Let's Smash, Bro
Reflections on the franchise that I can't quit
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Nintendo’s “Super Smash Bros.”, a party game for children, has had an outsized influence over my life. I was introduced to its second installment, “Melee,” as a kid at my aunt’s house. My aunt was and continues to be a serious gamer. It was at her house that I played my first Zelda Game, “Ocarina of Time,” as well as classics like “Banjo-Kazooie” and “GoldenEye 007.”
Right away, I was hooked on Smash. It was the first and only game I’d ever played where Jigglypuff could shoot Ganondorf with a gun. There was something about taking these characters, Link and Kirby and Princess Peach and so on, from their separate universes and putting them in one arena that felt devilishly imaginative.
Smash is a crossover game. It brings different worlds together.
Years later, in college, I was living on the fourth floor of the now defunct Walker Tower at the University of Oklahoma. This was the nerd floor, designated for people with scholarships. I struggled to adjust.
I’d recently graduated from a high school where gang fights, cops in the hallways, and metal detectors were the norm. I loved it there. I was right at home taking my lunch at the nearby Braum’s riddled with bullet holes. OU, meanwhile, was fratty, full of entitled trust fund kids, the kind of snotty brats I’d assumed only existed in movies.
The nerd floor offered no respite. I shared the bathroom with two frat boys who, because the walls were so thin, I knew, referred to me as “El Diablo.” I was learning Spanish at the time and would play Spanish-language music and TV shows in my dorm. Their names were Ian and Ross, which I can never forget because they had a miniature dry erase board on their door that declared them “Ian and Ross.” Some vandal once altered this to “DIana Ross & the Supremes.”
Evidence, I suppose, that there had to have been at least one other person living near me that I would have gotten along with.
My other floor-mates were not fratty in the least, but held little promise by way of potential pals. Most of them were weebs who cast sideways glances at me whenever I went to the campus gym. “Aren’t you there enough?” one asked as I passed him in my Nike trainers. It’s an oft neglected subject, the plight of the American meathead.
In summary, my freshman year was hell, but I had one sanctuary. Right across the hall from me, in a disheveled room littered with pizza boxes and heaps of dirty laundry, lived Bassem, from Cairo, who, when introducing himself, deadpanned, “I am the best Wario in Oklahoma.”
Hour after hour after hour, playing “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” against Bassem from Cairo, the best Wario in Oklahoma, on his little TV perched on an IKEA dresser. At first, I got my ass handed to me. He would generously knock himself down to one stock (these are lives), leaving me with three, and we would go from there. But eventually, I learned the tricks.
“Yo!” Bassem said during one game. I was playing as Meta Knight, the best character, “broken,” enthusiasts would call him. I had to, to keep up with his Wario. He’d landed an aerial attack on me, knocking me against the stage, but I didn’t bounce off of it. “Did you just tech that?”
In Smash, a “tech” is when your character is knocked against the stage, but you don’t go anywhere, don’t ricochet away as you should, because you hit the “shield” button quickly enough. If you don’t tech, you can be stage spiked, resulting in the loss of a stock. It requires quick reflexes. Bassem recognized, in that moment, that I had some potential as a sparring partner, and I got my first real dopamine hit from being a genuine gamer.
Entire afternoons. Evenings that stretched into dawns. How much time did I spend fighting Bassem, vigorous tapping sounds issuing from our GameCube controllers, nothing being said beyond Oh! or Bullshit! or Run it back!, pausing only to eat protein bars or pizza, never stopping unless Bassem’s roommate, the aforementioned judgmental weeb, begged us for sleep? I shudder to imagine the minutes, hours… days?
Then, I stopped. The stopping was unceremonious, natural and unmarked as any passing of a season. I graduated with my fake little writing degree. I moved out of Oklahoma for a blogging job in D.C., which led me to New York, where I live now, and for many years I didn’t play or even think about Super Smash Bros.
Then the pandemic hit.
In December 2020, Nintendo released a trailer that, like my aunt and Bassem once had, reeled me into the world of Smash. Sephiroth, the iconic villain from “Final Fantasy VII,” was joining the roster. FFVII was the first video game I remember playing. I was eight, and played through all three discs with my dad on our PlayStation. It has a special place in my heart.
At that time in the pandemic, I’d needed a receptacle to toss my waking hours into. So, as millions of others did, I bought a Switch. I forewent “Animal Crossing.” I paid rent in real life, and anyway, Isabelle was in this iteration of Smash. I downloaded “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” and set about unlocking Sephiroth in a special DLC event.
I was awful. None of my skills from Brawl carried over into Ultimate. I basically had to learn everything over again from the ground up, a task I was willing to complete for Sephiroth’s sake. His sword is so long, and his hair so luxurious. I started with him, of course. He chuckled after his moves, and he had a nasty down-air spike, a plunging attack with his sword that borrowed from an infamous scene in his original game in which he kills a playable mage character named Aerith.
