When I was first introduced to Smash Bros. back in university, there was an unspoken mutual understanding between all my friends: no items. Mind, it was never anything as serious as the infamous F ox-Only-Final-Destination-No-Items deal; I don't even think most super hardcore Smashers play like that, regardless of how fond everyone seems to be of that joke. But still, that's how we played — without items.
Looking back, I'm not sure why we did that. Hell, I'm not sure why anyone plays the game like this. It's 'supposed' to be a party game, no? That's why the items are there. And yet somehow, getting rid of a huge chunk of what designers put into the game is considered a more 'pure' playstyle, a way of experiencing Smash that lets everyone focus on the mechanics. It was as if we were saying that underneath all the randomness and hijinks, there is actually a super complex fighting game that was waiting to be played.
Don't get me wrong, we had a lot of fun playing this way. I love playing Smash this way! Smash ended up being our most-popular game in college; the hours we sunk into it almost downright embarrassing. But it's just kind of weird to think about the hardcore Smash phenomenon, which eschews a large portion of the game, all in the name of...what, fun? The tension between what the game wants to be and how some people play it is fascinating. Granted, thanks to things like the 'For Glory' mode — which are itemless matches on flat stages — it seems like maybe Nintendo is finally acknowledging its hardcore fans, finally giving them what they want.
Playing with items feels like I'm diving into the iconic Nintendo toybox.
But now that I'm playing the 3DS version of the game — which isn't out yet for most people — I don't have the luxury of the perpetual couch with five friends waiting to play with me. I'm relegated to having to play against the computer, especially if I want to unlock all the characters. I was expecting to hate this — and sure, I do miss being able to play against all my friends. But I'm also enjoying playing Smash more traditionally, with items enabled.
Part of it is the sense of discovery. While I'm seeing a lot of returning items, there are also a few new ones that I'd never seen before. Imagine my surprise when I found a Cucco for the first time, and accidentally hit it — only to have it become enraged, just like it does in Zelda. Or the time I pulled up some grass, only to find a ray gun buried underneath. Or the time I was playing on the Animal Crossing stage, and I smacked a tree — only to have a bee hive fall out and swarm me.
None of that stuff would be ideal in the context of a serious match, that's true. But still, using items instills a deep appreciation of all the details Nintendo packs into the game, and the genuine reverence they have for all their games, regardless of how obscure they are. Just like every character's moves might be references to specific things they can do in their respective games, items all work in the way you might expect them to in their original games, too. And so playing with items feels like I'm diving into the iconic Nintendo toybox; makes me feel like Nintendo is gaming's version of Disney.
Maybe I shouldn't be surprised. Looking back, while I have plenty of fondness for tense, down to the wire one-on-one matches without items, I also have plenty of specific memories that all revolve around items, too. I liked to main characters that made use of items, like Toon Link and Diddy (and even now, many of my favoured characters — like The Villager and Robin, are like this too). But, there are broader memories about items, too. The mad rush to try to gather all the dragoon parts. The one time I fought tooth and nail to throw a party ball, only for it to rain a bunch of bombs on me and kill me.
Du-du-du-du-du-duuuuh! Here you go, arsehole. That's your prize.
Or the frustration/delight at having a stage that was too full of bumpers, or smart bombs. Or the catharsis you feel whenever you get a good hit in with the baseball bat. That sound! Who can forget the baseball bat whistle? Or, best of all, being in an intense sudden death match, only to have the game sort of go, screw it, I'll decide the winner by raining bombs on both of all of y'all — good luck!
The rage, the randomness, the hilarity. That's what Smash Bros. is to me, at its heart — even while playing seriously, without items. You never know what's going to happen in a Smash Bros. match; that's what makes it so good.
I'm looking forward to being able to play more hardcore itemless matches once everyone has the game, yes. But for now, I'm learning to love Smash the way some would say its meant to be played: with items.