The Book of Melee: The beginnings of Smash history

The following is an excerpt of two chapters from “The Book of Melee,” my upcoming 2019 release chronicling the history of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee.


Before Melee

On January 21, 1999, Nintendo released its first ever Smash title, Super Smash Bros., in Japan. Directed by chief architect Masahiro Sakurai and developed by HAL Laboratory, it featured twelve of the most popular Nintendo characters—all of them ready to jump into the next all-out, knock-down, drag-out fight. For the first time, Nintendo fans could duel as Mario and Link, or rumble in the jungle with Fox and Donkey Kong.

Smash’s multiplayer mode received critical acclaim. GameSpot writer Jeff Gerstmann wrote in his review, “If you’ve got a crew of friends ready to pick a Nintendo character and throw down, then Super Smash Bros. is definitely worth a purchase.”

Smash boasts a unique twist to the standard fighting game formula. Instead of depleting a health bar as characters take damage, they only lose a stock when they’re knocked off the stage and are unable to recover. While taking more damage causes a character to fly further when hit, it’s not the inevitable death sentence most games have trained players to expect.

Unlike 2D fighting games, which require players to memorize combos and are more difficult to learn, Smash emphasizes platform movement, basic controls and intuition. The goal: to eliminate the opponent’s stocks.

By its American release on April 26, 1999, Smash had already boasted over a million sales in Japan.

Following the release of Smash, Nintendo Spaceworld ‘99 became the first documented event to host a Smash tournament. Though specific details about the tourney are difficult to dig up today, Nintendo held Spaceworld from August 27 to 29, 1999, marking a cornerstone moment in Smash history. A year later, Super Smash Bros. grew in popularity when the Japanese TV show “64 Mario Stadium” broadcasted a competitive Smash event.

From here, Smash’s popularity began to transcend Japan. 13-year-old Ricky “Gideon” Tilton created Smash World Forums, a central hub for smashers everywhere to discuss the game and meet fellow players. Today, the website is called Smashboards, and it remains a historical goldmine of old-school Smash subculture.

Unlike today, where social media platforms like Reddit, Facebook and Twitter have largely subsumed the role of message boards as discussion hubs, back then, Smash enthusiasts had to take a leap of faith in order to meet other fans. Smash World Forums was the primary medium for these connections.

“Especially when it comes to Smash, you invite strangers you have never seen before and had no relationship [with], except on boards or MSN Messenger, in your house,” veteran Japanese smasher Ryota “CaptainJack” Yoshida wrote on his blog. His words reflected the perceived risk that most players took when attempting to meet fellow smashers online.

Smash was a significant part of the late-1990s and early-2000s entertainment boom. Nintendo had a large share of the gaming market, one that they needed to protect from hovering competitors like Sony, Microsoft and SEGA, each of which was poised to release new gaming consoles at the dawn of the new millennium. Since the Nintendo 64 had been out for close to half a decade, Nintendo needed to respond with upgraded hardware of its own.

Suddenly, on August 24, 2000, Nintendo announced the development and release of the Nintendo GameCube. Its launch titles included “Luigi’s Mansion” and “Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader,” but the gaming giant had one more trick up its sleeve.

Banking on the immense popularity of Smash, Nintendo knew that it could cash in by releasing an immediate sequel to its newest and most promising franchise. The developers of the Nintendo 64 classic began working on a sequel: Super Smash Bros. Melee.

In a column for Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu, Sakurai wrote that the 13 months he spent working on Melee were some of the most demanding and challenging times of his life. Satoru Iwata, a gaming programmer who would later go on to become president of Nintendo, also played a huge role in its rapid release, working countless nights and holidays to hasten Melee’s development. The end result was an instantly recognizable masterpiece.

At the 2001 Electronic Entertainment Expo in late May, Nintendo revealed its greatest project yet. Melee had a larger cast, gorgeous graphics and promising gameplay, which included the addition of two characters in one: Zelda and Sheik, from the “Legend of Zelda” series. Their ability to smoothly transform into one another mid-game was a graphical marvel at the time.

These factors built an unbelievable amount of hype for the anticipated sequel. In fact, before the game’s official release, Nintendo ran the first-ever Melee tournament, named Premium Fight. Gaming outlet Source Magazine estimated it to have occurred sometime in Japan during Nintendo Space World 2001, from August 25 to 27, though the date of the tourney itself remains unknown.

On Novemeber 21, 2001, Melee came out in Japan. The game received a 37 out of 40 score from Famitsu, winning the outlet’s first ever Platinum Award.

By the time of its release in North America two weeks later, the legend of its competitive scene would soon begin – and it didn’t take long for the online community to gain new members eager to share their own discoveries about Nintendo’s latest title.

The Competitive Scene’s Beginnings

On January 24, 2002, a Smash World Forums user named “Ultimate” posted about a new technique he dubbed “mad dashing.” This consisted of air dodging into the ground at an angle, allowing different characters to slide varying distances. It would go on to become Melee’s best-known advanced technique under a new name: wavedashing.

Many wondered if the game’s developers intentionally created wavedashing. In an interview with Nintendo Power in late 2008, Sakurai verified that he knew about the technique.

“Of course we knew you could do that in the development period,” Sakurai said, quickly dismissing the idea of it being left behind by accident.

However, he also said he envisioned wavedashing as a way for players to quickly return to the ground while in free fall. He could never have predicted it becoming a staple of competitive play.

Before wavedashing became commonplace, Nintendo held Melee’s first tournament circuit in Japan, the Melee Fighting Road circuit. Its final event happened in Hiroshima on March 3, 2002, featuring the winners of regional events held all across Japan from January 20 to February 24 of that year.

