In his beginning years, Sakurai made it a point to learn game design by playing games. Each game was a textbook of mechanics filled with ideas to analyze. Since then Sakurai has taken a unique position in the games industry where he can observe gaming as a whole, sample and borrow mechanics, and make them his own. He both pays respect to and parodies the games that inspire him.
In other words, he’s the Kirby of the entire industry.
By the time Kirby’s Dreamland published on the Game Boy in 1992, he had several action platformers to take notes on: Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Contra, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Kid Icarus, Metroid… essentially the entire NES library. Kirby still felt unique, however, because the gameplay is entirely reactionary. Success hinged on observing the enemies and waiting for the right time to inhale and shoot back. Sakurai boiled down all those NES games into one core mechanic, and taught newcomers that action platformers are all about reading patterns and reacting accordingly. That’s a fantastic way to introduce the genre.
Kirby’s Adventure felt less like a distilled NES library and more like a collage: each copy ability was similar to some kind of weapon from one of those NES games. In Kirby Super Star Sakurai leaned more into his parody / respecting nature, with one of the bosses replicating early DOS RPG battles. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it at first. Kirby’s sword hat is also a bit familiar to another green tunic-wearing character that we all know well.
In Kid Icarus Uprising Sakurai was even more tongue-in-cheek, though admittedly this may be more a result of the localization team than his own work. As you play the level on the top screen, the bottom screen shows ongoing banter between Pit, Palutena and other characters. They make jokes about Nintendo, break the 4th wall, and it quickly became the highlight of the game. I was so happy to see that these conversations made it in as Easter eggs in Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Throughout the Super Smash Bros. series, Sakurai’s position was a bit more serious: he needed to design characters for a platform/fighting game while also faithfully representing that character. In order to do this he literally borrows several moves and animations from their games and creates a “definitive version” of that character, getting down even the play style to replicate the character’s reference material. This is particularly impressive when Sakurai picks fighters from vastly different genres, including RPGs like Earthbound, shooters like Star Fox, and life simulators like Animal Crossing. While historically, some fighters have felt more inspired than others (cough cough Ganondorf), most of his earlier mistakes have finally been corrected in Ultimate. It’s this meticulous level of care that makes it special to be a Smash Bros. character.
All the same, some of his playfulness comes through his “troll” reveals like Piranha Plant and Wii Fit Trainer. And his borrowing is not limited to just characters. Thanks to Personal 5 and its dynamic menus, Sakurai made a complete overhaul to the UI in Ultimate, and I have to say that it’s significantly better than the past entries. The flashy finishing moves also seem to be Persona 5 inspired, making competitive matches much more enjoyable to watch.
We’ve already talked about Melee’s Adventure Mode and the Trophies, which are already amazing homages, but World of Light in Ultimate adds even more love for dozens of more series. Sakurai included a “world tour” homage from Street Fighter II, as well as a map from Donkey Kong and a castle from Castlevania. Plus each Spirit battle attempts to recreate the essence of each spirit character. Knowing that the devs made roughly 1,000 of these just astounds me.
The way Sakurai treats his references and inspirations, making it a jovial homage, feels like all of gaming coming together, like everyone is just part of one big family. Small wonder that we get incessant theories about who the DLC characters are going to be, because everyone wants their character to get that kind of love and care.
And with that we are at an end of our journey.
Five essential elements summarize the games Sakurai has directed so far. I want to note that just because I’ve spent the past 6 posts praising this guy, I still think he has his faults (World Smash Power in Ultimate’s online is pitiful), but overall this man is still my #1 favorite developer. I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for us once Smash Ultimate is done with DLC, and after he’s had a long rest.
Seriously, Sakurai, go take a break! I feel like I need one just talking about your games!