In Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl there are a lot of elements long-time Smash Bros. players will find familiar. Characters battle with combinations of basic melee and unique special attacks to raise the damage percentage of other fighters with the goal of shooting them off stage; aerial and tilt moves are combo’d into spikes to finish off competitors; the roster boasts a heavy dinosaur-type character (Bowser/Reptaur), a duo controlled character (Ice Climbers/Ren and Stimpy), and a character with a tiny but explosive down special (Jigglypuff/Nigel Thornberry). The two games are so similar that even techniques that emerged from the longstanding competitive Melee scene were hyped up in the beginning of the game’s promotion with wavedashing given a bit of spotlight. Considering all these points, and many more, it was clear from the get go that All-Star Brawl was aiming not just for the same audience, but to be a very similar game as the longtime favorite Smash Bros.
As many on Discord, Tiktok and Twitter shout about All-Star Brawl being a cheap clone of the Nintendo fan favorite, something more is missing from the conversation. In all the fervor that the Smash brand has garnered, a lot of players can’t imagine that there could be a realm of possibility beyond Smash. With the comparative language of “clone” and ”-like” battling with the language of “platformer-fighter,” the release of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl has not only introduced a solid entry in the genre, but ushered in a period of questioning the possibilities of genre itself.
Genre is a funny thing to conceptualize because it seems so obvious that it almost feels arbitrary to discuss in depth. But how do we conceive of genre? Years-old debates over the rejection of labels like “walking simulator” still remain. Paste’s own gaming editor discourages the term “metroidvania.” Does this even matter, though? It doesn’t necessarily effect our experience of playing the games we enjoy, so why treat it so seriously?
Well, I’d argue it is actually pretty important to how we experience the games we play.
Recently I was debating with a friend on whether Weezer’s Pinkerton was the band’s emo era (outrageous I know). After a while of trying to determine what emo even was they exclaimed, “My stance is that genre is fake.” In some ways, yes, genre is a bit of a silly thing that we all debate over. If I find that a work has meaningful value to me, it’s easy to say that we don’t really care to debate how it fits into a rigid label. This is especially true in games where these conversations traditionally have been utilized to maintain white patriarchal values. Yet, outside of debating who is right or wrong about Weezer’s (definitely not!) emo second album, genre is an inherent part of culture we use to comprehend media.
In every medium, a genre lets the audience know what qualities an expressive work has in order to better comprehend it. I use “comprehend” in two different senses; firstly, when someone doesn’t know anything about a piece of work, genre can help them understand whether or not they are interested in engaging with it further. Think of how people browse through sections at the library or the categories of games they would like to try on Steam. Secondly, genre helps us process and recognize the logic of a media. For example, a pop culture film-goer will have a different understanding of a film depending on if it’s a high budget, newly released action movie versus a cult classic horror film that’s a couple decades old. Thus, if I bring back the Weezer debate again, using a generic lens of emo, a genre which has a history of personal political and emotional pain, changes the way one reads the music.
Genre functions similarly in games, one of the primary differences being that typically they give us information about what the player is going to do during play. A city management game lets us know that we are going to be making decisions surrounding a city. A turn based strategy game lets us know that we are going to be moving characters around a map against other characters as we take turns. However, there is also another series of genres that are unique to videogames which grow when games take heavy and specific inspiration from a game, or games, that came before them. Many times this results in the ”-like” suffix genre which are commonly seen in the Souls-like and Rogue-like genre. If we wanna get really wild we can even combine two names to create a genre like “metroidvania.” These genres which have grown immensely over the last decade have also gathered criticism for holding onto their originator’s titles. This isn’t solely because of originality, but also because their titles limit ways that we can imagine what games in a specific genre can be.
Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is unique in that it exists in a space of games that have been made for the past two decades, but wasn’t considered as its own genre until the last couple of years. In each medium, genre forms uniquely from the culture surrounding the media itself because genre is a distillation of communities, emotions, and language surrounding said media. In games, one of the ways that genre forms is through prototypical comparison due to the canonical fan culture the industry has created over the years. In this type of genre, there is typically a game that becomes fairly popular that clearly and directly inspires games that release afterwards; once these games move past the point of reference to that original title, a genre forms.
Doom is a popular example of this, as early first-person shooters right after Doom used a lot of the same elements, until gradually evolving the formula more extensively. During that period a lot of these games were called “Doom clones” because of the innovative impact the original game made on player culture and expectations. As multiple critics and developers have noted, many times these games that were deemed as Doom clones were not clones, and in many cases did more than Doom, but were doomed (sorry) with the label due to the original game’s impact. Only later would the conceptualization of the first-person shooter form.
From the height of Doom clones to the conceptualization of the first-person shooter we can see that genre isn’t something that arises from games, but from the ways we talk about games. In games, we have upheld a history of mechanical and technological innovation, and because of this we have garnered a culture of centering innovation as canon, therefore leading to the language of cloning and a very conservative, slow paced development towards a more nuanced language.
This might raise the question of why we need labels that go beyond a prototypical game title. If we think back to the original point about genre, we can recall that genre is what helps us conceptualize what we are interacting with. In this same way, the conversations, criticism, discourse, and fandom surrounding these genres is what forms our understanding of what games can be, and that happens through the conceptualization of genre. If we stick to the language of clones, we are stuck with a conservative centering of a canonical work, but if we aim to create language that allows for more ambiguity, we can create a larger scope of possibility in games in the past, present, and future.
