The Super Flat Design of Michiko Sakurai

There’s a saying that opera is like “the Olympics of singing”, and I think there’s multiple ways to interpret that. Opera has a certain cultural cache partially due to the rigor of its demands, yet despite this esteem it is less popular than other forms of music. By this maxim I would say that videogames are like the opera of user interface (UI) design, as other types of software development like web, app and OS design often take center stage in the UX/UI world. Because everybody loves game UI, except when they don’t. For a feature often treated as inconsequentially cosmetic, bad or merely imperfect UI can spoil a game in a way that cuts all too deep. Game designers must work twice as hard to create solutions that are sometimes half as elegant, due to the sheer degree of variability involved. By their nature videogame UI’s must be more than content containers or semi-transparent wrappers, for they are highly layered, situational and context-sensitive — not so easily disentangled from the “meat” of a given game. In other words, all game design is user experience design. Interfaces tend to encroach upon games like a spectre — highlighting objectives, doorways, NPC’s and other objects bestowed with the miracle of interactivity — always pointing us in the right direction (“=GO!=>”).

The lowly status of game UI is even reflected in some of its most celebrated instances: the diegeticness of the Dead Space HUD or the handheld maps in Uncharted and Far Cry or Ubisoft’s Animus and ctOS which feel less like speculative sci-fi and more like contrived excuses for a videogame to be allowed to occur. While each has their merits, there’s this sense that the ultimate goal is to do away with UI entirely, to enfold it into the narrative trappings of the game world in search of a cinematic brand of immersion; towards “God of War ‘filmed’ in a single shot”. However not all game genres can abide by this vision, and some videogames wouldn’t have much narrative to speak of if it wasn’t embedded into the UI itself. I’m speaking of the fighting game, whose life bars and select screen layouts are the sinew which ties together the heightened theatricality of their character dramas. Across the genre and videogames as a whole, some of the most iconic and visually striking menu designs have come from Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series.

Examples of Sakurai Menus (Source: Imgur)

What most sets Smash Bros. menus apart is the fact that they can be set apart at all — there is a consistency and artistic voice that carries across the five main instalments, and more remarkably this unique style crops up in other Nintendo games such as Kirby Air Ride, Meteos and Kid Icarus: Uprising. This is because these designs are the work of Michiko Sakurai, long-time collaborator and spouse of series director Masahiro Sakurai, whom she worked with at HAL Laboratory and subsequently co-founded Sora Ltd. in 2005. Again, I want to stress how unprecedented her work is. While many franchises have had a shared aesthetic sensibility in their menus (Halo, Persona, Metroid Prime) or otherwise iconic GUI elements (Metal Gear, Final Fantasy, Zelda) the fact that such an under-discussed facet of game design could be attributed to a single auteur across a range of examples is pretty astonishing. On the other hand the fact that these menus are more commonly attributed to Masahiro Sakurai is somewhat disheartening — so let this essay serve to set the record straight.

Like the protagonist of the series where she got her start, Michiko wears many hats, as she also designed several stages in Super Smash Bros. and Melee, most notably Yoshi’s Island, the classic Super Mario Bros. stage and the greatest-of-all-time Metal Mario stage. So it figures that the Smash Bros. menus would be built almost like extensions of the stages, with a greater sense of variety, verticality and asymmetry than other traditional fighting games. There’s a dynamic quality to Michiko Sakurai’s UI and a keen attention to the intricacies of shape and colour. They give the games a playfulness that comes across even before the gameplay has technically begun.

The main menu of the original Super Smash Bros. is like being backstage before a big event, with the ambient erratic whistles and chimes of the music encouraging the player to decompress in this liminal space and take their time between the bombastic opening cutscene and character select screen. Compare this to Melee, whose blood-pumping theme encourages a perpetual motion through the stacks-upon-stacks of sub-menus; indeed I could spend hours idly cycling through those pentagonal bars, hypnotically watching them flash from black to yellow. Then there’s Brawl with its big bright bouncy buttons begging to be prodded by the Wii’s motion-controlled cursor, knowing full well that in all likelihood the average player would stick with the old reliable GameCube controller. Both the 3DS and Wii U version of the fourth Super Smash Bros. received criticism for obfuscating information behind sub-menus, but even still I am charmed by their whimsical yet harsh shapes that remind me of the Constructivist and Suprematist art movements. Finally there’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and for a series that came full-circle it’s fitting that the game uses a radial menu, along with slanted motifs that give the design an edginess that stands out among past iterations. It is of course worth mentioning here that Michiko Sakurai no longer works on these menus alone, but manages a team of over 20 UI artists.

I must also pay tribute to the character select screen, which cleverly uses series boss Master Hand as a UI element, having the player plunk down a circular token upon a character portrait as if placing a bet. It’s no wonder that in the mid-aughts these menus became a sort of reproducible mock-up meme for fan-requested character additions. These ever-outstretching rubrics of desire ranged from the absurd to the absurdly canny, as the games’ rosters grew bigger and bigger and eventually included third-party favourites like Sonic and Cloud Strife.

The main menu of Super Smash Bros.

Another interesting aspect of Michiko Sakurai’s work is how it complicates the perceived history of “flat design”. For the uninitiated, flat design is a trend in UI and graphic design that rose to prominence following the release of iOS 7 in 2013. Flat design favours simplicity, readability and, for lack of a better term, flatness, avoiding common digital image manipulation techniques such as bevels or gradients. An industry-specific example would be the 2017 Insomniac Games logo re-brand designed by Cory Schmitz, or the UI elements in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. However flat design is also divisive, as it is commonly associated with the homogenization of brand identities into predictable salmon pinks, navy blues and sans-serif fonts. But when it comes to the flat design discourse, videogames are often left out of the picture. Microsoft’s Metro design language as first seen on the Zune is often cited as the progenitor of flat design (because we all know how influential the Zune was), while Sony’s equally-Cartesian XrossMediaBar from the PSX, PSP and PS3 usually goes unmentioned. Videogame UI’s are excluded perhaps because they lack a certain utilitarian je ne sais quois, yet I find it odd that this is the case given that they tend to fill in a lot of the gaps between flat design’s post-millennial genesis and its historical references.

Flat design’s influences are a grab-bag of modernist movements: the work of the Bauhaus school, Brutalist architecture, 60’s minimalism and the International Typographic Style, in addition to Susan Kare’s UI work on the original ’84 Macintosh. Not only does this leave a void of at least twenty years of computational art and design practice, but it also raises the question, if the field is dominated by output to two-dimensional screens, what isn’t flat design? One answer is that flat design is “anti-skeuomorphic” i.e. doesn’t use pre-existing symbols or metaphors such as the desktop, trash bin, album collection or newsstand. However this conflation of flat design and anti-skeuomorphism has been contested, and if you look back at the iOS 7 default home screen its icons include a phone receiver, an envelope, an analog clock, two different film cameras, a clapperboard and a gear wheel.

A more agreeable delineation is that flat design contrasts against “rich design” which, while also vague, can be thought of as using embellishment, texture and faux-lighting to create an illusion of depth or roundness. This is why omitting videogames, which since the late 80’s and early 90’s have used light and texture to create 3D effects, seems like a huge loss of context. With the challenges facing VR and AR applications, all UI designers ought to consider the interplay of flatness and richness found in the games of this era. The history of flat design as it’s told leapfrogs over not just the entire history of videogames, but much of postmodern art, whose influence can be seen in Michiko Sakurai’s use of typography in the original Smash 64 menu background. So it’s worth asking then, what was happening in postmodern art at that time and place?

Flat Zone from Super Smash Bros. Melee

While Super Smash Bros. Melee was released in late 2001, earlier that year a different crossover event was occurring in both Japan and the United States. “Superflat” is both a postmodern art movement and exhibition series spearheaded by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. The meaning of Superflat is extremely multifaceted, referring to not only literal pictorial flatness observed in both anime stills and Edo period woodcut paintings, but an overall “flattening effect” that collapses past and present, high and low art and Eastern and Western culture via globalism and post-war mass media. Superflat artists often co-opted chibi and kawaii aesthetics to speak to deeper concerns of alienation in contemporary society. While Superflat helped to legitimize anime and manga in academic and fine art circles and even spawned a Miami-based outcrop known as “SoFlo Superflat”, at the turn of the millennium the truths of Murakami’s theory were already self-evident in the import of Japanese products, including videogames.

At first blush it seems there is a natural resonance between Superflat and Super Smash, from the manga-inspired box and manual art of the original to Melee’s fixation on gashapon and model figure imagery. On the other hand it might be a bit odd to think of Smash Bros. in terms of flatness, given that it boasted its three-dimensional graphics and stages from its inception — I’m thinking here of both the Fighting Polygon Team as well as a fan translation of the original Super Smash Bros. pitch document which states “Two fighters greet each other on flat ground. Say goodbye to those kinds of fighting games.” Masahiro Sakurai has even said in an interview with late Nintendo President Satoru Iwata that “we originally made Super Smash Bros. as an antithesis to 2D fighting games.” However, looking at the wider historical context of fighting games in the late 1990’s one sees a tension exhibited in Super Smash Bros. that pulls in multiple directions. 3D fighting games such as Virtua Fighter, Tekken, Dead or Alive and Soulcalibur gained considerable attention and market share while 2D series like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter eventually turned to 3D graphics. Even the character select screen of the Marvel vs. Capcom series morphed from a 2D image plane to a three-dimensional orb in its first sequel.

