Today is the 15th birthday of a game that just will not go away. Super Smash Bros. Melee will just not go away.
There’s a reason for its stubborn popularity. Melee builds. Without post-release balance adjustments, the game actually seasoned instead of growing dry. Time only gave it depth, and players who grew up with the game have drawn out its idiosyncrasies, now celebrated as “advanced techniques.” Happy birthday, you freak, old fighting game.
I was 12 when my brother and I picked out our purple GameCube at Toys ‘r’ Us outside a Virginia mall. Melee was our first purchase. For months, every day, we’d sit at opposite ends of the basement couch (on the edges, since our wired GameCube controllers didn’t reach far) and train.
I’d be Zelda, he’d be Samus. Three stock, Hyrule Temple. No items. I’d camp on the right-side pillar and he’d camp on a platform to my left and charge his energy ball. I’d deflect it if I was quick enough, and he’d shield. It was a game of chicken to see who’d make the first move. At first, we did that nearly every time we played.
Months later, we’d move on to Final Destination and the Fountain of Dreams. I learned how to land Zelda’s teleport on Samus, which did damage and had the added effect of making my brother angry and confused. Sometimes, I’d transform to Sheik and spam her neutral “A” attack. He’d learned that Samus could clutter airspace with little bombs and missiles to fake me out before he hitting with an energy ball. We’d invite our friends over and humiliate them with tricks we’d learned from obsessively competing.
We eventually saved up for wireless Wave Bird controllers, which were easier to dramatically fling against the ground when we lost. Whatever—we were 13. And anyway, I still use them to compete against my housemate 12 years later, along with the tricks I’ve picked up over the last dozen years of playing a static game.
Players who stuck with Melee after 2008's Super Smash Bros. Brawl were rewarded. A higher tier of Melee connoisseurs formed a culture around the game’s peculiarities. Do you play on a 10-year-old CRT TV to prevent lag? Do you wavedash, bro? Do you L-Cancel? Advanced techniques distinguished true Melee players from dabblers, gamers who would defect to Brawl and, in 2014, Smash 4. Sometimes, those advanced techniques are actually game-breaking, like the Ice Climbers’ infinite grab move.
Now, when mid-20s Melee players meet each other, among the first questions they’ll ask are, “How’s your tech?” It’s not a check on knowledge as much as an invitation to the Melee club. Rarely, is a negative response followed up by anything other than, “Let me teach you!” Melee commenter Daniel Lee told me that, far from being the insular, out-of-date community Melee fandom is painted as, it’s actually quite warm: “Melee is so big because of the community and the passionate individuals that want to see the community grow.”
15 years later, Melee players have a lot to prove. Genuine enthusiasm is the best way to prove it.
At 2016's Evolution Championship Series, the biggest fighting games tournament, Melee drew 2,372 entrants. That’s only 300 fewer than the latest version of Smash (Brawl has only made one appearance at EVO). Today, Melee superstars like Mango and Armada and Plup and Hungrybox have emerged into the mainstream fighting games community. Around them are cult followings which often refer to their athlete of choice as a “God.”
In 2014, Melee fandom inspired a 4-hour-long documentary about their relative rise to fame and what keeps Melee’s community going:
Nintendo released Melee 15 years ago on a console that sold less than its competitors, the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox. And its popularity today is a marvel. Its birthday is a good day to go back and experience the game on your own terms—as a nostalgic trip, or as a solid, old fighting game with layers of possible play.
When interviewed about his feelings on Melee, my brother said, “Jesus, 15 years.” He added, “Sheik can go to hell. Cheap-ass piece of shit character.”