Like most enlightened Earthlings, I spent my Christmas holiday playing SSMB4! This is my first entry into the series, having never played any of the earlier games. It didn’t take me long to see passed the bright colours, the energetic music and the silky smooth combat mechanics to know what this game really was, and why it was so fracking awesome. Super Smash Bros is a quintessentially Japanese game. We’d never know it at first glance being North Americans (at least, I am. I’m not sure where you’re from) who don’t have much insight or exposure into Japanese culture. Well it just so happens I am one of the few highly sought after North Americans who does know a thing or two about Japan and I’m ready to spill the beans! You may say, “duh, of course it’s a Japanese game, it’s Nintendo.” Which is true, but there is a little bit more to it than that. Its more than a game made in Japan and made primarily for a Japanese audience. On the surface, to us, the mechanics and content are elements of a superb Nintendo fighting franchise. To a Japanese player, however, these elements are a touchstone to their everyday, ordinary lives. We can’t recognize it because we have never (or may have never) witnessed or experienced Japan. SSMB4 is a virtual version of several Japanese aspects. There are things in our culture and society that we put into games that a Japanese player wouldn’t understand unless she had knowledge of the subject. In the same way, Super Smash Bros. is a little treasure chest of Japanese culture and society – a tasty hand roll of Japan, if you will.
While North American fighting games focus on health bars and brawling, to defeat your opponent in Super Smash Bros. you must knock them off the stage. This is the same victory condition as a sumo match where the wrestlers must push or pull their opponent out of a circular ring. Just in the way we recognize Little Mac as a boxer whose technique is to punch and lunge, sumo is a popular competitive sport in Japan and they would recognize its style hidden inside a Smash Bros. battle.
To achieve the sumo victory, the player must be a highly skilled player. This aspect very much reflects a samurai duel. Much like how there are different kendo schools and techniques, there are vastly different ways to play Super Smash Bros. Choosing which character you will use as your main is like choosing which dojo you will train in. The technique the character uses (whether offensive, defensive, reflective, whether strong, fast or guarded etc.) reflects the abilities and skills of your duelist. Lucario plays very differently from Bowser who plays different from Sonic. Knowing this allows each player to train and apply their martial knowledge on the battlefield. A highly skilled SSMB4 player is like a modern samurai, highly skilled, restrained and deadly. (Yes, that sentence was a bit romantic but it sounded cool).
Virtual Pachinko Parlour
Outside of combat, SSMB4 offers opportunities to earn trophies, coins and new items. The manner in which this occurs is strikingly similar to a pachinko parlour. In Japan, pachinko parlours are half arcade-half casino. You could also use the word ‘carnival’ to describe the same feeling here in NA. We see this come through in the mini-games available like Master Orders, Crazy Orders, Home Run, Trophy Smash and more. These mini-games are the arcade cabinets and slot machines of a pachinko parlour. You earn coins and tickets to either continue playing or to cash in for a prize – like an arcade. There is a gambling element to them as well. You spend gold to potentially earn more gold, or more trophies or more items or a bigger stuffed animal or a free ride etc – like a casino or carnival. If you have ever been in a pachinko parlour, the lights and sounds very much resemble the SSMB4 presentation overall. I can imagine flipping through a Japanese newspaper and seeing an SSMB4Anonymous advertisement. Addiction services boomed on the release day of Smash 4!
“Weapon” of Soft Power – Nintendo
It is said that Japan employs a foreign policy called “soft power.” In political science, soft power is the way in which a country effects and influences other countries via media, art etc. To Civilization players, we call this a cultural victory. Contrast with the United States of America’s hard power (bombs and tanks), citizens of Earth know about Japan through their animation, their cuisine, their history and in the last couple decades, their video games. Nintendo is a huge proponent of Japan’s soft power. If Studio Ghibli is the Disney of Japan, Super Mario is the Mickey Mouse. Super Smash Bros. is very much a vehicle for the Japanese mentality. Through the game we subconsciously learn a little bit about Japanese fighting (sumo and samurai) and about their leisure habits (pachinko). This isn’t a dastardly deed by the Japanese. Americans do it through McDonald’s and Hollywood. Other countries frequently do it as well, such as France (think Paris or baguettes – that’s French soft power!). It is simply a method for exposing a person to a culture and society that they may otherwise have never had the opportunity to experience – and to do so in a positive manner (no bombs, no tanks).
In addition to being a well-designed excellent strategy-combat game, Super Smash Bros. 4 is also a slice of Japan on a disc. Isn’t it a joy for us to have access to the world via video games? All we need now are some chopsticks and green tea and we’re set!
There may be more that I find as I continue playing. I’ll be sure to update this blog if I discover more.
By the way, I am a firm student of Mega Man’s dojo and am slowly mastering his technique. Challenge me and beware!