Explorations of the tension between 2D and 3D can be felt most prominently in Super Smash Bros. Melee. The various food items which fighters can consume to heal damage are actually photographed pictures of food, and when pausing and rotating the camera they eerily billboard through the stillness, spinning to always face the camera. Contrarily there are trophies of 2D sprites like Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2 which simply blink in and out of existence when turned. Then there’s the ability to shift the entire menu to view it from a different angle by tilting the GameCube controller’s C-Stick, revealing its paper-like flatness. But the most explicit example has to be the final unlockable character, Mr. Game & Watch.

The stage select screen in Melee is known for its secrets, but one hiding in plain sight comes in the form of its lower left text box. This UI element most prominently displays the name of the currently selected stage, however in a smaller font above that the area in which the stage is fictionally located is displayed; Mushroom Kingdom for Mario stages, Dream Land for Kirby stages, the Lylat System for Star Fox stages and so on. However, not every game series had this established lore, and so when tasked with designating the area for the Game & Watch-inspired Flat Zone, somebody came up with “Superflat World”.

Intentionally or not, what the Sakurais et al accomplished with this naming convention was the implication of videogame history within art history. This is what games researcher Dean Chan calls “ludic superflatness”, a concept he extends to game series like Katamari Damacy, WarioWare and Viewtiful Joe. Unlike flat design, Superflat is tuned into the postmodern relevance of the remix, from the rap battles of PaRappa the Rapper to the graffiti tags of Jet Set Radio, giving us the tools to more properly historicize Michiko Sakurai’s work. Murakami himself noted a relationship between art, culture and videogames in his 2000 book Super Flat, as curator Michael Darling writes “[Murakami] cites the tendency of American video games toward ever-increasing levels of illusionistic reality, while Japanese gamers prefer the distance of more two-dimensional animation.” Note here the distinction between “Super Flat” and “Superflat” — a contraction which was suggested by Darling to market the exhibition in the United States and thus became the default international spelling — being subsequently deployed by the Melee development and localization teams in ouroboric fashion.

Screenshot from Super Smash Bros.

Somewhere we can locate both flat design and Superflat at play is in Smash Bros.’ iconic series symbols, which can be seen on the character select and victory screens as well as the bottom of the screen during gameplay. While many of these symbols required little alteration from their source material, the decision to include them at all is still inspired, giving a sense of cohesion to the franchise that would be lost without them. I liken these symbols to Japan’s eclectic array of prefectural and municipal flags which prominently feature emblems known as mon. The history of mon goes back much further than the adoption of the prefecture system in 1871 however; similar to heraldic badges and Coat of Arms in the European tradition mon crests are used to represent a person or family, with over 5000 unique mon in existence. In fact a certain mon associated with the Hōjō clan bears a striking resemblance to the Triforce from The Legend of Zelda. Also, I would be remiss here to not mention the parallel work of The Designer’s Republic on the WipEout series — however even in the original 1995 WipEout the racer logos were extruded into three-dimensional rotating UI elements as opposed to truly flat designs.

Finally there’s the Super Smash Bros. series symbol. While Masahiro Sakurai has given his own explanation of what it represents, I can’t help but be reminded of Japan’s flag — known formally as the Nisshōki and colloquially as the Hinomaru — and its use of a red circle that signifies “the land of the rising sun”. Add to that a vertical strikethrough — y-coordinate — and another horizontal — x-coordinate — together asymmetrical yet visually balanced — an encapsulation of the series itself. My intent here is not to essentialize and suggest that Japanese people are preternaturally predisposed to good graphic design. Rather I wish to pull threads through history as Takashi Murakami has done to unite the recent past with the distant past; to show how visual culture exists in a highly networked continuum and not a vacuum.

This year’s Evo fighting game tournament was the first in 15 years to not feature Super Smash Bros. Melee, which turns 20 years old this coming Sunday, November 21st. Yet with the exception of Tekken 7, all games included in the 2021 showcase were either 2D or “2.5D” with 3D assets constrained to a 2D plane. Thus at least in the fighting game community it seems that while 3D has won the representational battle, flatness has won the implementational war.

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FURTHER READING

Rethinking Your Menus and The Aims of UI by Masahiro Sakurai (Famitsu column translations)

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada