Feeling Twenty Years Go By

In about six hours from now, I’ll be very cold, waiting outside the GameStop in my hometown. I’ll be rubbing my hands together the last few minutes before midnight, asking myself questions like, “what exactly is a 30-plus man is doing out here when they have work the next morning”?  I’ll probably curse at the cold a little bit, realize just how awkward I feel surrounded by packs of college kids, and check my phone anxiously to see if it’s midnight yet.

Then, the clock will get close to the magical hour. I’ll feel a rush of excitement like muscle memory deep in my chest, and a smile grow on my face. My brain will cycle through memories that go back nearly two decades, making me realize just how much I’ve actually missed this feeling. My fingers will curl around the little receipt I’ve still got in my palm, and a childlike smile will spill out onto my face whether I want it to or not.

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Smash Brothers is almost here again.

Super Smash Bros – 1999

I was 14 when I played Super Smash Bros. for the first time. 14. Do I even remember what 14 felt like? Not really, and that’s by design. The start of high school and the end of middle school was not pleasant for me; bullying, being a heavy asthmatic, and a bit of a social shut in all combined to keep me in the house rather than out. I had my Nintendo 64 though, and I had a game that people wanted to get together to play. It even had one of the weirdest commericals ever.

Honestly, remembering playing the original Super Smash Brothers sets off a bunch of memories I hadn’t realized I still had. One of the most vivid was visiting a brand new friend on the south shore of Long Island, and having a nearly transformative experience; his family let him have all the soda and pizza he liked, and he also had a 55 inch screen CRT TV. I had never seen a TV screen that large before. I didn’t know you could play video games so loudly without causing problems.

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Do you remember this opening cutscene? Do you remember having a shiver of anticipation watching it? I do.

There are other memories too: a few childhood friends that I haven’t seen since playing the original game in my basement on a tiny TV. I remember being astounded at being able to play a video game with four people at once. There was a struggle – begging even – to try and get my parents to understand that we needed more controllers than just for me and my brother. I also remember going to the Electronic Boutique store, and casually trying to see if there was an open guidebook to the game: I didn’t have access to the internet yet, and I desperately needed to know if I had really gotten all the secret characters.

My favorite and best character was Kirby. I loved how different he felt than the other fighters: how I could use his oddball attacks into sneaky KOs.

Super Smash Bros. Melee – 2001

Melee is the game that perhaps has the most memories for the most people. It came onto the scene just as the internet started to become an integral part of everyday life. Wars online raged about who was the best character on multiple forums. I distinctly remember going down rabbit holes of gaming conspiracy theories about whether or not Chrono from Chrono Trigger was actually part of the game in any way.

I got a GameCube specifically for this game. I can’t remember if it was a birthday present or if I used my allowance money, but I specifically remember my brother and I having to beg our parents that there was a very good reason we needed a new console. Several friends from around the block would come over, biking to each other’s houses to play a few rounds. I felt like a champion that they would want to come over to hang out; I finally had a gaming system some of them did not.

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I distinctly remember the rush of trying to figure out how to unlock each and every one of the secret characters... it felt like such a big roster at the time.

The memories make me smile… but some of those friends, I haven’t seen since those games in my parent’s basement. One neighbor died of drug overdose. Others just went to different colleges, and I never saw them again. 

Gaming was becoming a social event, one that you could talk about in more than hushed whispers at your preppy high school without getting looked at funny. Melee is the Smash Brothers game that followed me to college, and it’s the game that probably made me the most friends. Finally unfettered by such childish things like ‘curfews’ or ‘sleep’, I could stay up until 2 am, rematching people across the campus of SUNY New Paltz.

Most of us had tiny CRT TVs still – 15 inches or less – that still had VCRs attached directly into its base. It was the newest item in the ‘easy birthday gifts for college kids’ trend, and whenever you could find a larger television, it was time for celebration. Still, you got sick of playing the same people after your 300th game against them. There were plenty of other gamers on campus, but it wasn’t really organized; the best way to play Halo in groups still was through LAN parties.

Super Smash Brothers Melee was that game that we were playing when I got dared to start a gaming club on campus, and so it’s the game that sort of changed the direction of my life.

