Art is always made for someone, by someone.
It can be for the masses at large or someone close to your heart. It can reflect a message you want to impart to the world or simply what you want to create. And in an age where the biggest budget games have hundreds and hundreds of people inputting their effort and ideas, it’s rare to see a major marquee release feel like one man’s vision.
Super Smash Bros. is Masahiro Sakurai’s art.
It seems like a common platitude to say that “nobody else” could’ve made something, but I earnestly, wholeheartedly believe that to be the case here. After watching today’s Direct, I knew more than ever that this series is not some simple occupation or obligation — to him, it’s a culmination of his game design philosophy, an effort to please fans and his own tastes, and an honest expression of his life and career working with Nintendo.
Sakurai has always been known for certain tells; elements of his games that pile up in his subsequent work. Kirby Air Ride’s grid-based unlocks became standard for his games. Kid Icarus’s equipment system and difficulty curve served as inspiration for Smash 4. Even Kirby Super Star’s Great Cave Offensive is somewhat of a rudimentary version of Brawl’s Subspace Emissary.
One could call it creative laziness; but I find that an uncharitable description. Sakurai has a style and an element that he prefers to work in, and he’s always seeking ways to improve it. When he revealed the Spirits mode and how it essentially iterated on Ultimate’s equipment system, I could tell the internet would complain — most didn’t like how it was handled in Smash 4, and the inclusion here would probably irk them in similar fashion. But seeing his explanation, I thought to myself of how that desire to improve upon a system instead of scrapping it entirely was something very… un-committee-ish.
Spirits also play into Sakurai’s never ending and ultimately futile quest to try and please everyone. Smash, by nature of being the biggest crossover in video games, has attracted a number of fans who want nothing more than to see their favorites. Now I’m not going to say Sakurai has a perfect track record when it comes to meeting demands, but I think he deserves a lot more credit than he gets. It’s well-worn at this point, but just look at Ultimate’s roster — getting every single character in franchise history back, along with including frequent requests like Ridley, King K. Rool, and Simon Belmont is no small feat. And he’s good at understanding picks that appeal to a broader audience (like Isabelle), striking a chord between appeasing niche zealots and appealing the silent majority. Spirits are ultimately another expression of that — he knows he can’t include everyone, so he’ll do his best to make it so your niche favorite can serve some purpose (though the removal of trophies is admittedly disappointing).
And perhaps Sakurai could include all those oft-demanded characters over the years, if he didn’t include certain oddball picks. But that’s part of what makes Smash’s roster feel so much more vibrant and varied than its competitors — each game brings with it a share of obscure and outlandish picks that seem out of nowhere. Ice Climbers, Mr. Game & Watch, R.O.B., and Duck Hunt all showcased long-forgotten retro characters important to Nintendo history. Snake tipped his hat to longtime friend Hideo Kojima. Picks like Ness, Marth, and Shulk put characters from smaller franchises he enjoys into the spotlight. And some picks like Wii Fit Trainer are simply unpredictable and chaotic. The man is adding a godforsaken Piranha Plant in as the first Ultimate DLC character. What other game director would be so brazen?
There are a number of other things I could mention — the acute attention to detail, healthy and up-front DLC plans, the fact that the new adventure mode looks freaking incredible — but as good as those are, they weren’t what stuck out most about the Direct to me. What remained in my mind the most was the moment, very brief, where Sakurai just sits, closes his eyes, and sighs, lamenting: “I wonder if I’ll ever get to take a break.”
Sakurai is a known workaholic. He’s said time and time again that each Smash game will be his last, but time and time again he keeps coming back. It’s become almost a meme for fans to plead with him to get some rest. But he puts every ounce of his soul and his passion into these games — being vocal and public in Famitsu about development, offering up lots of details, and ensuring that each one is as polished as can be. He deserves a long vacation, but will still come into the office anyway. That’s just the kind of person he is. His own spirit is imbued within the game.
And one particular detail makes Sakurai’s personal touch evident. In the new adventure mode, World of Light, the one who escapes the wrathful destruction at the beginning to serve as central protagonist is not Mario, or Link, but Kirby — Sakurai’s first creation, his prodigal son. Were this decided by corporate suits, it would almost certainly be the red plumber, or a couple different big names, or maybe even some kind of bizarre avatar — but he deigns to put his own work front and center. People may cry “Sakurai bias,” but that’s exactly what it is — it’s his game, not yours.
Of course, games are not made singlehandedly; there’s no doubt that the many employed at HAL and Sora Ltd. over the years have left their mark on each title, and too often they’re overlooked in this sort of narrative. But I think it’s impossible to deny just how much Sakurai steers the ship. His fingerprints are all over each of the games he heads, and that’s no accident — it’s the mark of an auteur (even if I would generally dispute the concept of such a thing).
Does that mean you have to be happy with his decisions? Of course not. I understand character salt as much as anybody else. But it would also be ludicrous to state that he flat-out doesn’t care about what the masses want, either. He’ll offer the expected, the unexpected, and just whatever tickles his fancy. Because ultimately, Super Smash Bros. is Masahiro Sakurai’s game — and it wouldn’t exist without him.
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