Masahiro Sakurai is in pain. The creator of Super Smash Bros. suffers from calcific tendonitis in his right shoulder, and it shows: Sakurai often holds his arms as he talks, and he says he can't use a regular mouse anymore. It hurts too much.
Still, he is cheerful and friendly — if a little subdued — when talking about his work. It's Thursday, the last day of E3, and we're chatting on the second floor of a booth that Nintendo has set up for corporate meetings and interviews. I have roughly 40 minutes to pick Sakurai's brain about his latest announcement — two new Super Smash Bros. games that will be out for Wii U and 3DS next year.
Sakurai is best known not only as the genius behind Nintendo's mascot fighting series, but as the creator of one of their most famous characters, a ravenous pink ball of fluff named Kirby. He's wearing a flashy sequined purple shirt, and he speaks through a translator. We talk about game balance, about the Wii U GamePad, about how he selects characters for Smash Bros. games. When we're done, I want nothing more than to go home and beat up Nintendo characters.
Here's the full Q&A, edited for clarity and brevity.
Kotaku: My first question is, what is the process like for deciding which characters in a Smash Bros. game to include and which to cut from game to game?
Sakurai: First of all, in regard to cutting characters: at this point there's nothing I can say in any official position regarding that process. But let's go ahead and talk a little bit more about how we decided what characters to have.
Sakurai: The first thing is to take an idea. For example, imagine a game and characters within that game. Take a character such as the villager in Animal Crossing. The next process is think about that character's role in their game and then the structure of the game we're making. How do those work together with each other? What kind of interesting things can you do within the structure of the game? And then if you were to actually implement that character, how would the end result be, how it works with other elements of the game?
An important thing is that the characters stand out from one another — for instance, we might wanna be able to take characters that aren't typically combat-based characters. So you might have a sword-based character, but other characters are not necessarily going to [have swords]. You're not gonna wanna focus on that sort of element, just so there's a distinction between all of the other combat-based characters.
They have to have something really unique that makes them stand apart from other characters in the game, and not limit yourself to characters that are just combat-based.
"They have to have something really unique that makes them stand apart from other characters in the game."
Kotaku: I know that you can't talk too much about the characters that will be in the next game, but for previous Smash Bros. games, have there ever been characters that you wanted to include but couldn't figure out a good mechanic for them, like a way to fit them into the game?
Sakurai: Yeah, there's been a lot of instances like that. For example, there are places where we planned to have a character but then implementing that character just didn't work out. Or we wanted to implement some character but there was too much overlap with other characters from the same title, and it didn't work out. Or there's places when I wanted to implement some character, but the image for how it works in the game just never comes to fruition.
Kotaku: Could you give some examples?
Sakurai: Unfortunately, I can't talk about it, because what will happen with those instances in the future is something that is still up for debate.
Kotaku: I know Mega Man is a character that has been requested for a very long time - is there something different about this game that will make it OK to bring in Mega Man? Have you tried to include Mega Man before?
Sakurai: No, actually, there was never any consideration to having him in previous games, and if you think about it, there hasn't been really a precedent for third-party characters joining other than very special cases like Sonic, during the last game. It's something that wasn't even possible. We're now going into versions four and five within the series — this is only something that's now possible.
Kotaku: When you say four and five, do you mean the 3DS and Wii U versions? Those are separate?
Sakurai: Yeah, exactly.
Kotaku: While we bring that up, how will those versions be different?
Sakurai: Essentially between the two versions the character structure is the same, and the moves shared between the characters are the same, but the stages are entirely different. On the 3DS, we've taken the motif of handheld games and then on the Wii U version, featured primarily stages based on games on console.
Kotaku: And how will they be able to connect, the 3DS and Wii U version? Will I be able to play against Wii U people if I'm using the 3DS?
Sakurai: It'll be possible, in fact, on the 3DS version there'll be a certain degree of character customisation. You can have your own personalised character that you'll then be able to take over and move onto the Wii U version and play.
Kotaku: And you can also — on the 3DS version — play against people playing the Wii U version?
Sakurai: Actually, that's not possible. What is possible is for you to be able to customise your character, transfer it to the Wii U, and then play there. It would be technically impossible, just because the stages are so different between the two versions, so there isn't a situation where you have a handheld device and a console and you're able to play at the same time. Just more of a situation where there's integration, and [ability] to transfer data.
