Nine years post-release, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is remembered as the problem child of the Smash franchise. Nintendo took some risks with it, some of which worked, and most of which did not. Famously, the tripping mechanic did not work. Neither did its near-Martian gravity. On the other hand, Zero Suit Samus, a fighter with a totally new play template, debuted to acclaim, along with Brawl’s Final Smash attacks.
Brawl’s fever dream adventure mode, Subspace Emissary, was one of those risks that both worked and did not. It was an experimental, franchise-melding platformer that, years later, has me wondering what Nintendo was smoking when they designed this sloppy, fun mess of a game.
Nintendo introduced Smash’s first adventure mode with Melee in 2001. By 2014’s Smash 4, story mode was gone. In a column for Weekly Famitsu, Smash’s creator Masahiro Sakurai explained that, after Subspace Emissary’s cutscenes leaked, he felt that they’d lost some of their power. “You can only truly wow a player the first time he sees [a cutscene],” Sakurai explained. “I felt if players saw the cutscenes outside of the game, they would no longer serve as rewards for playing the game, so I’ve decided against having them.” Subspace Emissary’s 100-plus CGI cut scenes are a franchise anomaly.
In the side-scroller adventure, a laughably involved plot ties together Brawl’s cast of Nintendo heroes, plus, improbably, the third-party characters Sonic and Snake. That plot is incomprehensible, despite the storyline being written by Final Fantasy VII and Kingdom Hearts writer Kazushige Nojima. It is the novelty of its franchise crossovers that gets you through its eight-hour length. I played it recently, and, to do so, I unearthed a CRT TV and a very dusty Wii.
Essentially, the Subspace Army, led by Ganondorf, Wario, R.O.B and Bowser (but really, the Master Hand), is harvesting fighters’ power by turning them into trophies. A team of fighters, including Donkey Kong, Zelda, Ness and Mario, are allied against the Subspace Army, and battle it out with its minions on a variety of stages. For some reason, the evil squad is using Meta Knight’s Halberd ship. In an effort to get it back, Meta Knight teams up with Lucario and Snake. Near the end, the team discovers that a blue humanoid thing named Tabuu is actually in control of the Subspace realm, so they go down there to destroy him.
I had no idea what was happening when I played Subspace Emissary in 2008. I just wanted the trophies and character unlocks. In 2017, it made a little more sense if I didn’t think about it too hard and had a few beers.
Most of Subspace Emissary is a platformer, where heroes fight enemies on side-scroller stages reflecting each characters’ franchise universe—a jungle for Donkey Kong, a sad dystopia for Ness. You fight enemies like the Roader, a robotic wheel with a motocross helmet (reportedly based on Kirby’s Wheelie) or Meta Ridley, one of the main enemies from the Metroid universe. It’s a little boring to face infinite onslaught of mobs plucked from whichever franchise over and over. So, capping those sequences are platform fighter-style Smash battles that have, maybe, a hundred mobs or just one big, strong one.
The CGI cutscenes are, even today, impressive. About four hours in, we cut to the Halberd, where Snake pops out of a random box in the storage area. He says, “Kept ya waiting, huh?” Then, along with Meta Knight and Lucario, he dives into the platformer. Later, he battles dark Zelda and dark Peach to free their true forms.
There’s a fun rhythm to Subspace Emissary. In no way is it possible to predict what happens next because, like a lot of what Brawl did, Subspace Emissary lacks rhyme or reason. It’s just one of those things where you nod and go with it.