For years there was a debate on if Smash was even considered “FGC” (it is). But its often had the reputation of being stuck in the dorm rooms of America. Its fan-base generally skewed younger and it hadn’t really caught on in Japan or Korea like Street Fighter and Tekken did. But over time and through the support of critical tournaments like EVO, Smash became accepted in the FGC and started headlining events. But most of all, Nintendo finally started supporting the community.

How did Melee Survive?

Fighting games at the professional level have enjoyed partnership with the developer for years. That could come in the form of additional funding for prize pools, officially sanctioned tournaments/rulesets or even just the game’s official branding. This is vital for the life of pro-level fighting games nowadays. But Smash never enjoyed that until the release of Smash Ultimate in 2018. Without this support Smash tournaments were dependent on entry fees and sponsors. Before then Smash Melee, the second title in the series, was king of the hill.

Smash Fans favorite contestant to move on to the next round of the Smash Wii U. Invitational tournament at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on June 10, 2014 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Nintendo via Getty Images)

An almost twenty year old game, with no support from the developer was the best of a series. You can see the problem with that. But in the FGC, as a game like Smash Melee ages, the community usually migrates to whatever new version comes out. And with it more support from the developer. But Smash Brawl and Smash for Wii U (often called Smash 4) released to a lukewarm at best reception by Smash fans. Creating an almost adversarial relationship between Nintendo and the Smash community. Thus, Melee endured. Mostly in spite of Nintendo’s stance on the game.

Melee is mired in anachronisms. Released on the Gamecube all the way back in 2001, Melee hasn’t seen additional support from Nintendo since then. It hasn’t had an official remaster so it still MUST be played on CRT monitors. Pro-players have also modded and broken so many Gamecube controllers they nearly drove the gamepad into extinction, with no alternative in sight. So when Smash Ultimate was released it was clear to me that Melee would go the way of the Dodo. I was very, very, wrong.

What Changed My Mind?

The scene at Big House 9. The tables were open for play after Pools were done. Over 50 Stations to play Smash. (Photo by Norris Howard)

I attended the Big House over the weekend and spent the vast majority of my time there during the final day. Even though Smash Ultimate was the headlining event, it was clear the crowd was there for Melee. I’ve been to Smash events before but this was by far the biggest. It totally took up one of the halls in the TCF Center in Detroit. The community still retains its jovial reputation. I could have easily named this “The Pajama Pants of Smash” and it would have been a painfully accurate picture of the community. But it’s a group that has some of the most refined views of Smash I’ve ever overheard.

On the stage, the competition was fierce. Two Smash Gods Hungrybox, the defending Big House champion, and fan-favorite, C9 Mang0, met in losers quarterfinals. And it was here where I began to feel the weight of my impropriety. The speed of Melee is what really sets it apart from the rest of the series. As the two veterans dashed across the stage using Jigglypuff and Fox, the crowd swelled with every stock (Smash’s term for “lives”) Mang0 took from H-box. Eventually, Mang0 knocked the champion out of the competition and made a run all the way to Grand Finals.

I realized that its not often I get to see a fighting game this fast in person. Marvel vs Capcom or Dragonball Fighterz are the only games I can think of that are on the same level of movement. This makes the nuances of the game hard to see for the layman, but still electrifying to experience. This is amplified through an in-crowd experience. While Smash Ultimate has all the polish of a modern game it doesn’t have the white-knuckle pace that Melee has. I began to understand this through Mang0’s run through the loser’s bracket.

The Purity of A Fan-Favorite

As Mang0 continued his tournament I found myself transfixed by the gameplay. I’ve played every version of Smash, but never to the level of noticing anything fundamental. Well, besides randomly falling over in Brawl from dashing too much. Yes, that was a real mechanic. But finally being in person and witnessing Melee in person. I got it.

I see why THIS game is the Smash that stood the test of time. It’s the same feeling why I understand why there will ALWAYS be a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike bracket at any major FGC event. At the very least, a cabinet. Some games find the pulse of a community and live within their veins. Neither 3rd Strike or Melee are the most polished games in their respective series and yet, they persist as darlings. They represent the fundamental values of a franchise. I didn’t want to give this credit to Melee because I had not witnessed it first hand. I was not a part of this fraternity, and so I tossed Melee away as quickly as one deletes last year’s Madden. But at Big House, it all began to make sense.

A Satisfying Finish

Mang0’s opponent in the grand finals was Zain, a Panda Global player from Virginia. Zain hadn’t lost a match and looked utterly unstoppable against other Smash luminaries like Leffen and Mew2King. But the crowd got behind Mang0 once more and in the end the Smash God was victorious. It isn’t often jubilation is this pure in video games. We are a cynical bunch that are hard to impress. But in this moment it was exhilarating to see the room explode with joy as of the most beloved personalities in Smash stood atop Big House. I will never ever discredit Melee again, and I look forward to watching as much of it as I can. Like I should have a decade and a half ago.

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