Smash fans dubbed this attack, his down-air, his “down-Aerith.”
More untold hours. More learning the ins and outs. I started watching tournaments. I learned the names of all the top players, MKLeo (my favorite) and Spargo and Light and Tweek and Glutonny, learned who their mains were, learned the tier lists, the matchup charts, the jargon—you can tell a true Smash player from a casual one, because the true Smash player will never call a forward aerial attack “forward A,” but “Fair,” and he will also probably smell worse.
I “got good.” Too good, in fact, to play my friends. I was good in an alienating way. Not good enough to be a pro or to win tournaments, but much too proficient to do a fun little Smash night without ruining everyone’s evening.
That was fine, though. I liked being “too good.” When I wasn’t destroying my acquaintances, I was playing CPUs, none of which provided me much of a challenge, but it gave my hands something to do whenever an essay or column or book proposal was giving me grief and I needed to space out.
I was less enthused to play strangers online via the matchmaking system, seeing it primarily as a way for me to get better, like grueling visits to the gym. The system pairs you with people in your region. The tristate area, it seems, is home to many so-called sweatlords, tryhards, people who “would rather be bored winning than have fun losing.”
I hated these people, people who took their online matches so deathly seriously, using cheap tricks (this is called “cheese” or “cheesing”), performing niche combos that no doubt required hours upon hours of practice in training mode, and deploying mind games like teabagging after taking a stock off of me (this is when you make your character crouch over and over again to simulate a humping motion).
Sure, I was also a sweatlord. But in my view, everyone better than me was sweatier, a pathetic nerd with no life, and everyone worse than me was a loser who needed to get on my level. Simple as.
The Smash online matchmaking system is notorious for inspiring rage in those who participate. There is a tier above the regular playing field, known as “Elite Smash,” something you gain access to after your character wins enough battles and accumulates GSP, a points system that ranks you among all the players online.
Elite Smash, in particular, inspires in its players a unique form of rage, an incandescence, an absolute fury. Matches can be laggy. Not everyone has a pristine setup at home. Some, judging by the state of their connections, are playing on in-flight wifi in handheld mode.
Each and every character has something uniquely irritating in their kit. Certain characters, always the most annoying ones, show up over and over again, because they are best suited to people with no skill, people who are “carried.” See, for example, an Elite Smash Samus doing the tried-and-true method of running away and shooting missiles and energy balls from across the stage.
So radioactive is Elite Smash that it causes people to “mald,” a condition where someone gets so mad they literally start balding.
Imagine, if you will, a muscular, 5-foot-11-inch, thirty-two-year old man hunched over his Switch, mashing buttons on a GameCube controller, shouting “COME THE FUCK ON” in a dark, empty room at a Pikachu on his screen. I was not aware of the full extent of my latent anger issues until I started playing Smash online.
These scenes prompted frequent retreats into playing CPUs and my friends. I loved being good, and hated being challenged. But none of the wins against bots or buddies hit quite like making the impossible comeback against Nintendo Online user and Mewtwo main “FatLesbian69LMAO.” That was where the real serotonin was, which kept me coming crawling back to online matchmaking.
I tried using Elite Smash as a sort of bootleg anger management, seeing it as a test of my calm, of my ability to go unbothered. This would be a widely applicable skill, I reasoned, and it would even give purpose, a pale one, but a purpose nonetheless, to the time I was spending playing this video game for players aged 10 and up.
I could learn to have fun while failing, to see failure more optimistically, to find in the event of losing to a talentless Ness player something valuable.
It did not work. Turns out, I just love to win, and hate to lose.
In the twilight of 2021, I entered a long-term situationship with a man who also played Smash.
He lived in Austin, and I would visit him frequently, always bringing my Switch. In my roster, I played Sephiroth, Palutena, Piranha Plant, Pit and Dark Pit, Marth, Mii Brawler (one in the likeness of Bernie Sanders, and the other, Amy Klobuchar), and Byleth. He played Ridley, Samus, and Sora. So, you know. “Annoying.”
I mostly beat him, but there were times when he’d eke out a win, usually because I was trying to experiment or style too hard, missing a saucy spike or dropping an elaborate combo. And then there were times when I’d let him win because I felt guilty, or because I enjoyed mixing up his reactions.
Whenever he lost, he’d put me in a headlock and kiss me on the forehead, muttering something in my ear like, “Why would you do that, baby?” When he won, he’d grunt, flex his bicep, shout, “Kiss it!” I found this charming.
Smash outlived our relationship. When driving away from his house for the last time after our final fight, I had to sheepishly turn around because I’d left my Switch, which he offered back to me in a plastic bag through my car window. I haven’t seen him since. It was our most recent interaction.
