Quick History Lesson
Back on the N64, the first Super Smash Brothers game was released late in it's life cycle. The game combined iconic Nintendo characters into a unique, party fighting game for up to four players. It essentially spelled fan service for any Nintendo fans and lulled them in with it's cast of characters and fun gameplay.
The success of the game brought about it's sequel Super Smash Brothers Melee, to be released along with the Gamecube. The sequel made the gameplay even faster, more varied, gave a larger cast of characters and upgraded the graphics substantially. It was a pretty huge leap in every single aspect, making it one of the best selling Gamecube games of all time.
Fans clamored for a sequel for years after, however it's creator Masahiro Sakurai had left Nintendo in 2003, which meant the future of Smash Brothers wasn't as bright. Thankfully he joined again exclusively to work on bringing a new game in the series to the Nintendo Wii. Brawl was announced in 2006 and later released in 2008 in March. The game sported an even larger cast of characters, gameplay refinements and a massively expanded roster of stages. Visuals in the game were increased further though perhaps not to the extent Melee changed from the original game. They were nevertheless much better still. Well that is the history lesson about the franchise, let's see how it changed from the beginning?
Super Smash Brothers (N64)
The N64 was about midway through it's life cycle by the release of Super Smash Brothers. The development team Hal Laboratories was a subsidiary of Nintendo's, meaning they would have access to all the knowledge they needed with the system in order to try and make the game run and look as good as possible on the system. Unfortunately they didn't have many other games released on the N64, meaning they didn't have full experience in optimizing for the system. This meant the game was probably not as pretty as it could have been if it had been at the end of the N64's life cycle.
Hal Laboratories, lead by Masahiro Sakurai for Smash Bros.
The game was also not given a large budget, and was supposed to be intended only for Japan. This meant that they wouldn't have as many resources to put into making the game look as nice as possible as well. Fortunately for us, the game was a success in Japan and soon saw promotion World wide, of course they didn't improve the graphics despite the localization to other countries.
Some important things to note about the N64 is that it had a limited texture cache of 4 KB, which limited the size of the textures they could put onto any of the 3D objects in the game. If they didn't use textures, some games would use Gouraud shading (which would shade the plain colored objects) to try and make up for it.
Character select screen, the characters do not have too many textures on them
The game is a meld of 3D and 2D. It combines 3D character models, 3D arenas and 2D sprites in the game world. Characters appear to have a combination of minimal textures and shading (not sure if it's specifically gouraud shading or a simpler type). For example, if you take a look at Kirby, he is simply a colored object, and his face is just a texture on top. Same with pretty much all the characters, you can see they are pretty much solid colors all around with some textures every now and then. The M on Mario's hat for example would be a texture on top. Also to note is that the 3D models themselves are all low polygon, it's easy to see the vertexes on everyone of them. Not surprising though considering its the N64.
More effort went to making the stages look nice at all distances
Most of the texturing seemed to have went into the stages themselves. Since they are so vast, they would have wanted the stages to look their best while their characters would still look fine with less texturing. They would have needed to do this due to their limited texture cash. It works out because you can be rather zoomed away from the characters anyways but the stages still must look nice. The characters still look decent enough in their minimal texture form while the look of the game would have definetely suffered had there been very flat colored stages.
The heart on top right side of the screen is a 2D sprite that animates
The stages were 3D but there were also aesthetics, floating sprites in the background to try and make the stages look more alive. Using these 2D sprites in place of 3D objects that were textured would save memory and still look decent enough. The backgrounds of stages aren't the only thing that do this. A majority of the various items characters can pick up were also 2D sprites. Other effects that occurred, such as when hitting opponents, fire effects were also 2D sprites. In fact pretty much anything that could be considered particle effects were 2D sprites, none were 3D objects.
Notice the 2D sprite resulting from Link's attack on Samus
You can see the 2D sprites of fire on the characters
The game itself was rather slow, the frame rate was definitely not high at all. It had a rather low frame rate on the Nintendo 64, however Virtual Console versions and Emulated versions of the game run faster. The reason it was slower was due to the power of the Nintendo 64. It's not surprising though since the game had a limited budget and they needed to cut corners so that the system could handle the game.
It definitely wasn't the prettiest game on the N64 but it faired quite well with the resources it had. But it was successful anyways and led to fans demanding the next game in the series. With the release of the GameCube, the development team was handed a much larger budget due to the success of Smash Brothers. They would also have the power of the Gamecube to work with, no longer strained by the limitations of both their smaller budget and the power of the N64.
Super Smash Brothers Melee (Gamecube)
Super Smash Brothers Melee was released as a launch title along with the Nintendo Gamecube. Since it's release it's had over 20 million copies sold, making it one of the most popular Gamecube games of all time. In general, Melee was a huge change over the N64 in terms of well, everything. From graphics, to physics, to gameplay, everything was improved in every possible way.
Every aspect of the Gamecube was of course superior to the N64, more texture memory, better video card, better sound card, more RAM, etc. The development team was even larger now to work on the game and they into taking full advantage of everything they could now.
Both Fox and Link's models were vastly improved
Every character model was much mode detailed, boasting a much higher polygon count. The models themselves were no longer limited to the limited texture memory of the N64, they could now give every character actual textures to define their outfits and look. Animations improved massively over the original's as well, most characters boasting entirely new animations for every attack they had. Their motion was much more fluid and realistic. Overall the characters looked way better in every possible aspect, I don't think there was much more they could improve.
