My consciousness splits into two, and my surroundings spring into focus. Roars from real and canned crowds mingle, and my body, huge and hairy, bursts out of a barrel as an announcer’s echoing voice counts down from three. When he yells “GO,” my invisible bonds break, and I’m free to face my opponent: an adorable, squealing dinosaur whose tongue deals out death. On both sides of the floating, flower-strewn platform where we’re about to trade blows, existence ends in a nothingness that will soon swallow one of us. The dinosaur’s dainty hands are dwarfed by my powerful fists, but he’s dangerous and determined not to die. He, Yoshi, is the master of Super Smash Bros., and I, Donkey Kong, have come to make him surrender his secrets. Far away, back in our actual bodies, our fingers twitch. The battle begins.
If you grew up after Pong but before game consoles were interconnected,1 you remember a time when our virtual arenas were smaller and revealed less about our skill. Single-player campaigns were designed to make us feel formidable, and friends were a small sample; without all-hours access to a bottomless well of willing opponents, it was hard to assess our true talent. If we could beat the final boss and outclass the local competition, we might as well have been the best in the world, waiting for a Star Car to pull up and whisk us away.
And constantly downloading updates.
Online gaming has permanently2 opened the tap of entertainment, but it’s also made it much harder for players to convince themselves that they’re special. Offline, I’m still a super-soldier capable of cutting down armies. Online, I’m cannon fodder for 11-year-olds. So when I want to inflate my sense of self-worth, I return to a title from the flattering pre-online era: Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64.
Well, almost permanently.
Super Smash Bros. and its sequels for four newer systems are fighting games that pit Nintendo characters from famous franchises against each other in a bloodless battle to the death. In traditional, flat-platform fighting games — Mortal Kombat, Tekken, Street Fighter, and so on — the goal is to inflict as much damage as possible in order to drain an opponent’s health bar before your own is empty. Smash is more sumo: The goal is to knock the other player(s) off a multilevel stage that’s suspended in the sky. But there’s a twist: The more damage a character has sustained, the farther he’ll fly on impact. An attack that barely budges an opponent at the beginning of a game might propel him too far from the edge to recover when his damage meter hits triple digits. Beyond a certain threshold, any contact can be fatal, so the level of suspense climbs along with the counter.
Released in Japan in January 1999, Smash came to North America a few months later, when the N64 I’d gotten for my 12th birthday still had its new-console smell. I played hours of Smash while waiting for a growth spurt that was way behind schedule, and then rediscovered the game in college, when I joined a circle of five friends who’d had the same early Smash exposure. In a dorm room, the N64 was always in view, exerting an irresistible pull during downtimes, and the standard, one-word invitation to begin a game — “Smash?” — was always accepted. Like any shared activity, Super Smash Bros. became a factory for inside jokes and a powerful friendship fortifier.
Smash cartridges remember every match, so there’s no minimizing how much we played.3 My cartridge’s Donkey Kong playtime is up to 237 hours. That’s almost 10 days of solid smashing — and it doesn’t count the many matches recorded on the second cartridge we kept in our other N64. Over time, my group of friends got good, or so it seemed to us. Cut off from any outside Smash community, we wondered whether we’d gain unique abilities, like island-bound birds, or whether recycling the same opponents would stunt our progress. Might we be among the best Super Smash Bros. players still alive? How many others were there, with so many years elapsed since its release and newer versions available? Xbox Live leaderboards told us where we ranked in Halo 3, but our standing in Smash remained a mystery.
Long after my last college Smash session, I realized that the solution was as simple as following in Fred Savage’s footsteps. While the rest of the country was watching the Super Bowl, I’d make a pilgrimage to the center of the Super Smash Bros. universe. There I’d find out whether my memories of pre-Internet prowess were skewed by nostalgia, or whether my wasted youth had left me capable of competing against the modern masters of a long-ago game.
The sixth-annual Apex tournament, the largest-ever Super Smash Bros. gathering and my introduction to the wider Smash world, almost ended before it began. On the morning of Friday, January 30, just before the first matches were scheduled to start at a hotel in Secaucus, New Jersey, a fire alarm went off. The marshals who responded didn’t find any flames, but they did discover safety-code violations so severe that the ballrooms where thousands of players were about to press start had to be evacuated. Earlier in the week, the roof of the hotel’s garage had collapsed in a snowstorm, and inspectors feared the same fate could befall the main building, with thousands of Smashers inside. Organizers considered canceling the event or trying to run it out of hotel rooms, until Twitch, the popular video streaming service that co-sponsors the tournament, found an alternative: a convention center in Somerset, almost 40 miles away. A truck run by a second sponsor moved hundreds of consoles and small CRT screens to the new venue, and players with reservations to stay at the original site hitched rides to the new one, carrying suitcases containing their clothing and gear.
