There are few gaming communities more resilient and passionate than the Super Smash Bros. Melee scene. As the game approaches its 20th anniversary, developer support is still nowhere to be found, but that hasn’t stopped its players from keeping it alive. Melee’s diehard fans continue to host their own grassroots tournaments and fund their prize pools without help from Nintendo.
Without official updates or ports of the game, the community’s brightest minds have been forced to take matters into their own hands; revolutionizing the ancient platform-fighter through mods, emulation and user-generated content. The latest fan project making waves in the community is a content expansion mod known as Beyond Melee, which adds new characters, stages, balance adjustments and gameplay features to the nearly 20-year-old game.
Beyond Melee was the brainchild of director Hazel “Hamyojo” Gross and her collaborator Sunsette. Their aim was to create an alternative experience for competitive players that are seeking something new beyond the official Smash titles. It began as a small experiment in tweaking Melee’s balance, but it quickly evolved into an entire redesign of the game as they recruited more developers to join their efforts. The Beyond Melee team, according to Hamyojo, hopes to see the mod become a staple at Smash tournaments around the world; one that will stand side-by-side with Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
Over the course of the past year, more than 60 volunteer developers and playtesters worked on the project in secret. In July of 2021, they finally released their first demo build. Beyond Melee’s new characters include a diverse roster of deep cuts and fan-favorites from Nintendo’s history, like Skull Kid from The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Shadow Mewtwo from Pokkén Tournament. In its current form, Beyond Melee’s visuals and mechanics are still rough around the edges, but most great Smash mods were in similar states at their initial releases. A polished product takes time to achieve, especially for a game made by hobbyist developers.
According to Hamyojo, the BM team have lofty plans for future content, with many new characters and game modes still to come. However, she said she wasn’t quite ready to reveal what these plans entail just yet. She noted that she wants to keep their “biggest, fastest surprise” under wraps for the time being.
How does Beyond Melee Work?
The mod is installed by applying a patch to a digital copy of Melee, which can then be played on an emulator (or on a Wii by using homebrew software). It’s simple to install and, best of all, it’s compatible with Slippi — another piece of fan-made software that adds online matchmaking with rollback netcode to Melee.
The developer’s secret sauce is the “m-ex System.” It’s a tool developed by a separate crew of Smash modders known as Team Akaneia. “M-ex” enables the injection of custom C code into Melee’s engine, allowing for essentially limitless expansion of content in the game. It’s an impressive system that goes far beyond the power of any Smash modding tools from the past, granting a level of depth and control that modders previously thought to be impossible. The difference is palpable with BM’s new characters, who all feature complex mechanics never seen before in Melee. This includes weapon swapping, super meters, counter fake-outs and more.
Although Beyond Melee brings these exciting new features to the game, it’s not the first mod of its nature by any means. Longtime Smash players might notice the similarities it shares with Project M, a popular fan mod for Super Smash Bros. Brawl that set out to accomplish many of the same goals.
During its heyday, in the early 2010’s, Project M was massively prevalent in the competitive scene. It pulled in equal or sometimes greater tournament entrants than the official Smash titles. However, all that came to an end when the development team behind PM mysteriously disbanded, leaving the game incomplete.
According to Hamyojo, the Beyond Melee team is primarily made up of former Project M players that hope to learn from the devs that walked this path before them. Even so, their commitment begs the question: why invoke the wrath of Nintendo?
The Nintendo Problem
Nintendo is one of the most notoriously anti-mod, anti-piracy and anti-esports companies in the industry. It’s a risky venture to create a project that clashes so strongly with the beliefs of the IP holder. But, according to Hamyojo, the team has thought this through carefully.
“Nintendo has never sued anyone for making mods before,” Hamyojo said. “The worst-case scenario is that they tell me ‘hey, stop making this game’ and I stop and move on with my life.”
Hamyojo looked at Project Plus as a point of reference; a mod aiming to directly continue the development of Project M. Project Plus had existed for nearly two years without any interference from Nintendo. That was until recently, when they shut down the Project Plus tournament at Riptide, a Smash major in Sandusky, Ohio.
When asked about the potential legal risk of Beyond Melee team’s Patreon, Hamyojo wasn’t concerned.
“Nintendo has a pattern of how and when they respond,” Hamyojo said. “It’s almost always when it involves modding or hacking their currently sold console or product. So, on the BM team, we will not touch any character that could be considered for [Super Smash Bros. Ultimate] DLC.”
The power of rollback
When asked why she decided to build the mod within Melee, Hamyojo answered with just one word: “rollback.”
In today’s world, online play is more important than ever. It’s possible to play Project M online using an emulator, but it’s nowhere near the level of smoothness and simplicity that the Slippi team has achieved within Melee’s engine.
“No one has taken a shot at a competitive balance mod since Project M,” Hamyojo said. “People are curious to try interesting new mods and they really want to play a PM-like game with rollback [netcode]. We can just make it happen.”
Currently, the game’s online play is limited to direct connections. This means that players must enter each other’s unique connect codes to play. There isn’t an automatic matchmaking option, so players often coordinate in Beyond Melee’s public Discord Server. Once a match gets started, though, the gameplay experience is fantastic. Much like vanilla Melee, playing BM online is a tighter, more responsive gameplay experience than most professionally developed fighting games. And this is all thanks to the power of Slippi’s infamously smooth rollback netcode.
Into the Beyond
In the 24 hours following Beyond Melee’s launch, the mod received over 8,000 downloads. News of the mod only continued to spread when popular creators and top Melee players like Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman and Kevin “PPMD” Nanney played it on stream in front of thousands.
“We have something pretty crazy here,” Hamyojo said. “[Beyond Melee] just started off as a silly balance mod, so it’s insane to see everyone who I’ve looked up to for a decade now playing and enjoying this game I directed.”
With numerous online and offline tournaments spinning up, the future looks bright for Beyond Melee. Its next milestone will come in October when the mod makes its offline major debut at Low Tide City 2021 in Austin, Texas.
When asked about what to expect for Beyond Melee’s future, Hamyojo kept it brief. “Stay tuned for future updates. We have some nasty shit planned…. Demo One was really good but our next release is going to be even better.”