Smash Bros: Mulling Over Masterpieces

I was seven when Super Smash Bros. Brawl released. I didn’t get it right away, instead I got it from a family friend as a gift a few months after launch. Not only was it my first Smash game, it was an experience that became all-consuming, and I played it to the point of forgetting the other Wii titles on my shelf. I loved Brawl is because it gave me a new vector to explore Nintendo’s franchises and their history through.

Brawl became an outlet for me to learn about Nintendo. As I discussed in my personal Zelda retrospective, Nintendo Power was foundational in cultivating my fascination with the company’s legacy. Because of it, I wanted to delve into the back catalog of Virtual Console and pour over online database entries for even the oddest titles, like Yoshi’s Safari. However, whereas the magazine was a hands-off hub which motivated my curiosity, Brawl directly enabled it.

Smash Bros. Brawl key art

I remember spending hours at the Coin Launcher to earn new trophies before marveling at the 3D models of characters that were totally foreign to me. I spent an equal amount of time slapping Brawl’s stickers onto pages, just to see more new faces. It wasn’t until recently that I even knew Stickers had gameplay effects. Naturally, I also spent plenty of time with each character on the roster before cross-referencing their series online or in Nintendo Power. For me, Brawl became Nintendo edutainment in a manner of speaking.

This is the sort of game experience that I could never have today, both as a function of becoming internet literate and as a function of knowing the company so acutely. But as a child who was neither internet savvy nor familiar with Nintendo, Brawl was a compendium of knowledge to absorb. However, beyond the trophies, stickers and the character roster, Brawl had one particular Vault mode that immediately multiplied the title’s ability to expand my Nintendo knowledge tenfold. And, it’s a feature that introduced me to some of my absolute favorite games. Of course, I’m referring to Masterpiece mode.

Discovering the Classics, Two Minutes at a Time

Stat Fox 64 title screen

Effectively, Masterpiece mode was a collection of NES, SNES and N64 games that could be played in a demo capacity. From F-Zero to Ocarina of Time, players could check out seminal Nintendo titles under (incredibly) strict time limits. Thinking back on the Masterpieces as an adult, they were little more than transparent marketing. They would only offer the ability to play for mere minutes, if that. In essence, they were playable commercials meant to entice fans to buy the full games on Virtual Console. Masterpieces were a pretty clear corporate gimmick, punched up a bit by Sakurai’s presentation.

However, I’m not here to be a jaded, old twenty-year-old right now. Because, when I was seven, Masterpieces were just about the most magical things in the world. I was infatuated with them. Even if I could play Kirby’s Adventure for just two minutes, I saw that as a two-minute portal into a new world. It was through the Masterpieces that I was introduced to my favorite game of all-time, Star Fox 64. I must’ve played the opening Corneria mission a dozen times this way.

It’s hard to put the proper intellectual value on how pivotal these demos were, as they introduced me to some of my all-time favorite games. It’s fairly easy to put a monetary value on them though, as I had just about no spending money as a kid. So, these were really my only way to sample Nintendo classics for a while. Partially out of financial necessity and partially out of historical curiosity, the Masterpieces hold a very special place in my heart.

Offering Others the Same Opportunity

Smash Wii U key art

As such, I was very glad to see Masterpieces return for Smash Bros. on Wii U, even though I got basically no utility out of them. By November 2014, I had played most of the games offered as Masterpieces, and I was already familiar with the majority of Nintendo’s legacy. Any gaps I had could be filled with the allowance money I had by that point too, so the Masterpiece ship had sailed. Still, their inclusion meant that another generation of kids like me had the ability to try out some of the industry’s most brilliant games, cultivating the sort of reverence for history that Brawl cultivated within me.

It’s too bad that Masterpieces ended there. In the era of Nintendo Switch Online, the removal of Masterpieces from Ultimate stings less, although I would’ve still loved to see them included. In fact, I found Ultimate to lack much of what made past Smash games a potent vehicle for exploring Nintendo’s past. For instance, while I really enjoy collecting Spirits, but they lack the utility or ambition of trophies. Ultimate is undoubtedly my favorite game in the series, due in part to the scope of the crossover and in part to the excellence of the core mechanics. Yet, I can’t help but miss these extra bells and whistles.

I suppose I’m just a bit nostalgic for a past time, back when Nintendo Power and Super Smash Bros. Brawl were my gateways into Nintendo’s legacy. Now, that idea seems so quaint. There’s something cozy in this quaintness though. It’s something that can simply never be replicated. We all have fond memories of how our gaming stories were shaped, and Brawl’s Masterpieces were an important chapter in mine.