Apex, as its name suggests, is the premier event on the Smash community’s calendar, and by far the biggest at which SSB64 is still played. Its emergency setting has square footage to spare: The cavernous convention center, its floors the drab, industrial gray of an N64 cartridge, looks cartoonishly big before the crowd arrives. At the front of the room, two giant screens display the feeds from the comparatively tiny TVs on which prominent competitors play. The corner devoted to SSB64, far from the front, holds eight tables, each of them supporting four TVs. Sixteen years after the original reached shelves, it’s obvious that the promotional spotlight at the Nintendo-endorsed event is trained on the sequel that’s still selling copies, the recently released (and uncreatively titled) Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.
Smash’s kid-friendly aesthetic robs the series of some hard-core cred, but alienating those who like their brawlers bloody hasn’t slowed its ascent. More than 1,600 players are registered to participate in the tournament (roughly 180 of them to play SSB64); Video Game Boot Camp, the “leading Live-Streamer for competitive Smash Bros.,” will boast about attracting 2.5 million unique viewers during the two-day event.
In its default configuration, Super Smash Bros. is a party game, easy to pick up and play. Random item drops and, on certain stages, environmental hazards create chaos that helps newcomers compete. At the elite level, though, Smash is spartan, consciously distilled into the purest possible test of skill. Items are disabled, and most stages are restricted. The first setting in every tournament match — two games out of three or three out of five, with five lives, or “stock,” to a game — is Kirby’s Dream Land, a small location consisting of three platforms and a patch of dirt. In Dream Land, there’s nowhere to hide and no hope for salvation from chance. As a result, tournament Smash is a low-variance event with few upsets — more NBA than MLB.
The problem with Smash as an in-person spectator sport, I discover, is that no one wears jerseys or uniform numbers. Without a controller in hand, the elite players are indistinguishable from the amateurs, and even Smashers who’ve met in person many times refer to each other almost exclusively by their “tags,” or online nicknames. When I arrive on Sunday, shortly before SSB64 singles are scheduled to start, I ask a staffer to point out the closest prominent player. Gesturing toward a toque-wearing twentysomething, he explains that I’m looking at Jam, the best Smasher from Great Britain, who finished in the top 10 in singles at Apex 2014. The player to watch, he says, still hasn’t arrived: SuPeRbOoMfAn, who won Apex in 2012 and finished third the following two years, is the prohibitive favorite in 2015.
I’m out of practice, so I ease into the action. Like a predator scanning a pack for the slowest prey, I settle on someone who looks at least 20 years older than anyone else. Bob, the relative old-timer, is (like me) an N64 enthusiast attending his first tournament. He’s already been eliminated— perfect! — so he’s up for a few friendlies. We play three games; I take him down easily in all of them and feel only a little bit bad about it.
Although most of the participants are acquainted from previous tournaments, everyone is as welcoming as Bob. Twice, I sit down at an unoccupied table and plug my controller into an empty console, only to have a stranger ask to join me before I can make it past the start-up screen. One of these strangers is Jerry Liu, a veteran of the Smash scene who no longer trains seriously but dropped by because he lives in the area. We play five games; I win one. Uh-oh. I want Bob back.
While we play, Jerry recounts competitive Smashing’s origin story. The community coalesced a decade ago, just as my friends and I were reconnecting with our N64 roots. Ironically, the impetus was online play. Although the standard-issue N64 can’t connect to the Internet, an emulator makes it possible to play online SSB64 on a computer. It’s not the same as console Smash — there’s no way to play with a classic controller, and the gameplay suffers from lag — but it’s close enough to bring players together across continents. For years, an SSB64 emulator was the only way to Smash against distant opponents, so players who got hooked on Melee, the GameCube sequel from 2001, migrated to the older game, and Smash cells sprang up in unlikely locales, including Brazil (which has sent eight Smashers to Apex) and Peru.
