By Hugo Blair – Gaming Editor
Super Smash Bros. Melee and its competitive scene has always intrigued me. The game is quite unlike others in the fighting game genre, and its players are often considered the black sheep of the wider community. In Smash, the objective is not to reduce the opponent’s hit points to 0, but rather to knock them off the stage. Additionally, unlike most fighting games, whereby characters have vast movesets built directly into the game, with each move activated via a specific series of button inputs, Smash takes a more creative approach. Each character has a smaller moveset, with comparably few attacks each activated by single button inputs, and it is up to the player to string attacks together dynamically to create a combo. Smash at its core is a sandbox, and allows for a greater degree of player expression through the medium of a competitive game than I ever seen elsewhere.
The title was developed by HAL Laboratory under the leadership of Masahiro Sakurai and in conjunction with Nintendo, was the successor to the widely popular N64 title Super Smash Bros. The 2001 title improved upon the N64 predecessor via the addition of new modes, new stages, and importantly, via the introduction of fourteen new characters, bringing the total roster size to twenty-six. Many of these new characters, such as Marth, Sheik, Peach, Ice Climbers and Falco would become integral to the competitive scene in the years following release. However, a competitive scene was not something on the developers’ minds during creation; the game as envisioned by Sakurai was designed to be played as a casual party game. They would later discover how wrong they were.
You would be forgiven, given the wealth of content added, for believing that Melee had a long development cycle, in truth it was the opposite. The game was completed in just thirteen months, during which staff worked long hours and took few breaks, as they wished to capitalise off of the success of Smash 64. Though Sakurai himself described the development period as “destructive”, what was birthed from this endeavour would ultimately be worth it. The team produced a game that was superior in almost every way to its predecessor, one that was critically acclaimed at launch and would go on to sell in excess of seven million units.
Melee is sharper than the N64 title, with tight controls and lightning-fast gameplay. Characters can move around the stages in the blink of an eye, stringing attacks together into a combo almost faster than you can think, and the primary limiting factor of high-level play is the speed at which you can move your hands. While this certainly was a point of criticism at launch for some, it has now become the defining feature of the game and leads many to consider Melee as the most competitive Smash Bros. game. Additionally, the rapid development period led to certain quirks of the engine slipping into the final product, which only resulted in raising the skill ceiling higher. In the months and years after launch, dedicated users discovered advanced techniques such as wavedashing, ledge-dashing, DI, SDI, “teching”, and waveshining, just to name a few. Many of these techniques allow for unintended movement that further increases the game’s speed.
The competitive scene for the game began to appear just months after launch, with small local tournaments being organised by the game’s most avid players. Most of the game’s early competitive history is US-centric, dominated by fierce rivalries that developed between players on the East and West coasts. However, above the mass of competitors, some would rise to the top. Players like Ken, Azen, Isai and Recipherus dominated the early tournaments and were considered the best in the country. Meanwhile, other players like Chudat, Chillindude, Wife, Wes, and more were instrumental in growing the community further.
Throughout the early few years, even the largest of tournaments such as the Tournament Go series were grassroots and unsupported by Nintendo. The underground scene was kept afloat by the passion of the players, and by tournament organisers such as MattDeezie who founded the aforementioned TG series. Things changed in 2004, when Major League Gaming added Melee to their Pro Circuit esports league. As a result, competitive Melee would garner more public attention and see a massive increase in popularity. Over time and with this increase in publicity, newer stars would emerge, such as PC Chris, KoreanDJ and Mew2King, who fought to dethrone the old guard. Ultimately, Ken would rise above even these select few players, and be crowned the early King of Smash. He was notable for popularising dash dancing, a technique of rapidly dashing backwards and forwards in place without turning lag which allowed for better spacing and unpredictability, and for the Ken Combo, a simple 3-hit Marth combo that was a very effective finisher.
From the period of 2004-2008, the competitive Melee scene saw continuous growth in popularity. MLG’s large tournaments with sizable prize pools kept the game alive and allowed some smashers to sustainably play the game competitively for a living. In 2007, Melee was dropped from the Pro Circuit, however the community continued to grow. This was in no small part due to Melee’s inclusion at Evo, the largest tournament series in the world for fighting
games, that same year. Being showcased in this way improved the standing of Melee within the fighting game community, as even still, the game was often ostracised due to its unorthodox gameplay. This period would later become known as the “Golden Age” of Melee as the scene was still fresh, exciting, and relatively unexplored.
Ken’s retirement from the competitive Melee scene in 2007 marked the transition from the Golden Age into the era of the “Five Gods”, which would see its peak between 2013 to 2018. During this time, every major tournament with at least two Gods in attendance would be won by one of the five. The Gods included: Mew2King, known for his self-described “optimal” playstyle, as well as his fearsome Marth and Sheik play. Mang0, known for his flashy but risky Fox and Falco play, and brash personality. Hungrybox, known for his explosive pop-offs after a win, and for primarily playing Jigglypuff, a character that some would consider the antithesis of Melee. While the community prides itself on its game’s speed and exciting combos, Jigglypuff is slow, defensive, and lacks any major flashy combos. The fourth God Armada was arguably the most successful of all five. Hailing from Sweden, Armada would revolutionise Peach as a top tier character, and sustain one of the greatest tournament win percentages of any of the Gods. PPMD was the final God and was known for being an excellent Falco and Marth player, with a conservative playstyle and arguably the best neutral play of anyone.
This period saw another explosive growth of the scene, thanks to further Evo appearances and the organisation of other high-profile tournaments. Additionally, the release of a 9-part documentary series, The Smash Brothers, detailing the early history of the competitive scene, helped to introduce many new players to the game. Yet still, the community received very little support from Nintendo, most notably demonstrated when the company attempted to block the streaming of the game at Evo 2013.
In time, the Gods’ reign would come to an end. They faced increased challenges from players such as Plup and Leffen, and by 2020 some had retired from Melee entirely. As we know, 2020 also brought unique challenges which necessitated the halt of in-person competitive tournaments. One might think this would spell doom for the competitive scene of a game from 2001 with no online functionality, however a new tool developed for the Dolphin GameCube emulator would prove to be the scene’s redemption.
Using a program called Slippi, players from across the globe could compete against one another without suffering from extreme latency issues, which allowed the scene to continue to thrive despite the lack of face-to-face events. It was not long before large tournaments were held using the tool with hundreds in attendance, including many top players. However, with increased attendance came the displeased gaze of Nintendo. This culminated in November when The Big House, one of the largest Melee tournaments, was forced to cancel its online event due to the receipt of a cease-and-desist notice from Nintendo, as they were unhappy with their IP being used in this way. Within hours of the announcement, #FreeMelee began trending on Twitter as fans expressed their outrage at Nintendo for preventing competition for their beloved game. It was clear that even in 2020, the company still had no intentions of supporting the Melee scene.
And yet, this is the story of Melee: Exclusion from the wider fighting game community and abandonment by Nintendo. Mew2King once said; “Melee is never dying, it’s always going to be approximately this size, never much smaller and never much bigger”. Perhaps he is right. The scene will be carried not by the game’s creators, nor by big organisations, but as it was in the beginning: on the backs of the players who love their game the most.