Fans of Super Smash Bros. consider playable characters to be the hallmark of a Smash game. In midst of all the hype playable characters receive, those who earn non-playable roles are often met with disappointments, if not scorn, since it’s often not the role the fans wanted. These roles highlight important parts of Nintendo history and give non-playable characters mainstream exposure they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Non-playable characters come in all shapes and sizes, be it Pokéballs, background characters, Assist Trophies or stage bosses. While you can’t control them, characters like Saki Amamiya and Scizor deal a significant amount of damage to your opponents. Others, like Goldeen and Starfy, tease the fighter that unleashed them by being useless. They may seem unimportant at first, especially to competitive gaming, but it would be foolish to diminish the role they play in Smash.
In the first game, Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64, Pokéballs represent the concept of trainers capturing Pokémon in a ball in order to battle against other trainers. While Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has nine playable Pokémon so far, they do not adequately represent the franchise’s diversity. With Pokéballs, Pokémon of all types, be they Legendary, Mystical, or even jokes throw themselves into the ring and change the battlefield for a few seconds. Having Palkia in Ultimate changes the dynamic of a stage by turning it upside down is a sight to behold. As the world’s biggest media franchise, Pokémon deserves all of its Smash contents. Yet, Nintendo would do themselves a disservice if they ignored their non-mainstream franchises.
Assist Trophies (ATs) showcase important parts of Nintendo or gaming history they can’t make playable. Introduced in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, they were the biggest item debut of that game, featuring characters from various different franchises, unlike Pokéballs that focused on one. Like Pokéballs, the fighter must activate the AT to see who will help them fight against other opponents. Obscure characters are also more favored for joining the battle. For example, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U introduced the titular protagonist of Sheriff as an AT role, representing one of the earliest Nintendo games. It’s a neat insight into what Nintendo was like before Donkey Kong came and revolutionized the gaming industry.
Non-playable roles can also give franchises like Bomberman exposure to their games. At the time of the first design document proposal in December 2015, the franchise was on hiatus with no foreseeable future. While Super Bomberman R released at the Nintendo Switch’s launch last year in March, it was likely too late to influence Sakurai’s character decisions. Instead, Bomberman fights alongside other playable characters for a short time as an AT. His trademark use of bombs, his bomb kick, and remote bombs provide a taste of his fighting potential as he zips across the stage, blasting the competition.
Sakurai gave him a lot of attention, discussing what he can do as an AT in the monumental Ultimate trailer and a feature in @SmashBrosJP’s Today’s Memory briefly discussing the start of his gaming history. Jamesman provided an amazing comic that puts his AT status in a good light. One thing is for certain, Bomberman is not forgotten and neither are other ATs. It’s also a respectful tribute to Shoji Mizuno, Bomberman’s modern designer who sadly died before finding out Bomberman’s AT role. I’m sure if there’s an afterlife, he’s happy that Bomberman’s legacy lives on.
Of course, we can’t have a non-playable character article without addressing the elephant in the room — Ridley. In spite of his thunderous debut as a playable character in Ultimate — one well deserved — he has been in Smash through other roles since the beginning. He started in Smash 64 as a background character in the Planet Zebes stage. In E3 2001’s Super Smash Bros. Melee trailer, he was seen fighting Samus Aran, convincing the audience that he was a playable character. Later in Brawl, he was one of many bosses in the Subspace Emissary alongside his Meta-Ridley form, Porky, Rayquaza, and Petey Piranha. While he was absent from Smash 3DS, Smash Wii U promoted him to stage hazard in the Pyrosphere stage, sharing many characteristics of a playable character, including having stocks. Each game elevated him to a larger non-playable role, which is largely responsible for spawning the infamous “Too Big” meme that Sakurai would later poke fun at in the tag line to his playable debut “Ridley HIts The Big Time!” Ridley's representation in Smash is a fascinating retrospective.
While they’re not playable now, being in a non-playable role does not doom characters from being playable in the next game. Already, Charizard, Little Mac, Villager, and Ridley made the transition from non-playable to playable. It shows, especially with popular characters, that rejection is not permanent, and that mainstream exposure can help gain traction for making them playable in the next game. Even if not, being heavily acknowledged in one of the biggest gaming franchise is a win by itself.