This week Masahiro Sakurai gave his last character presentation for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, with interest and anticipation for the final broadcast reaching a fever pitch. With over 24 million sales at last count and substantial DLC uptake thanks to the many and varied guest fighters, it’s a game that has contributed a great deal to the success of Switch. More than that, though, few games can have a near three-year run of big headlines in the modern industry, and the unique cultural impact of Smash Bros. — and its outrageously diverse roster — can’t really be overstated. It’s a behemoth.
Now that one game ends, talk will rapidly shift to ‘what’s next’. Questions will arise along with speculation over whether future hardware will get a shiny port of this all-in-one extravaganza, or if Nintendo will maintain the one-Smash-per-generation record it’s had going since the late ’90s. The assumption is often made that this is entirely dependent on the series’ designer, for better and worse.
Sakurai-san is indelibly linked to the IP — it’s his creation and he’s been at the helm creatively from the beginning, with the earliest prototype being produced alongside the late Satoru Iwata. He’s been involved in notable games outside of the franchise, but since GameCube’s Super Smash Bros. Melee took the franchise to a new level he’s only led one project that wasn’t part of the franchise: Kid Icarus: Uprising.
Masahiro Sakurai seemed his usual jokey, fun self throughout the broadcast, and was deservedly proud of his team and the incredible collection of content that’s come into place in Ultimate. There was no talk of it being his last Smash Bros., no allusion to a grand farewell beyond the end of this project. It was all very positive and suitably celebratory.
Fans will be scanning interviews and remarks he shares, because there have been multiple statements in the past in which he’s discussed retirement. A high-stress workload and repetitive strain injuries have been spoken about publicly by Sakurai-san in the past. He’s now given well over a decade to continuous and seemingly non-stop Smash Bros. development, and the concept of Ultimate has been just that — an ultimate version of the game to beat all others. From all of the modes and features to the dizzyingly large roster, it’s hard to see how it can be topped without the game growing almost too big.
And here’s the thing — Masahiro Sakurai is an outstanding game designer. His attention to detail, work ethic, his intrigue in the broader industry and varied games, all make him a singular creative force. So maybe, just maybe, it’s time to see him do something else. If he wants to, of course.
The aforementioned Kid Icarus: Uprising is a good (and the only) relatively recent example. Its control scheme was divisive, for sure, but the experience it delivered on the humble 3DS was unique and very impressive. For this scribe, even when battling with the control scheme, it was impossible to put down. A good point we’ve seen made elsewhere is that it’s a game that simply wouldn’t be greenlit nowadays as it’s the antithesis to modern trends and providing accessibility in controls. As a product of its time, though, it’s fascinating.
Let’s also just consider what Sakurai-san’s leadership and talent has done for Smash Bros.; it’s evolved from a scrappy but intriguing take on the fighting genre on N64 to an integral part of the gaming scene. Even on systems that have struggled to sell like GameCube and Wii U, its entries have nonetheless continued to shift millions of copies and delight fans. If Sakurai-san has unfulfilled creative ideas, we’d love to see them become a reality, as he could undoubtedly produce something special outside the field of the platform fighting game.
And as for Smash Bros.? It could continue with a new creative team and, if Masahiro Sakurai desires, he could be a consultant. The original creative minds in franchises like Mario, The Legend of Zelda et al are all now retired or doing other work in a more hands-off capacity, with Nintendo finding young talent that has taken on leadership of projects. A similar approach could be taken if Nintendo and Sakurai-san agree that Smash Bros. goes on, even if he’s no longer at the helm.
And new leadership can bring freshness, too, respecting the tenets of a franchise while trying new things. Look at the evolution of some of Nintendo’s other major franchises, and the emergence of younger IPs like Splatoon, and it’s clear that Nintendo still fosters a brilliantly creative development culture. Not only can Sakurai-san potentially spread his wings with new creative ventures, but a fresh take on Smash Bros. could step away from the approach of every entry getting bigger and change things up. When there’s change, there’s also potential.
Super Smash Bros. is a remarkable franchise, and Masahiro Sakurai is the creative force that has led multiple teams to create iconic entries. Maybe now, after the ultimate entry — the ultimate expression of the series’ potential — it’s time for bold new projects from the ultimate game maker.
It’s entirely his call; if nothing else he’s earned the right to choose what he does next. Perhaps what he truly desires is even more Smash Bros. development. We shall see.
Further Reading from the final Smash Bros. Presentation: