Masahiro Sakurai directed his first game at the age of 22. It was 1992's Kirby's Dream Land, and if you'll pardon the pretension this early in an article, it was the first postmodern platformer. It was a platforming game where the platforms were meaningless. The protagonist could soar over levels, never having to interact with enemies outside of bosses. It drew explicit attention to the fact that it was a platformer (which may as well be called "jumpers" honestly) where the challenge didn't lay in the jumping. In fact, at least with Dream Land, the challenge didn't really lay anywhere. Kirby didn't hop on enemies, he swallowed them from a fairly safe distance, and if a certain area was too tough, he could float on above them, laughing all the way.
Games have explored traditional postmodernism plenty of times since. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game about the relationship between its creator and his fans, The Stanley Parable, Bioshock, and Portal are all games about the inherent strangeness of our relationships with in-game commands. If postmodernism is to be defined as art that responds to art, then there are any number of games that weave responses to other games into their narratives. But so few creators attempt to respond to game mechanics by reinterpreting genre mechanics themselves. Or maybe they do, and we don't notice, sometimes it's hard to tell. But there's one creator who reeks of mechanical postmodernism in every work he touches- Masahiro Sakurai.
These days, Sakurai is mostly in the news for his work on Smash Bros. He's often considered to be among the ranks of Nintendo's golden boys, even though he's much, much younger. Sakurai started at HAL Laboratory when he was 19. That was 1989. At that time, then HAL-president Satoru Iwata was 30, and Shigeru Miyamoto was 37. Now, they're and 44, 54, and 61 respectively. The point is, Sakurai was grew up on the games made by the people he'd go one to collaborate with. He was, inherently, designing his games as responses to the ones made by his "teachers".
And that's how we come around to Smash Bros., the hyper self-aware, self-referential, and of course, painfully postmodern celebration of all things Nintendo. It's interesting that Smash didn't start as a Nintendo crossover. When Sakurai pitched it to Iwata (who was two years away from joining Nintendo proper) it was called Dragon King the Fighting Game. It was Iwata who had the idea to secretly add Nintendo characters before pitching it to the top brass. But even before the self-awareness of it all, Dragon King was Sakurai's response to fighting games. Fighting games were (and still are, to a certain extent) defined by one-on-one combat, and hyper complicated inputs and combos. He wanted something that four players could play at once, and that didn't require complicated inputs, so he settled on using analog control to determine move commands, technology that arcade-based fighters didn't have access to.
Smash is also deeply infused with Kirby DNA. The floatiness, the movement, even the general feel of the physics, it's all ripped straight out of a Kirby game. In addition, the game was draped in Nintendo references, and even gave itself a meta narrative of a child playing around with dolls of their favourite Nintendo heroes. So all of a sudden, we have a game that is responding to another genre's definition and twisting it, referencing its own status as a video game and twisting that, and references its own existence as a work by a creator who makes other things.
Sakurai went on to play around with definition within genre a few more times before we get to today. Kirby's Air Ride is something of a cross between what he learned about four-player competition, a racing game, and modern Nintendo's "everyone wins" multiplayer policies. Realistically, it's probably a direct response to Mario Kart, but Sakurai quit HAL shortly after the game's release, indicating there may have been some meddling with his original intentions. After that, Kid Icarus: Uprising is the closest thing he's worked on to a postmodern glory hole. Not only is it an explicit response to the action-based shooter genre as popularized by the west, it's also a take on Nintendo’s own Star Fox, and built around a forgotten character Sakurai pulled back into relevance with a previous work. The characters all constantly acknowledge their own irrelevance, and even play up their connections to other Nintendo games. At one point, nature goddess Viridi tells Pit not to refer to the Komayto enemies as the Metroids they're clearly inspired by because the games' legal department might get involved.
It's not about breaking the fourth wall, but the inherent DNA that runs through Sakurai's games. He designs games that respond to other games, in a dialog, and thus recognize their own status as games. Their purpose is to be fun, and draw attention to their own gaminess. It's not too different from Magritte's pipe, in a way. Smash Bros.' conceit these days is that it's all just a kid bashing his action figures together and making explosion noises. Sakurai is that kid, and as he's matured as a developer, all that's happened is that he's refined and reused old playsets to make new kinds of fun. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between Kid Icarus Uprising and Super Smash Bros. for 3DS.
[Click through for a totally dorky analysis of Sakurai's menu screens.]
Kid Icarus borrowed Smash Bros. Brawl's efficient, clean menus, and Smash 3DS borrowed them back. Uprising had the clever "intensity" difficult system, and Smash 3DS reused it like it was compost. Trophies, challenges, jokes, it's all part of the DNA of Sakurai's games. They're like a cycle. He comes up with something while playing one game, and reuses it when responding to other games. The whole time though, he's always clear that even in-game, it's all a game. And that gaminess is then reused in other places. He's a fundamentally postmodern designer, at least when it comes to mechanics.
So what about that whole irrelevance bit in the article title? Well, the problem with mechanic postmodernism as it pertains to games is that no one seems to notice it. It takes a long time to find, and it really only becomes evident in the case of a developer like Sakurai not-so-subtly doing it over the course of his entire gameography. Otherwise, narrative postmodernism beats you over the head, as is its purpose. After playing it for about thirty hours, Smash Bros. 3DS has proven to me that it's the most esoteric game in the series. One of the playable characters is the dog from Duck Hunt, who summons gunmen from Hogan's Alley to do battle for him. There's an entire stage that looks like an old green-and-grey Gameboy that scrolls through various scenes from Kirby's Dream Land (hey, there's that game again!). There's a stage based on the Magicant area from Earthbound, which not only calls attention to your fighters invading another game in progress, it also rips open a hole in spacetime to show you how those other games are going.
But all that attention, all that mechanical detail and weirdness, all that refinement and reference, it doesn't matter to the average player. It's irrelevant, because of Sakurai's own stated purpose. He is making fun games. Their secondary purpose seems to be to make us think about genre and conventions, but honestly, it's sort of hard to get that done when you're focusing on butt stomping Charizard into the stratosphere. I'm doing it here in this article for that very reason. And that stuff is all very relevant with all the cookie-cutter sequels and calcification of genre we're seeing in the industry these days.
You could also take the relevant irrelevance of Smash Bros. to be a reference to the fact that characters like Shulk, Lucina, and Palutena are taking precedence in appearance over old fan favourites like Mewtwo. While it's easy to see their inclusion as a point about making more varied interesting characters, it's not hard to argue that the fans of Smash Bros. at this point may be fans of Smash Bros. more than they are fans of Nintendo. But once again, we get to that point where Smash Bros. is this weird, postmodern experiment. It's a celebration of Nintendo's yesterday, today and tomorrow, in an era where most people would rather just think about the yesterday. It's relevant- hyper relevant even- but that makes it irrelevant by its very nature. Smash Bros. has important comments about Nintendo's gameplay choices, about celebrating a company's history, about design and postmodern mechanics, but to the average Smash Bros. player, to the average person picking up a video game, it just doesn't matter. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. It just means Sakurai is so good at making fun games, we might not be thinking hard enough about what makes them tick.