What is Master Hand and why does it hate us?

There’s a plotline that tiptoes through all the games in the Super Smash Bros. series. You’d be forgiven for missing it; it’s one of those things that hides in plain sight. We can see its early rumblings in the first moments of the original game’s opening cutscene:

See that disembodied Mickey-Mouse-looking glove pulling Donkey Kong out of the toy chest? It’s the series’s final boss, Master Hand, loop-the-looping, drumming its fingers, counting down. We tend to think of Master Hand as a macguffin, an excuse for there to be a single-player mode. But it’s not that cut and dry. After all, think about what just happened: Master Hand put the characters on the table and brought them to life. It’s Smash‘s unmoved mover. Without the hand, there is no Smash.

This idea of Master Hand as first cause threads its way from the Nintendo 64 release all the way through this year’s model. However, of all the games to date, Brawl took the notion of plot most seriously. By playing its notoriously opaque Subspace Emissary mode, we learn about a vaguely demonic presence in Subspace named Tabuu. Tabuu has temporarily taken control of Master Hand in a bid for (drumroll) global domination. He absorbs characters and places from the real world into Subspace, mucking them up with this purple-and-black dark world goop. Tabuu looks and reads like a brain-dead rendering of Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, though his temporary control over Master Hand gives him a special place in the series’ narrative. If we see Master Hand as the unmoved mover, then we have clear motivation to stop Tabuu, the Cartmanesque bully on the playground who has to have things his way. In this weird meta moment, we seem to be wrestling with the game for control over itself.

Without the hand, there is no Smash

But seeing it as first cause of the Smash universe is just one way to read Master Hand.

Considered instead as a metaphor, Master Hand operates on a few different levels: the unmoved mover, the master’s (meaning game-maker’s) hand, and, from a certain vantage point, the player, too. The hand piles uncertainty and self-contradiction on top of what scans as a game about attacking and jumping and distance and not much else. You argue, “Games need a villain for the player to fight; Smash‘s just happens to be a big gloved hand.” When was it ever that simple?

To get off the ground, we have to concede that the characters fighting one another in Smash haven’t just materialized in the same universe to beat the shit out of one another. Looking at this cutscene, we see it’s not some force of nature nor the characters themselves coming together, but Master Hand picking them up out of the trunk, moving them around, hitting their karate-chop buttons. An analogy: Master Hand is to Smash as Calvin is to Hobbes. The first is the force behind the second’s movement.

This metaphor of the guiding hand extends out of the console, down the controller cable, and into the player’s palms. After all, we can’t have this huge human hand in the game and not also see it as our own. All the hands in play are puppet masters: Master Hand tugs at the computer characters’ strings, while your hands parry and guard and dodge.

Sometimes seeing which hand is which can be complicated. At the character selection screen we realize that, in choosing characters out of the box and bringing them to battle, our hands have also become Master Hands. Trophy #83 of Melee reaffirms this, describing Master Hand as the “symbolic link between the real world and the imaginary battlefields.” It’s the computer’s hand, which is a metonym for the hands of the programmers and the designers and the testers and everyone else in the credits who made Master Hand. In light of this, maybe it’s best to think of the Smash stage and the characters on it not as a physical place, but as the play space imagined by the minds attached to the Master Hand—always invisible on screen yet always evident in the characters’ movements.

But Smash breaks with the Calvinball of childhood toy-to-toy combat (in which Anything really goes) in the application of movesets, rules, and systems that turn unstructured play into a deep fighting game. The problem with transitioning into a structured system is that the game becomes about skill, which is where the Master Hand metaphor takes an interesting turn. Always in the single-player campaign it’s your skill pitted against the computer’s, your hands against Master Hand and the various hands it’s comprised of.

It’s about you outdoing yourself. 

But what happens after you defeat Master Hand? Is this the classic, “you kill him, you become him” trope? Where, in an endlessly recursive way, you become every cause of Smash, from the moment of turning on the console to the next inevitable defeat of Master Hand? Is this another John Henry, man over machine, the human hand bettering the pixels imitating it? Or is it more of a cycle of damnation, since you can play the campaign as many times as you want, killing Master Hand a hundred times over and it’ll still be waiting there for you? If your hands have also become Master Hand’s hands or just Master Hands, do the characters come out of the toy chest for Master Hand or for you? Are you then your own enemy? Is self-improvement against a hand-shaped measuring stick Smash’s major narrative? Is killing Master Hand self-destruction? The plot thickens.

Personally, I lean toward the interpretation of Master Hand as an extension of the player. It’s about reconciling your beliefs of what you can do with what you did. You have to reckon with past defeats, get up off the mat, and come back swinging. We have this notion that fighting is as much about the relation between your body and the body you’re fighting as it is about your body to itself. Martial arts like tai chi emphasize this interiority. After all, defeating the opponent you couldn’t beat before isn’t just about you beating them—it’s about you outdoing yourself.