Super Smash Bros Brawl: The Subspace Emissary

There is no story more eloquently told in the medium of the video game than the tale of the hero. Virtually every narrative video game made today is a take on the heroic epic which forms the foundation of literature and informs modern storytelling. The Smash Bros. series is popular franchise of fighting games which pit characters from multiple titles together simply for the sake of doing so. The first two installments never pretended to have a story, except for that which could be assumed from related media. That all changes with Super Smash Bros Brawl.

When combining so many headliners, a storyteller runs the risk of losing major assets to the background of the narrative. Dipping into another media format– comic books– this is a constant threat to a series like Justice League, where characters with enormous followings, back stories, and details meet in one space. Something has to bring them together, something that gives them a common purpose. Many JL stories effectively do this, and over the course of the last half century, DC Comics has mastered the art of integrating these gods onto a single stage.

Smash Brothers

When you talk about video game heroes, one inevitably comes to Nintendo. What is arguably first mainstream narrative video game– Donkey Kong featured two characters from Brawl– the garish Donkey Kong and the world famous Mario. Another huge step forward in that genre was The Legend of Zelda, which also bears four characters in this game. Interestingly, the roster of characters includes antagonists as well, which help push the story forward.

The Subspace Emissary

The Subspace Emissary is a game within a game. It is a story mode that integrates all the characters from the main fighting portion of the game, and delivers them into a narrative. The story is simple, and can be derived from the first few cut scenes. A new enemy emerges and begins setting off bombs which engulf all they touch. This enemy, the Ancient Minister, is a mysterious cloaked figure who heralds the destruction of the common world these heroes share. It is a very basic plot, one that gives the player a static context from which to digest it. Like in many games, the player does not have to worry about twists in the overall plot, their progress will determine a favorable outcome or not, thus creating a new kind of dramatic tension.

That is what drives this story forward: the interaction of these myriad characters, the secrets behind who these enigmatic new enemies are, and the enjoyment derived from the game play. The “cut scenes” push the narrative forward contextually, acting as exposition. A player knows that his character has defeated a certain enemy or obstacle, but what happens next is communicated through the cut scene. The cut scenes also predicates the next segment of game play, often times directly setting it up. This is a convention of video game storytelling. It is employed here with finesse, humor, and action.

Antagonists and Opportunists (Here be Spoilers)

While much of the story is communicated through the action in the cut scenes, a lot of back story is derived from the media that comes with the game, like the trophies the player collects which say a little bit more about the characters. From this, it is learned that the main villain is a creature known as Tabuu, who seeks to pull the world into “Subspace” by using these bombs. He does so by controlling the Master Hand, an interesting villain from the previous games, whose very presence is enough to gain the allegiance of Ganondorf, Wario, King Dedede, and Bowser– who all fight against each other and the heroes in the service of Tabuu.

Also in his army is the Ancient Minister, leader of a robot people who live on an island. These robots are actually “ROB” the peripheral for Nintendo’s Famicom/NES system from more than two decades prior. The game makes them out to be “ancients,” nodding at the fact that they’re now retired and live in a sort of “heaven.”

More of this kind of reference to reality is made with Pitt. The hero from the Kid Icarus series, Pitt has not appeared in a game as a playable character since the early 1990’s, and has only had two titles under his belt. He is depicted as having been in “Angel Land,” with his matron, the Goddess Palutena. It is the events of The Subspace Emissary that compel Pitt to return to action.

The Hero

This title as a whole is marked by a very interesting choice in main theme. It is an operatic piece set to classical music, sang in Latin. This is a highly unusual choice for what is effectively a party game. The lyrics of this theme are revealed at the end of The Subspace Emissary, and they draw the entire game’s theme together. Apparently sung by a, or any, member of the cast, the lyrics invoke the notion of a powerful individual whose name is synonymous with power and fear. They describe a person who can dispatch foes and cause havoc everywhere he or she travels. These are references to the characters, clearly, but also they speak of the kind of hero one finds in video game stories. Characters who are as gods to those they encounter, eliminating obstacles with literally just the push of a button. The lyrics go on to mention that now, that person is “by my side,” and that he or she could be a friend, a comrade, or a former enemy. This refers to the antagonists in the game who are reframed to be heroes, either by being taken up in the fighting mode, or being turned to join your team in the story mode.

This speaks to the kind of heroes that Nintendo, and by proxy Konami and Sega, have produced. The medium of the video game makes them far more active than their literary cousins. They suffer no less tragedy, no less doubt, no less human struggle than heroes in books or film. Some of these characters, like Samus Aran or Solid Snake, were born from tragedy and have suffered betrayal and struggle in the past. It is a tremendous irony that a game series which was born with no plot, has used that precise vehicle to show that this new pantheon of heroes not two dimensional characters (excluding Mr. Game & Watch).

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