(Written with the help of Joe Cribaree. Special thanks to Joe and Even Matchup Gaming)
You won’t find it on any shelf. You won’t see it talked about at E3. You won’t see it on TV.
Yet, the phenomenon that is Project M continues to grow.
It all started with the release of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the 2008 Wii sequel to the classic all-star fighter Super Smash Bros. Melee on Nintendo GameCube. For many devoted fans of the series, it just did not capture the same magic they found in Melee and Super Smash Bros. 64, despite the game’s positive sales figures. While casual players and some competitors took a liking to Brawl and its differences from previous titles, quite a number of Smashers found themselves instead rejoining the fray back in Melee and 64.
“Remembering back to the beginning of Brawl, a lot of Melee players did play,” says Smash Bros. player/commentator Terrence “TKO” Kershaw. “It’s just that they entered around six months’ worth of tournaments or so before they kinda gave it up.”
Despite this, Brawl manifested a community and identity of its own. Kershaw was one of the many newcomers who entered the competitive Smash scene not with Melee or 64, but Brawl. The Maryland/Virginia (MD/VA) Smasher became a regular at East Coast tournaments, frequently being pit against some of the toughest competition it had to offer. He was no stranger to the killers from the East Coast’s strongest areas — Florida, New York/New Jersey, MD/VA — that often flocked to tournaments he went to.
Terrence “TKO” Kershaw at Apex 2014
Kershaw’s involvement in competitive Smash began to extend beyond the analog sticks and plastic buttons. Smash Bros. was entering an era of increased production value, bringing bigger and better online broadcasts to hungry audiences at home. Now, equipment being used at events didn’t just consist of setups, controllers, and megaphones. High-definition cameras, powerful capture cards, and professional-grade microphones began to litter the already cluttered stream stations. Kershaw would use this opportunity to jump-start his commentary career.
Meanwhile, the continued competitive play of Brawl highlighted many of the issues that those Melee players could not swallow while giving rise to other complications. Regional disagreements led to differences in stage lists and general rules — such as the brief banning of the dominant Metaknight in some parts of the United States — that still exist today. Brawl also struggled to become a spectator sport, despite the dedicated support of streamers like Clash Tournaments and VG BootCamp. Many had begun to grown weary of the the game, though they continued to play.
For a select few, however, Brawl did not tire them out but instead, fueled their fire. Even in just the first couple years of the game’s lifespan, people wanted to try it in new ways and soon enough, it became a hotbed for modders and amateur developers. Gamers stumbled upon different, modified variations across the Internet, such as Brawl+ and Brawl-, all of which attempted to change Brawl‘s original form into their own unique, and sometimes ridiculous, ways.
Project M was one of these mods, birthed by the curiosity and tenacity of a group of individuals that would come to be known as the Project M Backroom. Adam “Strong Bad” Oliver, now a veteran developer of the Project M Backroom and an active Project M player/commentator, joined the fledgling team just a few months into the project’s development.
“Project M didn’t actually start out as an official project at all,” Oliver says. “Originally, it was a group effort by about four or five people to see if they could recreate Melee Falco in the Brawl engine with the modding knowledge at the time.”
Adam “Strong Bad” Oliver at Apex 2014
While other mods began to teeter upon the line of irrelevancy, Project M was getting its first foot in the door. The group possessed enough talent to get the ball rolling, but uncertain was their future or if their endeavor would prove fruitful.
“These people had worked on Brawl+ together and realized its days were numbered and decided to move on,” says Oliver. “Some of the codes they used were global ones, such as the Melee air dodge and l-canceling, so when they started messing with the rest of the cast, it seemed like there was potential for something bigger.”
A spark flew. They found that something. “Since the project started with trying to create Melee Falco, it just made sense to try and make a heavily Melee-inspired mod.”
