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Filed under: Editorial, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Smash Bros. Series

Stage Design in Melee & Beyond

A while back I wrote an article that looked at the stage design of Super Smash Bros. 64. That game was an interesting case; as it was the first of its series so, it was hard to tell what would work and what wouldn’t. Therefore, Sakurai probably opted to keep many of the levels very simple. The most complex level in Smash 64 is a walk-off with a single hazard and a pit in the middle – this is practically the norm now!

When Super Smash Bros. Melee came along Sakurai and his team had the chance to truly expand on the stage variety provided. While the limited capabilities of the Nintendo 64 kept some restrictions for Smash 64, with the ultra powerful GameCube this was no longer an issue. Stages could be bigger with more variables being checked and so the level design evolved. That is what we will look at today.

Before we start, let’s actually look at what Sakurai has stated about the stages in Melee. Thanks to the Super Smash Bros. Melee website we actually have some words from Sakurai about his stage design. I will only cover the basics here but they are well worth the full read.

First off, Sakurai talks about making the characters easy to identify on the stage. This is primarily done through stage size and making the colours not as pronounced that they blend in or distract from the fighters. It also needs to look natural in multiple angles because of the camera feature. Most importantly, however, is that the stage should be as faithful as possible but not to the extent where it doesn’t work in Smash. If this means keeping the layout more simple or making it a bit more complex that’s perfectly doable and this is a design element kept up to this day.

The next important thing to note about stages in Melee is the concept of ‘Front’ and ‘Back’ battle stages. This is a design choice exclusive to Melee that helped to create a balance of the type of stages it has. The front stages are generally the simpler ones whereas the back stages tend to have a type of ‘gimmick’ to them. This doesn’t mean the front stages are entirely gimmick-less or that the back stages aren’t suitable to simple fighting; Temple is a back stage for example, and Mute City is a front stage.

Where should this analysis start then? As Melee was no longer introducing the concept of Smash to players and was aimed to be a more hardcore game, the stages didn’t need to get harder as they went along. They could be more varied all the time. Smash 64 only had three types of stages (“Floating,” “Island,” and “Walk-Off”) but Melee bolsters its’ types up to 11. These are giant, transforming, cliff, moving, driving, scrolling (both vertical and horizontal) and special.  

Before I tackle these in more detail I want to talk about stage evolution. In a lot of ways, Melee feels like Smash 64 DX. It takes many of the ideas in Smash 64 and reimagines them with the new hardware in mind. The stages are just one part of this with almost every stage in 64 being reimagined in some way. Yoshi, Donkey Kong, Star Fox, Metroid, Mario and Kirby stages from 64 all got a straightforward re-imagining in Melee and there are examples of this down below.

Princess Peach’s Castle in 64 was a set in the skies above. Now in Melee, the level is still Princess Peach’s Castle but they now have the power to actually have you fight on top of the castle itself. They don’t completely abandon the sky aspect either, with Rainbow Cruise being set in the skies above the castle once more. Hyrule Castle also has elements that helped with the layout of Peach’s Castle, such as a similar structure but, in ways I will discuss below, it also helped to bring about the Temple stage. Hyrule Castle being adopted by Mario is not the only example of a 64 stage evolving in this manner though

Many people view Saffron City as the most unique stage of 64 and want it to return. A big factor for this is the idea that it hasn’t been done since 64 but this is not true. The stage actually does have a successor in Melee, just not from Pokémon. Fourside, the second EarthBound stage, copies a lot of the same stage design cues of Saffron City, it just misses the Pokémon (which was planned to be adopted into Pokémon Stadium but cut for power reasons).

The three stage types from before all return here and are pretty much unchanged. Some stage types have evolved into another (Yoshi’s Story is now an Island stage instead of a Floating one) but the design elements that make up these types are retained. If you want a more detailed analysis of those types then check out my previous analysis. Melee’s stages created a lot of series staples that have continued on to Brawl and Smash for. I mentioned above that there were now 11 types of stages in Melee and so I feel like tackling these is the perfect way to continue this analysis: starting with giant stages.

Melee introduced to us the ‘Giant’ stage in the form of Temple. Practically a mini dungeon, Temple had a ton of space for players to fight on with a variety of set-pieces and platform layouts. This allowed players to decide what layout was the best for them, whether enclosed, out in the open or precariously on small platforms. It added a new layer of depth to Smash’s combat, where taking advantage of the terrain was key. One could argue though that this stage type was a natural evolution of 64’s Hyrule Castle stage. That was also the biggest in its game and both use size to represent Zelda’s themes of exploration and discovery. The giant stage doesn’t have any particular layout consistencies in each of its renditions other than that there is always one area that is enclosed near the bottom. The main point of this stage is to be big and each game has just made it bigger and bigger (although ironically Temple itself feels smaller in Brawl due to bigger character models).

The next new level type introduced in Melee is the ‘Transforming’ stage. The power of the GameCube allowed for stages that dynamically changed their stage layout, allowing for simple stages to become more dynamic without interfering with the combat. The stage often begins with a flat surface akin to Final Destination and then one or two stationary platforms. The new layout stage rises from the ground so that players are not caught off guard with the transition and each layout adds new strategies to the fight. The Pokémon Stadium stage is the arena that adopts this format in Melee.

