Super Smash Bros: Sakurai Speaks
gamesTM chats to Masahiro Sakurai about the character selection in Super Smash Bros, the evolution of the series and the differences between the Wii U and 3DS versions.
Published on Aug 7, 2013
It’s hard to understand why anyone goes out of their way to declare a console dead within a year of its release.
When the 3DS was released to tepid sales in 2010, some circles considered it dead on arrival and assumed that its place in the market had diminished in the wake of smartphones – 30 million units and a few changes of heart later, such talk has now moved onto the Wii U.
Nintendo’s latest home console needs compelling software, yes, as well as those all-important system sellers, with the return of Smash Bros being one of the most crucial events in turning perception of the Wii U around.
Its debut on a handheld, meanwhile, should add yet another laudable title to that console’s increasingly impressive catalogue.
"Whether I’m working on Kid Icarus, whether I’m working on Smash, whether I’m working on a Kirby game, or any game at all regardless of how my staff is put together, the structure of the organisation or the timing," Smash Bros creator Masahiro Sakurai explains to us in a hidden during E3. "Those can all change completely, but for me, my feeling of wanting to create the best possible game that we can create using the materials that we have at hand, that’s never changed and it never will."
Super Smash Bros - For The Casual And The Hardcore
Smash Bros is one of those rare games that earns affection from both mainstream and hardcore players. Those less schooled in the ways of Nintendo are drawn by the idea of Mario and Pikachu fighting each other; for us, it’s a reverential, geekier affair where we can enjoy the richest Nintendo fan service available.
Masahiro Sakurai remains the gatekeeper of Smash Bros for these two new instalments, and even though they will release simultaneously on both consoles, Sakurai is leaving it up to fans as to whether they pick up one instalment or both.
"For me, really, I don’t have a preference whether they own the Wii U version or the 3DS version or both versions," he says. "It’s sort of like what I talk about with the game creation philosophy itself – I really want the end user, the game player themselves, to find what they like and really just go with that, so if they find they want to play on this platform, then play on that platform. That’s perfect for me. I really want to create something, again, regardless of which one they choose, whether it’s an individual [copy] or both, that they have fun with it."
While the game’s E3 unveiling was light on mechanics information, with the focus instead put on the character reveals of Wii Fit Trainer, the Animal Crossing Villager and Capcom’s Mega Man, Sakurai explains that the rules for each character are being subtly rewritten for this entry. "So as far as movement speed and falling speed, we start over, we wipe the slate clean. However, that’s just for us internally – probably from the fan side, they are not going to notice the changes we make, it’s going to feel pretty familiar."
But some icons will surprise with their revised combat options. "Now there are some characters that are pretty straight up [the same] as last time," Sakurai elaborates. "Then there are some we have done some pretty big revisions to, like Bowser. If you see the video, Bowser’s move set is something we’ve really done quite a bit of work with. I think you’ll see Pit has new moves, and we looked at other characters and added some stuff, made tweaks here and there, but once people figure out how to play it, it’s going to feel natural. It’s going to feel like a familiar Smash Bros and people are going to have a great time."
How Smash Bros Will Evolve
It’s hard to figure out where a series like Smash Bros is supposed to evolve – for Sakurai, the design direction behind each instalment appears to be in line with the identity of the console, particularly when it comes to deciding on the difficulty level. "So, let’s just break it down pretty simply: if you at Melee at the game speed and game spec, it skewed more to the maniac players – the real hardcore players, and that was for those guys. You like Smash fighting games? This is for you. It’s fast and furious. But Brawl was more accessible to people who were maybe playing Wii Fit or Wii Play – it was an entry level game. What we’re focused on now is that middle ground between Melee and Brawl for this title."
Much as the Wii U seems angled at that middle ground between the Wii’s casual userbase and Nintendo’s traditional hardcore fans, this entry will hopefully hit that sweetspot between audiences. Let’s face it, though – the fan service is a massive part of why Smash Bros has built such a large audience.
To enter so many familiar Nintendo worlds within this party-friendly beat-‘em-up, while playing as characters that have been richly interpreted from their original games, is uniquely rewarding for long-time aficionados of Nintendo series. The 3DS version offered Sakurai the kind of design challenges he hadn’t faced with the series before.