Melee Falco was on his way to his Brawl debut, but soon enough, he wouldn’t be the only ingredient in the recipe. “Animation editing had just become possible with modding tools at the time, so it was truly possible to recreate characters,” Oliver explains. “One of the first animation attempts ever made was Shell’s Melee-esque Forward-Air on Ganondorf.”
This Brawl mod was no longer only about Falco. Not anymore. Now, it was about to become the people’s answer to Masahiro Sakurai’s Melee successor.
The Project M Backroom did not aim to simply glue Melee‘s memorable attributes onto Brawl‘s exterior. The development team quickly realized that their ability to re-imagine characters could not go ignored. While their process began on the rough, Oliver and the rest of the team managed to file down the edges.
“Early on it was pretty haphazard,” Oliver admits. “We were prone to throwing just about anything you could imagine on a character to make them unique. Later, we decided that what makes Smash unique from other games is its simplicity. Most characters don’t have fancy cancels or features to make them work. They challenge the player by forcing them to use movement above all else to accomplish strategic options.”
The project began to incorporate the better parts of both Melee and Brawl, hoping to remaster the rapid, high-flying action of the former while elements from the latter would then spice up the free-to-download entree. Melee‘s advanced movement options obviously made a return while the PMBR also included technologies from Brawl, such as pivot grabbing and b-reversals.
“Even Pikachu’s quick attack cancel came from Brawl, too,” says Kershaw. “Not that there are a lot of Pikachu players in Project M, but I like that they have that option to explore.”
Maintaining competitive balance fortified the project’s backbone even in its earliest of days, which meant substantial amounts of reworks for a majority of the game’s roster. Thus, early versions of the game were loaded with very few fighters to choose from. Project M 1.0 had only around a dozen characters, missing numerous veterans, newcomers, and fan favorites alike.
Early Project M rosters, like this one, featured very few characters.
Behind the scenes, however, the team worked tirelessly to fill the roster back up with familiar faces, each fighter returning with more than enough new tricks up their sleeves.
“For characters who were a bit lacking in Melee, we usually took the foundation of their character and elaborated on it,” Oliver says. “A few of them received new animations and moves while others just saw improvements to their tools or physics to give them the ability to compete.”
Brawl‘s representatives, apparently, were a different story. “We would often try to imagine what those characters would be like if they were not only designed with Melee in mind, but in the time period in which Melee was released,” Oliver continues. “This is why Wario exhibits many of his WarioLand traits as opposed to his WarioWare, Inc. attributes given to him in Brawl.”
Kershaw showed interest in the initial rumblings surrounding the project, but it took some time before he was hooked. “At first, I wasn’t really into it,” he says. “None of the characters I wanted to play were in there. So, once Squirtle or I think Lucas got released, around when the developers were still figuring out what to do with his aerials, they were both my type of gameplay where I like to put on a lot of pressure. So I started playing with them.”
Later versions, stuffed with more freshly-modified characters and a booming array of returning and modified stages, found their way into local and regional tournaments, albeit hidden in the shadows of the official games and their main events.
“We had no expectations in particular about how well the game would do. Initially, it was kind of a niche thing, a side event here and there,” Oliver says.
Though Brawl and Melee competitions continued as usual, it was hard to resist the appeal of the growing number of Project M setups appearing each weekend. Some people were bringing consoles and TVs, but not to play Brawl or Melee. Huh? Players noticed that some of the worst characters in Smash actually had some viability this time around and they flashed their modified tools and options with style. It even felt a bit odd to see Brawl newcomers like Snake and Lucas delivering devastating combos like they had been Melee characters this entire time. You couldn’t help but pay attention.
All of the Project M excitement propelled the mod onto stream schedules alongside its official Smash counterparts. Throughout 2012, more and more tournaments fed the stream monsters with Project M competition. Ever opportunistic, Kershaw found his opening to get more involved and decided to try his luck with this new Smash title as a player and behind the mic.
“I played Brawl until 2012, then I just kinda became a commentator,” Kershaw says. “When Project M came out and I started to play that game, I eventually started commentating it, too. I noticed there was a lack of commentators for that game, and I was already so deeply involved in the commentary game at that point, it was very easy for me to break into it.”
