Masahiro Sakurai: The Man Behind Smash Bros.

Hanakirby Watercolor

Shoutout to my wife for making this watercolor! For those who don’t get the reference, Sakura are cherry blossoms, related to the name Sakurai. And Hanami is the time of year you can see the cherry blossoms (around this time of year), so I changed it to Hanakirby.

My friend has a podcast called CineMusts where he discusses films, particularly the ones from the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Once a year he dives head-first into movies made by a specific director. One summer it could be Hitchcock, the next Akira Kurosawa. My wife and I enjoyed joining him on these projects, as it would expose me to movies I’d wanted to see but wasn’t quite sure how to find them.

Inspired by my friend, I’ve decided to do a similar project with a video game director that I’ve long admired: Masahiro Sakurai.

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While game developers are already some of the most passionate people in the media, Sakurai works on this entirely different level (in fact, he may be a bit too passionate). But look at the Nintendo Directs that he appeared in since 2012. Instead of just letting some Nintendo PR person hype up his games for him, he went on camera himself to explain his games. You can tell he’s proud of his work and he wants to connect with the fans. These directs are earnest announcements that I’ve never seen any other AAA director show without some journalist as an intermediary. Most game presentations feel commercial; Sakurai’s feel personal.

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And you can see his passion in the games themselves. His crossover series, Super Smash Bros., fundamentally shaped my childhood. Over the past 20 years that the series has existed, it has solidified my love for games and helped form my preferences for both single-player and mulitplayer games to this day.

I would love to go into his fascinating biography (he directed his first game when he was 19 years old! Who does that?!?), but we would be here all day. Instead, if you’re interested in his life, I suggest watching a “Know Your Developers” video on him made by Nintendo World Report and another on Did You Know Gaming’s channel.

Sakurai has, in total, directed 11 games:

  • 1992 – Kirby’s Dream Land
  • 1993 – Kirby’s Adventure
  • 1996 – Kirby Super Star
  • 1999 – Super Smash Bros.
  • 2001 – Super Smash Bros. Melee
  • 2002 – Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland
  • 2003 – Kirby Air Ride
  • 2008 – Super Smash Bros. Brawl
  • 2012 – Kid Icarus Uprising
  • 2014 – Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U
  • 2018 – Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

For this mini-series, I’ve played all of these games except for Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland, which is a remake of Kirby’s Adventure, and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U. I think with 3 Kirby games and 4 Smash Bros. games, we will glean the majority of the ideas Sakurai offers from those series.

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I will be taking a different approach than I normally do with my analyses. After playing through these games, I’ve narrowed down the main principles of Sakurai’s game design philosophy. As far as I can tell, his games have 5 common characteristics:

  1. They’re easy to learn, with simple controls and simple mechanics
  2. After learning the basics, the games open up to show a lot of complexity underneath; they’re hard to master
  3. They have a variety of game modes
  4. They include a collecting or achievement mechanic that extends the life of the game
  5. They include humor, 4th wall breaking, and masterful borrowing from other games

So instead of talking about each of his games one by one, we will be covering these 6 main ideas that tie his games together. I’m very excited to make this journey with you!

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Are there any game developers / directors that you would be interested in studying? Or any that you realized were influential to you?

2 thoughts on “Masahiro Sakurai: The Man Behind Smash Bros.

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