With games like Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl and others in the same genre we are reaching a precipice of the Smash-clone verging onto the platform fighter. Part of this is due to the pure corporate power and reach that Smash has had during its 22 year history. Another part is that most of the games inspired by Smash haven’t found a long-term audience or established that the genre can be anything greater than a quick cash-in on the Smash formula.
After the release of Super Smash Bros. Melee in 2001, the platformer-fighting style of gameplay expanded throughout the duration of the PlayStation 2/Gamecube/Xbox era. Melee was one of the fastest selling games on its platform, and many companies decided to follow suit. Early games like DreamMix TV World Fighters and Onimusha: Blade Warriors took other game brands and mashed them together in arenas very similar to Smash Bros. Later, a lot of anime publishers would take a similar approach with Jump Super Stars and Full Metal Alchemist: Dream Carnival. These games aimed to cash in on the party fighting game brand tie-in that brought Melee wide success. They were never really Smash “clones” per se, but they did borrow the design of a 2D stage with platforming and fighting mechanics combined. What they did differently came down to elements like movesets, determining how characters died, or changing the method of victory. There were also plenty of 3D fighting games aiming for a similar brand crossover success (TMNT: Mutant Melee, Tom and Jerry: War of the Whiskers, Shrek Super Slam) but I don’t consider these to be in the same genre, but rather something more similar to Power Stone.
I would argue that the concept of the platformer-fighter wasn’t really conceptualized as a genre at this point in time, but as a formula created by Smash for other brands to create a profitable crossover title. These games didn’t communicate that a larger genre existed, and were usually content to focus on a niche audience. This was for a variety of reasons, but mostly that these games weren’t aiming to be high profile releases. Jump Super Stars wasn’t aiming to appeal to the same audience as Smash, or even create a game that Smash players would comprehend; it was simply using a popular existing formula that could easily fit Weekly Sh?nen Jump’s various franchises.
It’s fair to say that even Nintendo was focused on the casual over any competitive/cultural scene as 2008’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released for the Wii. Brawl removed many of the complex elements that competitive players enjoyed in Melee and the original Smash on the Nintendo 64 in order to create a more broadly appealing fighting game. As a result, competitive players felt disappointed and fan projects, such as the famed Project M, began. With the release of Brawl broadening the audience of the game and Project M creating a space for competitive players, the combined two created the growth of interest in competitive platform-fighters that we see today.
Soon after, indie developers started developing games like Megabyte Punch and Towerfall Ascension with the gameplay of Smash Bros. in mind, but expanding on the original formula. Meanwhile, bigger publishers saw that there was a more long term appeal in forming a competitive community and created competitors like PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Most recently, games like Rushdown Revolt, Rivals of Aether, and Brawlhalla would try to garner a similar competitive community with the goal of expanding upon the competitive possibilities that Smash Bros. Melee offered and that Project M dreamed of. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl exists in that space.
When looking at discussions online about the terms “Smash-like” and “platformer-fighter,” the earlier tends to be used by many general Smash fans while the latter is used by members of the competitive community that is invested in expanding the genre. This not only shows how different types of players engage with genre discourse, but how different spaces enable different forms of discussion. I was inspired to write this article as I followed the Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl Tiktok and saw many users commenting about how the game is a poor Smash clone. Yet, looking at many competitive forums and wikipedias, I found much more nuanced attempts to define the genre and history of the “platformer-fighter.”
So I guess this is where I take my shot at what I think the platformer-fighter is, and how we move onward to develop the genre past Smash-centericism.
It’s not a revelation to anyone that these games are in the fighting genre, and are a subgenre developing out of it. What differentiates the platformer fighter from the general fighting genre is the movement through space. In many popular fighting games, space is restricted to an arena that creates intimate combat between two competitors and the fighters generally move throughout space in a linear back and forth fashion between each other. Platformer-fighters open up the space to pit fighters in a platformer level rather than a confined space. Many times this creates aerobatic fights off stage and on top of stages as characters jump into combos and fly off stages from being hit.
In a couple of lists online there tends to be a divergence of the platformer-fighter during the early 2000s post-Melee era. Some of these lists conflate games that take inspiration from Power Stone’s 3D platforming fighting with the 2D platforming fighting games inspired by Smash. However, in my opinion the difference between these games feels very stark. Just like comparing 2D platformers to 3D platformers, there are certainly inspiration and similarities but there are also very important differences.
There are also a variety of elements in Smash Bros. that could be affiliated with the platformer-fighter genre, but would only hinder possibilities by considering them a required detail. For example, many of these games have randomly spawning items, charismatic level mechanics and character percentages to determine damage. Other games focus on the competitive aspect of the genre, by limiting the amount of space and items that characters can utilize. These elements are not necessarily part of the puzzle platformer, but a part of Smash. However, since we are not limiting the genre to Smash, there is no need to maintain those elements in other games.
What complicates a lot of my argument is that Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is a game that is openly inspired by Melee and Project M and directly aims to compete for that audience. Unlike games such as Samurai Gunn or Umihara Kawase Bazooka!!, which have found a unique identity in the platformer-fighter space, All-Star Brawl is content with keeping close ties with Smash. This makes the argument for a nuanced discussion of genre difficult, and gives a lot of reason for those dismissive opinions on Tiktok. However, in understanding that there is space outside of the prototypical game for others to exist and recognizing that there is a history of the genre developing outside of a single series, we can come to terms with the fact that these games stand in their own right outside of their inspiration. There’s more than one way to smash, and we need to develop a language that reflects that.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.