Super Smash Bros. Melee was released in North America and Japan for the 2001 holiday season, while it didn’t hit European and Australian shelves until May 2002. What was Nintendo doing in this intervening time, and why is this relevant today? Here’s some things you might not know about how some of Nintendo’s choices around Melee’s release still affect the game today.
Among analog television standards, there are two main systems, NTSC and PAL. NTSC stands for the National Television Systems Committee, which was the body that created the standard in 1941. The NTSC video standard, used in North America and Japan, calls for a 29.97 frames per second interlaced video signal made up of 525 lines. Double this, and you get 59.94, Melee’s framerate. The PAL standard, used in Europe, Australia, and many other places, works differently. PAL calls for a 25 frames per second interlaced video signal made up of 625 lines. Although these standards no longer play a big role in modern television broadcasting, they mattered back in the GameCube days. Nintendo and other game companies have had a complicated relationship with PAL titles over the years. Games like Sonic the Hedgehog were just slowed down from 59.94 to 50 frames per second, making them feel slow. For Melee, holding B on startup allows the player to choose between the 60hz mode used for tournaments as well as a 50hz mode, replacing the progressive scan toggle in NTSC. Nintendo needed to put in extra time to code the PAL version of Melee.
The HAL Laboratories development team made an interesting choice, though. Instead of porting the game to PAL exactly as is, they made balance changes to the game, many of which directly impact competitive play.
The most noticeable difference right away is the stock icons, which are smaller than in NTSC. If you’re ever unsure as to whether a Melee match is PAL or NTSC, this is a good starting point. Some highlights: Fox’s upsmash is weaker and his up-B doesn’t go as far. Falco’s late dair is no longer a spike. Marth gets knocked down by Fox’s shine and his dair is able to be meteor cancelled. Falcon’s weak knee does less knockback and his gentleman gets easier to perform. Some other characters receive minor changes. Most of all, Sheik is nerfed significantly. Her downthrow angle is changed to not allow for consistent follow-ups or chain grabs, and her upair is no longer an effective kill move.
Until recently, PAL was the version of Melee that was played in Europe and Australia. However, an important development in Melee hacking changed this: the memory card buffer exploit. I’ll skip over the details, but in short, with 20XXTE, UCF, and other memory card mods becoming available, the sky’s the limit in terms of the modifications you can make to Melee which will run on any unmodified GameCube or Wii. One of these new mods is a memory card mod which will turn any PAL copy of the game into NTSC.
Why is this on the table? The reason is that most Melee majors are in North America, where NTSC is played. This presents a unique issue for European players, who won’t be as familiar with NTSC and could be at a disadvantage when they travel to a major overseas. As well, switching to NTSC could motivate more players to travel to Europe for majors, as PAL is often perceived negatively in North America. A notable example would be Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman, who has never travelled to Europe. Finally, for new players, most guides for the game and footage of top players are for NTSC, so it can be harder for PAL players to learn about the game.
The choice between PAL and NTSC is extremely controversial within European Melee communities. There are three main viewpoints. First, there are those that think NTSC is a better game and the switch is needed for that reason alone. Second, there are those who think that while PAL is the better version of the game, it’s more important to have a unified version across the world. Lastly, there are those who think that PAL is the better version of the game and that Europe is better off playing it.
It’s hard to be unbiased and make everyone happy. Sheik mains might want NTSC and Peach mains might want PAL simply because it benefits them. Some players have threatened to quit if Europe switches to NTSC, because the game will no longer be fun to them. It’s also possible that Melee in Europe is losing potential players because the version of Melee they play isn’t the same one they watch on Twitch. There’s no concrete data to support either viewpoint, so it’s hard to know what’s really the case.
There is precedent for a switch to NTSC. In 2018, Australia and New Zealand both switched to NTSC, without the aid of a memory card mod. Over there, it’s common for TVs to accept a NTSC video signal, so the community hacked many Wiis to output NTSC Melee under the PAL video standard to use for their tournaments. Europe wouldn’t have to do this, but would face its own problems. The Australia and New Zealand scenes are concentrated around the few major cities in both countries. Europe is a lot more densely packed with smaller locals and smashfests all over the place.
Currently, most scenes in Europe are undergoing an NTSC trial period, or will start one soon. In April, there was a meeting between many of Europe’s TOs with a representative from each country. According to Jim Morrison, who organized the meeting, the general feeling among the group was that Europe is on its way to switching to NTSC, but there would need to be another meeting after the UK and Sweden’s trial periods. Sweden’s trial period started March 31st and will run until June 30th, while the UK’s trial period starts May 13th and ends July 15th. Some countries have had votes within themselves already, or at least opened the matter to discussion. The Netherlands had an organized vote in which 72.8% of 136 people voted to switch to NTSC. Switzerland’s vote was less successful, with 81% of the 11 participants voting to switch to NTSC. And then on the other end of the spectrum, you have Germany, which had an unofficial vote, and Spain, which simply discussed it in a TO backroom with no public input.
Nobody has the answers for what will happen to EU Melee in the coming months. One way or another, expect a shakeup this year as this issue is sorted out. One thing is for sure: it says something about the longevity of Melee that we’re continuing to have these debates in the year 2019.
Author’s Note: Should Europe switch to NTSC? Let me know in the comments!
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Australian Melee community imported many NTSC Wii consoles for their tournaments. Actually, they hacked PAL Wiis to play the NTSC version of Melee.