Kershaw and D’Ron “D1″ Maingrette at Apex 2014
But Kershaw wasn’t the only one to sense the golden prospects hidden within this fan-made creation. Smash players of all different disciplines began to fill the Project M sign-ups like clockwork. Many saw it as a new frontier, a fresh chance to establish oneself as a top player where everyone and anyone had just as much of an opportunity to blow up as the next player. A new game meant an even playing field. The more of Project M that Kershaw commentated, though, the more he found himself calling the matches of Melee players infiltrating the Project M brackets, carrying over skills and techniques learned in Melee.
“The Melee players have been, you know, playing a game that’s so similar for so long, it’s easier for them to pick up the same characters they use in Melee and do well in Project M,” Kershaw says. “That’s why you see the Mew2King’s and Leffen’s still top in tournaments, but then you have players from other Smashes and newer players, too. It’s just amazing to see new top players in this game coming from both Melee or Brawl backgrounds or sometimes no background in Smash at all.”
Indeed, its ability to bring all different kinds of Smashers together created a grand mixture of players from all across the Smash communities. It also surprised the PMBR.
“Project M was not intended to be a bridge between communities,” claims Oliver. “But, we’re really happy that it’s turned out to be one. We love to see people have fun together and if our game can help bring down walls that separate people that’s a beautiful thing.”
Fast-forward to 2014.
Project M‘s popularity has surpassed that of Smash Bros. 64 and even Brawl. Even with the ridiculous growth of competitive Melee within the past two years, the game still does not always beat Project M‘s entrant numbers at weekend events. Some are so content that they may not pick up Smash Bros. for Wii U or 3DS. Project M has undeniably become the game of choice for many Smash fans with each new release turning the hype levels up to 11.
“For 3.0′s release, it was mostly the inclusion of the entire cast, including Roy and Mewtwo. A lot of people were hyped up about them,” says Oliver.
This year’s Apex event helped certainly helped quantify the phenomenon that Project M has become. Melee superpowers Armada and Mew2King fought mercilessly in an awe-inspiring display of technical prowess and precision, wowing spectators by pushing characters like Pit, Marth, and Fox to their limits. The two competed for thousands of dollars in prize money to round up a tournament of over 382 entrants — most of which did not exclusively enter Project M, mind you — making Apex 2014 the largest Project M tournament ever. For now.
Apex 2014 Championship Awards
Project M‘s success continues to spill deeper into 2014. Once a battleground defined by its large Brawl competitions, the KTAR tournament series in New Jersey has been recently swarmed by the hype. The latest KTAR event, simply dubbed “KTAR 9,” held events for Project M, Melee, and Brawl when the series returned to Somerset, New Jersey for the first time in the new year. The online broadcast showcased the event’s best players to viewers stuck at home while players there in-person crowded around the streaming station to get a good view. A projector threw the stream feed up on a nearby wall so that you could watch from anywhere in the venue.
Nowadays, Melee is practically guaranteed — and often expected — to bring the most amount of hype and excitement to any Smash tournament. KTAR 9 went differently. When matches were being played on stream for Brawl and Melee, even those including high-level players, like Nairo and Zero, or Control Gaming’s DJ Nintendo and The Moon, only a decent number of people came over to watch.
But when Project M was up? That was a whole other beast.
Melee heads buzzed throughout the previous weeks over big news like Melee returning to MLG and Evolution and Team Liquid sponsoring veterans Ken and KoreanDJ, but it didn’t matter come Saturday for those in Somerset. A bigger crowd gathered for Project M without fail. Players jostled for position around the stream setup to watch matches like Rolex vs. Pink Fresh unfold, some utilizing chairs to improve their view. Dollar bills were waved, signaling some side-betting between spectators. They cheered and jeered, shouting over one another with reckless abandon. Every tense moment, every finisher landed, every combo completed, was followed by the reactions of the restless crowd.
