Saunter in, beat the pros, grab the cash and wavedash outta there

smash bros melee

Super Smash Bros. Melee (2002)

You may not believe it, but the website is dead. That’s what all of us top tech bods are saying. Not just that, but mobile apps are dead too. The cinema is dead. Buying music, that’s dead. Pubs are dead. And as for using your voice to talk to people – that’s well into rigor mortis.

I don’t personally believe any of this, of course, but it’s sweeping statements like these that grab attention in marketing headlines, and they might just fool some gullible CEOs into dropping money on unproven new technology. Well, whatever about all that, it is my sad duty to inform you that the ever-popular GameCube game, Super Smash Bros Melee, is also dead.

That’ll get a sizeable crowd of online fans foaming at the mouth. And indeed, we only tend to talk about Super Smash Bros Melee these days in the context of the million and one fighting game tournaments that feature the game. This is what they mean by serious business, because I’m talking about pretty big rooms of spectators, all cheering on their favourites. Although you don’t get many football-esque ultras who scream all sorts of fascist stuff and paint themselves head-to-toe in their player’s colours – more’s the pity. This all gets recorded and streamed, sometimes on TV stations. There’s even a commentary team, for crying out loud, usually a duo of excitable black guys.

The equipment is all very specialised too – Melee has never gotten any kind of re-release, so your only option is the original GameCube game. If you’ve wanted to buy this game, even second-hand, and found the price to still be an obnoxious sixty quid or more, then you can blame the pros. They can’t even use widescreen tellies because there’ll be a one or two frame input lag, which is enough to throw even the top neckbeards right off their game, so it’s got to be an old CRT jobby. And as you might expect, CRT TVs are a bit of an endangered species nowadays.

But what really finishes off a species is being actively hunted to extinction by man, and that’s the fate that’s gonna befall GameCube controllers if any more of these dreaded Melee tournaments continue. For every jumping, whooping celebration following a victory, known as a “pop-off” by us Smash wags, there’s a not very gallant loser smashing his GameCube controller into the ground. This action will prompt smart remarks from the commentators and cowardly tweets long after the fact. They’d never say anything to the person’s face – well, he’s clearly insane, isn’t he?

It’s almost bizarre playing or even watching any kind of casual Melee now, because we’re so used to the old stereotype of 1 v 1, Fox only, Final Destination, No Items. If you don’t speak Swahili, then this means one versus one (at least tell me you understood that), and the only character allowed is Fox, who flies high at the top of the infamous tier list.

The stage is Final Destination, which is flat as a pancake, no Klap-Traps around to jump out of the water and eat you. And no items, which stops that terrible 0.1% possibility of a Bob-Omb spawning right on top of your head. If that were to happen, your legion of fans will only be able to look on in horror as both your character and your controller get launched into orbit.

Now it’s not as bad as all that – there are maybe eight viable characters. Wow, just 18 others going to waste, eh? There are more ‘tournament legal’ stages than just Final Destination; I presume if you willfully chose a non-legal stage, the Smash Gestapo would have you naked and on all fours before you had the chance to scream “shine spike”. But you’re still missing out on 90% of the game – the four player aspect, for God’s sake, and all of the items and Pokémon you can use.

So how do we judge Melee? Well, there’s no point going in at the top level. I have to presume that both you and I have at least a tiny bit of social gumption, hence we’d never jet off to some “eSport” tourney in Los Angeles and make up part of the very awkward crowd there. No, me and you are casuals with a bit of flair, right? And if I’m wrong, you might as well save yourself some time and just write me off now. Get the Twitter posse after me in their droves and tell me I mustn’t disrespeect the exhalted Melee ever again.

Firstly, Melee is a game that represented a massive leap forward from the Nintendo 64 original. Smash 64 was good, but there’s no question: this is one of the most improved sequels of all time. And in the most positive sense, Melee is a product of its time. It had some hype backing it prior to its release, but nothing like the ridiculous field of a billion angry sheep you see nowadays when a new Fire Emblem character gets revealed and the knives are out. Why couldn’t it have been Goku, they cry?! Mate, back in our day we had 25 characters, including chaps that nobody had ever heard of like the Ice Climbers, and we were happy.

Releasing in 2001, or 2002 for filthy Euros and Aussies, this game was definitely rushed and there’s glitches aplenty. The game seems to be above criticism for this, especially when these glitches seem to just get adopted into a fighter’s arsenal and demonstrated during top level play. Fans attacked the next game, Smash Bros Brawl, for not having enough glitches.

Melee was also released around that beautiful time when the internet was still only gaining ground, and image hosting was none too clever, to say nothing of video hosting. You were still reliant on magazines, and online text if you were fortunate enough to own a computer, and even more fortunate enough to have dial-up internet.

So when the cheat codes sections of all those classic, long dead gaming websites gave you tips on how to unlock Marth or Mr. Game & Watch, you were filled with wonderment. I knew Bowser, Falco, even Pichu. But what on earth would Roy look like? It was that kind of thing, the beautiful unknown, that added to the mystique of games like Smash Bros Melee and Pokémon Gen 1 and 2. All before this pox of datamining cropped up, a time when rumours of an unlockable Sonic the Hedgehog could spread for months on end.

It hardly needs to be said that Melee is strongest as a local multiplayer or party game, but the 1-Player modes are actually quite good too. It has the best Classic mode of the series, and there was a slightly limited but very quaint Adventure mode that brought you through several of the game worlds – Zelda, Kirby, Metroid, even a desperate attempt at Ice Climber. And even if Smash Bros Brawl brought ten times as many songs with it, the Melee soundtrack, with its orchestrations of even the more obscure tunes like Dr. Mario’s Fever, was perfect for what it was.

I’ll get lynched for saying it, I already know that, but Melee’s time is pretty much over. Brawl sold way more, but I don’t think the Wii title ever managed to overshadow it. And Smash 4 Wii U just couldn’t get enough traction. That’s not to say Melee is no longer playable or fun – quite the opposite. With Smash Bros Ultimate though, you have everything you need from a Smash game, alone or with a group of eight players. Well, the netcode is still bad, but what can Sakurai-san do to cover for Nintendo’s lapses there?

Super Smash Bros. Melee has finally been superseded, then. But next time you get a chance, do fire it up for some casual play, and watch what’s probably the best intro movie in gaming. As you Press Start and that unforgettable Menu music starts playing, you can begin to bask in that warm glow of nostalgia, as you try not to get too affected by the fact that your childhood is gone forever. That sort of thing is bad for mindgames, see. And in professional Melee, a bad mindset means you’re dead, followed by your controller.

3 July 2020

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