Smash Bros. and the Concept of Restrictive Consequences

When two games are of the same franchise, comparisons are inevitable, as is the case with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Between Ultimate being the hottest new thing and in many ways the peak of Smash’s video game crossover premise, and Melee being the game that has stood the test of time after 20 years, the two understandably act as points of reference to each other. But one thing that has frustrated me when seeing people bring up the differences between Melee and Ultimate in terms of high-level competitive play is that there’s often a tacit assumption about Melee’s qualities being inherently better for the platform fighters. What’s worse is that Ultimate fans rarely come to the kind of spirited defense that Melee fans are willing to bring. 

However, after listening and reading to so many reviews, posts, and other sources that compare Melee and Ultimate on some level, I’ve come to realize a big reason why this happens. Essentially, Melee is such an outlier, not just in terms of Smash Bros. but fighting games in general, that it attracts a loyal audience whose main basis for what makes a game fun is heavily rooted in that love of Melee. Specifically, what Melee players and fans cherish is a heavy sense of physical freedom at all times—provided you have the skill, knowledge, and dexterity to earn it. In turn, games that emphasize heavily restricting movement (especially when in a disadvantageous position) are seen as a less enjoyable and skill-rewarding experience. 

A Love of “Jazz” Above All Else

There’s a popular moment from the 2010 documentary The Smash Brothers, where the ex-commentator Prog likens Melee to jazz. Contained within that analogy is the idea that what the two have in common is being freeform and improvisational in ways that value expressiveness and openness. While this sentiment is a little more abstract, you can see it conveyed in more concrete, if perhaps less poetic terms elsewhere. 

One example is a Reddit post titled “Does anyone else think Ultimate has a super obnoxious, uninteractive disadvantage state?” In it, user gajuby discusses what they believe are Ultimate’s weaknesses compared to Melee. Another example comes from a Youtube video titled “Is Melee a Good Game?” by AsumSaus, who emphasizes that freedom of movement in multiple scenarios is one of the things that makes him love Melee.

Here’s a quote from gajuby:

Easily my least favorite part of ultimate…is ledgetrapping. So many characters ledgetrap so effortlessly that it feels barely interactive. It never felt fun that against a lot of characters, it was a 50/50 between “jump” and “every other options”, especially against characters that could stay outside the range of ledge hopped aerials.

This is eventually followed by a comparison to Melee:

And finally, getting off of the ledge. I still often die when doing ledge dashes, but I absolutely love that they basically bypass the ledge trapping stage altogether. It takes away that whole obnoxious, tiresomely long stage of the game, the phase that honestly makes me dislike ultimate a lot of the time, despite its amazing roster and balance.

Similar to the Reddit post, AsumSaus’s review (which to be fair is more about looking at Melee as both a singleplayer and multiplayer experience), he laments the state of Ultimate’s platforms to Melee’s, with the former allowing for many more possibilities.

In Melee, platforms are mechanically versatile and extremely deep. Many players base their entire playstyles on platforms and how they use them to their advantage. It’s a reminder of how much more fun neutral and combos are when platforms are fun and easy to move around on. In Ultimate, however, the same platforms that make Smash Bros. as a series so unique represent how the developers have chosen to limit the number of options to move and interact. (23:42)

I want to highlight how indicative these statements are of the Melee mindset. For reference, a ledge dash—also known as an invincible ledge dash—is an advanced technique that allows a character to get off the ledge and move forward while invulnerable and able to execute a move. It is, as stated in the quote above, capable of completely negating the advantage of the opponent’s position, with  the only drawback being difficulty of execution. 

As for the matter of what roles platforms should serve in Smash, AsumSaus’s argument boils down to the idea that their purpose should be multifaceted and allow for enhancing offense and defense, depending on the situation. Platforms being more like “hazards” that put you in a bad position relative to an opponent standing below doesn’t sit well with him. So, what should be inherently bad positions can be easily dealt with in Melee through sheer technical skill, in essence allowing more educated fingers to reliably overcome the odds (Starcraft: Brood War gets similar praise from its players).

By comparison, being on the ledge in Smash is akin to being in the corner in other fighting games, where being above an opponent comes with a severe set of drawbacks as well. Generally speaking, in most games in the genre, there is really no such thing as an “invincible corner escape” that also grants the versatility of being able to attack simultaneously. And whereas Melee especially allows a player getting hit to “DI” an attack and influence the trajectory they fly as a way to try and escape combos, most fighting games feature combos that are mostly inescapable. What’s even more telling is that these frustrations over Ultimate don’t necessarily come from being in bad spots, but rather having one’s options severely limited by being in bad spots.

For someone like me who prefers Ultimate, the bones tossed at Ultimate players can feel almost condescending, even if that’s not the intention. Stating that “Ultimate is better balanced across the cast” typically comes with the caveat that the variety and balance at the top level of Melee is superior. “The game is easier for beginners to get into and do well in” is a backhanded compliment to Ultimate that highlights how difficult Melee can be to play. One thing that these opinions seem to fail to take into account is how the sheer versatility of movement in Melee is what imbalances the roster so heavily in the first place. A game where mobility is absolutely paramount basically invalidates slower, heavier characters who would have a much harder time in a Melee environment, unless severe changes were made. That being said, I can understand how, to someone whose primary (if not only) game is Melee, all other games can feel like having your wings clipped.

But as for what other approaches to competitive multiplayer can offer Melee players, commentator Toph relayed his own thoughts on the matter in an episode of the Scar & Toph Show Podcast. When Sajam (a commentator of more traditional fighting games) talks about a more conventional game game like Granblue Fantasy Versus having more reductive options compared to Melee, Toph responds as follows:

…That’s actually kinda what I’m liking about playing it, actually—the fact that I’ve never really played a game that’s a little more reductive in terms of the option set…. I’ve mostly been like a Melee player through my competitive life in my 20s…. With Melee, there’s always this sense that, like, you can find some new option, or you can find some new answer—the option space is so wide. I think, for me, it’s been good to play a game where the option set is a little smaller, and the game speed is a little bit toned down, because, like, now I have to be really careful…. 

In a game like Melee, I can jump, and if I realize it was a bad jump midway…I can hold back and I’m out of there, or I can waveland on the platform, or I can fuckin’ fastfall or not fastfall, or I can fastfall a little later, so that I fuck their timing up. Or I can fastfall a little later and drift back at the same time, or I can drift forward if they think I’m gonna drift back. In a game like Granblue, if I do a bad jump, I did a bad jump, and I’m gonna get fuckin’ anti-aired for 50% if I push a button…. It’s really been fun for me to experience the other side of things.

In summary, Super Smash Bros. Melee brings out an extremely loyal fan base who can find it hard to play other games with as much enthusiasm because of how unique Melee and its extreme emphasis on freedom of mobility are in the grand scheme of competitive offerings. However, this can result in Melee fans seeing things primarily in Melee terms, unable to see the merits of other Smash titles and other fighting games in general—particularly those where powerful limitations are a fundamental basis for both the fun and the competitive core of a title. It can benefit players to see these titles not as inferior but as providing a different interactive environment whose focused and pared down concepts of decision-making and reward/punishment offer another kind of fun.

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