Across the state of Oregon, groups are making their way to Salem on a rainy morning. Some are from universities and greater metropolitan areas around the state. One group even makes the four hour drive with five people in a sedan, loaded down with energy drinks and controllers. Through Facebook these individuals have connected and planned to meet at a regular looking house in a neighborhood of the state’s capitol.
In a garage lined with six televisions paired with six Nintendo 64s, they follow specific rules in a double elimination tournament to determine who is the best Super Smash Bros. player in the state. This is the Oregon Smash Community, a small, but dedicated group in the network around the country that still plays the oldest game of the Smash series competitively.
With billions of consumer dollars pouring in annually, the video game industry has evolved to a world of voice activated consoles, professional players treated as celebrities and graphics cards that blur the line between the virtual world and reality. So why would this clunky fighting game from the late 90’s still be played across North America? Why is the average game cartridge sold for upwards of $50 on eBay? And why haven’t players, who have spent hours learning combos and game mechanics, moved on to more popular games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Overwatch?
Super Smash Bros. is a platform fighting game released in 1999 for Nintendo 64. Drawing stages, items and music from different popular Nintendo games, the character selection is also comprised of company’s all stars. Some of these most notable franchise faces include Mario, Pikachu and Link.
Smash 64, like other fighting games, allows players to choose their character and a map before beginning the round. After that, the object of the game is fairly simply. Using combos on the classic trident shape controller, the goal is to hit your opponents and raise their damage percentage. The higher the percent a player has, the farther they fly when they get hit, ultimately resulting in them flying off the map and losing life stocks.
Simple, familiar and user friendly. The popularity of the classic N64 game greenlighted follow-up sequels including Melee (2001 Gamecube), Brawl (2008 Wii) and Smash 4 (2014 Wii U). Melee has enjoyed the most popularity in competitive play and some prize purses have grown over $30,000 at major tournaments.
Smash 64 has been included at these tournaments, but the entrant numbers are staggeringly lower than its Gamecube successor. Genesis 3, a large gathering for players held earlier this year in San Jose, saw 1,828 entrants for Melee but only 238 for 64. Pure 64 players are rare, but the few scattered around the country hold onto the original game and are determined to grow its competitive scene in America.
For many young adults, the N64 is more than plastic and wires. It’s a connection to a colorful childhood. There were almost 300 N64 games released in North America through the end of the nostalgic 90’s to 2002. Young adults in their 20’s remember Saturday morning cartoons that were interwoven with commercials for the latest games, and how troubleshooting the device was as simple as removing the controller plug or game cartridge and blowing on it — a myth that was later debunked but still seemed to do the trick at the time.
“I think there are untold masses of people who would play this game once it hits prominence.”
Having played the game within the week it was released, Chris Studstill will tell you that his total logged time of Smash 64 is around 18,000 hours. Studstill has picked up and put down the game a few times in his life, but last year, it ultimately influenced him to relocate to Baltimore, where there is one of the most competitive Smash 64 scenes in America.
The 31-year-old says that his average day involves waking up, making calls about Smash 64, smoking a cigarette, going to work as a cook and spending the rest of his time thinking about the game. He is a purist in the sense of Smash 64 players, and doesn’t believe that the rest of the series compares to the original. Even after camping out in front of a GameStop for the release of Melee in 2001, he would call the it,”the most disappointing failure of a game in my life.”
Computer emulators allow players to connect online and play each other. However, due to the lag and unnaturalness of these substitutes, preferred play is still in-person. Studstill’s move to Baltimore was also to be closer to a business partner whom he’d met online. One who is equally as passionate about Smash 64 and has a knack for organizing brackets and events which solves the problem of physical distance.
David Shears was trained in Smash 64. through countless hours of playing with his brother and friends. In later years, Shears emerged as the unofficial top player around the Virginia Tech campus. He says during the dorm days he would play against neighbors or if he stumbled into a party where there was a console, he would challenge whoever would pick up a controller.