Kotaku: Back to characters, I just have one more question about the characters real quick — is there any third-party character that you'd most want to see in a Smash Bros. game?
"There won't be a trend of adding a lot of third-party characters. You can sort of think of Mega Man as being the special case."
Sakurai: I'm really sorry. If I were to answer that question, I'd get in a lot of trouble in a lot of different ways, so I can't answer. (laughter) But I think I can say generally that there won't be a trend of adding a lot of third-party characters. You can sort of think of Mega Man as being the special case.
Kotaku: Should people expect returning characters, should they expect most of their favourites from Brawl to come back?
Sakurai: The reality of the situation unfortunately is that there are certain limitations on the 3DS, so we're forced into a situation where we may need to reduce some characters to a certain degree, but we're really working hard to include as many characters as possible.
Kotaku: Okay. Do you have a favourite character of all the Smash Bros. games? Do you have any character that you like to play the most?
Sakurai: As the creator, if I start thinking about one as my favourite, there's a certain amount of bias that enters the creation process. They might sort of unwillingly become stronger. So my stance is that I like them all. Actually, I would like to hear if you have any personal favourites.
Kotaku: Kirby. On the N64, in the first Smash Bros., I would play Kirby all the time.
Sakurai: As the creator of Kirby, there may have been instances when people thought ohh I made Kirby stronger because I have a preference for him, so I definitely avoid trying to give any sort of preference, and especially even mentioning anything to anybody about — to give them the idea that I like somebody more than the others.
Kotaku: Interesting, that's very interesting. And I wanna talk a bit more about balancing characters later. But a lot of people asked — when I took questions from readers — a lot of people asked, they all want to know: will tripping be back?
Sakurai: To answer quite frankly, it will not return.
Kotaku: OK. People will be very happy to hear that. I also wanted to ask — obviously with the Wii U we have the GamePad screen, and I wanted to ask you: is there anything cool or unique or interesting you can do with that gamepad for a game like Super Smash Bros.?
Sakurai: Actually, I'm not really planning anything that really pushes the GamePad in super-weird directions, just because everyone has their own special preference of what controller they like to use. You would end up in a situation where you have some unbalance in the controls, or in the playing field, so nothing that is super unique and contributes to controls.
Kotaku: On a non-Smash Bros. note, do you have any crazy ideas for games that could use the GamePad?
Sakurai: I imagine if I started thinking about it, I'd get a lot of ideas. But I'm 100% focused now on creating new Smash Bros., and I imagine until that's totally finished, there will be no room in my brain to consider such things.
Kotaku: On a personal note, I remember hearing that your shoulder was hurting, and I wanted to ask if you're feeling better now?
Sakurai: The reality, and very unfortunate reality of the situation is that it's still a considerable problem. I'm in a lot of pain. I'm in a position where I can't use the mouse at this point, so I'm using the trackball, and as the creative director behind an action game, that's a real critical issue, unfortunately. But still, all things being said, I'm still 100% committed to the creation of Smash Bros.
"The reality, and very unfortunate reality of the situation is that it's still a considerable problem. I'm in a lot of pain."
Kotaku: I'm awfully sorry to hear that... To switch gears a little bit, how much do you follow the competitive scene, competitive Smash Bros.? There's a big US community, I don't know if there's a community in Japan also, but do you follow that competitive Smash Bros. scene?
Sakurai: In Japan, there's actually a tournament scene, and it's an annual thing... that's something that just wrapped up, actually. It sort of reached its peak, and then now with anticipation for the next title, it's sort of on hiatus. I imagine that will pick up again on release of the new games, but that's something that personally I'm not involved in. It's something that Nintendo manages. Personally, I can't really say too much about that.
Kotaku: Do you ever talk to the high-level competitive players when you're balancing Smash Bros.?
Sakurai: Mostly I don't incorporate feedback like that. Basically, Smash Bros. is designed to be sort of targeted at the centre, intermediate players, and if you think of sort of a skill graph or something where if you're targeting just the peak of that performance level, you're targeting a very small group of people. We wanna avoid a situation where it becomes a game sort of like other competitive fighting games, where it's only apreciated by a very small, passionate group of sort of maniac players. We definitely don't want that sort of situation. It's supposed to be a fun game for a wide variety of people.