The next four stage types are all very similar to the idea of the transforming stage but throw the concept of safety out the window to various extents. These are all the stages that involve the player having to actively move to avoid death. Standing still runs the risk of the stage automatically killing the player by either having the screen scroll past them or dropping them in sudden pits. These can be split into categories depending on how the movement works.

Mute City represents the generically dubbed ‘Moving’ stage where a solid platform picks players up and moves them around a large area, dropping them into a variety of environments, some with hazards like the F-Zero vehicles. This stage idea is later expanded upon in Brawl with Delfino Plaza, Port Town Aero Drive and much more. It is by far the easiest way for Sakurai and his team to represent a large area accurately while still making the stage dynamic.

Next, we have the ‘Driving’ stages. These are the least common of the moving stages and are defined by having a hazardous floor that impedes the player when they touch it. Players often fight on top of vehicles while the stage layout changes dynamically due to every platform constantly moving in some fashion. Big Blue is the Melee stage that introduced this and it has appeared in every game except Smash for Wii U (Pirate Ship, Spirit Train, Mute City (3DS)).

These last two belong to the ‘Scrolling’ stages. These are stages that either scroll horizontally, similar to an auto-scrolling level in a platform game, or scroll vertically, like climbing a ladder. The former is far more common and both types end up repeating themselves in a cycle. Both types debut in Melee, made possible by the GameCube’s enhanced power, and are the poster child for dynamic stages as players have to remain on the move. Icicle Mountain was the first vertical stage while Rainbow Cruise is the first horizontal one. There is also the infamous Poke Floats which takes cues from both types of stages, making it hard to really put in on category or the other.

Coming off of such a dynamic level type we have our tenth stage type which is far more plain. This is the ‘Cliff’ type stage. The stage’s layout is much like the island stages but has a walk-off on one side and a drop on the other. Yoshi’s Island in Melee is the perfect example of this type of stage and it borrows many design elements from both types.

Lastly, in Melee, we have the uncategorizable stages. I simply call these the ‘Special’ types because that is what they are, special snowflakes of stages that have something so unique to its layout that no other stage has copied it. In Melee this stage is Brinstar Depths, the secret Metroid level. It technically is a floating stage but it is also a moving stage. The central platform is just a massive circle that spins every so often, changing the layout of the stage. You can still access other layouts of the stage at any time but now they might be upside down or on their side, which just adds to the potential layouts present and must have been a headache to design.

These eleven stage types set the foundation for the rest of Smash but the series has continued to grow more creative. As the title suggests, this article is meant to cover more than just Melee and so I need to mention the other types of stages that got introduced after this. Starting with the special stages though, each game introduced more but most of these are one off like Frigate Orpheon in Brawl or Golden Plains on Smash 3DS. So, they are all categorised under the special tab and will remain as such until future Smash titles make this type more common.

Both Brawl and Smash For only introduced one new stage type bringing the total up to 14. In Brawl, this was the ‘Transition’ type. This is stage is similar to the transforming stage but ditches that safe, Final Destination, platform and forces players to move and be aware of the changes. Alternatively, the level just changes, it doesn’t go into the ground or move but fades in and out of existence. The two examples of this in Brawl are Castle Siege and Flat Zone 2.

The final type, introduced in Smash for, is the ‘Collapsible’ stage type. This type at first looks like an island stage but the trick comes from the ground breaking down and falling into the abyss below, dragging down any players on it. In Smash for 3DS this belongs to Find Mii and on Smash for Wii U it is Jungle Hijinx. The recurring theme in both of these is that there must always be an alternative platform for players to fight on, they can never be left to fight in the air.

That does it for this brief stage analysis but you may have noticed how this article is different from my previous Smash 64 one. In that game, all the stages were related in their layout and, as it was the first game, they all needed to relate back to Smash in some way. They represented their individual series as well, but that decision was second to showing off Smash to the consumers.

In Melee and onwards this all changed. Stage design stopped being about the theme of each individual game and instead began to be more about each represented series. This makes it hard for me to focus on each Smash game individually from now on, hence the focus on the new stage types instead. But, this new direction does give me a new angle from which to tackle these stage design analyses.
Rather than looking at each Smash game and the stages introduced in them (although the increased power and experience does affect the design in certain ways i.e. stages with bosses), we should instead be looking at each individual series. Melee aimed to have two new stages for each of its playable series, with the retro titles getting one stage instead and Fire Emblem missing out entirely (although it had a level planned). 3D Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, Yoshi, Kirby, Star Fox, Metroid, Pokémon, F-Zero, EarthBound, and 2D Mario all had their stages crafted around their series and not specifically around Melee, and by comparing their two stages with each other we can see this far more clearly. With that in mind, from now on in my Stage Design series, we will be looking at each individual series, rather than Smash title, to see what their battle stages say about their games. The first will be 2D Mario specifically, naturally followed by 3D Mario but, after that, I am going to leave it up to you all to tell me what series you want to be covered next. Let me know in the comments below and keep an eye on our Twitter page in the future for a poll where you can vote on the direction of this series. Until next time guys!