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Brawl Revisited

One of the first articles to generate traffic to my old site was the one I wrote about Smash Bros. Brawl’s adventure mode, The Subspace Emissary. Not right away, but a few months later in June, when the game came out in Europe. I’m not a big fan of the Smash Bros. interpretation of the fighting genre and the only reason I got the game was this adventure mode with a story written by Playstation era Final Fantasy’s writer NOJIMA Kazushige. Nintendo’s president IWATA Satoru always wanted a Nintendo RPG franchise to rival the success of Final Fantasy and giving NOJIMA, who like IWATA comes from the northern Japanese Island Hokkaidō, a shot at writing a Nintendo game storyline might have hinted at the company’s later challenges towards the RPG genre like Monolithsoft’s Xenoblade (first announced as Monado in the US) and Final Fantasy inventor Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I ended up being disappointed with Brawl, mainly because of a stylistic decision to refrain from using any dialogue at all in the game. Dialogue seemed like crucial element in telling a complex narrative and I dismissed The Subspace Emissary for the lack of speech.

But actually the concept of a story completely without spoken dialogue is quite ingenious. Of course practically all the Nintendo heroes follow the school of the mute hero to allow the player to project their own thoughts into the story. And NOJIMA also started as a writer of Dragon Quest type RPGs and interpreted the mute hero in very interesting ways in his early works. So trying out this concept was probably the most interesting thing he could have done to adapt the Nintendo universe and its characters and he also had the necessary experience to pull it off. I just didn’t see it during my play through. Rewatching the story sequences again later opened my eyes to many things I had missed before, making me want to write another article on the game.

By waiving dialogue the game doesn’t just become the equivalent of a silent movie; in fact all the games before the advent of voice overs were silent. Like silent movies they used text to relay the spoken dialogue. But a lot more of it because the game medium had better ways of putting text onto the screen than the silent movies, which usually interrupted the moving picture with a black screen to show the dialogue. Games completely without any text aren’t that uncommon either, they just usually don’t try to tell a story then.

The Subspace Emissary doesn’t just omit voice overs, like most Nintendo games still do for the most part, but also text boxes. Actually certain in game moves are accompanied by short bits of speech in recent Nintendo games, compromising the mute hero concept, but in text box dialogues Mario still skips his part of the dialogue as to not impose his (absent) personality on the player. Since all the characters in Brawl are like Mario in this regard, since they are all mute heroes, even including the playable villains, the narrative has to do without text altogether. This is in fact very rare not just in games but also in the silent movie genre.

Actions speak louder than words, as they say, and actions are also the thing that is easier to convey into interactive form since actions can be linked to button presses or other input from the player much easier than words. Generating speech interactively would be almost as much of a pain as having it interpreted by the game software. Simply speaking we’re still a long way off from that kind of interaction. So by only showing action in the non-interactive movie sequences they become more like the interactive parts. They’re still automatic but not that different from some scripted game parts which come very close to movie like action where the player does everything themselves apart from talking. But being narrative scenes what the player can actually do is still predetermined by the game. This fact becomes even more apparent when the on screen presentation is restricted to action only. Playing a story means giving up almost all freedom. You become a pawn on the board which constitutes the game, an action figure so to speak.

The Ancient Minister delivers the subspace bomb

That was also the original setting of Smash Bros., action figures coming alive to battle each other. And this is also where the story of The Subspace Emissary starts, with Mario and Kirby having a sporting competition in a huge stadium. Until the Ancient Minister and his minions show up and wreck havok with their subspace bombs. The whole world is threatened by these bombs and all its inhabitants have to face some sort of crisis. The narrative switches between different places in the Nintendo universe to show its heroes and villains battle in midst of the huge detonations of the bombs of the Ancient Minister’s army.

Donkey and Diddy Kong vs. Bowser

Donkey and Diddy Kong protect the jungle yet untainted by civilization from the devilish Koopa King Bowser, who has come to this foreign place to exploit its natural resources. They get help from the futuristic pilots of the Star Fox games and later team up with another coupling of future and past: The main driver of the racing game F-Zero, Captain Falcon, and the alien captain Olimar and his army of plant soldiers called Pikmin. Olimar actually is a bit similar to Bowser as he also harvests a foreign natural resource but unlike Bowser he treats the Pikmins with respect and feels compassion for their frequent deaths. They are very fragile and even during Captain Falcon’s “cool” entrance a few dozen of them die in the process. In a way it is a black humored commentary on the rise of technology at the cost of nature.

