When reading comments from devoted fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, certain aspects touted as strengths are things I can appreciate as well. Just like theme, I can enjoy the dexterity, devotion, game sense, and speed required to compete in high-level Melee. However, what I find complicates matters is that elements of the game that would be normally be considered a matter of taste are argued as “objective strengths” by its most ardent supporters.
As a result, I’ve wondered why Melee fans love their game to this extent, and why it might appear to them be strictly better to the extent that such a view would be presumed to be “unbiased.” Why do some argue that a game like Smash 4, with a slower-paced neutral but a higher emphasis on more traditional “footsies,” is a disappointment? Why is the idea that a game that emphasizes reads above all else, especially physical skill, is argued to be a simpler and thus less competitive endeavor?
There are two key points that I see come up repeatedly. First is the idea that, because Melee has fewer neutral interactions per game than its sequels, Smash Bros. Brawl and Smash Bros. for Wii U, this means each neutral interaction matters more. When it’s pointed out that having more resets to neutral means having to predict the opponent more often, this is considered a knock against other games because their neutrals are “less complex.” This then extends to everything else. The punish game is deeper because it has some sort of goldilocks level of just enough control on the part of the opponent being combo’d, but not so much that they can reset to neutral easily. In short, arguments in favor of Melee often come down to the idea the game has more to do at any given moment and is faster, and is therefore better.
After some thinking, an analogy occurred to me. Imagine that you’re playing two different games of “guess the right card.” The first one is Three-Card Monte. The dealer shows you the three cards in advance, tells you that you get to play five times, and your goal is to find the ace of spades. Then the dealer starts to move the cards around, shuffling them and employing various forms of sleight of hand to trick you into picking the wrong one.
In the second version of the game, the dealer simply presents you with three cards face down, and again, you have to find the ace of spades. No shuffling, no movement, just “you have a one in three chance of guessing the right card.” However, instead of playing only five times, you get to play 20 times.
In the case of the first example, Three-Card Monte, the fact that there is a process by which the player is allowed to observe the dealer rearrange his card implies that, if a player is observant enough, they can completely circumvent the need to guess. If their eyes can correctly follow the movement of the ace of spades, even through all the tricks, then they will win 100% of the time. Though trying to figure out the dealer’s decision-making quirks can help, and if you’re not fast enough then the game pretty much becomes somewhat “random,” there is a kind of physical/technical ideal that a player can potentially reach that guarantees a path to a right answer. This, I think, is the appeal of Smash Bros. Melee to many of its diehard fans. That is not to say that it requires no thinking or prediction, but the possibility that one can always pick the right choice if one is fast enough and sharp enough, makes it feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to competition.
This is where I think many Melee fans start to lose sight as to how “simpler” games can go about still prioritizing certain factors that a game that “has everything” might not necessarily be able to achieve. Going back to the second example, the “face-down, guess the card” version, it can appear as if the game just has less to do. After all, the “only” thing you’re doing is making 1-in-3 guesses, and there are no extra layers of interaction such as trying to see through the dealer’s chicanery. But the fact that there is no upper ideal of being able to see “through the game” means something. Even if there are fewer avenues for improvement, the very fact that your ability to dissect the dealer’s decision-making based on past turns changes the dynamic of what skills and abilities are prioritized by the game, especially when one is given more chances to win. With 20 tries instead of five, the player must rely on their ability to pick up on any tendencies the dealer might possess. They also must understand that, no matter how far they’ve read into the dealer’s mind, there’s also a chance they might be wrong. In other words, your main tools are the ability to make reads, and your ability to make decisions even knowing that in some cases you will inevitably be wrong.
This isn’t to say that the Three-Card Monte approach is bad, or that it isn’t something games should strive for (if they choose to go in that direction). Neither Melee nor Smash 4 actually fall into the two extremes listed above. Both games require some degree of physical skill, and both require at least a certain amount of getting into the opponent’s head. Because Melee has that Three-Card Monte appeal, where a sense of uncertainty in one’s decisions can be washed away with enough technical prowess (at least up to a certain point), it encourages the active building of physical skill that can make training feel more directly rewarding. In the end, it’s not a matter of which game has “more”, but rather how the values of gameplay and competition emphasized in each game attract players differently.