Nintendo’s fighting game series, Super Smash Bros., is no stranger to controversy — from overpowered characters to including mechanics that seem designed to frustrate competitive players. But perhaps no disconnect between developer and fans is as large as the demand for one particular character: Waluigi.
Nintendo has been so inundated with demands for Luigi’s purple-suited rival that Reggie Fils-Aimé, president of Nintendo of America, explained in an interview that, while the company is aware of the fan demand, the Smash character roster is ultimately up to series director Masahiro Sakurai.
As of this writing, Waluigi remains an unplayable “Assist Trophy” character. And this will never, ever change.
But why do fans want Waluigi so badly in the first place? Part of the character’s appeal is rooted in his bizarre origin. His partner in crime, Wario, first appeared as a foil for Mario in the plumber’s second adventure on the Game Boy. The farting garlic-muncher’s popularity soon got him his own game, later spinning off into the manic WarioWare series.
Conversely, Waluigi first appeared in the Nintendo 64 title Mario Tennis as an evil counterpart to Luigi. He has never starred in his own game and appears exclusively in Mario sports titles, Mario Party games, and the Mario Kart series. Waluigi is an enigma — a superfluous reject of a character who fans have latched onto as an emblem of dejection, leading to his modern-day position as meme in his own right.
Even if he’s never had a starring role, Waluigi’s many appearances in the Mario universe make him a natural candidate for inclusion in Smash. After all, Wario has been in the last three games and Luigi’s sometimes-love interest Daisy — who only appears in one game, besides spin-offs — is in Smash Ultimate, the newest release in the series. But ever since Super Smash Bros. Brawl in 2008, Waluigi has appeared solely in the background. Even through the release of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U & 3DS, when Waluigi’s fandom truly began to bloom, Sakurai continued to relegate the purple plumber (?) to the status of randomly-summoned Assist Trophy. He swings a tennis racket at fighters for a few seconds before disappearing as quickly as he came.
The question is, why? Why hold back on this character in particular as fan favorites like Pit, Mega Man, and even Ridley — a much-desired character players thought would never be included due to his physical proportions — have made the roster? To understand the truth, we need to talk about the difficult position Sakurai has been in for the last two decades.
Trauma and Control
When Super Smash Bros. was released in 1999, nobody could have anticipated the heights of popularity the series would ascend to over the next 20 years. Ten years later, while Brawl was still in development, anticipation was so high that Sakurai published daily updates about the game. By 2013, he was diagnosed with calcific tendonitis, a condition in which calcium deposits build up in the tendons. This made it painful for him to work and understandably slowed down his process.
It was somewhat unsurprising, then, when Sakurai publicly considered retiring in 2015. The stress of game development — especially on the Smash series — was taking its toll. Since then, he has apparently reduced his schedule to a “mere” 50 hours a week. Even so, he is effectively trapped in the Smash development cycle. The pressure on Sakurai from within and without is so immense that retirement seems unlikely anytime soon.
That isn’t healthy. In The Body Keeps The Score, psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk defines traumatic situations as those in which the normal response to stress (fight or flight) is blocked.
“When people are held down, trapped, or otherwise prevented from taking action,” he wrote, “the brain keeps secreting stress chemicals, and the brain’s electrical circuits continue to fire in vain.”
Under such circumstances, a person is stripped entirely of their sense of control. One way people react to this feeling is to seek desperately for any realm of their life in which they can still exert that control — no matter how minor. Rather than allowing them to gain authority over their lives as a whole, however, this behavior is a coping mechanism that doesn’t allow for meaningful growth as a person.
You might think I’m being flippant, likening Sakurai’s position to situations more conventionally understood as traumatic. But imagine the stress involved in running one of Nintendo’s most popular franchises. Imagine living with the daily pressure, not just from the company to produce another hit, but from fans demanding that the game cater to casual players while also allowing for high-level tournament play, that it feature an expansive single-player experience, and that the game’s roster include highly specific characters from Nintendo’s history. And Sakurai is, for all intents and purposes, unable to escape this situation. Nothing short of retirement or death will rescue him.
Nintendo typically doesn’t allow candid interviews with its developers. When they are on mic, they tend to speak in general terms, avoiding discussion of the pressures of game development. But in addition to Sakurai’s suggestion that he might retire a few years ago, evidence of his pain is visible in his work.
The Smash Ultimate adventure mode begins with greedy, grasping hands (which are widely implied to represent Nintendo fans) advancing on the game’s roster. Just then, an enveloping light disintegrates not just the playable protagonists, but every character in the game. Only Kirby, Sakurai’s original creation, survives.
Of course, Kirby rescues the other fighters as the game progresses and together they destroy the mysterious antagonists. But it isn’t hard to imagine Sakurai would prefer the Smash cast stay “dead” — and the ravenous demands of fans with it — leaving only his simple, precious puffball unscathed.
It’s Never Waluigi Time
Let’s now return to Waluigi, remembering Nintendo acknowledged the requests for his inclusion in Smash Ultimate (and the company’s statement that the character roster is ultimately under Sakurai’s control). Bombarded by pressures on all sides, and with no real way out, it seems likely Sakurai would exert the only real control he has over the situation by refusing, again and again, this one demand. The more fans clamor for Waluigi’s inclusion, the more adamantly Sakurai would refuse.
Before Smash 4‘s release, he was pleased to announce the featureless Wii Fit Trainer as a surprise character. And his inclusion of a generic Piranha Plant as free DLC for early purchasers of Smash Ultimate — a character nobody asked for and few are excited about — can be seen in this light as the ultimate gesture of refusal. In the buildup to Smash 4’s release, Sakurai went so far as to openly taunt fans.
“Just because you try hard doesn’t mean you’ll make it into the battle,” he said of the character in a Nintendo Direct.
The refusal to include Waluigi reminds fans that, at the end of the day, Sakurai is in control. And as long as he remains unable to escape his situation, that reminder may be the only thing keeping him — and the series — going.