Sephiroth in Smash Is Uncharted Competitive Territory

Sephiroth has officially been released for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, though many people had already gotten their hands on him thanks to the Sephiroth Challenge: a special boss fight with the new DLC character where the reward was early access. Having tried out the One-Winged Angel for a few days myself, I’d like to give my initial impressions of the character, and how I think he’ll pan out in more competitive play.

During this preview period, I’ve seen assessments of Sephiroth go anywhere from disappointingly mediocre to potential top tier. Based on personal experience, I can see why. Sephiroth seems to have qualities that are often death sentences for viability (large body easily prone to getting hit, slow and laggy attacks) but also ones that make for powerful characters (extremely large sword, high mobility, versatility, a built-in comeback factor). In other words, while Sephiroth is nowhere near as unorthodox as Steve from Minecraft, he still possesses a combination of qualities that have never really existed in Smash Bros. before. As #1 player in the world MKLeo puts it, he’s like Byleth (a similarly range-focused character), except Sephiroth trades attack speed for better movement. And in Smash, movement is generally king. 

The sheer size of Sephiroth’s Masamune changes everything. It goes without saying, but the sword is loooong. Cases where an opponent would otherwise be safe rolling away can still get them caught by the end of a sword swipe, and not even because of a particularly impressive read. Spacing both as and against Sephiroth is just different, especially if you factor in his other special moves, which are designed to scare opponents into making bad decisions. The ability to fake out with a Flare charge cancel, to get people to panic with Shadow Flare, or even catch someone slipping with a deadly Octoslash means that it’s easy for Sephiroth to fight on his terms.

That’s not to say Sephiroth’s aforementioned weaknesses are trivial. Like Mewtwo, he’s both tall and light, meaning it’s easy for him to take damage and die early. Sephiroth has issues with being smothered by quick and agile characters who can bait out his attacks and punish their endlag. His frame data is objectively lackluster, and his closest reliable option out of shield is a dismal neutral air with a frame-9 startup (though its utility on offense is much greater). His faster attacks also require a lot more precision, as they tend to be long but thin stabbing motions that don’t cover much space to the sides of the sword. However, Sephiroth in neutral generally looks to have an answer for everything, and it’s a matter of finding what works. I was playing online and losing games to a Fox—exactly the kind of character who can get in your face and stay there—but I managed to eventually win just by using my attacks differently. Down smash’s heavy shield damage can make defensive play unreliable, Scintilla’s ability to push back aggression, and up tilt’s generous scooping hitbox made charging in less free once I realized what to do.

On top of all this is Sephiroth’s One-Winged mode, which improves his stats across the board, as well as giving him super armor on smash attacks and a third jump. Activated when Sephiroth takes a certain amount of damage, it makes him scary in a manner akin to Limit Cloud, because the enhanced mobility makes possible things that would have been out of the question otherwise. Luckily for anyone facing him, he’s still light to the point that it won’t take much to KO him and remove his enhancements temporarily, but it can be like fighting (and using) a different character.

Speaking of Cloud, in comparison to his fated rival, Sephiroth is definitely not meant to be a beginner’s character. Whereas Cloud has extremely good mobility and hitboxes that are both safe and generous, Sephiroth can’t just throw things out willy nilly and hope for the best. Cloud can be played intelligently, but Sephiroth needs brains to function well if your opponent knows what to expect. He just has so many attacks with so many particular uses, it’s going to take a long while before even the best players know how to fully utilize everything he can do.

As for where I think Sephiroth will end up in terms of viability, I’m bullish on his future performance, and can see him at least in high tier. Slow attack speed is never a good thing, but imagine if you took Ganondorf and just gave him a sword as big as Sephiroth’s. It wouldn’t necessarily make Ganondorf a top tier, but it would open up possibilities on offense and defense in a big way. Thus, while Sephiroth has his fair share of pronounced flaws, he also possesses a unique combination of laggy yet powerful ranged attacks along with tricky movement and specials such that the drawbacks of the former can be mitigated by the latter with smart spacing. The very fact that MKLeo is interested in using Sephiroth might also very well give him a huge boost in visibility early on. 

