for quite a bit of controversy on several fronts and most of them will not be discussed here. APEX 2015 was, however, also an important turning point for the Smash community. Melee marched on strong, with more than 1000 competitors registered making APEX 2015 the largest Melee event to date. Smash 4 made its debut and had a very strong showing, with the top 8 and top 16 results looking much more varied than critics expected. What’s more, though, was the fact that due to extraordinary circumstances, APEX 2015 was able to move to a convention center as its venue. This is something I truly believe the FGC needs to have moved on to some time ago; it’s time for these events to graduate from hotels and move into actual halls. I understand the convenience of hosting a local or regional event in a hotel, but majors and international competitions need actual halls to conduct proper events. Hosting an eSports event in a Holiday Inn is the equivalent of performing a rock concert out of your garage; the music might be good but nobody who isn’t familiar with you will take you seriously. Smash got to it first though, albeit through the hard work of APEX’s staff and its corporate supporters. Hopefully this is the beginning of a positive trend in events moving on to more mature and reliable spaces. 

It’s a few months into 2015 now and Smash marches on confidently. Even without Brawl, the community will still trip and stumble on occasion, but it has some exciting days ahead of it. NorCal Regionals, a premiere FGC event as of this writing has two versions of Smash among its top four registered games with Smash 4 even edging out Melee in entrants. Between FGC and Smash-specific events and EVO rounding out the tournament year, Smash can move forward knowing that no matter how hard it screws up, it just has the magic touch (and the numbers) to keep moving forward.

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