Yes, you heard me right. The most important lesson from yesterday’s Nintendo Direct isn’t we got the final two characters for the release version of the game – the man with muscles like a meltdown at the meat factory Ken, and Bubsy the Bobcat’s estranged nephew fresh off the set of an anti-steroids ad campaign, incineroar. It isn’t that Nintendo has officially confirmed that Kirby is the best character by making him the sole survivor of a hand-based apocalypse, as I have alway suspected. It’s not even that I suddenly require a K.Rool amiibo more than I require most if not all of my internal organs. It’s that Piranha Plant is coming, he deserves to be coming, and he may just be the most important addition to the roster we’ve gotten so far.
“But Aaron / Kazooey,” I hear you cry, with tears in your eyes and a crumpled Smash U bingo sheet in your clenched fist; “How can a stupid plant be more important than [Insert fan favourite character here, suggestions include Shadow, Geno, Sans, the main character from that JRPG you like that nobody has ever heard of, etc.]” The answer to that is very simple, little one; Piranha Plant (who I’m calling PP from now on because I can’t spell “piranha” consistently and it’s making me insecure) is important because he’s not a fan-favourite character. At face value that logic sounds backwards and inconsistent with what Smash Bros. is seen to be about, so let me explain;
Fighting games are by their very nature competitive; more often than not, it’s about two dudes in a room, pressing buttons to make two other dudes in a virtual room kick each other about the place, and that’s all very well and good. But the original Smash Bros. on the N64 sought to question those trends, to make a light-hearted, party-fighter you could play with your casual friends, and in which a fat plumber is exactly as viable as a hovercar-racing bounty hunter from the future. It was charming and twee, and generally couldn’t get more “Nintendo-y” if the box went YAHOO YIPPEE every time you opened it. The sequel, Melee, was developed with more or less the same ethos in mind – the competitive scene, we can all agree, was an accident and a mistake – and sold so any copies it made Smash Bros. a household name and the Gamecube actually relevant (sorry small purple box, I love you). But by the time Brawl came around, with expectations mounting and a company keen to prove the potential of it’s smaller white box, fun took a backseat to spectacle – and in terms of characters, both Smash 4 and up until now Smash Ultimate had followed this trend.
Consider the last three characters added to Smash 4: Corrin was a marketing ploy to plug a game that wasn’t even out at the time, had all the personality of a damp slice of bread, and outside of a couple specials had an entire movepool one could summarise as “sword moves.” Cloud Strife is a big character in gaming, but because of it smells like money and feels so coddled you can practically see the sandpaper residue on his face – and again has a plethora of “sword moves” and not much else. Bayonetta has been shown to have animations ripped straight from her games, and had potential but her smarmy personality combined with her being completely overpowered just makes her seem like a total witch. None of these characters were included “because they seemed like they’d be fun,” or offered a lot of potential for interesting movesets; they were added because, shock horror, big business likes money kind of a lot, and all these choices made kind of a lot of it. PP feels like the exact opposite; somebody down at Nintendo HQ one day went “hey, you know what’d be fun?” and over the course of an ensuing two-hour spiralling conversation, this character came to be. He wasn’t designed to meet a quota of “must please this many fans” or to put additional fat stacks in fat-cat bank accounts – he was made to be fun, and it shows. The fact that one plant manages to exude more personality than all the stone-faced blue-haired waifu-boy idiots from Fire Emblem combined is telling – if not surprising – and suggests that, at least to a degree, Smash Bros. remembers its roots, no pun intended.
Of course, there’s always the argument that all of this could apply to a more requested character – there’s lots of potential for fun movesets like, say, Skull Kid, or the aforementioned Geno – but we forget that it’s some of the most unknown characters outside of smash that we love the most within it. Outside of the anime, which Smash Bros. doesn’t really draw on, Jigglypuff is no more relevant than any other of the 800-odd stupid brightly-coloured critters, but because of that was a blank slate to work with and is a beloved character in Smash. Characters like Ness and Captain Falcon, who haven’t had a relevant game in 15-plus years, are absolute staples of the Smash roster and there’d be utter outrage at even the suggestion to remove them. Almost nobody knew what a Game & Watch even was before “Mr. the aforementioned” showed up in Melee, and him getting cut would be inconceivable too. PP is already getting love for both being such an oddball and being surprisingly charming for literally a potted plant, and absolutely deserves his spot alongside the other industry titans.
Finally, PP feels hand-picked to invoke a certain reaction from the Smash Bros. fanbase: surprise. Not an “I knew it” like Incineroar and Ken, both the main subjects of particular leaks, or a “what a cool character” like Ridley or K.Rool, but specifically surprise – a feeling I haven’t properly felt from Smash since about 2008 when Sonic was announced. It harkens back to an experience I’m sure most smash veterans remember; curled up in our bedrooms, beating Melee’s adventure mode for the first time or similar when, gasp; (!) CHALLENGER APPROACHING (!) flashes across the screen, and you’re thrown into a bout with a character you had no idea existed, bless our pure, pre-internet hearts. I certainly remember when I left my Gamecube on overnight after a party, and in the morning out of nowhere Mewtwo rocked up.
PP is ironically aimed most at the people he’s getting the most hate from; people who took part in the smash ballot, people who know what characters to “expect” and who would “make sense;” he’s a surprise, and maybe in time we’ll realise that isn’t such a bad thing.