"There’s not a lot I can tell you in terms of the game’s systems, but I can talk about some of the goals I have – obviously, the biggest goal is creating two different versions at the same time, so just to pull that off. And with the 3DS you have a personal system, personal screen, personal saved data along with making a game that really fits that environment with those conditions: personal screen, personal save data."
There’s a clear visual difference between the two versions – noticeable outlines on the 3DS characters, while the Wii U version makes the most of being on HD hardware for the first time. Sakurai explains his methodology.
"With the 3DS, first of all, we’re looking at a pretty darn small screen for a fighting game. In Smash Bros, you have to pull the camera out to be able to see all of the action, so those characters are going to get pretty small, so what we’ve done is put a thick outline on the characters so they’re very distinct. We’ve also played around with the ratio of the head and body size, and some of the proportions are changed so even with the camera pulled out, the characters are looking smaller on the screen, you can see the features and characteristics of each individual character are still distinct despite the distance you are seeing them from."
Super Smash Bros - Wii U And 3DS Differences
Smash Bros offers something along the lines of a Nintendo museum, and with the 3DS and Wii U versions incorporating different levels to reflect their handheld and home console origins, that feeling of good intentioned nostalgia is likely to escalate with this difference between versions.
"Another thing I’d like to point out is the stage creation for the Wii U version and 3DS version is completely different, and so for the 3DS version we really narrowed the stages down," Sakurai says. "The 3DS stages are versions of stages you’ve seen on handheld devices, and the Wii U stages that appear are going to be based [on those seen on] home consoles. And, for one thing, there’s a small screen on the 3DS of course – the shrine stage is a big stage. You put that on the 3DS, and those characters in proportion become small, so it’s obviously not a good fit, so again, we want to choose stages for the 3DS that fit that screen size."
Hence why players will see levels based on Super Mario 3D Land, Fire Emblem: Awakening, a moving Spirit Train level based on Zelda: Spirit Tracks and a Nintendogs room with a dog rolling around adorably in the background on 3DS (there’s also a Gerudo Valley Ocarina level, which we suppose technically counts thanks to the 3D port). The Wii U, meanwhile, will have levels based on the Skyloft from Skyward Sword, a gym from Wii Fit, an Animal Crossing Wii city backdrop and a Dr Wily-based stage from Mega Man’s history.
That’s just for starters – think how much potential fun that Sakurai and company could have in exploring the Game Boy’s history of monochromic and later colourful locales.
Don’t expect the roster to vary between versions in the same way as the levels, though. "Fundamentally we’re going to have the same characters on both systems," Sakurai says. "If there was a character you couldn’t play on Wii U but you could play on 3DS, or vice versa, that’s rough for consumers. So we want players to be able to have the same character experiences on both devices."
Sakurai explains that both consoles have very different concerns when it comes to visual design, and that what we’ve seen so far of the 3DS version doesn’t quite give this handheld iteration its due. "And the same thing with the Wii U screen – since we’re a HD-compatible console, we’re able to do more details, and bigger stages as seen on previous home consoles. Now of course, I want to point out that everything on 3DS is designed for that screen, and that’s where they look the best. It’s unfortunate we can’t show everyone what it looks like on 3DS, rather than screenshots, while they look fine, do not do that justice once you see it on the system. Too bad we can’t show everybody what it looks like on the system."
We’re certainly impressed by what we’ve seen in the trailers so far – and the prospect of owning two tailor-made Smash Bros titles on handhelds is exciting to us.
Picking The Smash Bros Characters
When it comes to picking new characters for these new Smash Bros titles, Sakurai has a very specific methodology that comes down to gameplay potential. "When we’re looking at candidates for new characters, we get a list of characters that people are interested in and we go through those with a fine tooth comb. The biggest feature we look at in Smash Bros is, what does this character bring to Smash Bros that other characters don’t?"
Whereas Mega Man was the second most requested character in a survey of Smash Bros fans (Sonic, naturally, was first), Wii Fit Trainer and the Animal Crossing chap represent more esoteric additions to the fighting game. "The Wii Fit Trainer and the villager from Animal Crossing, there may be some people out there being like, ‘okay, great, now you’re going out on a limb, you’re trying to do something strange or unusual, but there’s really no meaning behind it, you’re just doing it for…’ I don’t want to say shock value, per se, but just to surprise people. And that’s really not the case. I think these are very unique characters and they lend themselves well to the Smash Bros family because they bring things we don’t already see."