Sephiroth and Villainous Presence in Smash Bros.

Sephiroth has been announced as the latest DLC guest character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to great fanfare. I certainly didn’t expect him because I figured they would want to spread their 3rd party characters among as many companies and franchises as possible for the widest marketing reach—let alone having a second Final Fantasy VII character, even if there is a big remake currently.  Why Sephiroth?

The answer, I surmise, is that he fulfills an ongoing theme of having villains to contrast some of the biggest heroes in Ultimate. This is the game that added Ridley and King K. Rool to the roster, and K. Rool’s trailer even emphasizes the different rival pairings that exist in Smash. There’s a special place for the One-Winged Angel in the pantheon of video game villains, and he more than deserves a place among the other all-stars in Smash. Sephiroth is the first third-party villain in the game, and the first villain DLC.

But Sephiroth’s appearance makes me realize something: much to my chagrin, it’s highly unlikely that any antagonist or boss can get into Smash as a playable character without there first being a protagonist to contrast them. I would wager that, in another universe where Cloud had not managed to debut in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U, he would have been the one to appear now instead of Sephiroth. It’s understandable why they would go for heroes before villains, given that the bad guys are usually not the most prominent mascots of their video games, and the good guys are usually the player characters. Even a generic hero like, well, Hero, takes precedence over Zoma or Dragonlord from the Dragon Quest series. 

There is a game that has leaned more toward villainy when it comes to its guest characters, though. Tekken 7 has Geese Howard but not Terry Bogard, Akuma but not Ryu, and Neegan but not whoever the protagonist of The Walking Dead is. That’s a very different sort of environment, of course, given that Tekken is a standalone world and not inherently a crossover like Smash is. Again, I see why Smash would not want standalone bosses to take up too much of the roster, but I’ve just always thought it would be a nice way to add some diversity without taking up two slots instead of one.

Of course, nothing is ever set in stone with Smash in terms of how or why new characters are chosen, but I think “villains second” just makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t. The only possible exception I could see is if said antagonist all but defines a certain video game’s identity. Which is to say, maybe Carmen Sandiego still has a shot…?

In any case, I’m looking forward to the Sephiroth gameplay reveal.

Pokémon Journeys, the Original Mewtwo, and Playing with Canon

In a surprising move, the current Pokémon TV anime (called Pokémon Journeys in English and simply Pocket Monsters in Japanese) recently brought back the original super legendary, Mewtwo. And not just any Mewtwo, but the one who debuted over 20 years ago as the Viridian City Gym’s trump card. Mewtwo is my favorite character in all the anime, so there’s a personal thrill to seeing its return, but there’s added significance as well: the continued acknowledgement of the canonicity of events in and connected to the first film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and an emphasis that what has happened over the anime’s long history still matters.

The Pokémon anime tends to play a little fast and loose with its canon, resulting in strange discrepancies, especially when it comes to the divide between the films and the weekly series. Aside from Mewtwo Strikes Back, whose plot ties directly into the TV anime, it’s always unclear—likely intentionally so—whether the events of the other movies actually “happened.” This isn’t unusual when it comes to films based on popular anime—nearly all the Dragon Ball Z movies are non-canon, and the popular movie-only character Broly had to be reintroduced into that universe in a canonical entry, Dragon Ball Super: Broly

In the world of Pokémon, this has meant that, despite the fact that certain legendary Pokémon are meant to be the only one of their kind, Satoshi (Ash Ketchum) has encountered multiple versions. After he helped a telepathic Lugia save the world in Revelation-Lugia, he would later encounter a different one that could not communicate psychically and, in fact, was trying to raise a child (Lugia is not supposed to be able to breed). Even Mewtwo, whose whole story is that it is a one-of-a-kind artificial creation made to be unmatched in combat, would see a second distinct version show up in the 16th movie.

In the recent episode, there is no mistaking that the Mewtwo seen is the original. When it first appears, Mewtwo slowly descends as ominous background music from Mewtwo Strikes Back and the Mewtwo Lives TV special can be heard. When Mewtwo speaks, its gruff yet soulful masculine voice is that of the original actor, Ichimura Masachika, as opposed to the feminine voice of the 16th movie Mewtwo’s Takashima Reiko. And when Satoshi and Goh lay eyes on Mewtwo, their reactions couldn’t be more different: whereas Goh is shocked by seeing something unfamiliar, Satoshi and Pikachu immediately recognize the Genetic Pokémon and even say its name. 

