Though it can be said that previous games received changes among releases in different regions, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U is the first official game in the franchise to receive regular balance patches. With every patch that comes out, people, including tournament champions, aspiring game designers, and just fans of the series give their thoughts and opinions, and a lot of it revolves around whether or not a character is now “good” or whether or not a character who was seen as too powerful is now “fair.”
I’m not a game designer. I’m not even much of a competitor. So, take all of this with its own massive grain of salt. The way I see balance, and the directions of the buffs and nerfs that have happened to the characters in Smash, is that it’s not solely a matter of making a character viable or able to win tournaments, but rather…
1) Making their strategies clear, effective, and unique…
2) While maintaining the identity of the character
3) Allowing them to on some level fight the rest of the cast…
3) While also giving other characters an opportunity to fight back
When it comes to game design, based on what I’ve read and even what I’ve seen Smash creator Sakurai’s comments on game design, 1 and 2 are the most important. He chooses characters for Smash based on what they could bring to the series on a gameplay level, which is why, for example, Bowser Jr. fights in a clown cart and isn’t just a tiny Bowser. It gives him a variety of tools and an overall feel that you don’t get with Bowser, namely the feel of an aggressive trickster. While certain characters over the course of Smash have been “clones,” using other characters as a template with a few tweaks, they’re more time-savers in the development process than anything else, and should be judged differently.
The result is that, when buffing or nerfing characters, I believe that the thinking isn’t “How can we make them just as good as the top characters?” That’s probably not that difficult: just improve frame data, make a bunch of hitboxes bigger, make hits stronger and faster, etc. etc. Rather, it’s about “how can the characters be expressed more effectively?”
In his posts on Miiverse, Sakurai mentioned that the character Marth is meant to fight like a fencer. Thus, he was designed to be weak when fighting in-your-face but does massive damage when striking with the tip of his sword, which requires you to understand and master spacing as a concept. Ever since Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second game in the series, Marth has at his base been all about grace and positioning, and theoretically rewarding players for fighting with that fencing mentality.
However, in both previous games that Marth was featured, he could short hop through the air and do two quick swings with his sword (his forward air), and then recover quickly. The question is, then, does having a double forward-air which he could then recover quickly from upon landing follow along with this fencer archetype? While I think it might be argued either way, I think a lot of people who played and played against the character, as well as probably Sakurai himself, have seen how double forward air is less about grace and more about brute force, just bullying your way through lesser opponents and sometimes even greater ones too. Thus, it’s out, never to be seen again, and instead everything about Marth emphasizes not only being rewarded for good spacing, but HAVING to space well. That’s why his f-smash is shorter than previous games, but it kills earlier than ever. That’s why he has the end lag on key moves but even tilts can kill when spaced properly. It challenges you to be the fencer OR ELSE. All of his (and Lucina’s) buffs emphasize this game plan further.
So why then has Roy changed so drastically from Melee? Again, this is only my own thoughts on how this might have come about, but I think that Sakurai looked back at Melee Roy and what he intended Roy to be, and realized the result didn’t match the planning. He was, as we all know, mainly a worse Marth. So, in order to emphasize the whole idea of having the sword that does more damage up close, and also perhaps giving him a feel akin to Melee, he was given high movement specs, effective throw combos, etc, and in exchange he gets wrecked off-stage. Roy’s character identity becomes a swordsman who charges in and values offense over defense, and any buffs or nerfs that happen to him in the future will likely still reflect this concept.
In other words, Concept/Meaning > Viability from a game design perspective. Of course, it’s not bad if you have both, but balancing a character in the context of a video game isn’t just making them stronger or weaker but doing it in a way that allows the individuality of the character, and thus the person who plays that character, to shine through.