Lucas

The frightened boy Lucas is encouraged by his strong friends Ness and Pokémon Trainer. Lucas has an actual name, whereas Ness is a reference to the family of consoles his games were released for and Pokémon Trainer is just the generic hero of Nintendo’s most successful franchise on Game Boy and later handhelds. It’s as if an actual boy got help from a legendary game console and game series to do the things he didn’t have the courage to do by himself.

Marth faces the bomb

Marth, who is just one of many medieval knights in the Nintendo universe to make an appearance in the game, tries to protect his fortress from the blast of one of the subspace bombs. Mario and Link protect their respective encaged princesses. Donkey Kong protects the jungle. Getting a glimpse of the world wide destruction Pit, the angel living in an ancient Greek inspired fantasy heaven, receives a bow from the goddess Palutena to join the heroes protecting all of the world.

Samus and Pikachu find the Power Suit

The modern woman Samus Aran is empowered by technology and rivals every other Nintendo hero in strength. The princesses, told to stay put by macho hero Snake after being rescued from their cages, seem to comply with this order at first, but dressing up in her male guise as Sheik, Zelda and the dressed as usual Peach go out to fight alongside their male companions. The Ice Climbers, a team of a man and woman of equal abilities join the larger growing band of heroes.

The evil Wario

Meanwhile the villains of the Nintendo universe go around the world shooting the iconic heroes with a beam cannon that instantly turns them back into action figures and collect them like trophies. They also corrupt the icons turned statue to make them battle for evil. But even the villains take their orders from Master Hand, the boss of the bosses since the first Smash Bros. crossover game. Who turns out to be nothing but a puppet of the real boss Taboo who is pulling his strings. Taboo’s name implies that he symbolizes something which is not to be openly talked about and his weapons are the subspace bombs, marked with an X, equally omitting their real name.

So far we have identified the following themes:

  • battle as a fair sporting event,
  • video games as encouragement for timid boys,
  • conservative tendencies to protect something (usually a place or a woman),
  • clash of primal nature and high technology,
  • modern women fighting alongside men,
  • battle as destructive war associated with a final boss that is a taboo,
  • technology providing a weapon that can annihilate the whole world.

Detonation

The last one is especially important to the narrative as a whole. The huge detonation of the subspace bomb provided by the army of the Ancient Minister starts off the story and gives the heroes a reason to fight. The horror of these bombs is linked to their enormous devastative power but also to the self sacrificing robots who bring them to their destinations. They don’t mind blowing up together with the bombs, effectively treating themselves as weapons, as things rather than sentient beings. You could argue that they as robots are indeed just things but you would be wrong.

The Ancient Minister has doubts

Even the heroes and the Ancient Minister feel compassion for the poor robots and try to stop them from blindly acting out their destructive order. The Ancient Minister’s name implies a long heritage, whereas Mario and the other heroes have a much more modest tradition. But in the end they both oppose the destruction and the act of self sacrifice. After working with the Nintendo villains for most of the story the Ancient Minister resists the war campaign spurred by his allies and for the first time attempts to stop the robot soldiers. This turns out to be futile but the Ancient Minister after being set ablaze is revealed to not be a mythical entity but a robot like the members of the army he commands.

Taboo

In the end all the heroes and villains have to unite to battle the real enemy, Taboo, who controlled even the supposed controller, Master Hand. A taboo is something to be kept silent, like the heroes who can only act. To overcome this taboo they have to confront the truth of war to bring back the places trapped1 The world robbed from most of its locations and the heroes restoring the world to its complete existence was also the concept of earlier games, most prominently Dragon Quest VII in 2000. In that game you had to travel the past to find the lost locations and learn their story before they disappeared. in the subspace2 The subspace is called akū (亜空) in Japanese. The second character of this made up term means sky, heaven or space. The first character can also mean Asia but here it refers to the concept of subsequence, of resulting from something else that is its base/origin. of the virtual reality of the game.

  1. The world robbed from most of its locations and the heroes restoring the world to its complete existence was also the concept of earlier games, most prominently Dragon Quest VII in 2000. In that game you had to travel the past to find the lost locations and learn their story before they disappeared. []
  2. The subspace is called akū (亜空) in Japanese. The second character of this made up term means sky, heaven or space. The first character can also mean Asia but here it refers to the concept of subsequence, of resulting from something else that is its base/origin. []
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