Smash Bros. vs Traditional Fighters and What Lies at the Core of Fighting Games

Fighting games at this point are decades-old. While it’s debatable what can be considered the very first fighting game, what is indisputable is which game is responsible for popularizing the genre: Street Fighter II. That game, as well as all of its upgrades, are the standard by which all other fighters are judged, and it’s had a profound effect on how people discuss fighting games in terms of gameplay and strategy. However, if Street Fighter II is the archetype, there are a number of deviations from it, and one that’s become increasingly popular in recent years has been the Super Smash Bros. series.

Whereas in the past these two communities, traditional fighters and Smash, remained fairly separate (and one even unfairly mocked the other for not being a “real” fighting game), over the past year with the release of the latest Smash Bros. games, this has begun to change. One curious outcome of this has been that, when it comes to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, a number of notable traditional fighting game community (FGC) members have taken to it, such as EVO Champion Infiltration and commentators Ultra David and James Chen, but it has also received negative attention from many players of Super Smash Bros. Melee, what is widely considered the most technical and mechanically difficult game in the franchise. The reason I believe this disparity exists is not only because of a difference in terms of the games themselves, but also a difference in how these respective communities have argued for what makes their games great.

The arguments made by many Melee supporters as to why it’s the superior game tend to revolve around the slew of difficult techniques that expand the range of possible moves available, as well as a heavier emphasis on free-form combos. The idea is that, while Melee is simple on the surface, being a game that was intentionally designed to be more accessible than the traditional fighting game, it in fact hides layers and layers of complexity. What might appear to be a game that is competitively limited due to its simplicity is in fact only the first step into a demanding realm of technical depth and discovery. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U lacks many “advanced techniques” and is slower-paced, and is therefore seen as an inferior game.

Perhaps this reasoning is a product of the way in which the FGC would dismiss Smash Bros. as a whole as “kiddie games,” but, whatever the case, this is the rhetoric that has been built up from Melee, that simplicity makes way for complexity, and that complexity equals depth. In the documentary The Smash BrothersMelee commentator Prog likens the difficulty of Melee to Starcraft, a game that is also known for its mechanical difficulty that leads to a wider range of options for a player, with the idea that this leads to a kind of expressive freedom (though it should also be noted that the documentary’s director, Samox, chose to include that in the first place).

EG|PPMD—recent champion of Apex 2015, the largest Melee tournament ever—shares this sentiment:

EG|PPMD: Melee allows me to express myself on a very profound level. I am not just playing the character, I am my character. I am not just playing against my opponent, I am communicating with that person deeply and getting to know them on a very personal level and conversing on that level with the game as a medium.

Said differently, the depth and speed of the game allow me to really bring myself out. Competition is also incredibly fun! I would be really surprised if another game gave me this feeling, but that would be awesome if it did happen.

In contrast, the most prominent arguments as to why traditional fighting games are great take the opposite angle. Traditional fighting games are known for being difficult to learn on the surface, due to specialized inputs (quarter-circle forward + punch makes Ryu throw a hadouken, while just hitting the “special move” button for Mario makes him throw a fireball) and complex combos, but the prevailing philosophies are of the mind that the ideal core of fighting games, what makes them really worthwhile and competitive, is a foundation of simplicity and elegance, and that this is what leads to depth.

While the above video is super corny, it reflects the lessons taught by great players such as Tomo Ohira, who is featured in that video and is often argued to be the first king of Street Fighter II in its earliest days. For another example, take the fighting game player turned game designer David Sirlin, who argues that what makes fighting games games truly interesting is the level of mental interactions that come from “yomi,” or reading the mind of the opponent. Others such as Ultra David have argued that yomi isn’t as important as developing and executing a strategy, but the emphasis is still on the idea that technical complexity should ideally make way for something more basic and fundamental. This is what drives Divekick, a stripped-down fighting game that attempts to get to the core of fighters by limiting players to two buttons and emphasizing spacing and reads.

Although what I’ve shown above are not universally held beliefs by either community, I wanted more to show that they exist and are prominent parts of each community’s identity when it comes to their games. I also don’t want to give the impression that the communities believe that complexity vs. simplicity and their relationship with depth is black and white in either direction, nor that the games necessarily reflect the philosophies described above 100%. Rather, it’s more about how people visualize depth, and why the idea of depth becomes so subjective.

As for why all of this matters, there are two points to consider as to why traditional FGC members might praise Super Smash Bros. for Wii U whereas Melee enthusiasts might look down upon it. First, much like Divekick, the Super Smash Bros. games with their simplified commands have already removed a surface layer of complexity, and to many experienced fighting game players this is seen as a positive. Complexity hides an elegance of simplicity and what makes fighting games truly beautiful. These players want to introduce this beauty to as many people as possible, and Smash Bros. allows this.

Second, while previous games in the Super Smash Bros. franchise were developed by its director Sakurai Masahiro with a team that was more experienced in other genres, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U was developed with the help of Namco, which is known for fighting games such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. Although there haven’t been any specific statements made on this matter, I believe that the development team, rather than viewing Melee as their template, looked more to conventional fighting games for ways to add competitive depth to Super Smash Bros. and that the mechanics of the new game reflect this. In discussions with Dave Cabrera, a friend and someone much more knowledgeable about fighting games than I am, he had a similar impression. Ultra David and James Chen also state how they find Melee to be a more momentum-based game similar to the also-unconventional Marvel vs. Capcom series while Smash Wii U is more positional, similar to Street Fighter games.

The result is a clash of perspectives. On the one hand, the Melee community, which has developed its conception for what makes a good competitive game based on Melee and the idea of hidden complexity, sees Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as lacking many of the elements that made Melee great, and that it is therefore a lesser experience. On the other hand, the fighting game community, which bases its standards for fighting games on Street Fighter II and the idea of hidden simplicity, has in this new Super Smash Bros. something that exemplifies that concept while also catering more to their tastes. Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that there are two different philosophies at work driving discussion.

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10 thoughts on “Smash Bros. vs Traditional Fighters and What Lies at the Core of Fighting Games

  1. 5 or 6 years ago there was a big shift in the design philosophy for Magic the Gathering to greatly reduce the complexity of cards on the table. There was a pretty loud outcry about this since the logical assumption among top level players was that this would also reduce the strategic depth of the game.

    After a few years, it became pretty clear that mechanical complexity wasn’t actually correlated with strategic depth. It merely meant that players could shortcut past some of the mental gymnastics that they often had to do first before they could start to answer the questions that really mattered to the heart of the gameplay, like “How many more turns can I live?” or “Does he have it or not?”

    It’s funny watching streams of GOAT-level pros trying to draft some of the sets right before this change and having trouble holding all of the necessary information in their heads (and then realizing that all of this information is basically just bookkeeping rather than any kind of skill testing.)

    At a similar time, the Magic design team has also been trying to remove or simplify rules from the game every year, which is another interesting perspective on how much unnecessary stuff starts to cruft up games. Applying that perspective to Divekick made me very have a very unstable outlook on fighting games and made me wonder if we’re really just stuffing a ridiculous amount of complexity over what ultimately, essentially gets represented as like rock paper scissors.

    This article has a lot of Magic-specific discussion in it, but it’s got a similar argument with this one when looking at the differences between Dota and League of Legends w/r/t Magic: http://www.starcitygames.com/php/news/print.php?Article=26728

    Finally, not sure if this is a little too tangential to the topic, but another thing Magic’s design has focused a lot on in recent years is trying hard to make the gameplay “match” the concept that is supposed to be expressed through the gameplay. They realized with games like Vs. which was supposed to be about battling Marvel & DC superheroes, but it turned out that cards based around characters that one would assume would be good at that sort of thing like Batman or Wolverine weren’t particularly good while characters like Dr. Light were ban-worthy.

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    • That article is super interesting, but what I think rings most true is that people will say that what they’re good at takes the most skill. People then tend to use circular arguments that their game takes the most skill, that’s why they’re so great, and that they’re therefore a better judge of skill.

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  2. One pertinent factor you don’t bring up is match speed. It might not seem a central point when discussing design, but it matters in both a pragmatic sense and in what it reveals about a game’s aspirations. Both Melee and Smash 4 have longer match lengths than traditional fighters, with Smash 4 being the more lengthy of the two. While this arguably might make Melee more practical for long tournaments (though that’s not necessarily an issue) it also helps illustrate the fact that, despite Namco’s involvement, Smash 4 is not Divekick, or even Street Fighter. While I agree with the assertion it is trying to draw more on this sort of fighting game paradigm, decisions like this also show that it is trying to straddle the (perceived) casual/competitive divide. That’s a bit of a risky proposition, because sometimes you satisfy none while trying to satisfy all. Of course that might not end up being the case, but I just want to point out the other design pressures involved, design pressures that I think the Melee community is glad they can in some sense “subvert”

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  3. The thing that is funny about the smash community is that most of the gameplay mechanics they love in melee, were never intended to be in the game.

    I play street fighter for competition and I enjoy smash as a party game. I hate going to a friends house that plays smash more seriously because it ends up being no items/final destination. What makes smash fun for me is the endless and random variables.

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    • A true competitive smash player would know that Final Destination isn’t a true neutral stage, it’s Battlefield. You wouldn’t want a non-competitive Street Fighter player to come over and be a complete johnny would you? Same goes for us.

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  4. I think the first response to any fighting game relies on its roster. I cannot think of many if any players flocking to a fighting game for its engine alone. If one cannot like any of the characters and form some level of attachment, it becomes much more difficult to begin the game. Traditional fighting games rely heavily on developing timeless characters with strong personalities. Nintendo’s characters by and large act silently for the pkayer as an impressionable vessel. In the first and subsequent Smash games, the characters act as toys as part of the story.

    The second response after passing the “character liking” hurdle is substance. Both fighting types definitely qualify as fighters in substance. Despite the range of options Smash has, they can be curtailed into a fighting game. It can be a lot of things and not a 1 on 1 match exclusively. In substance, Smash plays nothing like traditional fighters and the emphasis on beatdowns isn’t replaced, but the focus has moved to outside the ring. Essentially, the fighting revolves around ringouts and acquiring / conserving space to do so. The speed of the game is also responsible in promoting this gameplay mechanic in my opinion.

    I’m not sure if anyone else feels the same way, but fighting games have a long history and are laden with art. Character development, character creation for newer fighting games, character stories and themes and relationships with other characters. These factors aren’t essential in a fighting game but the little details traditional fighters have developed has become an art form and I don’t think Smash has it. So, even though Smash qualifies in substance, some of the gameplay mechanics that have been refined will never exist for Smash as of now.

    Nintendo is the Ikea of video games.

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    • I think you have an interesting point in that Smash Bros.’ characters don’t go through the same design and development process because their characters are generally iconic and have been established through their existing games and franchises. There’s no need to think up interesting new characters and to build their stories because it’s already been done.

      At the same time, there are plenty of people who resonate with Nintendo/3rd-party characters, who feel an emotional connection to them, and it can be argued perhaps that their back stories are the experiences people have playing those characters. Personally speaking, I feel a connection to Mega Man because he’s designed to play so much like his original NES counterpart that it’s almost like seeing his story continue. I also think it’s important to note how much most of the Smash cast is implemented with unique gameplay in mind. Bowser Jr. probably would not have gotten into the game if he didn’t feature the Koopa Clown Car and was instead just a smaller Bowser.

      Another factor is that while plenty of new fighting games have come out, especially after SFIV and the revival of the genre, many characters in fighting games have themselves become iconic entities, and they didn’t necessarily need interesting origins. Years ago I used to frequent a fighting game forum, where people were more interested in characters than gameplay mechanics, and they talked about how Ryu is a super boring protagonist. And yet, people like and care about Ryu. His moveset and personality define fighting games more than any others, and while he has a story, what’s more important is how much he embodies the spirit of fighting games as a whole.

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      • I am in agreement that the means of attachment to Smash is through playing or being familiar with Nintendo’s line of games. It is a completely different philosophy in creating a roster for a fighting game. Granted, there have been other manga mashups featuring prominent shonen jump characters over the years and the skeleton for Smash could arguably have originated in Namco’s arcade title Outfoxies. In any case, a very different approach and challenge to the definition of a fighting game for most including myself.

        Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the numerous arguments that have/had divided the fighting community (creator’s intent, items, number of players etc.). I myself have difficulty welcoming it into the fighting game pantheon not because of character attachment (because I can dislike games such as Time Killers but still acknowledge it as a fighting game) but what Smash stands for. I do believe by and large one’s experiences dictate their personal preference. It’s rather complicated for me because my background is quite non-Nintendo simply because fighting games didn’t usually grace Nintendo with their presence. Over the years fighting games go through long bouts of revisions and iterations. What are we at now, Tekken 7? Not to say Nintendo has no history or art, but it lacks many small details I’ve come to appreciate in any given fighter. These details include multiple win poses reflecting the character’s personality, win quotes to further express themselves, individual endings, conceptual art and the like. This is an unspoken history in terms of enriching fighting game development.

        For me personally, Smash has released nostalgia bombs overladen with history behind their games while fighting games and their characters are in their element reinforcing themselves. The presence of characters such as Mario seem a tad off because he is arguably not a fighter. Mario in particular can be any profession and although other characters capable of fighting appear to fit, they still seem to lack a certain flair to them. I’m certain Nintendo fans will have opinions to contrast. Of note, the closest game I can think of using this nostalgia bomb approach is Neo Geo Battle Coliseum. Compared to other fighting games such as King of Fighters or Samurai Shodown, those games exist in their own universe and element.

        Fighting games for the sake of fighting does not embody the soul of good fighting games, and the lack of character personality in a game where characters aren’t given distinctive personality (given by the story) appear even more lifeless in Smash. This last point isn’t to say that Smash games are not good games or fun (which is very relative), but that it remains counterintuitive for the direction of traditional fighting game development. Especially when fighting games rely heavily on personality and not motive (looking at you Mortal Kombat).

        Your last point about Ryu is interesting. Street Fighter in particular follows an approach not unlike Nintendo where the character’s don’t change much. I feel a lot of Nintendo’s characters are more iconic than they are symbolic whereas characters such as Ryu and Chun-Li are more symbolic. Ryu’s story seldom changes. Maybe a dash of inner conflict but that’s about it. Chun-Li is often times given more story because of her occupation as an Interpol agent but that’s as far as things go.

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