We were all still laughing at around 3 a.m, doing tequila shots in my friend’s parents’ basement. Our car had broken down at a truck stop about 100 kilometers into Ontario in a small rural town called Ingleside. There was some mechanical issue with the driver’s Ford Focus—a known issue with that model which causes the automated security system to jam and the key not to turn in the ignition. The quaintly foul-mouthed gas station attendant did all he could, as did a Ford mechanic who happened to stop by. Nothing, from jerking the steering wheel to unplugging and replugging the battery, would budge it. “That’s really fuckin’ weird,” the attendant ultimately concluded with all the delivery of a Canadian stereotype.
The foul-mouthed tow truck driver hauled ass and hauled away our chances of a weekend in Toronto. I was going to attend Bit Bazaar, Bento Miso’s Spring fair for comics, games and other arts and crafts. I was looking forward to seeing distant friends and sampling wares. My compatriots, however, were setting their sights on Get On My Level 2014, heretofore Canada’s biggest Smash tournament ever, with over 250 people in attendance. It was also a Major League Gaming qualifier. They were excited to be representing Montreal, to maybe even shoot for top 5.
When that humid, northeastern flash rain hit us it was like a cliche, just a little too dramatically appropriate while we waited inside sipping Tim Horton’s coffee, wallowing in our disappointment. It came down even harder when we were being driven down a dark Ontario highway back into the Quebec countryside in the Ford pickup of our friend’s dad. His almost unbelievably laid-back parents happened to live in a small town about an hour out and very graciously agreed to give us shelter for the night. The rain subsided a bit while we were waiting, pushed aside for just enough time for us to smoke a joint in the parking lot, to laugh in our dismay, to joke and take pictures when the tow truck came, to be thankful we were all still alive. We had put a lot of energy into doing this thing, so there was no use in letting it all go to waste.
There’s something about the insistent niche popularity of Super Smash Bros. Melee and, to a lesser extent, Brawl, that suggests a dogged nostalgia and dedicated passion for making order out of chaos. Melee in particular isn’t known for having balance, for being a 2D fighting game designed with a lot of forethought. As an outside spectator, I personally find 1v1 matches hectic to look at, and 2v2 matches are just a blur of shapes and colours swishing across a CRT. But players, through years of practice, analysis, and dissection, have cultivated deep strategies and distinct play styles, collectively turning a mess of crossover fan service into a competition-worthy game. In many ways, Melee is an unlikely cult hit, having evolved from a slipshod party game into an impenetrably fast-paced skill.
So it’s to be expected that one friend had brought a small CRT, another a GameCube and a disk, and everyone had brought their own controllers. The game can be played on Wii, or online, but there’s a romantic comfort in the old-fashioned, and besides, I’m told, the input lag is reduced this way. We had booze and drugs, we had games, and we had a shared resentment over our circumstances that we could convert into good humour, into warm childhood conjurations, in the basement of our friend’s parent’s house out in the country.
I woke up to a gorgeous spring afternoon with the cottonmouth and radiating soreness of a hangover. Long after water and coffee had powered me back on, my friends had set up the little CRT with Melee out on the deck. Sacrificing themselves to the sun to reduce screen glare, the three that remained sat in plastic deck chairs amicably taking turns in 1v1 matches. The cooler was filled with ice and the beer we were going to bring to Toronto, and hardly 10 minutes went by without an illicit substance rolled and set alight. We had chips and some really good homemade guacamole. I sat in the shade playing Vita games until the battery died.
I could tell my friends were slightly taking pity on me because I couldn’t participate; it wouldn’t even be competitive enough to be fun. There’s an extent to which the learning curve is just too steep. I felt much worse for our driver, who had had to leave prematurely and certainly had more tangible frustrations than any of us. But I still felt a twinge of resentment because being a Smash player meant entering a liminal space and I would always be an outsider. These were all friends and yet I felt hyper-aware of being other, of being the only woman in the group and of being someone’s girlfriend and of not being a Smash player (not that being one would really override the first two problems.) This isn’t to say that the problems endemic to the Smash community can’t be said to exist in all of gaming culture—because, hoo boy, can they—or that my self-consciousness was anyone’s responsibility but my own. But, it was still there.
The Smash community has grown significantly since the release of “The Smash Brothers,” a documentary that provided a deeper look into the arguably closed community—as well as a few other helpful factors including Nintendo’s declaration of community support. As eSport commentator Wynton “Prog” Smith writes:
“To put things in perspective, prior to EVO the largest major we had topped out at 347 entrants. EVO had 696 pre register, and I hear we topped out at over 700 which is mind numbing to say the least. Melee has had this huge resurgence, but it feels like all of the Smash titles are receiving second looks, whether from individuals looking to build the infrastructure of events, to increasing the longevity of what’s out there as well as preparation for the next title.”
The game has often sat in an awkward middle ground between Nintendo fanboyism and a fighting game enclave, though it is enjoying a surge of newfound respect as an eSport. It comes with its own language, its own logic that takes patience and a deep commitment to learn. It’s not like the musical, calligraphic order of Street Fighter, which is more my game. It’s not like the metal-crunch carnality of Mortal Kombat. I can see the love in the eyes of people who play it, who spend hours practicing it and deconstructing it. I’m talking about people who will chart the relative falling speeds of different characters. A friend wouldn’t have sat in the sun for hours turning red as a boiled lobster for a game he didn’t adore.
I was happy for them that they were able to channel focus and feeling into their game. Everyone, mind you, was still disappointed and compromising, but it was a mess we all shared. Smash expressed that messiness, but more than that, it was a demonstration of a group of people’s ability to pull something great out of no great shakes. Maybe there’s something in the game that taps into that human impulse. I suppose for me it represented a salvaging of what was left, and what was left was Smash, and that’s where most of my resentment came from. I didn’t play this game in a parent’s basement as a kid, because I didn’t grow with the game like they did, I couldn’t be a full part of the salvaging, too.
But that night before in the basement, drunk and stoned and collectively decompressing, I did feel the camaraderie, the comfort in the escape of nostalgia, and it felt like we managed to pull something from nothing. 2v2 team Melee is awfully hectic, but many prefer it to 1v1. There’s more coordination and communication involved, but the risk is managed by two players instead of one. One friend puts it bluntly, “It’s more fun.” In a way, because of its own lack of equilibrium and unpredictability, Melee requires that players find their own symmetry. It was kind of a disaster, fuckin’ weird, but shared and pooled and belonging to us.