How Nintendo has Consistently tried to Kill Competitive Smash
Well, here we go again. Nintendo has once again shut down a Super Smash Bros. tournament for no good reason. The Big House Online, the first netplay iteration of one of the most long-standing and well-respected tournament series in Smash community history, has been slapped with a Nintendo cease and desist. Not only was the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament, running on emulator platform Slippi, cancelled – they shut down the event’s online Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament too. This time, no community outcry has yet led the company to reverse their decision. And this is far from the first time Nintendo has shut down a tournament for their own games. It’s their worst business practice.
I’m saying this as a lifetime fan of the company’s products. My first console was a GameCube, a present for my fifth birthday. My first console game was Luigi’s Mansion, one I played and replayed dozens of times. Super Smash Bros. Melee was one of my first other GameCube games, and one of my favorites to play with friends. I never knew that a treasure trove of advanced mechanics, techniques, and strategies existed within its code until I was in high school, with the release of The Smash Bros. documentary, which is a tad… embellished, at times, but still a good watch.
Anyway, the larger point we can draw from this: community formation and exposure are wonderful things. Longtime friendships can be forged in the fires of competition. Longtime memories can be formed by watching the best of the best players “break” your favorite game. Uncountable incredible moments have taken place not only in Super Smash Bros. Melee, not only in Super Smash Bros. in general, not only in video games, but in all competitive games.
And so, to attempt to destroy a community, to attempt to break up uncountable groups of friends playing the same title, to end rivalries and teams and sponsorship deals, to erase hype, to prevent people from enjoying any game, especially one with such incredible potential for high-level play and memorable moments as Melee… is just unforgiveable. It represents the erasure of memories from existence before they can be present moments, the deletion of content before it can get uploaded, the undoing of countless interactions between players trying to play their best, and the potential destruction of the oldest competitive video game community to still be so prominent, still playing essentially the same game since 2001.
Melee’s Continues to Succeed
The only reason that Super Smash Bros. Melee is playable during our current COVID-19 Nightmare HellWorld™ is the Slippi platform of the Dolphin emulator. The biggest reason people like me still play this ancient treasure of a game is its incredible suite of mechanics that create endlessly interesting situations. The only reason we can enjoy playing it with others right now is this incredible mod platform with state-of-the-art rollback netcode, replays, and built-in (if unranked) matchmaking. Without interference like this cease and desist from Nintendo – a company which could easily decide that, without getting too involved in the community, is just happy that people are still playing the game that even Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai considers the tightest in the series – Melee would likely go on creating memories for another five to ten years, at least.
The worst part is that they don’t even have a great legal argument. To my knowledge, console emulation is completely legal, so long as the game files used are dumped from a legally-obtained copy of the game. It’s uploading copyrighted ROM and .iso files that is actually illegal. Downloading these illegal files is not encouraged by the law, but I don’t think that it’s explicitly illegal either… like running a late yellow light, or something. No tournament, Big House included, has ever endorsed pirating the game, but let’s face it: no new copies of Melee have not been sold in more than a decade. Nintendo loses nothing by looking away on this issue and stands to gain free advertising as the company that made one of the longest-running esports of all time. They even hurt their own current and non-emulate-able Smash game in The Big House Online’s case, with the Ultimate tournament being shut down along with its older sibling.
Diehard Fans Won’t Let Melee Die
Smash has some diehard fans. Melee in particular is so resilient because of the community’s overwhelming love for its mechanics, aesthetics, sound design, stages, character roster, and even single player content like Break the Targets and trophies. I and many in the community consider Melee to be a 10 out of 10 masterpiece – it’s simultaneously my favorite platformer and my favorite fighting game.
According to longtime community figurehead “The Crimson Blur,” Melee actually has seen better viewership stats this year than last year. Only through Slippi’s excellent netcode is this possible. Home streams for top players are exceedingly entertaining to watch. These streams offer a “first-person” perspective for one’s bracket runs in online events. I’ve already said that without the company’s unnecessarily tight fist around our throats, Melee would keep going for a while longer. This information just reinforces that point. Like the Biblical Isaac about to be sacrificed by a father who hears voices, the Melee community is really hoping for a sacrificial ram to wander by. Maybe Nintendo could go after the uploaders of illegal .iso files instead of the people who love their games most.
At any rate, I have always been quite proud of my .iso file of Melee dumped via a homebrew Wii program from my original game disc, no skull & crossbones or anything. I still have this 100% legal file on my computer, and planned on entering the 100% legal Big House Online tournament while using it. But the Smash tournament organizing team simply doesn’t have the resources to fight Nintendo’s cease and desist… and by “resources” I mean “money for lawyers.” It’s such a depressing, annoying, frustrating, tiring situation for the people who have poured so many hours into Melee, not just practicing and playing but also organizing and promoting.
Nintendo’s History of Trying to Stop Melee
In 2013, Melee’s meteoric “platinum age” rise was almost halted by the very same, seemingly insane company. After community donations secured the game’s spot at Evolution 2013, the Super Bowl of fighting games, entrant numbers utterly smashed the previous record for entrants at a Melee tournament. In a baffling decision, Nintendo used a rarely-used publisher’s right to deny streaming rights to the tournament. According to Evolution co-founder Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, Nintendo didn’t just want to stop the stream – they wanted to cancel the Melee tournament at “Evo” 2013 altogether.
This is likely due to a misguided belief that Melee’s continued prominence takes away sales from the newest entry in the series, whatever that may be. At the time, it was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and Super Smash Bros. (Smash “4” 3DS and Wii U) was set to come out soon. The latter game’s names were due to a slightly less misguided belief by the video game industry that we are too stupid to like anything that sounds even a little unfamiliar, and as such have continued releasing entirely different games under the same name as older, better titles.
