It’s been 20 years since the announcement of the greatest fighting game ever made (or perhaps not a fighting game at all, depending on who you ask). Super Smash Bros Melee came out this week in 2001, as a launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube, and few games have been as iconic or enduring as Nintendo’s all-star platform fighter.
You can still enjoy the moment the game was unveiled to the crowd below, and their excitement on seeing characters that would (or in some cases would not, sorry Ridley) go on to become playable in-game, and it’s almost spooky to watch. Two decades have passed since that moment in time, and yet the enthusiasm of the fans and incredible depth of the game has kept Melee alive while countless other titles have come and gone.
In esports terms, the game has never been a tier 1 title, and the history has definitely been a rocky one, but that’s a story for a different time. Today, we want to focus on some of the players that have come to define and at times dominate the game of Melee down the years.
Ken "SephirothKen" Hoang
Ken’s place in Smash history has been somewhat diminished in recent years, but in many ways, he represents the absolute zenith of what the esport ever was. It wasn’t enough for the ambitious young man to define the meta, dominate the MLG era and become the king of Smash, oh no. Ken Hoang also managed to pivot being good at Smash into mainstream media success in a way even modern esports stars would be envious of.
Appearances on MTV and the hit TV series Survivor came off the back of his success on MLG, and while streaming has provided very well for Mango and others in later years, no Smash player has ever reached the masses in the way Ken did. It’s also fair to say the player who could join this list next is Zain "Zain" Naghmi, and like every Marth main since Zain owes a great debt to Ken for creating the bones of the Marth meta as we know it.
He is not just the king of Smash, but also the face of a different time, when Nintendo wanted Melee to succeed, and we got a brief glimpse into a world where the developer of the game wasn’t working against the community. He isn’t first on our list for any particular reason other than chronology, but he was the first player ever to define what Melee esports looked like, and his Melee legacy is unquestionable.
Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman
Put simply, M2K is the definitive player in the history of Smash Bros esports, even with his status as a retired great today. There isn’t a Smash game he’s a stranger to, and his record in Brawl, Melee, Smash 4, and even Project M speaks to a person truly obsessed with beating the everloving crap out of some of the most beloved characters in video game history.
What is less known about M2K though, is his sense of style. His reputation as "the Robot" grew out of his early years when flowcharts and frame data were his safety net against a competitive scene he was not fully familiar with. But as the years have passed he’s come out of his shell. His Sheik, perhaps the most iconic to ever exist, was capable of both beautiful, languid style and ruthless, calculated camping, and probably sums up what M2K is to Smash, the god of all things, and master of most.
Ironically, when it comes to Melee, the modern era wasn’t as kind to M2K as you might think. He often played the role of gatekeeper rather than final boss, but he dominated some of the early years of the game and had moments more recently nobody will forget. Armada’s reaction on losing to M2K at Smash Summit 6 probably best sums up what the scene feels about Mew2King’s legacy, and his place in the Hall of Fame is indisputable.
Joseph "Mango" Marquez
Summing up Mango in any number of words is not easy. Like many greats, the human behind the tag is a complicated and flawed individual, but his claim to be GOAT of Melee is less in dispute at this stage for good reason. In the same way ODB was the soul of the Wu-Tang despite others being more successful at times, Mango is the person that sums up what Melee means to so many, and why people fall in love with this incredible title.
There have been others with a claim to the title, many of whom we’ll talk about here, but when you add up the years Mango has played the game and his constant place as a threat for any tournament, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves GOAT status more than young Joseph. By most metrics, he’s in contention, and what he represents in the history of Melee is hard to accurately quantify, given his influence over the entire scene.
Put simply, Mango plays the game off feel, more than a decade after frame data and "labbing" had become du jour, and excels in tight, scrappy moments. Improvisation built off years of experience is second nature to a man that put most of his life points into Melee, and managed to made it work for him. What he means to Smash is hard to sum up in mere words, but it’s not controversial to say that Mango is probably the one man who represents Melee above all else, and is a massive part of why so many people love the game.
Juan "Hungrybox" Debiedma
There is no way HBox deserves to be this low on any list of Smash players when you consider what he means to the game. It would be reductive to call him a "heel" in the way wrestling fans would recognize, not least due to his army of fans, and equally, it would be incorrect to say HBox has received the same level of love and affection as his long term antagonist Mango, or even others like PPMD or M2K.
In "The Smash Brothers" documentary, HBox talks about not being fast enough to win with spacies — that being the reason he plays Puff — and in some ways, it’s sad that he internalized the negatives behind his career at such a young age. In reality, HBox is the only person in the modern era to make Puff work at the elite level, for very good reason.
HBox is the original Smash LANimal. Where other people come good online, from the comfort of their bedroom, this is a man who wants to beat his chest and roar victorious in front of a baying crowd. His desire to compete was almost pathological at times, and it’s no coincidence his first real dip has come in the online era, where crowds are gone and every game feels like a friendly. There is no player like HBox, and most likely we’ll never see another of his kind.
Adam "Armada" Lindgren
His legion of fans is not going to be happy with Armada being the last name on this list. To be honest, they have a point even if it is meant to be roughly chronological. When he wanted to win, Armada was as close to unbeatable as any player in esports, and his level was so high that he came to define eras — not just for himself, but players around him too.
To give a sporting example, we can take Roger Federer. If the Swiss had not been so insanely far ahead of anything tennis had seen, the likes of Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic would never had have to push themselves to become demigods just to be close to his level. Likewise in Smash, players like Leffen, Mango, HBox, and others all had to grow and adapt just to live with the level Armada brought day to day, and for that reason alone his legacy can never be ignored.
That’s before you get to the incredible stats, the winning runs, the dominance over time, and the enduring nature of his brilliance. When cracks began to show in the Peach that made him famous, Armada picked up Fox and labbed out innovations for that character that are standard today.
Armada wasn’t a Peach god. He was a Smash genius without whom the game would be far worse off.
The Zain era?
As for the next 20 years, the future of Melee is in a strange place. LAN events were struggling pre-COVID, with the removal of the game from Evo’s lineup a blow only somewhat softened by the hit in reputation that event took since, for unrelated reasons. The logical next step is the era of Zain, but the Marth main has had his chance to dominate put on hold by the lack of international tournament and LAN play.
Slippi and rollback have provided a new way to play, but the inherent challenges Nintendo provide mean that breaking into the top echelon of esports will never be a simple task, as the revelations about Red Bull and ESL showed. With luck, LANs will return post-COVID with a new generation, who honed their skills on netplay and are ready to challenge the existing status quo, and Zain will get the chance to add his name to the pantheon of gods that have gone before him as he surely deserves.