An unlockable character (also referred to as a secret character or hidden character, and in-game as challengers, or newcomers in the N64 game's Backup Clear menu) is one that is not available at the start of the game (unlike a starter character), but instead must be received in-game (unlike downloadable characters) through other means.
Unique criteria must be met in order to unlock each character, as outlined below. Once such criteria are met, the challenger will appear the next time the player returns to the menu. If the player wins the subsequent battle, a message will appear congratulating them for unlocking the new fighter.
In Super Smash Bros., the character select screen displayed placeholders for not yet unlocked characters. This was changed in Melee, where the clones didn't have placeholders prior to unlocking, with their portraits simply appearing afterward. The placeholder slots were completely removed from Brawl onwards.
"Challenger Approaching!" screen
The "Challenger Approaching!" (挑戦者が現れました！, A Challenger has Appeared!) screen is a message that will be displayed after the player has met a criteria required to unlock any of the available characters. Every game has its unique screen.
The original game had a silhouette of the character merely displayed in a blue box in front of a black background, with an exclamation point in a red circle on the top of the screen, and the phrase "Challenger Approaching" next to it. The screen uses similar music to the 1P-Game's intro, with the only difference being the absence of drums for the "challenger approaching" tune. This is the only game where the challengers' silhouettes are animated, showing them in their fighting stances while rotating (like in the character select screen), rather than just shadowed versions of their official illustrations.
Melee added the phrase "A new foe has appeared!," and also had a silhouette of the approaching challenger. The poses for the challengers were silhouettes of their renders when selected on the Character Select screen (some, however, like Luigi and Ganondorf's, were their renders from inside the boxes). The game also added animations to the screens, with an undulating matrix effect in the background, while the exclamation point, text and silhouette would be eased in. Original music was also provided solely for the screen, which took the sound of a slow, ominous siren.
Brawl returned to the plain black background (there would be a silhouette of an unlockable character the player would face); but this would only occur if the Adventure Mode: The Subspace Emissary method was not used. It still had animations that would ease in, and when the player pressed any button, the images would fade to black, while the "Challenger Approaching!" text would scatter all over the screen; the siren is also considerably faster and more panicky in its sound than how it sounds in Melee.
Smash 4 reused Brawl's warning siren, but there are some differences in both versions. The 3DS version added in considerably more colors, including hues of green, black, and violet; the screen also says "A challenger approaches!" instead of its previous quotations. The Wii U version uses a font style similar to the ones in the newcomer trailers, and the background contains a picture of a supernova; the text is nonetheless reused from past games. The unlockable character in both versions of Super Smash Bros. 4 on the screen is still a silhouette that the player would face (just like in the previous three installments).
After the "Challenger Approaching!" screen, the unlockable character will then be fought in an ordinary one stock match with no time limit, on a predetermined stage with predetermined music. The player uses the last character played as, including the last used costume. In the case of multiplayer battles, in the first three Smash games, the player who won the match will fight the challenger; if a CPU wins the match, the challenger will not appear. Super Smash Bros. 4 changed this formula such that if a CPU wins the match, then the human-controlled player with the highest rank will battle the challenger.
By defeating the opponent, the character becomes playable. If the player fails, however, they will not unlock the character, but after the next battle played (or mode completed), they are guaranteed to meet with the challenger again.
The "Challenger Approaching!" screen has become somewhat of a meme in the Smash community. Many digitally manipulated versions of these screens have appeared, often featuring characters who do not appear in the games, mostly using artwork of the character from another game instead of original artwork (which gives away its falseness). The screens became so popular that they were featured as part of the DOJO!!; in earlier updates, whenever a new character was introduced, a banner that said "Warning! Challenger Approaching!" would appear above the entry.
Masahiro Sakurai stated that it would be appropriate that third-party, or "guest" characters, like Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog, would be unlockable characters. This became true when Brawl was released.
In addition to the challenges and versus match method of unlocking, all unlockable characters can be unlocked by playing through Adventure Mode: The Subspace Emissary. The majority of these characters are unlocked as part of the linear story of SSE. However, Jigglypuff, Wolf, and Toon Link are only unlockable after the main SSE gameplay is completed by finding a secret area while replaying levels. Once a character joins a group of playable characters, the character will be instantly unlocked for normal play (without requiring a "Challenger Approaching" battle). However, some characters, as per the SSE's story, must be battled before they will join the player's party, such as Lucario (depending on the path chosen in The Glacial Peak).
Sonic is the only character who can be unlocked 4 different ways.
The inclusion of Wendy O. Koopa (as one of Bowser Jr.'s alternate costumes) and Lucina as unlockable characters makes them the first female characters to be unlockable. After every tenth VS match, the player gets to challenge an unlockable character, starting with Ness and finishing with Jigglypuff when 120 matches are played.
In addition to the characters below, Mii Fighters are not shown on the character select screen until the player has created at least one. However, since the ability to create Mii Fighters is granted from the beginning, the characters cannot truly be called unlockable.
Although Duck Hunt has a home stage of the same name added into the game in the 1.1.1 update, they will always be fought on Battlefield in their unlocking battle regardless of which version of the game is being played.
Unlike Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, Ness, Jigglypuff, Ganondorf & Bowser Jr. are starter characters. Like the 3DS version, a character is unlocked for every 10 versus matches played starting with Ness. Two exceptions to this are Mr. Game & Watch and Duck Hunt, which they need 20 more versus matches than R.O.B. and Mr. Game & Watch, respectively. Unlike the previous three installments (Melee, Brawl, and the 3DS version), no Super Smash Bros. universe stages are used for challenger approaching battles. Instead, all unlockable characters use a stage from their respective universe except for R.O.B., in which he uses the Wrecking Crew stage due to him not having a stage from his own universe.
In addition to the characters below, Mii Fighters are not shown on the character select screen until the player has created at least one. However, since the ability to create Mii Fighters is granted from the beginning and there is no Challenger Approaching fight, the character cannot truly be called unlockable.
It has been confirmed that the eight starter characters from the original Super Smash Bros. will be the starting roster, and all other fighters are unlockable. The unlocking conditions have also been made much easier and faster compared to previous games. It is also unknown if one-on-one Challenger Approaching fights are returning.
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