The Hero in Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Skill Found in Randomness

When the Hero from Dragon Quest was first revealed as a playable character in Smash Bros. Ultimate, there were hints as to how the character would function, but few were able to predict that the character would be so volatile. Because the Hero has not one but multiple random mechanics that can make him both inconsistent and unpredictable, part of the conversation surrounding the character has revolved around whether the character’s “luck” elements hurt competitive Smash Bros. There’s even talk, however small, about the possibility of banning the character outright.

The Hero has smash attacks that can randomly trigger critical hits (effectively double damage). He has a spell menu the contents of which are random every time you open it. He even has a spell inside the spell menu that gives random results. So the fear is somewhat understandable—especially given the scene’s general dislike toward and removal of spawning items (i.e. a major random element) from tournament play.

While there are many arguments to make for why banning the Hero is a bad idea—the character is simply too new to understand his impact on high-level play, for one—I want to make a different case about his merits. Specifically, I believe that the Hero and his special mechanics provide new and interesting tests of skill that revolve around managing randomness without the major downsides and stigma of items-on play.

Skill and Luck Are Not Opposites

Before this argument can move forward, it is necessary to try and dispel an idea that has plagued competitive Smash since the earliest days: the false dichotomy between skill and luck. On a surface level, randomness interfering with skill makes sense because a coin flip, for example, can’t be modified through talent and effort.

But competitive scenes exist for games with heavy elements of chance, and in these environments, the question of how to navigate, take advantage of, and cope with random chance is ongoing.

Magic: The Gathering

People complain that their opponent topdecked their only out the turn they needed it, but do not realise that often their own poor play either gave their opponent more turns to draw the out or overcommitted turning the eventual out into one in the first place. —“There’s No Such Thing as Luck.”

Japanese mahjong (plus poker)

Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image…. [I]t’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine. —Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There’s even a very good video from Game Developer’s Conference 2017 by designer Skaff Elias all about the false dichotomy between skill and luck.

Those who think that they have unfairly lost a Smash Bros. match due to a Mr. Game & Watch Judge 9 would likely fall into a coma if confronted by some of the agonizing probability-based losses that Texas Hold ’em players have to go through. But whereas Smash players have historically shunned randomness, other games use randomness as an opportunity to test two things: how well you can take advantage of good luck and how well you can mitigate bad luck. While complete randomness with no opportunity to interact doesn’t provide much room for interaction, good games of chance give players plenty of opportunities to show how they can roll with the punches.

Although it’s early on, I feel that the Hero provides enough avenues for both the user and the opponent to manage the character’s random elements. This, in turn, is what makes him different from turning on items—which, for the record, I am also not against, but I’ve learned long ago that trying to convince Smashers to play with items is a losing battle. Still, I think there’s hope for the Hero.

Random Factor 1: Critical Hits

Let’s first look at the Hero’s smash attacks. They are quite strong in terms of sheer power; forward smash can kill a Pichu at the ledge at around 50%. But there’s also a 1 in 8 chance to land a critical hit, which turns a roughly 20% damage attack into a 40%+ monster capable of KOing opponents close to 0%. There is no way to prevent or induce a critical hit artificially once an attack lands, so neither the Hero or the opponent can control when they happen.

The only way to guarantee not getting blasted by a critical hit is to avoid getting hit at all. But while that sounds ridiculous at first, there are a couple of limiting factors: the Hero has to actively choose to use a smash attack, and the actual moves have numerous flaws that make landing hits easier said than done.

The Hero’s up smash is similar to Marth and Lucina’s—a vertical stab straight up into the air—but unlike theirs, the Hero cannot hit anyone standing next to him. In fact, the horizontal range of the smash attack is so narrow that the opponent has to be virtually right on top for it to connect. Down smash is fairly quick and hits both sides, but is the weakest and unlikely to KO without the power of a critical hit. Forward smash is the best one, but it’s relatively slow and doesn’t reach quite as far as one might expect. Outside of the critical hit factor, all three are lacking.

And much like Mr. Game & Watch’s Judge hammer or Luigi’s Green Missile, the Hero’s smash attacks have to be deliberately chosen. They do not just happen randomly without anyone’s control, as if they were Bob-ombs spawning into a player’s attack. So the critical hits are random and they are extremely powerful, but they’re locked behind slow, somewhat unreliable moves that leave the Hero vulnerable.

Every smash attack is a roll of the dice, except those dice are cumbersome gigantic novelty ones and the table you’re rolling on is a toddler’s high chair. While they don’t have any random negative side effects like Judge, they’re inherently risky. Most importantly, the Hero player has to actively make the decision when and where to take those swings—they don’t just happen automatically.

Random Factor 2: Command Selection

Hero’s down B special is Command Selection, in which the Hero pulls up a menu of spells and special strikes, and it’s the other area of contention in regards to fairness because of how multiple layers of randomness are built into the move. First, only four spells can be displayed at a time, and it will change every time the menu is re-opened. Second, the order in which the spells show up is also inconsistent. Third, two of the spells—Whack and Thwack—have a probability of instantly KOing an opponent; the higher their damage, the more likely they’re toast. Fourth, the spell Hocus Pocus is literally a spell that randomly triggers either a move from the existing list of commands or additional modifiers both beneficial and detrimental. Although highly unlikely, it is actually possible for the Hero to hit down b, blindly pick Hocus Pocus, have Hocus Pocus trigger Thwack, and kill an opponent at 0%.

While there’s no doubt that getting destroyed by such an unusual chain of events could tilt just about anyone, I think focusing on those edge cases would be more a symptom of focusing too much on isolated results in the short term rather than consistency in the long term. Moreover, while the spell list is random, it doesn’t remove skill. Rather, it tests the players’ ability to assess what is worth using every time it opens, and to act accordingly.

Above, I mentioned games like Yu-Gi-Oh! as examples where players must randomness into account when strategizing. When it comes to Command Selection, this comparison is especially apt, because opening up the menu is not unlike drawing cards in a TCG. While there is an element of luck, it’s the responsibility of the player to be able to adjust their approach–to sometimes turn lemons into lemonade. There’s also a common mechanic in trading card games called a “mulligan,” where a hand that’s sufficiently terrible can be discarded and replaced in its entirety. The Hero essentially has the ability to mulligan his hand at any moment, but with the caveat that the opponent can see what the Hero’s options are, and that he can’t keep any of the “cards” he doesn’t use. A good Hero has to be able to build upon the tools available to him in a given moment, and just because it’s uncommon in competitive Smash doesn’t mean it’s not a skill worth testing and valuing. The ability to improvise on the fly and be effective at crisis management in the face of external forces somewhat beyond the players themselves is good.

Conclusion

Luck can bless the Hero, or it can curse him, but there are multiple caveats that make him a worthy character who should be welcomed in tournaments. First, he has to be in a position to test that luck in the first place, and most if not all of his random-outcome moves are telegraphed or announced in some way. Second, just because he gets a lucky or unlucky move doesn’t mean the match ends there—both Hero and opponent have to be able to make the best of a situation. The result is a character who works to find chances and has to adjust on the fly to external forces, and those who master this are the likeliest to find success built not on favorable fortune but the ability to seize opportunity.

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