No other game in the fighting-game community has managed to stay relevant for as long as Super Smash Bros. Melee. With a 16-year lifespan and a community that puts it above all else, Super Smash Bros. Melee continues to evolve without ever receiving a single patch. A closer look at the community reveals what sets it apart from other fighting games. The incredible depth of Melee, combined with the undying love of a dedicated fanbase has forged the game into a powerhouse that continues to thrive while other games dwindle and die.
“The Greatest Game Ever Created”
Christopher “Wife” Fabiszak, is veteran Melee player and commentator who understands Melee’s complexities. When he calls Melee “the greatest game ever created,” he’s not just talking about how fun it is in comparison to other games, but how deep the gameplay goes.
“Smash is a sandbox fighter,” says Fabiszak. “The nearly infinite range of movement allows for creativity and expression like no other game.”
Paired with a vast roster of characters, Smash’s innovative movement allows for players to create their own playstyle. The ability to move in any direction, aided by complex stage designs and a myriad of defensive and offensive options, makes Smash an interpretive game. One player might use a character’s speed to rush in and pressure their opponent with combos, while another might use that same element of a character to do short bursts of damage and flee.
What really sets Melee apart from other fighting games, however, is an emphasis on movement under fire. While other fighting games are limited in their defensive options while players are under attack, Smash’s unique movement options allow players to escape situations easier. Intricate techniques like 'L-Canceling' aerial actions , where players hit a button to recover out of a landing animation, are commonplace in competitive melee. Techniques like this can change the entire flow of a match, and take place in literal seconds.
Khan faces off with rival William "Leffen" Hjelte in a money match at Apex 2015.
Kashan “Chillin” Khan is a professional Melee player currently playing for Team Liquid, who believes the skill ceiling for the game is “so high that no human will truly reach it”. It’s not uncommon in fighting games for players to spend hundreds of hours practicing on a single character, but in most fighting games each character has a specific playstyle. Zangief from Street Fighter for instance, isn’t going to be played as a fast, combo-heavy rushdown character when his slower, grab-heavy moveset clearly dictates him a grappler. On the other hand, Smash’s characters don’t fall into predetermined roles. How they’re played can differ completely from player to player, creating a higher skill ceiling that is based on more than just an understanding of character movesets and matchups. “There are so many precise techniques that take hundreds if not thousands of hours to master,” says Khan “and people are only just beginning to get the hang of them.”
In games like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat, players have to wait until an opponent is finished with a combo to retaliate, or utilize a combo breaker. In Melee, the player can influence their characters movement mid-combo, allowing them to escape or get a better handle on the situation. “That’s always been one of the beauties of Smash to me,” says Khan. “The fact that you just got opened up doesn’t mean you have to wait until your opponent messes up to…retaliate.”
Melee’s deceptively simple gameplay also lent itself well to casual play, and its iconic characters only broadened its appeal. Nintendo had accidentally created one of the deepest fighting games ever, but that didn’t change that Melee was designed as a game for everyone.
“Melee is fun if you’re seven, it’s fun if you’re high in a dorm room, it’s fun if you’re dedicating your life to it,” says Fabiszak. “It works on all the levels, you know? To me, there’s never a bad time for Smash.”
The End of an Era
Shortly after its release, fans recognized the gameplay possibilities in Melee, and a diehard competitive scene began to develop. Both Fabiszak and Khan were there when Melee hit in 2001, though they took different paths through the fandom. Khan knew from the outset that he and his friends were going to take Melee seriously, kickstarting the local competitive scene in his area and hosting tournaments by 2002. Fabiszak found out about these same Melee tournaments through the website Smashboards.com, and decided to go to a tournament with a few friends for fun. After seeing the level of skill on display at these tournaments, he became addicted to getting better, improving his skills, and attending more. “I started going to more and more tournaments, and then it escalates,” says Fabiszak, “because it's a community and then it’s an identity, and before you know it it’s one of the most defining things in your life.”
Although growth was slow, the community in the early days of Melee was rabid for competition, traveling across states to meet up for tournaments, hauling CRT TVs everywhere they went. Rivalries would develop, and turn into storylines that spread between tournaments. The player base was tight-knit, and everyone knew everyone else, or at least had heard of them. It was a community that had one thing in common: they put the game above all else.
“Melee for many, many people is the most important thing in their life,” says Fabiszak. “I would say including me. That means, not people, not a person in your life, but thing in your life.”
After a few years, Melee had grown to the point of sponsorship, with MLG hosting tournaments alongside Halo. Despite this kind of coverage, the Melee community remained small, and was eventually dropped by MLG after various logistics issues.
“MLG had us alongside Halo, and dropped us partly because Nintendo wouldn’t support them, but also partly because we couldn’t meet our event cap,” says Fabiszak. “Halo would blow up, and we were just the little grassroots community that could.”
After seven years on the market, most communities are ready to move on to a sequel. Melee was no different when Super Smash Bros. Brawl hit shelves in 2008. However, Melee fans soon discovered that Brawl was not the game they had been anticipating. Random, uncontrollable elements added to the game, as well as slower movement, were seen by the community as fail safes on Nintendo’s part to make the game purposefully uncompetitive. Brawl lacked high-level techniques like L-Canceling, and fans were livid at the inclusion of a new tripping mechanic that could randomly leave players in a vulnerable state during dashes.
“It was like an insult, a slap in the face,” says Fabiszak. “And even if you can get over that, just the hype for Brawl, when the bubble burst, that was it. I thought there was no coming back for sure.” With a community lacking proper support and a disappointing sequel fracturing the player base, it seemed like competitive Melee’s best days were behind it.