Masahiro Sakurai: The Control Freak Smash Bros. Mastermind

“Have you ever made a game?”

Masahiro Sakurai is the mastermind behind Smash Bros. who is also known for creating the Kirby franchise. He has overseen the development for every Smash Bros. game to date and is known to be heavily involved with every detail of the creation of his games… and by that I mean he is a total control freak. Now I’m not saying this to insult him or put down his work, his games have all been excellent for the most part (Kid Icarus: Uprising was fantastic for example), but he is definitely your textbook control freak. A lot of what we see in Smash Bros. is a direct reflection of what goes on in Sakurai’s mind. This is probably why he’s almost like a cult personality among Smash fans, with countless people either worshiping him over the internet or fearing him like an angry God who can do the worst thing imaginable to them. Because Sakurai is the face of Smash Bros. people have come to love him or despise him to the core.

When it comes to roster decisions, Smash fans are… obsessive to say the least. The hope for one’s favourite character to be in Smash is a powerful thing, and when that hope is shattered people often turn to bitter resentment. There are a lot of words like “deserving” and “owed” thrown around when it comes to characters being made playable, but what it all honestly comes down to is what Sakurai decides. He gets final say, and while he does consider things like popularity, moveset potential, and the success of a series, it’s clear that his personal tastes affect the content that actually makes it in. The often used term “Sakurai Bias” has reached memetic status among Smash communities and there’s a good reason for that. Sakurai’s perceptions do clearly affect the roster, and as often as people mindlessly like to bash the high amount of Kid Icarus content in Smash Bros., it’s clear that the series has been given preferential treatment due to Sakurai’s own love for it (and the available assets he has on file from developing Uprising). So when a large amount of people who believe that the characters they love will make it into Smash due to a combination of significance and popularity, get crushed with the brutal reality that it really just comes down to something more random and subjective, they lose their tempers big time. All their anger and frustration get’s burned into a man who makes it a point of handling every major decision that goes into making his beloved games.

Do these angry people have a point however? Are they right in their seething hatred for this game developer? In extreme cases (the cases of people wishing physical harm to the man), they’re obviously wrong, but those who feel that his way of thinking is flawed are right to an extent. People can’t say he doesn’t have the right to make his own personal choices when it comes to making his game, but some of the things he has stated are a bit troubling. On the surface level, his declarations of how much control he has over his series are admirable because of the huge work load he has to put up with, but in others ways it seems a bit problematic. For example, see this quote from him:

I constantly consider leaving part of the work to someone else, but there’s just too much to see and handle

It’s very impressive that he can take so much work on his own (the man works through holidays, weekends, and even excruciatingly painful medical conditions), but the question that arises when I read to this is “why don’t you just delegate some of the work?”. I realize that Smash is his baby, and he wants to be there for it through every step, but sometimes it’s best to leave some of the work to your colleagues, let others handle some of the decision making, and maybe just give yourself a break once in a while. I realize that saying this is incredibly presumptuous, and that I would be rebuffed in the same way Sakurai responded to someone else who questioned his methods (he famously once said the words “Have you ever made a game?” in response to a rude question, although it should be noted the tone was much lighter than most assume), but I still believe I have a point in saying this just from basic experience in working with others.

When people are assigned in a group to complete a task, there are many ways the actual work can unfold. Every member of the group could slack off and do nothing, there could be one maverick who takes control of the group and directs them to do certain tasks after they’ve brainstormed enough, and there’s the group with the overlord who will make almost all the creative decisions and leave the execution of it to his/her servants. Sakurai’s Smash development team sounds a lot more like that last group, and that doesn’t sound to farfetch’d when you consider that he once boasted that he formulated the entirety of a character’s moveset on his own in one night. Again, while this is very impressive, it’s also emblematic of a deeper issue. Programmer or not, even I realize that isn’t the way it should be done. When one person handles everything, their mistakes and flawed perceptions go unchecked by other perspectives. It’s like writing something and proofreading it yourself vs. having others do that for you. The other person will undoubtedly catch more mistakes because they’re perception of your work isn’t as loaded as yours already is.

When people get mad at Sakurai himself about the fact that Ganondorf (the King of Evil) still has a cloned moveset from Captain Falcon (a race car driver), that a beloved “X series” character still isn’t in Smash, and that one character is too strong or too weak I can’t really blame them. The normal reaction to something like that would be to say “Are you kidding me? You’re going to blame one guy for every problem you have with something a team made?” But in Sakurai’s case, these accusations are chillingly appropriate.

“In all previous Smash Bros. games, I’ve entered in all the data for fighter skills and hitboxes by myself, and it’s quite nearly that way with this game too.”

“Characters’ in-game balance and features are something that I’m thinking about from the start while coming up with motions. If I left that to someone else midway, that’d make things more difficult. It’s faster and more accurate to just input the numbers myself than try to explain it in words to somebody.”

These are such frightening words to me. Scary because of the amount of work that must take someone to complete and how much of a physical toll that must be, but also scary in a way that it’s hard to imagine anyone can be that controlling. Fighting games and frame data are very sensitive things, and they take up so much time and effort to get input. Entire teams of dozens of people get assigned to work on them for each character, the idea that Sakurai does it all himself is mind boggling.

Sakurai is undoubtedly a genius, and I doubt there is anyone else that could create Smash Bros. in the same way he has. In a lot of ways, Sakurai IS Smash Bros., but at the same time, you can’t help but wonder if his way of thinking is holding it back a little. He kills himself for us every time he makes these games, but I feel like he shouldn’t have to and that maybe we would be better off if he didn’t. I may sound like an ungrateful little bastard saying this, but is a highly controlling game develoer really what’s best for a series with such an intense and diverse fanbase? There is no way in hell I’d ever suggest someone replace Sakurai (there is no Smash without Sakurai after all), but perhaps it’d be for the best if he assumed the role of a more traditional game director and loosen his grip on the series, perhaps letting other voices be heard. Maybe we’d get a Ganondorf that fights like Ganondorf, or more Donkey Kong content, and maybe something great that we couldn’t imagine. Who knows, but what we can be sure of is that the possibilities are endless when people work together.

Quote of the Day:

“You must recover!”

– Masahiro Sakurai, Smash DOJO!

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