The event’s commentary lineup featured a variety of local casters, as well as Kershaw, who made the trip with fellow Smashers from his region. He did not compete in any of the events, but was instead right at home at the microphone, casting all different kinds of Smash matches including, of course, Project M. Along with the rest of the venue, he also watched Mew2King assert his dominance over the rest of the field to take ultimately take first place. Project M boasted a solid 78 entrants in its singles tournament. Melee and Brawl tried to keep pace but landed only 37 and 33 entrants for their 1v1 competitions, respectively.
“I think Project M is starting to get the respect it deserves,” Kershaw says. “I see a lot of people talking about it. Prog, D1, the community leaders in Smash, they are all giving Project M its shot.”
“It’s very heartwarming,” Oliver says. “We’re very proud of what our game has accomplished not only competitively but socially as well.”
Project M‘s unfortunate legal situation with being an unofficial mod prevents the game from likely getting the same treatment Melee and, on a lesser degree, Brawl have received in recent years. Without being an official Nintendo product, the same rules don’t apply; developer or publisher support is practically guaranteed to be indefinitely non-existent. Major leagues and corporations will not risk legal action by hosting, streaming, and promoting competition of the mod. In this regard, Project M will probably never be considered more than a fan-made project.
However, for Adam Oliver and the Project M Backroom, for people like Terrence Kershaw, for the players who entered the biggest Project M event ever at Apex, for those who make up the large number of entrants competing at events like KTAR — the project will always be much more than that. It has grown beyond its humble beginnings to represent a major part of the overall Smash community. Many have found a new home worth nurturing and taking care of.
Undoubtedly, Project M is here to stay, even if it isn’t technically finished yet.
“Eventually, we’ll put out a ‘Gold’ release or something like that, where just about any changes will be bug fixes,” says Oliver.
Though it may never get the exposure of its counterparts or may never emulate the success story that is competitive Melee entering the world of eSports, its players remain ever passionate and eager for more. Even the unifying “One Unit” movement, which has mostly been focused on the pursuits of competitive Melee and, to some extent, Brawl, has not been lost on Project M players, though they do not stand to benefit exactly the same way.
“I’m not gonna speak for all Project M players here,” Kershaw begins. “But I still give respect to the games that do get these chances. I myself don’t find joy in playing Brawl anymore, but I would never bash someone for liking or playing Brawl. They may get that chance to be on a circuit again.”
Kershaw pauses, but ever so briefly. His thoughts are already collected. “We’re supposed to be ‘one unit,’ and ‘one unit’ includes every game, all of Smash — 64, Melee, Brawl, PM – so I’m going to support any game I can because I wanna see Smash get whatever exposure it can get.”
“That’s one thing I’ve been trying to preach for a long time,” Kershaw points out. “Like, I know there’s a lot of Project M people that hate on Brawl, and I’m like, ‘Dude, you know, without Brawl, we don’t even exist, the whole reason we’re a thing is because Brawl came out and you guys wanted to change it.’ Like, what would we do if there was no Brawl? We’d just all be a bunch of probably subpar Melee players.”
Project M, the people’s Smash project, will continue to grow. Defined by a game that steps outside the developer’s bounds, the hype surrounding it seems unlimited in its potential. Of all people, Terrance Kershaw and Adam Oliver likely know this all too well.
“Since Project M is free (always has been, always will be), our ‘payment’ is to see the smiles on the faces of people who love our game,” says Oliver. “Seeing people put hours of effort into our game, travel to events, host events, commentate, make combo videos, develop friendships, etc. is just so heartwarming and fulfilling that it makes the years of hard work worth it.”
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Follow TKO and Strong Bad at @TKbreezy and @Strong_Badam. Check out Project M‘s official website. TKO streams at his official Twitch.tv channel, too, and can often be found commentating at VGBootCamp‘s “Smash @ Xanadu” on Tuesday nights at 7pm EST.