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This was the earliest photo I could find of playing this series - a tournament where we showed off our brand new projectors. It was one of the first times I had bothered to think there would be a reason to photograph a game being played.

As a college club leader, we always had one TV set up for Smash Brothers. I remember distinctly when we held tournaments, and we were surprised when some people who visited NYC for serious tournaments appeared. “Wavedashing” had been unheard of until then, but as these outsiders appeared in our midst, the competition got fiercer. Several friends debated whether or not video game tournaments could ever actually last.

Super Smash Brothers Brawl came out just before the end of my undergraduate years, but it was Melee that accompanied me through the most life changes. Going to college, having my first girlfriend, becoming a social creature. Technological changes, like the start of flat screen TVs, or the always-there internet. More of my friends started having smart phones, and would always be sending messages between games, sometimes even pausing matches. I used to get so mad, and think to myself that I’d never get a phone like that so I’d be polite.

I never did try to play competitively – the idea of learning wave-dashing and playing a game for hours at a time as practice felt like too much effort, or just a waste of time. Gaming was a past-time, after all. Making a living out of it just seemed like it was a fantasy.

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My favorite character was Falco. To be honest, it could have easily been Fox, but everyone played Fox. I wanted to be different, and so I grit my teeth until I couldn’t imagine playing anyone else competitively. I still loved Kirby, but he wasn’t competitive…and why play if you couldn’t win? My friend Ben played Sheik, and some matches would start with minutes of not hitting each other: we had learned each other’s style a little too well.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl – 2008

This was the game that made me realize how much fan reactions could tint my worldview. This was the first Smash Brothers I was able to go to a midnight release for, and I loved it. There was over two dozen of us that walked up after the gaming society meeting on campus, trekking a mile in the cold march night to the GameStop. We yelled at our friends that had cars, calling them cheaters before we begged them to give us rides back to campus, so we could get to gaming faster.

I don’t remember when I went to sleep that night, but it was late. We stayed up trying to unlock as much as we could, deciding not to look up any of the guides at least until the next day. Remembering back, I suddenly realize just how locked in we were to the screen – no one I was with was tweeting out live-updates, or trying to take a selfie next to the TV. This isn’t a judgement one way or another, just a realization of how much less connected I was only ten years ago. It was so much easier to pick up a video game and play it just for what it was, rather than logging your opinion into the millions that waiting for you once you pick up your phone.

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This was the first Smash game that felt like it had the hype machine going full blast - the character reveals that happened over a year always caused spikes of crazed excitement.

Inevitably, the new game rush wore out. I had been surprised at how fast; how the competitive players in my gaming club were demanding we only play Melee. How “Brawl is just for casuals”. Actual arguments broke out every few weeks at our meetings: there had always been a projector for Smash Brothers, but now people couldn’t decide on the best way to play. Some people wanted to laugh and throw explosives at each other. Others wanted the crisp challenge of just one on one, with no items to distract from deciding who was better.

This was the Smash Brothers that came out in one of the roughest time periods of my life, when I’d end up jobless and directionless as the recession hit, and my hopes for being a teacher died before they began. Smash went from being a weekly part of life to monthly, and then yearly. I got the next set of gaming consoles. I put away childish things.

Ironically, this is the most recent Smash game that I’ve played. We plugged it into the hotel room we had been staying in at around midnight, after a day drinking with my former roommate to celebrate the fact they were about to get married. It had been years since we had had a chance to do this, but it was what Ben had requested from bachelor party: a flashback to simpler times, when we had been doing the very same thing over a decade ago.

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I couldn’t breathe at one point from laughing so hard. Another longtime friend who now had Multiple Sclerosis doubled over, unable to stop tears of laughter as we purposefully chose the weirdest characters, trying to see who could cause the most chaos. For a beautiful moment, we were all twenty years old again, living without a care in the world.

My favorite character was King Dedede. I distinctly remember getting actually angry as I kept losing with Falco. I found myself falling into the trap of complaining about changes to my favorite character rather than just letting myself adapt with the times. I remember cycling through characters for over a year, always complaining they never felt right when I’d end up in a losing streak. It was the big penguin that finally got me to realize I was just here to have fun.