One Smasher emerged as the idol of this nascent international network: Isai (pronounced “Isaiah”), whose legend looms over Apex. An enigmatic figure who’s generally regarded as the best ever to play the original Super Smash Bros., Isai won SSB64 singles at Apex last year, but he isn’t attending the 2015 tournament. Even so, his name keeps coming up, usually in the hushed tones that a golfer in the early aughts might have used to talk about Tiger Woods. Jerry tells me that in 2006, he belonged to a group of friends who “thought [they] were the shit” at Super Smash Bros., which sounds ominously familiar. Then he played his first match against Isai, the Smash savant who at the time was routinely “three- and four-stocking” his closest competitors — beating them with three or four lives left to spare, using characters that no one else could win with, and tactics that no one else could copy. Oh, shit, Jerry remembers thinking. I will never beat this kid. I wonder whether I’m about to experience the same feeling.
During a break between rounds, Jam (short for Jamie Jahanpour) tells me he has time to play. The soft-spoken twentysomething from the outskirts of London picks Jigglypuff, and I stick with DK — a fair fight, since both are considered lower-tier characters on the community-crowdsourced hierarchy.
I strike first with an overhead spike, but then Jam gets serious. I’m on the defensive for the rest of the round, stealing a second kill at the buzzer but never making him sweat. We play three more games, with Jam rotating higher-ranked characters — Pikachu, Star Fox, and Mario — and he beats me like I beat Bob. I ask him for feedback. “You’re OK,” he says. “You do some good stuff. You need to stop rolling.” He explains that rolling makes sense for defensive maneuvers, but not as a normal means of traversing the stage. Great — after a decade and a half, I evidently don’t know how to move from one side of the screen to the other. I try to internalize this new way of navigating.
Smash is superficially simple: Every character has a suite of attacks activated by the same set of button presses. But these moves take different forms, and some characters’ attacks take priority over others. While the basics are transferable between characters, mastering any one character can take months. On top of that, there’s a long list of non-character-specific tips, tricks, and exploits, most of which don’t appear in the manual and some of which weren’t intended by the developers. Over the years, practices like “teching” and “Z-canceling,” two techniques for reducing the recovery time after a character completes an animation, have been discovered, documented at online enclaves like Smashboards, and passed around from player to player like licks from American R&B before the British Invasion.
Some of these things I’ve forgotten; others I’ve never known. Jam is out of my league, but even so, I can hurt him: He’s not like Neo after he knows he’s The One. I’ve come to see Smashing in its most refined form, and now I need to get my fix from SuPeRbOoMfAn.
Smash rankings are always in flux, but for now, SuPeRbOoMfAn, or “Boom” — who doubles as mild-mannered IT tech Dan Hoyt from Edmonton — has a strong claim to the top seed. Responsibility usually sabotages elite Smashers before physical decline can, and these days, the 29-year-old Isai is focused on — or, depending on the priority you put on Smash, distracted by — real-life obligations. “He has more of a family life now,” an Apex staffer says wistfully. Isai’s absence has left a void that the Canadian is best qualified to fill, although at 24, Boom is already being tugged in too many ways: His job and his girlfriend take up most of his time, but he still tries not to go more than two days between Smash sessions. “You’ve got to have a girl who understands the Smash,” he says, inadvertently crafting the world’s worst pick-up line.
Boom — polite, personable, and so conditioned to the Canadian cold that he’s comfortable in a light T-shirt — has been playing SSB64 for most of his life. Like me, he’s experimented with the sequels but hasn’t lost his addiction to the original strain. “I play other [Smash] games for jokes sometimes, but I don’t take them seriously compared to this,” he says. He can’t be complacent. “People bring new stuff to the table, and you’re like, ‘Oh, shit,’” he says. “You’ve got to figure it out. … This is the only game I’ve ever experienced that in. I guess that’s fighting games in general — you have to adapt to your opponent. I like that type of thinking. It gives me a rush.” On Saturday, Boom took the SSB64 doubles title, teaming up with JaimeHR, a doubles specialist who’s very good but not great on his own, like a Smash Roberta Vinci. “It was kind of one-sided, honestly,” Boom says, not bragging but stating a fact. He knows that was a warm-up for the singles bracket he’s expected to win.