But that's not to say that I don't appreciate very high-level competitive play, the type of very refined competitive gameplay that happens in other fighting games. Personally, I have a lot of experience playing in the arcade scene, and personally came out as a champion of a 100-person battle in arcade Street Fighter II.
Sakurai: A long, long time ago. So I don't wanna ignore that there's that type of pleasure to be had from the game.
Kotaku: Could you talk a little bit about how you balance it out, because there's so much going on in Smash Bros. — how do you make it so each character is as strong as the others?
Sakurai: Do you mean more as far as the overall game design, or in the process of development making minor adjustments to the game?
Kotaku: I would love to hear your answer to both.
Sakurai: So in regards to overall game balance, what we do is we use sort of this monitor playtest where we set up players of a certain level to play highly-skilled players in an arena. For example, an arena just with maybe a single platform and we watch them fight over a certain amount of time and view video from that and decide at a high level how to make adjustments to that for the base.
Smash Bros. is all about position — where you're at and what kind of power the player has based on where their position is at. So it's something that players have to take advantage of. But if suddenly you create sort of a testing scenario where the position balance is removed from the equation, and you sort of start to see where, when you remove that one factor from the game, you're basically testing two players in the same circumstances, that's when you can really start to see the differences and balance between characters.
As far as the overall balance, if you were to take that and then put it in a flat playing field and have characters fight, you get a situation where suddenly, it's no different than any other fighting game. We realised that having different positioning, there's a lot of factors that occur in vertical elements of the stages. Once you get the core balance, then you can stretch out from there and realise, well, players don't want to play a normal flat fighting game: they want the special peculiarities of Smash Bros., where there's a lot of verticality, where the collision detection is a little broader. And the overall balancing goes factoring in those vertical elements as well.
Kotaku: It seems like that must be very difficult, to take all those factors into account. How do you manage to make each character still feel strong and still feel like they can be competitive with the rest of the characters, even with all those positional factors?
Sakurai: Yeah, if it was just a flat playing surface, it would be one thing, and you could determine pretty quickly which was the stronger character. But given the circumstances of the series, and there are so many factors, it comes down to a quite simple process, where you give characters a special — something special that no other character has. A special technique. And at the same time, as that ratchets up their strength, you also have to take something away, so it becomes a sort of game of checks and balances where you're adding and removing.
So again, it's very important to have that system of checks and balances where if a character has some very strong point, you have to give him something weak. If a person really likes that character, and they want to have that special strength, they're going to have to sacrifice something to be able to take that weakness and create sort of a balance in that sense, where each character has something that certain people like.
"It's very important to have that system of checks and balances where if a character has some very strong point, you have to give him something weak."
Kotaku: Ah. Could we talk about the Final Smash, will it still work like it did in Brawl?
Sakurai: So, yes, the Smash Balls will be included, and each character will have a Final Smash.
Essentially, the incorporation of the Smash Balls and the Final Smash was something to accommodate, or to counter a situation where in a game you'd have a strong player and without those things, you would have a situation where clearly always the strong players would come on top. And so we wanted to add a little bit of some accidental or random elements to help sort of narrow the possibility of who would come out on top in a match. And so our opinion on it was that it sort of helps balance the game. Of course, hardcore players might take issue with it, so that's why we decided to make it an option you can turn on or off.
That goes along with thinking about how I think each player should be able to customise the experience so we can accommodate different play styles. It's very important for me for everybody to have the play experience that they want. It's also very important for me to be able to accommodate the opinions of the most passionate players, of course, which tend to be the more advanced players.
Kotaku: Do you feel like there were flaws or weaknesses in Smash Bros. Brawl that you want to make better, or fix, or learn from for the new Smash Bros. games?
Sakurai: I would consider the changes that we're making this time around not as fixes, but that we're changing the direction. And so the vision for the overall balance of the game in Smash Bros. Melee, it was sort of more focused towards more hardcore players. Then when it came around to making Brawl, this was a game that was targeting a Wii audience where there were a lot of beginner players, so it sort of leaned a little bit more in that direction. So now, for this time around, we're sort of aiming for something that is in between those as far as the speed of the game. Because I don't really think this time we're in a situation where we're trying to accommodate that many new players like we did last time.
Kotaku: People will be very happy to hear that. Thank you so much for your time.