Sakurai “aiming to make Super Smash Bros. best character game in the world”

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Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mega Man and Pac-Man all step into the arena. If this was 1991 the games industry might have imploded. But this is 2014 and while the popularity of these pixel pioneers has been on the wane in recent years, there’s still a palpable excitement in the room as Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai pits these iconic creations against one another in the latest sequel in his fighter franchise.

“It really is a miracle,” beams an ebullient Sakurai to the gathered room of journalists. “[We have] four of the most famous characters in the video game industry on the same screen battling each other. The only game that makes this possible is Super Smash Bros.”

“And, just between you and me,” he adds, leaning towards the crowd as if to whisper in the ear of each participant, “I’m aiming to make this the number one character game in the world.”

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He may have done just that. After branching out into third-party characters in Super Smash Bros. Brawl to incorporate Mario’s long-standing rival Sonic and Metal Gear Solid’s Snake, Sakurai ostensibly posted a tournament invitation to every retro icon that tried to overthrow the mighty plumber during his Eighties and Nineties reign. And while Sonic has been zealous in his willingness to team-up with Mario in recent years and Mega Man’s inclusion in the game is well known by now, it’s the addition of Pac-Man that had the crowd wakka-wakking in delight.

“The new Smash Bros. is being developed by Bandai Namco Games and one of Namco’s most famous characters is of course, Heihachi.” Sakurai cracks a smile. “Just kidding. As he has such a long history, we did our best to bring Pac-Man into the series.”

Sakurai is bridging the generations of Pac-Man by using his Pac-Land physique but also incorporating moves that enable him to transform into the pizza-shape Pac-Man form present in his Eighties coin-op. “Pac-Man made his debut in 1980, a year before Mario arrived, so I really wanted to bring that history into the game,” explains Sakurai. “We’ve also incorporated other Pac-Man-esque elements like throwing fruit and eating Pac-pellets.”

Sakurai demonstrates the character’s abilities in a Smash battle by trouncing the competition (proving that Pac-Man is the retro king) but he also delves further into the more technical aspects that make for a divisive change to the fundamental combat of Smash Bros.

“I’ve added the ability to customize characters,” reveals the director. “Customizing characters doesn’t mean adding equipment or what not to power up the character, but rather to adjust the fighting styles of the character.”

How this works is relatively simple, even if it does add a splash of strategy to the existing mechanics. In previous games each character had four special moves activated by holding B and pushing in a direction. This time around there are twelve (three for each direction) with one standard move and two variations. For example, Mario’s fireball can be tweaked from the standard attack, allowing for a larger but slower-moving one or one that fires quickly in a straight line.

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“To maintain the game balance, customised fighters will not be available in With Anyone mode,” confirms Sakurai. However, two other new additions to the character roster, Palutena and Mii Fighters, won’t be limited to variations of standard attacks; instead they will feature unique special attacks.

In fact, the decision to include the Mii Fighters was a difficult one for Sakurai. The veteran developer struggled with balancing the family-friendly appearance of the Miis – made in the image of their creator – with the violence of the Smash Bros. universe.

“Mii characters have had an image of being a peaceful, at home character, kind of like your Wii console,” says Sakurai. “They don’t really fit the image of Smash Bros, where you’re beating up and dominating other players.”

However, Sakurai would be inundated with requests on a daily basis, not just to add Miis, but characters that simply can’t exist within the universe – Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime being overwhelmingly popular with the game’s focal fanbase.

“I thought ‘If you want him in the game, why don’t you make him?’” laughs Sakurai. “So I created a tool for you to do just that. With the Mii Fighter creator you can have any character you want join the battle.”

All these characters will be available on both the Wii U and 3DS and were chosen right at the beginning of the game’s development – Sakurai admits he was lucky that Geninja proved popular, as development started long before Pokémon X and Y was released.

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It was a necessary risk, however, given that balance and variety would be important not just for traditional brawling but also in other single and multiplayer modes. Exclusive to the 3DS, Smash Run (based on City Trial from Kirby’s Air Ride) has players navigating the environment littered with classic enemies from Nintendo franchises, collecting power-ups before facing each other in battle at the end of the time limit.

“You’ll gain equipable items in Smash Run,” Sakurai explains, delving into the mode further. “Equipable items have three characteristics: attack, defence and speed. A character’s fighting style will be impacted by what that character has equipped. Fundamentally, raising one characteristic will in turn decrease another. This way you can create a slower, more powerful Mario or a quicker, lighter Mario. So this isn’t simply a matter of increasing parameters to create powerful fighter, but adjusting parameters to create a unique fighting style.”

And Sakurai continues to innovate in and outside of the game. Amiibo figurines work in a similar way to Skylanders or Disney Infinity models, utilising near field communication technology to place characters in the game. These figurines will store your character data between each Smash Bros. fight. “The character won’t appear as a CP [Computer Player] but an FP – a Figure Player,” explains Sakurai.

“You do not control Figure Players; you level up the FP each time you use it to fight. An FP becomes stronger physically, and it can exceed the strength of a Level 9 computer player. The FPs can be raised to level 50, and it’s a fairly quick process to level them up. The figure’s brain is a computer, so it will change its way of thinking over time based on the opponent’s fighting tactics. It will remember that shielding characters don’t move, and it may focus on throwing characters to break their shields. You can slightly alter an FP’s attack, defence, and speed by giving it equipable items.”

Of course, this won’t be a feature that will be available in the 3DS and might go in some way to explain why there’s a delay between the Wii U and its handheld counterpart. Sakurai dispels any concerns that it’s a cynical move and that it’s down to the sheer scale of development. “This is a really big game with a huge scale, and there’s so many combinations of things that we have to test,” says Sakurai.

“We’re talking several hundred people working on just that. If we were going to do both of those versions at the same time, you can imagine the amount of people we’d need to do, we’d need to call in thousands of people. Each game has a unique architecture; they really are different unique games, so each one requires complete attention not only in completing the game, but also in the debug process. To make sure each game gets the full attention, we decided to release them months apart.”

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Sakurai stresses that this game has been the most difficult of his career and loaded with the expectation from the core Smash Bros. community after the relative disappointment of Smash Bros. Brawl’s accessible slant, this latest entry has the most difficult balancing act yet.

“One of the goals we’ve set for ourselves is ‘This is a party game’,” reveals Sakurai. “We want a lot of people to pick up and play – that’s one reason why we have the For Fun/For Glory mode separation this time around.

“I think with Brawl, if people hadn’t played the series before and this was their first Smash, there was a lot that appealed to them, but the Smash veterans didn’t see it as their cup of tea,” concludes Sakurai. “One thing as a developer I have to keep in mind is that it’s not enough to make a game that will satisfy our core fanbase. We have to reach out and appeal to new players. Finding that sweet spot is always difficult.”