Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broken Promise: The Narrative of the Subspace Emissary

The Subspace Emissary, Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s “game within a game,” was probably one of its biggest surprises and one of its best selling points. “Fight through a cinematic adventure! One or two players jump and brawl through enemy-packed side-scrolling levels as they meet Nintendo characters and battle massive bosses,” the back of the box proclaims. Objectively speaking, it was surely a worthwhile addition to the overall package and good fun, for the most part. Still, I can’t help but feel let down by it in the end. The gameplay was solid, the cut-scenes were beautiful, but the mode’s other major draw, the story itself, left me rather cold. Why? Because, quite simply, what we were given was extremely different from what had been very strongly implied, by no less than Brawl’s own official website, Smash Dojo, that we would be getting (before the Subspace Emissary itself was officially unveiled).

Before discussing what exactly the Dojo did imply about Brawl’s storyline, let’s review what we can glean from the previous games. As was strongly implied by the original Smash’s intro and Crazy Hand’s trophies in both Melee and Brawl, Master Hand is the being responsible for everything in the Smash universe. He creates the stages and breathes life into the characters, then has them fight each other. The purpose for this is not definitely known, but, more likely than not, it is purely for his own amusement, which would fit well with the fact that he “loves to create.” When there is only one character left, Master Hand fights him (or her), for “he…seems to feel a certain joy in challenging chosen warriors who’ve claimed many victories.” Crazy Hand, “a seeming manifestation of the destructive spirit….appears out of nowhere when Master Hand’s power begins to ebb,” and he surely takes delight in helping Master Hand crush the upstart opponent. Even if both Master Hand and Crazy Hand fall, though, the victorious character is turned back into a trophy (or in the original Smash’s case, a doll). It is as though Master Hand was not truly defeated, but rather, highly satisfied with the thoroughly invigorating fight he had, he turns the last character back into a trophy so that the process may begin all over again. This is, to my knowledge, a reasonable interpretation of what has been hinted at in the first two Smash games, which brings us to the hints of Brawl’s story which I alluded to before.

On July 20, 2007, Masahiro Sakurai, the main man behind Smash Bros., posted a highly cryptic update titled “This World…” The full text of the update reads as follows:

“In this world, trophies fight.”

“They know nothing but fighting. Fighting is the sole reason for their existence.”

“Being turned back into a trophy, being unable to fight, is much like death.”

“Those are the rules of this world.”


“When someone…or something…breaks those rules, the world will pay a terrible price…”

Accompanying these eerie words are several screenshots which depict the trophies of Mario and Kirby coming to life and fighting in a huge stadium before a large audience.

Nothing unusual yet. But then…BUT THEN…another screenshot shows Mario standing over Kirby’s trophy, one hand raised over it, with a light shining close to Mario’s hand and Kirby’s trophy.
In the next screenshot, Kirby is alive again, looking up at Mario.

Then, in the next screenshot, a powerful image is shown: Mario and Kirby are shaking hands, Kirby’s little pink stub of a hand in Mario’s gloved one.

Considering the backstory we discussed and the Smash universe as it existed up until Brawl, this image is truly earth-shattering. Two characters cooperating, not fighting? Simply unheard of! As the text of the update explains, Mario’s actions are a complete violation of the rules, and as such, “the world will pay a terrible price.” The next-to-last screenshot shows Mario and Kirby looking up to see the Halberd, a huge airship, descending upon them as the sky turns from blue to sinister red.

In the final image, an unknown character, with a dark purple face, round red eyes and a compact body, stares blankly out at the world, burning holes into anyone who returns its gaze.

Again, taking into account what we already established about the backstory of the previous Smash games, it seems rather clear that what the update was getting at was that, because of one character who thought to ask himself, “Why fight,” all of the characters were going to finally rise up and rebel against Master Hand for manipulating them, the latter doing all in his considerable power to quell the uprising, aided and abetted by his destruction-loving counterpart, Crazy Hand.

However, the story we actually got couldn’t have been further from that. The premise behind the Subspace Emissary is that a completely new character, Tabuu, wishes to expand his current realm, Subspace, by “[excising] this world and [building] up his great maze.” To achieve this end, he forces the Ancient Minister, “the lord of this world” (and another new character), along with his community of robots, all of whom live on “the floating Island of the Ancients,” to deposit and set off Subspace bombs so that eventually the whole world will be engulfed by and become part of Subspace. To execute this plan, Tabuu takes control of and manipulates Master Hand, forcing him to direct Ganondorf, Bowser and Wario according to Tabuu’s wishes. Naturally, our heroes (that is, all the other characters) aren’t about to let this happen, so the story follows their separate efforts to save the world. Gradually, they all come together and unite as one group, ultimately defeating Tabuu and saving their world.

I’ll never understand why, instead of taking the natural step in elaborating on the backstory that had already been established in the first two games, the development team decided to go in a completely different direction and arbitrarily invent a new antagonist. As if that weren’t enough, Master Hand is relegated to the role of a tool, a pawn! That he, who is the puppeteer of the Smash universe, is the one getting HIS strings pulled, so to speak, is nothing less than a rude disregard of what has been established up to now.

So why did the story not correspond with the content of that memorable update of July 20, 2007? If someone can somehow find a way that the words DO make sense within the context of the story, I congratulate them, but personally, I cannot. The crux of the text, in regard to someone breaking the rules and the world paying a terrible price, is absolutely meaningless within the context of the actual story for the Subspace Emissary. Mario’s revival of Kirby did not at all influence the events that subsequently took place, because as becomes apparent with the story’s progression, the Ancient Minister is flying all over the world depositing Subspace bombs at the behest of Tabuu, totally regardless of what any of the other characters are doing. It is possible that the text of that update was never really supposed to be taken too literally, but that seems quite unlikely to me. Therefore, the most plausible explanation for the discrepancy is that the story changed somewhere in development, quite possibly when Sakurai asked Kazushige Nojima, the scenario writer for such titles as Final Fantasy VII, to write one for Brawl. Although the scenario Nojima wrote by himself was not used, he and Sakurai collaborated to create what became the storyline for the Subspace Emissary, a real shame since, judging by the Super Smash Bros. Brawl edition of “Iwata Asks,” Sakurai seemed to be fully aware of the importance of crafting a story that worked well with “the world of Smash Bros. and its characters.” Confusingly, however, he also commented that he “had a really hard time figuring out how we might establish a storyline” since “with Smash Bros…there are way too many characters and the game is made without a main character.” If the story about a rebellion (or something similar) had been used, not only would the abundance of characters not have been an issue, the scenario would have also fit perfectly with everything previously established by the other two games. Sadly, the storyline that ultimately got used was apparently satisfactory in Sakurai’s eyes. Maybe they’ll get it right next time…if there is a next time.