At this level, surprises are rare. Boom can reel off scouting reports on everyone he’s likely to face. “Most good players I’ve played, and I know their styles,” he says. “Sometimes I forget. But I’m good at picking up on habits.” Occasionally someone takes a big step forward between tournaments, Boom says, but, “It doesn’t happen too often. This game takes a while to learn.”4 Last November, an incognito expert dubbed the Masked Smasher entered a local tournament and blew everyone away, but his disguise probably hid a familiar face; Boom is one of the leading Masked Smasher suspects, though he won’t unmask himself to me.
I can testify to that.
I shadow Boom as he wins match after match, and I marvel at the variety in the competitors’ accoutrements after years of Smashing with the same group. Sleeping dogs and duffel bags stuffed with wires rest at their owners’ feet. Every competitor carries his own controller, fastidiously unplugging and re-coiling its cord after each round. Some use third-party game pads with smoother sticks; one uses a stock controller lit like a Christmas ornament; still others use keyboards or Xbox controllers connected to their consoles with home-brew adapters. Banze, one of the best Brazilians, uses a towel to dry his hands between games. Boom’s controller is a gray original. “I kept this in the closet,” he says. “It’s the tournament controller. It just stays there until I go to Apex.” Elsewhere, I see Smashers cleaning their controllers’ innards with rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs, like warriors sharpening their blades before battle.
Unlike the elite in mainstream sports, who perform in front of crowds from an early age, Smashers aren’t inured to stage fright. “You’ve got a big tournament like Apex, you’re going to get nervous,” Boom says. “Hands sweaty, heart pumping.” As the games go on, different regions of the room erupt in cheers and chants. Some fingers are frantic, flying over the buttons and clenching the controller, but Boom’s move no more than they need to. They’re callused from constant contact with the control stick, but hours of SSB64 haven’t done any lasting damage. Melee is known for being much harder on the hands. “He has to take a bone out of his hand just to have a hand still,” Boom says, referring to Hax, a top Melee Smasher who’s on hiatus as he recovers from the kind of repetitive motion injury that can end e-sports careers.
Even though the Smashing continues past kickoff in Arizona, I don’t hear or see a single reference to the Super Bowl, save for a lone Gronk jersey in a sea of nerd-culture signifiers. The Garden State Convention Center might be the only place in the U.S. where a large, mostly male audience has assembled on Super Bowl Sunday for non-football-related reasons. In this case, “mostly male” is an understatement: There’s more residual estrogen in Manny Ramirez’s bloodstream than there is in the SSB64 section. When I ask why there aren’t more women at Apex, participants shrug and look chagrined; I don’t get the sense that anyone wants the imbalance to persist, but no one has a solution.5 “That’s just the way it is for games,” Boom says. There’s only one female N64 Smasher at Apex, pidgezero_one (a.k.a. Stef). “There are a lot more girls at this Apex than at previous Apexes,” she says, “but none of them went to 64.” An informal 2013 survey at Smashboards indicates that the community’s male-to-female ratio could be as high as 25-to-1, although Stef offers an equally unscientific counterpoint: This year, the stalls in the women’s restroom aren’t empty.
Hoaxes like this one don’t help.
As expected, Boom cruises into the top eight, leaving him three victories from his goal. His first opponent on the big screen, where the remaining matches are streamed, is Wizzrobe — a tag with more mystique than “Justin Hallett from Florida.” He just turned 17, which makes him only slightly older than the game he’s so good at. “Most of my free time is spent with Smash,” he tells me, and it shows: A sponsored pro, he plays every Smash sequel at an elite level.
Wizzrobe uses Yoshi, a high-risk, high-reward character; so many Yoshis make this year’s Apex top eight that the community is considering another adjustment to the character tier list. This is the most astonishing aspect of Smash’s design: Not one line of the cartridge’s code has been altered since 1999, but the community’s decoding continues to change, as game theory and strategic call-and-response expose new weaknesses and strengths. It’s a metagame as rewarding as the action itself, an evolutionary process that keeps an old game eternally new.
Before tournament matches, players warm up by casually, not-for-keeps killing each other, like tennis pros rallying before the first serve. Eventually, the Smashing gets serious, and Boom drops the first round of the best-of-five. “It’s the classic BoomFan first game,” someone says behind me. “It looks like it’ll be close.” Sure enough, Boom responds to the setback by switching from Captain Falcon to Pikachu — his other “main” — and running the table for the rest of the set. Although the crowd can be raucous and some Smashers are showboats — one Melee player at Apex is reputed to have taken a mid-match selfie — both N64 competitors are impassive to the end.
