I've been talking about theory a lot lately and I think it's time I got back to actual games. After all I've only written on one actual game this whole time. So I'm going to focus on one that we all know and most of us love.
I love Super Smash Brothers Melee. It makes great use of the Gamecube’s graphics, its gameplay format and engine are innovative, it’s accessible, it allows for lots of personalization of gameplay, it’s really great. I’m not going to talk about all that. What I want to have happen is what the Esquire article mentioned. I want to provide criticism of this game, not a review. So, I want to talk about what this game says about society and those of us who play it, not from the perspective of a person buying a game, but from the perspective of art criticism.
Nintendo owes much of its longevity to the popularity and accessibility of its iconographic characters. Starting of course with the Mario franchise, which established no less than a dozen easily recognizable character icons of the Big N, Nintendo has been steadily making an attempt to create brand loyalty by encouraging players to form emotional bonds with its pixels. This has been remarkably successful. Few will openly admit to hating the Mario character. Even if you hate the games, the Mario character is charismatic and cute. But how can he be? He has no personality! There is next to no story for Mario to be part of! In fact much of his character bio was projected onto him after his inception.
The fact of the matter is that iconic images allow us to form emotional bonds easily by being open ended and subjective. Nintendo has a tendency to make their characters as iconic as absolutely possible, cartooney and simple.
Most people who love the game (or at least the ones I’ve talked to) will agree that the characters in Smash have moves and fighting styles that suit the character’s personalities to a surprisng and pleasing degree. Lots of this has to do with the moves coming directly from the characters' games of origin. Mario performs most of the moves from his various games, Link has some of his weapons, Kirby can eat people, etc. But often times people (my friends) get the feeling that other characters who are hardly even featured in their own games (Fox, Captain Falcon, Game and Watch) have moves that suit their characters’ personalities. Just like the U.S. audiences read into the simplest aspects of the Mario graphic and came up with “Italian plumber”, the game designers have included simple, archetypal behaviors for their icons. We eat it up and project personalities with nearly no information. We choose characters that we claim to like, although we have nearly nothing to base our liking on. We claim to dislike a character's personality, when what we really don't like is the fact that we suck with them. I know I get frustrated when i like a character that I'm no good with, even though the only real contact I've ever had with the character is using them within the game. This is a very real phenomenon and is not limited to Smash in any way. People anthropomorphize everything. What’s neat about Smash is that it illustrates not only that we are all very eager to do so, but that we seem to do so in a similar way. We agree that cute things are small, quick and light, that villains are big and slow and self-confident, that heroes are modest and powerful, and that old crappy hand held games (Game and Watch) are funny and quirky.
This doesn’t bring me to my next point at all, but I’m going there anyway. Again, what I think is so cool about this game is its illustration of Nintendo’s icons. But this game is particularly interesting as it illustrates, and spawns conversation about, Nintendo’s game history as it relates to other brands. Looking at the characters in the game you can basically see Nintendo’s retail history, from black game crystals to Pokemon. This is in itself interesting, but it becomes more interesting when we say “man, I wish there were some more characters. But who would they be?” Now we start thinking about who owns what. We say “oh, they forgot Bomberman...good.” or “oh, Nintendo bought Sega, they could include Sonic! Can’t they put in Final Fantasy characters? No, those are owned by Square.” The very fact that we know who owns what says something about consumer culture. But the fact that the characters we know and love are so deeply linked to the brands which created them is something unique to video games, and comic books I suppose. Video game cross-pollination in games like SNK vs. Capcom and Soul Caliber 2 removes us from the imaginary world of the game and puts us in the shoes of enthusiastic consumers, to the financial benefit of the company I would think. We begin to form opinions of a company based not on the quality of their products, but on the basis of which brand icons we care about. It's hard to hate Nintendo when you love Mario. It a good reminder of how deeply incestuous business and creativity are, and how much of our cultural history recorded on sales receipts.
So yea. Awesome game. Maybe sometime in the future I can talk about that fact.