Get it? It’s a pun because I’m going to talk about Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. I was fortunate enough to recently purchase this game in addition to the console and I couldn’t be happier. Judging by reviews and fan responses, I’d wager that many people are happy with these purchases, too. However, I feel like discussion on the game is a bit lacking on a few topics, specifically regarding character choice.
First things first, however. If you’re looking for a review of Smash Bros. 4 (what many fans are using as shorthand), here’s mine: it’s fun, has a lot of content, and has great artistic and musical direction. You can tell effort and care was present during the whole process. It has a few moments here and there of “extra” fluff, but everything is at least interesting. It deserves an A—not perfect, because that’s a relatively unattainable goal, but pretty damn amazing. I’ll keep it short, mostly because if you’ve seen one Smash game from Nintendo, you know what to expect. To me, the quality and fun of the game is at a high level, but is not the real story here.
This is a perfect chance to look at some issues that are at play within the game besides a purely mechanics-based, “objective” overview. In AAA development, quality should be expected (although we’ve seen some recent, huge transgressions) and is important, but it’s often the least interesting aspect of game development. We know the newest installment of GTA will be massive and technically sound and impressive, but what else? Sure, if a game is mechanically flawed, tell me; I do want to know if I’m about to purchase a glitch-riddled mess. Otherwise, I want to hear something a little deeper. What stories are we telling? Who’s involved? Do the mechanics bear any meaning, or are they simply just a vehicle to deliver the game? What does a game say about the world we live in? These are questions that are ever-present and deserve to be asked.
What does this have to do with Smash 4? Everything, really. As I said, the game is solid with very few exceptions. So what is there to discuss? Character selection, of course. Nintendo has decidedly decided to make gender a bigger priority in their games recently. Hyrule Warriors had many playable female characters. The upcoming Splatoon seems to star mostly orange squid girls; Bayonetta received critical praise; the list goes on. So it is no surprise that Smash 4 has more female characters than any previous installment of the game. This should be applauded, but as to be expected, there are a few downfalls.
In the Smash universe, like in many other video games, there is a very limited range of female body types. Most of the women in Smash 4 are thin, athletic, pretty white women, with few exceptions. Even the otherworldly characters of Palutena (Kid Icarus) and Rosalina (Super Mario Galaxy) follow this rule, albeit being a bit scaled up. Further, one of the fighters to not return is the team of the Ice Climbers Popo and Nana, thus losing another female character who was outside of the tall, thin, body type. This adds to the idea that only a few body types are acceptable for girls. In contrast, boys can range from anime-esque mancandy to evil overweight plumber counterpart and everything in between. The only exceptions to this rule are Wendy O. Koopa and the female villager from Animal Crossing. Unfortunately, Wendy is a Ms. Male stereotype, complete with a big bow and lipstick. However, Wendy and the Villager highlight a positive point.
Some characters that default to male have female costume swaps. Both Bowser Jr. and Robin (Fire Emblem: Awakening) have costume swaps that include female options. Also from Fire Emblem: Awakening is Lucina, a character whose moves are similar to crowd-favorite Marth. Some would argue her stats are better. But in all other aspects, the characters play exactly the same as their male counterparts, showing that having a female option doesn’t require any additional game balancing—it’s not the extra work some companies claim it to be. Additionally, it shows that female characters can be just as capable as male characters are. All the characters show this, really. However, the aforementioned Villager is the primary and most useful example.
The Villager was the first character revealed that was shown to have gender options in Smash 4. This choice was meant to reflect the ability in the Animal Crossing games to pick your gender. Herein lies the point of all this, and why this whole post is not about knocking Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS/Wii U: the problem is with the industry as a whole. The games’ lack of female characters is only partially their fault, and more of a lack of a large pool to draw from. The roster makes this apparent. With the exception of the Mii Fighters, none of these characters are original; they had to be selected from existing games.
This is a problem, but we are able to identify this sort of thing with critical thought, and it is far easier to analyze critically when a game is very solid; the discussion isn’t focused on glitches or technical inconsistencies. So this isn’t a condemnation of Smash 4 specifically, but a call to attention. The conversation about female characters has already been started online (Samus’s shoes, fans calling out Ubisoft), but it shouldn’t stop just because the game has been released. There is a good start here, by the points listed above, but let’s hope that the push for more diverse character sets doesn’t stop here. Splatoon will bring some more of these types and hopefully inspire more development teams to do the same. But the only way, as fans, to make this possible is to keep having these critical discussions and to keep the pressure on the publishers.
And for what it’s worth, my favorite characters so far are Sonic and Rosalina and I completely recommend this game to anyone who can get it!