Super Smash Bros. for Wii U – 2014

I was engaged to be married when the fourth Smash Brothers came out. I had a place to live I was learning to take care of, and I was a year into my first steady job after finishing graduate school. Going out to the midnight release was easier for me, since my job started late and went late into the night. I went out of a sense of obligation, since I had been playing the series for so long.

I have only one strong memory of this 4th installment in the series; it occurred with friends from college. By this point, I was out of college, so it was harder to play multiplayer. Sure, there was online multiplayer by this point, but after fifteen years of the series, it felt wrong to play against someone not in the same room as you. I’d leave that sort of gaming to Destiny.

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The memes...the memes about Villager's reveal were amazing.

In the same month Smash 4 came out, I had recently reconnected with several friends who had moved several towns away to find jobs. Since this new version could support a whopping eight players, I hosted a party at my house. With my fiance out of town, pizza, chips, and six packs of beers covered all my kitchen surfaces. I had friends who had never met shaking hands between matches, using the game as an excuse to rekindle a social life. It was so easy to let the differences that had built up between us slip away, lulled into ten minute states of childlike excitement. Smash 4 was the game I used to still break the ice at some parties, and it's the game I bonded with my soon to be brother-in-law.

My favorite character was still King Dedede. I had given up my aspirations of always coming in first. Winning for me was seeing everyone start grinning like idiots in the same room.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate – Tonight, 2018

I'm 33 now, and life is very, very different than where I started this journey. The fourteen year old me wouldn't believe that I'd be able to write about games. They wouldn't be able to believe that I actually found someone special and gotten married either, for that matter. Likewise, my present self has a hard time cycling back to my headstate as a teenager; it felt like the end of the world when people laughed at me for running out of breath at track, but did I realize how nice it is not to think about taxes?

I'm going to feel out of place at the midnight release, that much I already know. It's a college town, and the store will be packed with students who have prepared for this day for weeks. I'll bet money that someone toasts an energy drink at 11:59pm, while I'll be anxiously hoping that I can try a few rounds before I pass out for work the next morning. The fact that Ultimate has 72 characters feels like decadence in comparison to where we started at just twelve all those years ago. This game feels as though it will inevitably let someone down, thanks to the monumental pressure of its prequels. To someone else in the crowd, this might be their first Smash Brothers game, and they're happy to finally be part of this story. It'd be wrong for the veteran player to snub the newcomer; it'd be short sighted for the newcomer not to realize all the awesome games that have come before.

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Part of me feels very silly for talking so seriously about a game series that started off with Mario beating up Pikachu with a paper fan. And yet, it's this game series that's given flavor to my life. I've played a game of Super Smash Brothers only once in the last year, and yet that was enough to remember so many fantastic times before it. The games I've written about here are the keys to hundreds of memories that make me laugh, make me smile, and make me sad for what's long gone. It'd almost be foolish to dismiss a new game in this series, because I'd be dismissing so many memories that are part of who I am.

The Gift Of Not Growing Up

If you are new to the series, welcome. I hope you have the same spark of wonder that I had all those years ago with the original. If you are an old veteran, someone who still has a dented and tarnished wavebird controller waiting in a drawer somewhere... then I hope Ultimate fulfills your hopes of a fantastic game. Regardless of which of these options you identify with, I'd ask you to remember one simple thing: that Super Smash Brothers is a game that spans decades. It's a game that has many bruises and many triumphs, and it's existence has changed the lives of many who have played it. It's a game that can remind you of the joy of being a kid with no cares, if only for a little while.

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I'd want you to remember that at the end of the day, the Smash Brothers series has been all about bringing people together to play a shared game. It's a way to celebrate our love of characters from the heroic Link to the sinister Ridley, and to indulge in a little bit of creative unreality. All I ask is that if you are waiting on line tonight to see just what Super Smash Brothers Ultimate has in store, that you remember that games like this were meant to spread fun to anyone who picks up the controller, and that includes you.

This seems a good as time as any to end with one of my favorite quotes by the great Irish playright, George Bernard Shaw: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”