In both the Winners Final and the Grand Final, Boom tops a relative newcomer, tacos. In their second match, tacos accidentally pauses midgame, a distracting mistake that’s supposed to carry a severe penalty: virtual suicide. Like Tim Smyczek allowing Rafael Nadal another first serve at the Australian Open, Boom lets it slide; unlike Smyczek, he wins anyway. At the end, there’s little suspense: Boom sweeps, fulfilling the prediction the staffer made moments after I arrived.
As Boom walks away from the spotlight, looking less elated than relieved, I intercept him and, summoning my inner sideline reporter, ask him how he felt. “It was mostly bad,” Boom says, “but in the Grand Final I stepped it up.” He smiles. “Or maybe it was a ploy all along.”
Asking an Apex-winning Super Smash Bros. player to go straight from taking the title in front of a crowded room to playing me with no one watching seems as presumptuous as asking Madison Bumgarner to toss batting practice seconds after he won World Series Game 7, or asking Ali to spar after the Rumble in the Jungle. Still: How often do we get a field-level view of what the best in the world looks like? I ask Boom to show me his moves, and he agrees to tack on a few more matches to the dozens he’s played today.
By this time, the cleanup crew has spirited away the N64s, so I pull my own console from the briefcase where I stashed it 15 hours before. I tell Boom that I want to experience what the other Smashers on the stage just felt — that no matter how strong the temptation to hold back against an inferior opponent, he should attack me with the same ferocity he showed in the finals. It’s hard to say whether he complies with my wishes: In the same way that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced Smasher’s max effort is indistinguishable from sandbagging. My only hope is that he’ll be taken aback by facing someone so bad.
Almost as soon as we start — Boom selects Yoshi — I feel as clumsy and slow as if I’m playing for the first time. He kills me once and nearly subtracts a second life before I manage to hit him with a spin attack; the 8 percent damage it does is the most gratifying sight of my Smash career. I get maybe two-thirds of the way to killing him once before I’m out of lives.
In the second match, he switches to Mario. This one goes worse.
Finally, Boom plays me as Falcon, one of his primary characters.
This time, he just juggles me; I barely get to touch the ground. Falcon is everywhere at once: Even when I’m dead, he dashes around the stage, punching and kicking, as if fighting an invisible opponent or releasing the pent-up effort that he doesn’t need to expend against me. In all, Boom kills me 15 times without dying. If I could have pooled all the damage I did against him into a single game, I might have killed him once. It’s some consolation that Boom also five-stocked tacos in the Grand Final: With a questionable application of the transitive property, I can spin my defeat as no worse than the tournament runner-up’s. I am the Salieri of Super Smash Bros. Sort of.
It should probably be disheartening that I’m still as helpless against an actual expert as a complete beginner would be against me. On the other hand, these defeats don’t diminish the fun I’ve had playing it for hundreds of hours that were less mindless than they looked. And it’s gratifying that an aging game I’ve given so much time to still has acolytes so dedicated to plumbing its depths. Being beaten by BoomFan is beautiful.
Boom takes home a total of $934 for his singles and doubles titles. At this point, there’s not much money in SSB64;6 the only incentives to keep training and traveling are bragging rights, the satisfaction of elevating a video game into an art form, and cheap championship trophies. When he gets back to Alberta, Boom sends me a picture of his Apex swag, including the trophy from 2012, when he beat Isai (who handicapped himself by playing as Link, one of the weakest characters). The 2015 trophy is twice the 2012 model’s height and looks less like something one would see in a hotel lobby — both Smash and Apex have moved up in the world — but Boom’s trophy is chipped, a fitting prize for the preeminent player of a game with a last-millennium look.
There’s real money in Melee and the latest Smash sequels — enough that a top-eight player can make a living, Jerry tells me. “Not a good living.”
Next year, Boom tells me, Isai is supposed to be back. The Peruvians are planning to attend. Wizzrobe won’t be a minor anymore. And — watch out, world — I’ll know not to roll. These are challenges that a Smasher’s questing, competitive spirit can’t resist.
“I don’t know when we’re going to stop,” Boom says. “We might not until our hands don’t work.”