After graduation, he moved to Baltimore to work as a software engineer. In a new city, but eager to continue finding competition, Shears posted Craigslist ads that offered strangers $20 if they came to his house and beat him in Smash.
“A lot of people thought I was a Craigslist maniac and wanted to meet them at Starbucks before, so I did that.” About 20 people took him up on the ads and but none were able to win the prize money. However, word got out about locals playing 64 and Shears had unintentionally begun, what he calls, the first Smash scene.
“When there’s a big tournament, I’m usually there running it.”
He grew from hosting Craigslist matches to organizing some of the weeklies for Nintendo 64. As Smash 64 began to grow as a side event at Melee tournaments, officials looked to Shears to organize brackets because he had the most experience in putting them together. Even today, at any major tournaments you can expect to see Shears running back and forth across the floor.
A degree in numbers and programming has been beneficial in Shears’s side career in Smash. He has tracked the number of entrants at tournaments. He has also written in-depth about the sustainability of 64 and the place it has in competitive Smash. “…64 was a novelty for nostalgia. But with the growth it created itself in 2015, it caught some attention to become a hallmark of all of Smash.”
Studstill and Shears’s stories about first playing Smash resonate with many other players who are flooded with feels when they pick up the trident shaped controller. However, not everyone played the games according to the chronological order that they were released.
“The moment I played a couple sessions of my first games ever, I was like ‘this is the most fun thing I’ve ever done.”
Justin Hallett is a soft spoken 18-year-old with long dark hair. He’s known on the internet as Wizzrobe (Wizzy) and says that he will cut his locks when someone donates him a couple million dollars. Like many other kids his age, he spends a large portion of every day playing video games. Except that most other teenagers haven’t been able to turn their pastime of gaming into their job. Wizzy signed a deal with Cognitive Gaming two years ago, making him a professional gamer before he had graduated high school. Now he has over 11,000 followers on the popular streaming website: Twitch. Whether he’s training for Smash or just playing a round of Mario Party with his friends, people go to his channel to watch and chime in the chatroom.
One of the first games that Wizzy remembers ever playing is Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). An interesting experience, considering that NES came out 13 years before Wizzy was born.
Aside from being one of the youngest top tier players, Wizzy is also known as one of the few professionals who can compete as a threat across different Smash games. It’s not uncommon to see his name atop various leaderboards at big tournaments.
Wizzy’s pro deal covers most of his travel expenses including flights and accommodations but it doesn’t mean he’s completely used to the attention that he gets from his gaming skills. “There were so many fans,” he said talking about Super Smash Con last year, “at least 100 kids that came up to me! That’s not counting the more famous people.” For Nintendo enthusiasts, Super Smash Con is a place to see some of the best players compete and how the communities surrounding the games have evolved, as it is one of the few tournaments where all four official Smash games are played.
Some Smash players dislike the other games in the series that aren’t their main discipline. Studstill would go as far as to say, “I don’t acknowledge the concept of all Smash games. That’s like saying that all the ‘Die Hard’ movies are the same. I guess it’s fine…When you’re at dinner conversation with idiots.”
Wizzrobe’s outlook on the series, as a whole, is more positive. Perhaps, his versatility and appreciation of the entire Smash series comes from playing the games out of chronological order and therefore never building a “classic nostalgia.”
Regardless of opinions for one game or another, all three of the players are gearing up for Super Smash Con 2016. They will be among the throngs of the Nintendo enthusiasts who on August 11th, will flock to Virginia, for the action packed weekend. Last year, the total attendance was over 1,000 with 154 entrants in the Smash 64 bracket. Canadian player SuPeRbOoMfAn walked away with the prize of $2354 and Wizzrobe finished 4th in the event.
With the sample numbers from Shears’s tournaments, he and Studstill remain positive that Smash 64 can continue to grow at these events. The prominence of young players like Wizzrobe competing in 64 could prove as evidence to Shears’s growing numbers theory. But if analytics don’t sway the average gamer to pick up an N64 controller, maybe Studstill’s testament to the game can, “I played it everyday for ten years,” he said, “some people just don’t play it for the right reasons.”