Okay, maybe a little too much tea is spilling from my keyboard. This is just so devastating as a lifetime Nintendo fan and a longtime Melee player. Now, the game they want to promote is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. They either forget or ignore the facts that many Melee players (myself included) bought Ultimate, and that many Ultimate players play and/or watch Melee. The games can coexist. The games have coexisted. The games will coexist until Nintendo kills off Ultimate’s tournament scene with the release of the next Smash game, as Smash 4 did to Brawl and as Ultimate did to Smash 4. Then, Melee will coexist with the new game, provided Nintendo doesn’t pull the plug on Melee forever for no good reason.
Speaking of pulling the plug on Melee for no good reason, let’s return to Evolution 2013. There, after severe community backlash, Nintendo did reverse its decision regarding the stream just a few hours after that decision was announced, and the event went off without a hitch. Well, without a hitch besides the players of Losers’ Finals not knowing that it was a best of three-set, which led to them playing under the best of five ruleset, one without stage bans. But other than that hitch, no hitches were found throughout Evo 2013. It went down as one of the greatest Melee tournaments of all time, featuring the historic runner-up run of Ice Climbers player “Wobbles” and the victory of Melee GOAT “Mang0.” The briefly-denied stream was wildly popular and led to a resurgence of Melee, the game whose community never seems to die.
A Real Threat to Survival in COVID
But it’s in real danger of dying this time. Coronavirus has shut down in-person tournaments everywhere, which I know I don’t need to remind any FGC friends out there. This distinct lack of in-person competition makes Melee’s new rollback netcode emulator platform so wonderful; it would be sorely missed were Nintendo to strike at the heart of Slippi with more cease and desist orders for Smash Melee tournaments using it.
They must not feel impunity to public backlash and outcry. The hashtag #FreeMelee was trending on Twitter a while there, and for the community to have a chance, voices saying similar things must continue to be heard. The Big House is unlikely to happen again, at least until the plague goes away, but that tournament series has historically been sponsored by Nintendo, who have a history of standing against modifications to their game, be it emulation on PCs or straight-up mods.
Now, I was never a huge fan of popular Super Smash Bros. Brawl mod Project M back when it still had a big community. But it’s an important part of this story, another victim of Nintendo’s overreach. Seeing its development team disband, likely due to pushback or legal threats from Nintendo, was very sad. The Smash-mod devs deny that they were hit with a Nintendo cease and desist, so it’s just speculation at the end of the day, but Nintendo has come out as staunchly anti-mod more than once. Either way, Nintendo would have had the legal power to issue such a cease and desist, and most of the Smash community assumed that legal reasons were behind the dev team’s decision to disband. Project M shutting down set a bad precedent for Smash as a whole. “Play the game our way, or don’t play it at all,” seemed to be the message. And vanilla Brawl? NO THANK YOU, Mr. Sakurai.
Now, though, there isn’t even a way to play the game their way. Get COVID to play Smash? NO THANK YOU, Mr. Sakurai. In the Melee community, I’m something of a purist. I don’t like the way popular mod “UCF” (Universal Controller Fix) feels and prefer vanilla inputs. But I do like the option being there, since this mod theoretically evens the playing field when it comes to the quality of aging GameCube controllers. And, frankly, in 2020, vanilla Melee with the lights off and no rollback just doesn’t do it for most people anymore. It’s great to be able to practice the game against others from the comfort of your own room with no pants on, COVID or no COVID.
And, say you’re any developer. The competitive community mods your game to make it more competitively viable in their eyes. So what? They bought the game, at least way back in the day, in this case. They provide advertising for the game and company as a whole in the form of reputation. Once again, I say, “We made a game in 2001 that people love so much, they still play it in 2020,” should be Nintendo’s vague attitude. It very much should not be, “I don’t know what this rollback stuff is, but I still know that I don’t like it,” a real quote from Doug Trouser, Director of Ceasing and Desisting at Nintendo of America. Might I add, this is an utterly ridiculous, pathetic, and outdated attitude for Doug to take. It sounds like an aging family member rambling about something they don’t understand, but still adamantly hate, at Thanksgiving.
But the most important question above is, “So what?” both to Nintendo and to the community. Well, I’ll address the community first, a part of and apart from it for now. “So, what” do we do? Well, we will continue playing netplay on Slippi, alone together as we round the corner to what feels like (fingers crossed) the home stretch of quarantine. We will continue hosting tournaments, preferably without skewed “sponsorship” deals from the company. I think that the community should acknowledge that Melee’s continued prominence is a labor of love and as such pitch in with higher venue fees to prevent tournament organizers from footing most the bill out of pocket, at least once we return to in-person events. I don’t know if there are “venue” fees right now… feels like a misnomer if there are.
Either way, we will continue forging memories in our favorite game so long as we are not sacrificed on the improvised altar Nintendo has chosen for us. And to that company, I say in a different way, “So what?” Leave us the hell alone. Let us play your game. #FreeMelee. The only way for us to play your game is to use Slippi. We’ll be back on our GameCubes and Wiis hooked up to CRT TVs in college classrooms and fire halls and venues around the globe soon enough. The only thing likely to get Nintendo to back off from its cease and desist trigger-happy state is sustained public backlash for this bad decision regarding Big House’s Smash tournament. This backlash would represent potential for Nintendo’s loss of lifetime customers like myself and many of you, reading these bitter yet determined words. We shouldn’t have to fight for the right to keep playing our favorite video game, and yet here we are. Please keep the wave of outcry going, even if Melee’s not your favorite game, because this level of overreach from Nintendo is absurd and flagrantly harmful to a community that has given them so much.