Nintendo tournaments typically featured free-for-alls, timers and items—aspects of play that smashers had no clear consensus on at the time. Because of its contrasts with what competitive Melee eventually grew into, the Nintendo-run circuit is often ignored today when discussing the community’s early beginnings.

No matter how smashers might feel about it today, shortly following Melee Fighting Road came the birth of North America’s grassroots competitive Melee scene. It all started on the other side of the Pacific, in San Jose, California.

On April 6, Matt “MattDeezie” Dahlgren hosted Tournament Go at his home, where he lived with his parents. Only 18 years old and looking to have fun with his friends, he advertised his event online, leaving his invitation open for anyone who wanted to join the party.

No public documentation of the exact attendance count exists today. Most estimate that around 20 people came out to the first two editions of Tournament Go. Many of them were looking to compete, while others just wanted to watch others play and make a few friends.

Deezie had unknowingly taken the first step to becoming the forefather of competitive Melee. In particular, Tournament Go was the first significant tournament to use a double-elimination style bracket, which later became standard throughout the scene.

In the post-tournament thread, Deezie talked about how much running the event meant to him. He felt impressed by the sense of community it created.

“Very few people try and break the friend barrier and find outside competition. I urge people out there: host tournaments, go out and meet other people. This will build a community,” Deezie wrote. “Groups of friends will be able to get recognized [for] their strength, and people will be able to challenge them. To me, this is what fighting games are all about, and it is the one thing that up until yesterday, SSBM lacked.”

Deezie didn’t expect so many strong players. Before running Tournament Go, he and his friends assumed that no one could beat them. When challengers actually came to his event, it sparked a new competitive fire within everyone who attended, including Deezie himself.

Yet several logistical challenges of running the tournament frustrated Deezie. It was his first-ever notable tourney: one that he competed in and organized for a larger crowd than he initially thought would come. For example, Deezie planned to start the tournament at noon, but many of the matches started over two hours later, if not three. This led some attendees to leave early.

Players at the event also argued over the presence of items in the tournament ruleset. Deezie addressed these concerns afterward online. He wrote that he saw items as an innate part of the game—though using items could be considered cheap, it was as legitimate as any other strategy to win.

Deezie also acknowledged that not all items held the same value. For instance, gaining a Heart Container could replenish a major sum of health, which was a far greater advantage than using a Parasol. Moreover, items that spawned on the stage were randomly chosen by the game itself, adding little to no strategic element for competitors.

For now, most players remained split. Deezie ultimately stuck with items for Tournament Go 2, on June 15, which still garnered similar success.

Just two months later, he held a successful Tournament Go 3, this time with an estimated 50 attendants. While Deezie continued to cement his legacy as a tournament organizer, other regions took note of his success, beginning their own local Smash scenes, particularly Chicago, which many Midwest smashers hold as the birthplace of Midwest Melee.

Because of Melee’s immense popularity and competitive appeal, tournaments could be hosted anywhere. In its early days, smashers held tourneys at their homes, dormitories, the grubby backrooms of local game stores and sometimes restaurant basements.

Melee tourneys weren’t easy to run. Players needed a GameCube and a memory card that had all the unlocked characters and stages. Moreover, most tournament organizing was a hobby, and few to none of the organizers gained any kind of sustainable profit. At best, running a Melee tournament could be considered volunteer work; at worst, fruitless labor.

Playing competitively also came with a price. Many tourneys were pay-to-enter and a large portion of the final amount of money was only given to the highest placers. It wasn’t exactly a lucrative career choice as much as it was an expensive hobby. Furthermore, Melee had to be played on a cathode ray tube television: a relic of the pre-flat panel standard.

To an average person, this requirement sounds ridiculous. However, competitors know the importance of lugging around a “CRT.” Later on, when high definition setups were more commonplace, Melee players continued to use their beloved CRTs.

With countless split-second decisions and reactions often determining the outcome of a match, Melee players had to ensure that their setups had as little lag as possible, especially with money on the line. After all, modern setups were known to cause noticeable input delays and lag. To this day, it’s common to see Melee players haul massive, outmoded televisions to majors.

Nonetheless, Melee still had enough charm to make these obstacles worth overcoming. It offered unparalleled bonds between players, providing opportunities to form life-changing friendships.

Endless discussion about Melee, both online and at events, usually came from one topic above all: who were the game’s best characters? Eventually, members of Melee’s community would create its first tier list.

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Current Smashboards owner and longtime Smash community leader Chris “AlphaZealot” Brown went into further detail years later in a post titled, “The History of Competitive Smash,” in which he discussed the start of the Melee Backroom.

“The backroom originally started as a social room back around 2001-2002,” wrote AlphaZealot. “It was simply an extra room that more experienced players could go to talk more personally–almost as a reward for being on the site.”

The collective of smashers released its first-ever tier list on October 8, 2002. Notably, Sheik, the long-limbed, needle-throwing ninja, stood at the top of the heap due to her easy-to-execute combos and heavy use among Smash World Forum users. Falco and Fox, characters from the “Star Fox” series, were listed as No. 2 and 3, respectively, held back by their relative difficulty-of-use.

While the Melee scene grew in the West Coast, Midwest and online communities, it soon gained two of its most storied East Coast personalities. Hailing from Virginia came two smashers and friends in their teens, Kashan “Chillindude829” Khan, known today as “Chillin,” and Christopher “Azen Zagenite” McMullen.

These two would change the Melee community and game itself forever.