Hyrule Temple, one of the largest stages in Melee
The stages looked much better, they were better textured now, and gone were the 2D sprites hanging in the background. If there were any sprites, they were blended perfectly with the 3D environment. Particle effects littered the stages as well, most notably the Final Destination stage, where you can see all sorts of particle effects flying.
No items, Fox only, Final Destination
The particle effects were refined greatly and though some remained 2D sprites (such as when hitting an opponent, a star like shape appears), much of it was 3D particle systems and if there were 2D, blended so perfectly into the visuals that you hardly noticed. This was not the case in the original were all the 2D sprites were pretty obvious. Lighting effects were of course enhanced as well though they decided with a subtle lighting, not making any hard shadows appearing on characters or environments. It is more basic lighting than anything too fancy, though its easy to see the sheen on some characters such as Yoshi.
The improved particles in Fox's lazer. In the original it was just a pink line.
The physics of the game have also changed. Not all characters fall down the same, some float down slowly (Kirby), while others can fall extremely quickly (Fox, Captain Falcon). The original didn't have this difference and helps to make the game more dynamic and interesting visually since the characters match how they might fall in their games or due to their weight. Another nice aspect they did to enhance the game and overall make the game faster since all characters in general fall faster compared to the original anyways.
Captain Falcon is one of the character's who fell REALLY fast
With the larger budget, they showed a lot of great looking visuals in the games, whilst maintaining a 60 Frame rate. You can tell this game is 60 frames per second, it looks so smooth in comparison to the original and never skips a bit. The only time you can lower the frame rate is by attempting to the glitch the game (aka, using the Black hole glitch). This glitch by the way results in crashing your game and forcing you to reset the system. Otherwise the game always runs smoothly and really makes the game shine, only making it's rise above the original even more fantastic.
Super Smash Brothers Brawl (Wii)
With the massive success of Melee, it eventually lead the the rise of Brawl. The game was not as large a step visually as Melee was over the original. It was still a leap, though not nearly as great. Nevertheless the game still showed great improvements in it's visuals despite the Wii not being significantly more powerful than the Gamecube.
Link's improved Brawl model
For one, the textures were significantly improved across all characters. There was still some amount of lack of texture for specific characters (such as Pikachu and Kirby), though to be honest they still lack it in Brawl. That's probably due to the characters themselves, they don't even need textures. However Mario on the otherhand has more detail in his overalls and shirt, Link has much more detail in his shirt, pants and boots, Donkey Kong actually has real fur popping out (potentially bump mapping and particles) rather than just a texture over his model.
Comparison for Samus Melee (left), Brawl (right)
The look in Brawl defines the characters even more and certain properties, such as the metallic property of Samus' armor, in Melee it looked metallic somewhat, but not greatly metallic. In Brawl it truly does look metallic and defines her look greatly. Same for many other character's who's clothing properties now look much more defined than they did previously. Overall lighting and shading of the characters is also improved greatly which helps with the same defining of their outfits.
Watch the background of the stage, it synchs perfectly with the music and provides a great amount of cool particle effects
Stages have been improved quite substantially as well, many boasting many more visual aesthetics running all around in the background. The overall texture of each stage is also greater as well and particle effects run amok all over the stages. There is not one stage that looks bad and many of them look absolutely spectacular, knocking out all of Melee's stages in terms of look. Specifically the Final Destination stage in Brawl features a massive array of particles that look absolutely spectacular, one of my favorite things to see on the Wii. Even though its not full HD, it looks great.
Zelda has changed significantly since Melee
Overall physics have changed, everyone is once again more floaty when falling down or getting knocked around. This was a design change mainly for gameplay and in my opinion slowed down the pace of the gameplay unfortunately. Nevertheless the actual physics in more aesthetic ways is improved. Hair flows around even more realistically than before. For example, Zelda's hair in Melee was basically a solid object being moved around by animation, where as now it looks like it flows naturally with the character.
Mario's Final Smash
Like I was saying about the particles in Final Destination, overall particle effects look better in Brawl. Most of them looking quite a bit better in fact and simply adding more to the game. In fact due to the inclusion of the “Final Smash Abilities”, there are many more lighting and particle effects going on due to the enormous power of the attacks. Glowing auras, insane fireballs, glowing tri forces, giant hyper beams, particle effects get insane in this game. I go back to my point and say particle effects actually look insanely good for a Wii game and are way better than they were in Melee.
Link's Final Smash
Like Melee did before, Brawl runs at 60 frames per second. The Wii wasn't supposed to be that much more powerful than the Gamecube, yet Brawl's textures look significantly better, Particle effects and Lighting look amazing, there are even more stages, characters and visual aesthetics in the game, the aesthetic physics look better. Despite the Wii's limitations, they managed to make Brawl look insanely good, honestly one of the best looking games on the Wii in my opinion. Somehow they've managed to take all these iconic franchises, meld them all together seamlessly. Even incorporating third party characters like Solid Snake and Sonic, making them look great and fit in the game still.
I'll say although it's not as huge a leap as Melee from the original was, Brawl still looks really great. I am pleased with the changes they were able to make to it's engine.
Long live Super Smash Brothers
So there we have it, Super Smash Brothers has evolved quite a bit over the years in terms of look. More impressive is how they managed to catch the look of all the characters perfectly, model and create them all for this game, animate them to move exactly how they should in their respective games and make a ton of stages that match all the franchises to. I haven't mentioned the huge amount of composers it took to make Brawl's music too. This series is one of my favorites and it's really nostalgic to see how it's come from it's release in 1999. I can't wait to see what the future holds in store for Super Smash Brothers (Which has been announced to start production on the Wii U).