Disappointingly for some fans, not every character from the previous games will be returning in this new instalment. We’re really hoping Snake, Toon Link and the Pokémon trainer still makes the cut alongside the Nintendo regulars (Falco, Lucario and Lucas, we could live without) – but the issue for Sakurai seems to be one of time. "We don’t have the time to fully recreate every single character who’s been in Smash Bros at this point," Sakurai says. "Adding new characters is not a simple addition – it’s really multiplication. The amount of work, adding a character is multiplied and becomes bigger and bigger as you go. We can’t because of the amount of work it takes.
"However, I do believe I understand that each character has its own set of fans out there who really like that character. So we’re not going to cut characters out of the way, we’re going to put in as many characters as we can, we really want to do that, because it's good for the fans and good for all of us. But in the event that we do have to cut some characters, I’d like to apologise in advance to those fans."
Will Old Levels Return To Super Smash Bros?
It looks like we won’t be short on fan service, however. One of Brawl’s best features was the inclusion of GameCube levels, including the brilliant moving F-Zero stage Big Blue, which we mention specifically to Sakurai when asking if old levels will make a return in these new sequels. "No comment," he says in English. Except he does comment! "For one thing, if we did do that, stuff that was on Wii would have to be altered to be put on a 3DS. You’d have to make some tweaks. Whether or not you’d do that and still do those justice remains to be seen. We’re going to have to look at that." Fingers crossed, then. It’s not a no. We mention that porting such levels to Wii U would also have to account for the leap to HD. "Exactly," he replies.
Visually, then, there’s no shortage of difficulties in making Smash Bros work for two platforms at the same time. Perhaps one of those least referenced achievements in the Smash Bros is the way Sakurai and his team have forged an art style (plural, in the case of the Wii U and 3DS games) that can comfortably accommodate characters as diverse as Mario and Snake – we asked Sakurai to explain his approach to this. "You really have a good understanding of what we’re doing, that’s good!" he says.
"Of course, one thing I have to do is, I have the last look at everything. I have graphic supervision over all the assets, so I’m the one who, when everyone’s done, they pass it over and I look at it. Let’s be truthful: Snake and Mario on the same screen is gonna be odd – but what we have to look at is textures and environments and how they fit in the world, their colours, their size ratios, how they move and how they jump, and all these sorts of things and really make sure, to the best of our abilities, as you said, they look comfortable together."
The Key To Super Smash Bros Success
Sakurai has a strong personal criteria that he believes has been key to Smash Bros’ gigantic success. "That’s not something that you can see, but it’s there. If someone else decides to make a Smash Bros type of game, it would not be as successful or well done, because they do not have that measuring stick." It’s not an easy operation, weaving so many worlds together into a coherent universe, yet it’s perhaps Smash Bros’ crowning achievement as a series. "Now with the new game on Wii U, of course, we’re looking at an increased accuracy, an increased quality to the precision in our detailed representation, so Mario, of course, looks closer to the original Mario, because we’re able to recreate it in a realistic fashion. For example, you take a look at Link and the contrast on his shield, the way that looks, is better because of the power we have in terms of those assets."
With Namco co-developing this time, the paradigm for creating a Smash Bros game appears to have changed from the outside looking in, but Sakurai insists that his role hasn’t altered at all in the process, even if the number of people working on the game has increased exponentially.
What comes across in our interview is Sakurai’s gratitude for what he does – bringing Nintendo’s wonderfully diverse range of icons into one game is as thrilling for the series’ creator as it is for Smash Bros’ 10 million plus fans. However the Wii U fares in the next few years, Smash Bros is a series that many will seek out, regardless of the platform they opt for. Sakurai names his continual work on this franchise as the highlight of his Nintendo career, when we ask.
"To be honest, I think it’s just the ability to have created and be working on Smash Bros, because where else in the world are you going to find all of these disparate characters? These companies gave us permission to take their characters and put them in one game, so that’s really miraculous to me. That’s it right there."
The full unedited feature can be found in issue 137 of gamesTM, which can be purchased digitally from greatdigitalmags.com