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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate artwork Nintendo

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Why haven’t more publishers and developers learned from Super Smash Bros.?

We have more to gain by sharing characters than hoarding them

The most important moment in Super Smash Bros. history happened 13 years ago, at E3 2006.

The first ever trailer for Super Smash Bros. Brawl premiered at the end of Nintendo’s onstage presentation, which also included the first look at Super Mario Galaxy and the announcement of the DS Lite. The trailer was good, but nothing had prepared viewers for how it ended.

In the closing seconds of the reveal trailer, after Nobuo Uematsu’s iconic theme song had finished playing and the logo flashed across the screen, we heard the distinctive tone of the radio from Metal Gear Solid. One meta conversation with the Colonel later, and Solid Snake had officially joined Nintendo’s flagship fighting franchise.

In a way, the Super Smash Bros. series has been chasing the emotional high of that 30-second snippet ever since.

The power of cooperation

Crossovers and cameos in video games were by no means a new concept in 2006, but they were especially common in fighting games. SNK’s King of Fighters was the type of company-wide fighting game that Smash Bros. would ultimately become, and it debuted in 1994. Alex Kidd in Shinobi World was a platformer, merging the two titular franchises on the Sega Master System in 1990. And Namco triple-dipped into cameo territory by featuring Spawn, Heihachi, and Link as platform-exclusive guest characters in Soul Calibur II in 2002.

Nonetheless, seeing and hearing Solid Snake rendered in such loving detail in a Nintendo game, from his character model to the dozens of fully-voiced codec conversations, felt different. The standard, expected rules of video game exclusivity were being bent, if not outright broken.

And that was before Sonic the Hedgehog was later announced as a playable character as well. The younger generation may have grown up with Mario and Sonic working together or competing in a number of games, but many of us in our 30s still find it surreal. That sort of thing would have been unthinkable in the midst of the Nintendo-Sega Console Wars.

The inclusion of new challengers from Nintendo and non-Nintendo franchises alike has since become a staple of the series, and a source of both rampant speculation and (often hilarious) celebrations from fans. Nintendo has leaned into this anticipation and pageantry; the humble, in-engine reveals of Snake and Sonic in Brawl paved the way for the beautifully-animated short films that fans have come to love and expect.

I saw the Solid Snake reveal when I was 18 years old; I’m about to turn 32. Participating in this cycle of sometimes baseless speculation about new characters being added to Smash has become my favorite part of games culture in the years between these two events. It’s a positive, optimistic activity I can share with friends and family. Nintendo still manages to surprise us, despite the entire internet trying to figure out who will be coming to the series next.

Seeing how Nintendo shrugs off our assumptions is part of the fun, in fact. Ridley? I thought he was too big, so I never thought it would happen. I didn’t think Bayonetta had a chance in hell in a family-friendly Nintendo franchise. Joker? I never saw it coming, which made it even more fun.

Choose your character

The games industry as a whole would be much better if it was more like Super Smash Bros. and put short-term profits, platform exclusivity, and other often consumer-unfriendly practices aside in order to create surprises that help make people excited and happy.

And this approach isn’t altruistic fan service on the part of Nintendo; Ultimate is the company’s fastest-selling game of all time, and the hype around new characters, as well as anticipation for upcoming characters through DLC, certainly helped contribute to the strong sales.

Likewise, a glance at the game’s credits would show you that every single non-Nintendo property included, from a Mii Fighter costume of Geno from Super Mario RPG to every single song, visual element, and playable character from the Castlevania franchise, was the result of what I can only assume was a thorough, legally-binding negotiation process. No one loaned their intellectual property to Nintendo and hoped for the best; it seems as though each publisher and developer was intimately involved to make sure their characters were treated well.

Still, Nintendo didn’t have to do this. Masahiro Sakurai didn’t have to do this. But they did, and the results are so well-executed and satisfying that I have to wonder: Why aren’t all games doing something like this, or at least more games trying crossovers more often? Nintendo is creating its own reference and crossover-heavy version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Smash Bros. series and, just like Marvel, it seems to be winning big from this approach.

But third-party crossovers are still both exciting and rare in gaming. The level of coordination and cross-brand partnership required to make games like Project X-Zone (an RPG series featuring characters from Sega, Bandai/Namco, Capcom, and Nintendo franchises) and LEGO Dimensions (a game where you can have GLaDOS, Homer Simpson, and Scooby Doo hang out) a reality was most likely extreme, but their publishers were able to make it happen anyway, to differing results. These instances still feel like exceptions, rather than examples of how things are done.

And the process doesn’t instantly become simple just because a single company controls a wide variety of characters; the now-defunct Disney Infinity series may have been brought down at least partially due to the company’s various departments demanding different concessions that might have served them individually, but ended up hurting the game itself.

There is no single magic trick to making these cross-promotional opportunities run smoothly, and there has yet to be anyone who is handling it better than Nintendo and the companies it works with for each Smash Bros. release.

Challenger approaching

The Super Smash Bros. series has become a sort of living document of gaming history. It’s an ongoing franchise developed and published by the company that saved console gaming in the ‘80s, and features a roster of characters from nearly every decade of gaming’s history, and most of its platforms.

It’s fair to say that being included in Smash Bros. gives a character (and its franchise) a level of prestige and recognition akin to being added to a museum exhibit, while also introducing that character to a larger audience than they may have enjoyed otherwise. Game characters can become canonical without being a Smash Bros. game, of course, but inclusion in that hallowed series certainly helps.

When I sent my brother dozens of all-caps texts during the King K. Rool reveal, it wasn’t because I was excited to have another heavy fighter added to the game. It was because a key part of our childhood, the boss we spent hours pooling our skills to beat across four games and two generations of consoles, was going to be recognized on a wider stage.

Seeing Joker revealed as a DLC character must have felt, to Persona fans, like seeing their favorite obscure band on the main stage of a huge music festival. It’s validating, especially if you were there for the entire journey of that character or franchise.

Most importantly, these crossovers drive fans to think up their own wildest character inclusions and ask a simple, vital question: Why not? For years, it was accepted that there was too much weird history and bad blood between Square-Enix and Nintendo for the Final Fantasy series to ever return to one of their consoles.

But Cloud Strife has been in two Smash Bros. games, and every good 3D Final Fantasy title is available on the Switch. I doubt it was simple to make that happen but, since it seems like everyone benefitted, it was likely worth the expense and effort.

A year ago, it was assumed that Persona was a Sony exclusive. Now, Smash Bros. features the main character of Persona 5, and a collection of music tracks from the entire franchise. Plus, a Persona game is finally coming to Switch, even if it’s not the one people were expecting or maybe hoping for. These walls are being broken down, and Nintendo often seems to be the company most willing to get out the sledgehammer to help it happen.

Banjo and Kazooie, Steve from Minecraft, Erdrick from Dragon Quest, Sora from Kingdom Hearts, Spider-Man, Son Goku; why not? Nintendo has slowly chipped away at our expectations of what’s possible in the games industry, and we live in a world where Thanos can show up in Fortnite. These crossovers are still surprising and delightful, but so many of them are successful that I’m constantly surprised that so few other large companies try their hand at making them happen.

Nintendo has -- unintentionally or not -- revealed how arbitrary many of those barriers have always been, and it has helped fans like me find a lot of joy and happiness in the act of simply hoping for something new, exciting, and better.

Nintendo changed the game by at least partially opening its doors, cutting deals, and inviting others into their space, which happens to be one of the most revered in the history of the industry. And it’s become clear that its peers have little reason to not do the same.

So the real question is a simple one: Are they up to the challenge?