Tier lists are a staple part of discussions in any competitive gaming community. No matter the approach or philosophy, they’re an attempt to make sense of a game’s elements, and a well thought out tier list can be an opportunity for fruitful discussion. A few months back, I watched a video by Super Smash Bros. Melee player/commentator Toph, in which he goes over a Melee “tier” list by another player named Ginger. Much like how it blew Toph’s mind, I found it really fascinating myself.
Ginger ranks the characters not by how strong they are, how likely they are to win a tournament, overall matchup spread, or any of the standard conceptions of tier lists. Instead, it’s about where characters fall on a spectrum between what he calls “essence” and “fill.” The video mostly explains what those terms mean, but they’re not obvious upfront. Actually, they’re pretty obtuse, but I’m sticking with them so as not to further introduce new vocabulary.
Basically, “essence” means characters who mainly play by aiming towards certain central win conditions or moves, whereas “fill” means sort of “throw the kitchen sink at ’em” characters who try to use smoke and mirrors to win the day. In the context of Melee, Ice Climbers are considered a “pure essence” character because chain grabs (be they infinite or otherwise) are so fundamental to their play. Falco is considered “all fill” at the highest levels of play because he really has to rely on his entire kit to win, but at lower level is considered an “essence” character because his fundamental tools (his power short hop laser and his down b being a combo starter) are so difficult for less skilled and experienced players to deal with. Other terms used to describe this difference used in this video (as well as a follow-up) are essence = meat and potatoes, and filler = smoke and mirrors.
It’s also worth noting that just because a character is more “essence” or more “fill” doesn’t mean they’re only good at one or the other. Fox can do well in both (which is probably why he’s arguably the best character there), but he’s simply even better at “fill” stuff. It also doesn’t say which characters are stronger overall, with top and bottom tiers being strewn throughout each category.
With that in mind, I made a quick chart for how I think characters fall in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, roughly in order within tiers. Due to fundamental differences in the games, I think there’s a higher percentage of “essence” characters in Ultimate than Melee, but I will be the first to admit that I don’t have the experience to speak for most characters. These are built on my perceptions playing against them here and there, as well as watching many tournaments.
Framing characters along this spectrum has helped me think about why certain characters might appeal to certain types of players regardless of competitive viability. A player who finds more satisfaction out of forcing their opponents to play around a specifically potent and efficient attacks of an essence-based character may not enjoy the constant mix-ups and obfuscations that fill-based characters thrive on. Different match-ups might become more frustrating for some people than others because it might require switching from fill to essence-based play or vice versa. In a way, it could potentially be less of a tier list and more of a psychology test.
The spectrum vs. fill contrast can also help explain how characters may have changed in the transition between games. For example, I consider Mewtwo to be a “mostly fill” character in Ultimate because while it has certain kill confirms and reliable go-to attacks (Shadow Ball), Mewtwo generally has to focus on trying to slowly build up its wins using the full range of its tools. However, I think Smash 4 Mewtwo is more of a “mostly essence” character because its down tilt could combo more easily (thus making it the de facto tool in neutral), the nair into footstool into disable could net KOs so easily, and its powerful air dodge made reversing situations fairly simple.
This way of thinking about characters and players can extend beyond Smash into other competitive games, and even beyond gaming into other areas. For example, I find it to be a great way to categorize different professional wrestlers in terms of their in-ring styles. Who is more “essence” than Hulk Hogan, who famously won most of his matches with a combo of Hulk Up into Big Boot into Leg Drop? On the flipside, AJ Styles is the definition of “fill” because while he has no one devastating move that all but guarantees victory, his character is portrayed as someone who has developed a variety of finishers that can be adapted to virtually any situation.
You can also apply it to the differences between visual artists. A “pure essence” artist would be one who can fully imagine the finished product and then work towards that image, while an “all fill” artist would be one who doesn’t have it fully formed in their mind’s eye but slowly builds up towards something. It doesn’t say anything about skill, talent, or hard work—it’s a difference in how one perceives and interacts with the world on a creative level.
So whether it’s Smash or something else entirely, I think the essence vs. fill spectrum is a useful thought exercise. It’s something I might come back to in the future.