Let’s talk about me.
Super Smash Bros. Melee wasn’t released at a very good time for me. I was in college, away from home and most of my gaming friends. Also, it was released for the Nintendo GameCube, which history has shown us wasn’t a terribly successful console. In fact, I don’t think any of my closest friends back then owned a GameCube.
But because I know people who know people, there was a handful of opportunities to play Melee over the next few years.
I’d be at people’s houses and find mostly-young, mostly-male groups gathered around the TV trading smash attacks between signature Nintendo characters in the most wonderfully whimsical cartoon fighting game imaginable. Mortal Kombat this is not. Up to four players at a time would spend a few minutes at a time battling Links, Marios, Kirbys, Pikachus (and many others) in levels pulled from familiar Nintendo games. They’d be talking trash and throwing flowers and bombs and baseball bats at each other… much as my closest friends and I had spent literally hundreds of hours doing a few years earlier in the Nintendo 64 Super Smash Bros., the original game in the series.
2001’s Melee, however, was a very different beast from ‘64,’ and is still held in high regard by many, and still a tournament-favorite — despite new installments of the series being released in 2008 and 2014.
Gosh, I’ve always hated Melee.
Even today it’s still the fastest-paced and most brutal game of the series — the speed each game runs at is a design decision made by the developers — but Melee felt especially amped-up coming from the downright glacially-paced 64, even today still the slowest-paced game in the series. That alone made it tough to get into Melee—imagine picking up the controller and being mercilessly pounded by up to three other players (who probably play this all damn day), while you struggle to figure out how to not accidentally fall off the edge of the level.
“Seriously you guys, when you’re ready to play a real game, I’ll kick your ass with Link in 64!” is a thing I probably said every time I played Melee.
Speed was one problem for me in Melee, but my other one was the GameCube controller. Yeah, I know: the design is still held up as one of the best controllers ever, believed by many to represent Nintendo at their peak, right before their Wii-era folly of appealing to the dreaded “casual” market with the waggle-motion-centric Wiimote. The classic GameCube controller is still supported in newer Smash titles, and is still the choice among the hardcore Smash crowd… despite the half-dozen other controller options that are also supported at this point. How could I possibly not see what an amazing gift Nintendo had bestowed upon us with the GameCube controller?
Yeah, so I never really “got” the GameCube controller. I never learned how to effectively use the soft analog ‘shoulder’ buttons, never became comfy with the layout of the right-side ‘fire’ buttons (X, Y, A, B) — the real meat of any controller. Coming from 64, I knew what the C‑stick was for, but it just wasn’t the same as the four yellow buttons of old. And I’m sorry, but the Z button is just wrong—it goes on the bottom, you jerks.
With a decade-plus of hindsight, it’s clear now that my problems with Super Smash Bros. Melee, and with the GameCube controller in general, were mostly due to a lack of familiarity. I didn’t have the chance to spend time alone learning Melee at my own pace… or barring that, having hours upon hours to spend competing with close friends to sharpen my skills, like I did in high school. And I’ve always felt a little handicapped when it comes to picking up steam at new games that favor players with, you know, reflexes. I didn’t really grow up with games at home when I was young — I definitely missed a lot of the formative stuff that other 1980s babies grew up on.
Anyway, although I essentially sat out the entire GameCube era, busy with college and other life stuff, my interest in gaming was reinvigorated with the release of the Nintendo DS and later the Wii. (Yes seriously, the Wii.) When the Wii-era Smash game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, came out a couple of years later, there was no stopping me from picking it up.
I enjoyed Brawl and played a lot of it. Having my own copy at home put me in a good position to get fairly good at it. It was very different from 64—way more characters and way more everything — and as a lot of the hardcore complain, way, way different than Melee. “It’s so slow!” “It’s for noobs!” Whatever; the slower pace and the not-GameCube controls are probably what I liked most about Brawl. Thank goodness they corrected their Melee misstep, I thought.
My newfound enthusiasm for console gaming died down a few years later. I haven’t really been keeping up with the new Nintendo Wii U or 3DS stuff at all. But my original Wii remains below the TV, and I turn it on every couple of months, usually to play an old-timey 8- or 16-bit classic.
Something happened last week. An Ars Technica article about competitive Smash, and the enduring tournament legacy of Melee, showed up in my RSS. Before I had even finished the article, I’d already been to Amazon and ‘Prime’d myself a GameCube controller and memory card… and an overpriced used copy of Super Smash Bros. Melee.
My girlfriend was going to be out of town for the rest of the week. The time was right to dive in headfirst.
What happened to me?
Look, I developed this attitude as I grew closer to 30 a few years back. It goes a little like this:
So… is that it? Is this really how it’s gonna be for the rest of your life?
As I read the Ars article through these attitude-tinted lenses, I decided that my hating Melee was based on shaky reasoning at best. The way I felt about it after my few tries may have been a genuine and reasonable reaction to getting pummeled while flailing uselessly with this weird-ass controller, but let’s be honest: I never gave the game a fair shot.
That, paired with the fact that Melee’s still so widely held in such high regard almost 14 years later — it’s definitely not just mindless fanboys trumpeting the new hot thing — made me think hey-why-not? I essentially have a GameCube just sitting there — it’s actually built into the hardware of the original Wii.
A couple of days later, my little care package from the past arrived. Predictably, I still fucking suck.
But I think it’s going to be fun this time.