Back on Grindr, I added “good at Smash Bros” to my bio. This, far beyond any photo of me or statistics on my profile, like “Latino” or my sexual position, elicits the most feedback, much of it erotic. “How about we play Smash and then you smash me?” Things of this nature.
I’ve had several Smash dates, to varying degrees of success. I try to warn them that when I say I’m good, I mean it. Men, being men, bristle at this. “I’m pretty good myself,” they will say, or, “heh, we’ll see about that.” Then they come over. Before gameplay begins, I can immediately ascertain their skill level.
“How do I jump again?” some will ask. “Do you play with items on or off?” others inquire. Yet more will ask for the Joy-Cons over the GameCube controller. Lambs to the slaughter.
These Smash nights usually end after two or three games of me performing my labbed-out strings on them. This can result in genuine irritation. “Alright, alright,” they will say. “Sheesh.” We will drop the controllers and just go have sex, where the playing field is more even. Per one man’s suggestion, I agreed to a game of strip Smash, a game I called off when it became apparent that he would soon be fully nude, while I had yet to remove my sweatshirt.
Recently, however, I’ve found a local arena where I am a more typical kind of player. It’s a Smash night at a bar. There are prizes: dildos, a, let’s call it “romantic” figurine of Bowser, Pokémon plushes, things of that nature. Here, I have the potential to either come in dead last or make it to grand finals. I have yet to win the whole thing. I don’t want to talk about it.
The in-person aspect of it, the fact that there’s no lag, the fact that I can see the other person piloting their character, can smile at them and fist bump them afterwards regardless of the outcome, has washed away the anger that typifies playing strangers online. Indeed, I find it exhilarating, the thrills of being average.
I’ve even made friends there, people with different mains (the character you most frequently play is your “main,”) and I like finding symmetry or discordance between these people and the avatars they are drawn to—I usually select Palutena, a green-haired goddess, which, I believe, says something about my homosexuality, and perhaps my aspirations.
So, too, am I interested in the gamertags people use for themselves. I use “mapache,” Spanish for “raccoon,” because they are an animal I enjoy, and because it offers a tiny illustration of the player: Mexican, mischievous, prone to little tricks. I’ve met a Picklesz, a reficuL, a skullgrunt. My friend who introduced me to this weekly event, and who insists on maining Little Mac, despite being one of the worst characters in the game, goes by Naughty. It’s like drag names for gamers.
For a spell, my handsome friend Greg was in town on an extended work trip from San Francisco, where I’d met him on Grindr and had played Smash with him on the foot of a bed in a dilapidated hostel. Greg, playing under the name Gucci, caused quite the stir at Smash night. One of the players, a drag queen (we had to be informed of this, they do not play Smash in drag), referred to us as “the hot table.” I am eternally grateful to both the drag queen and to Greg for this.
This was a month ago, an interesting time for me. Routine became ever more important after the rapid, successive deaths of my abuelo and of my good friend. I found myself recommitting to things I knew, my creature comforts, Drag Race and old movies and, of course, Smash. Greg and I played weekly at the bar, and then, when he returned to California, we played over the internet.
After years of stagnation, my return to mediocrity began to reveal subtle shifts in my gameplay. I was being drawn more and more to Fox, a rushdown, high-octane character fulfilling a “glass cannon” archetype. He’s fast. He hits hard. But he dies easily. High-risk, high-reward, a perfect fit for impatient, aggressive players.
Does every hobby, no matter how silly or twee, no matter how far afield it is from the rest of a person’s life, from their jobs and their relationships, eventually and inevitably become a mirror, a small portrait?
Smash is a fighting game. It puts you in direct conflict with another player’s desire to win. Only one can emerge as the victor. But the gameplay between “GO!” and “GAME!” is a medium for self-expression.
There are careful players, intense players, players who elect for style over safety, players who choose their mains based on math, on “the meta,” or the “most effective tactics available” at the time. Most video games, especially fighting games, will have one. In Smash, for example, the “current meta” is defensive play. People run away more, keep their distance, and interact less.
Players who embrace the meta select the characters with the best chance to win. But then there are players who put more soul into it, who play certain characters perhaps because they loved them in their home series, because they were introduced to them as children. These players, who win less but are celebrated more, are the ones doing it for the love of the game.
As for me, I’ve learned that I don’t just want to win. I want to overwhelm my opponent. Aggressive, yes, but in a way, it’s conflict avoidant. It ends the situation quickly without having to spend too much time sussing out your opponent. I’m not a very good fit, in other words, in the current meta.
I’ve stolen this word from gamers to describe a variety of things, though it seems not many people outside of my little gamer world know what I’m even talking about when I use it. My referring to the LGBTQ+ community and the way we currently talk about things as “the gay meta,” for example has gone over more than a few heads.
But I love the idea. I think everything has a meta, the game beyond the game that repurposes and rewrites the base rules, transcending the way the game was “meant to be played,” reaching outside the console and into the human world.