However, it’s not as if Mewtwo and Satoshi start to recall their two encounters. Mewtwo doesn’t even say anything about already knowing Satoshi, and Satoshi doesn’t bring anything up beyond that initial recognition. While this might be frustrating to fans who’d like to see a more concrete nod to Mewtwo and Satoshi’s connection, I think the current anime is trying hard to balance a lot of different paradoxical elements that exist within Pokémon and Satoshi himself. He’s somehow both the veteran with years of experience under his belt and the plucky young amateur who has much to learn—perpetually 10 years old for over 20 years. Satoshi’s many adventures have happened (including at least one film), but he’s also still meant to be an audience-representative character for young viewers tuning into the anime for the first time, even as Goh fulfills a similar role (though his character is closer to a scholar or researcher). Furthermore, by having Satoshi not say much, it reinforces the idea that he hasn’t let his previous experiences get to his head. A similar moment happens in the second episode of the current series, where Lugia speaks to Satoshi (and only Satoshi) telepathically, hinting that this one might just very well be the one we see in the second movie.

Trying to fully reconcile the Pokémon anime canon would be a foolish endeavor because it’s only as consistent as it needs to be in any one moment. Satoshi is forever a challenger, even as he wins championships. But given what the anime is trying to be, a long-running series that wants to feel both familiar and new at the same time, it’s not a bad place to be. And seeing the original Ichimura-voiced Mewtwo n the year 2020 is a nostalgic and thrilling experience. Mewtwo’s appearance speaks to the idea that the past of Pokémon still matters even as we continue to move into the future. 

500 “Easy” Steps: Rivals of Aether

Rivals of Aether is a success story. Its creator, Dan Fornace, made a Gameboy-style Smash Bros. game called Super Smash Land back in 2011, before eventually turning his attention toward designing his own original platform fighter in 2014. Since then, Rivals of Aether has grown a loyal fanbase and an enduring competitive scene, and now has ended up on the Nintendo Switch—the current flagship console of the very game that inspired Fornace in the first place. This port has also been my opportunity to finally try Rivals firsthand.

The game is fun and oozes personality. Its premise—various animal-based fighters living in a world of strife between neighboring nations—is sparse yet elegant. Its characters, rendered in 2D sprites instead of 3D models, are memorable both in terms of visual design and animation. In this respect, it’s a lot more impressive than its genre cousin Brawlhalla, whose animations are pretty much universally recycled from one fighter to the next. Rivals of Aether has built up a compelling world that’s as simple or complex as it needs to be, and leaves room for more story characters should a sequel ever be made (like the behind-the-scenes antagonist, Emperor Loxodont).

But gameplay is the selling point of Rivals, and from that perspective, it very clearly uses tournament-level Super Smash Bros. Melee for the Nintendo Gamecube as its foundation. It’s not just that it includes more forgiving forms of dash dancing and wavedashing, two staple skills of high-level Melee. Nor is it that the lack of shield and grab mechanics is meant to encourage more aggressive play akin to Melee. Rather, it also features a number of characters whose fighting styles are largely amalgamations or remixes of Melee characters. Absa, an electric goat, is like a mix of Pikachu, Ness, and Zelda between the thunder attacks and darting recovery, peculiar double jumps, and powerful sweetspot-centric lightning kicks. The main character, a lion named Zetterburn, is clearly cut from the same cloth as Fox and Falco, between his combo-starting Reflector-esque move, his quick projectile, and his trade-off between a strong onstage presence and a relatively weak but maneuverable recovery. It’s very telling that the flagship character is based on the most popular archetype (the “space animal”) in competitive Melee.

That said, there are a lot of innovative ideas among the fighters. Wrastor is a bird who is unable to perform “strong attacks” (the Rivals term for smash attacks) on the ground, but unlike the others can use them in the air. Sylvanos grows grass wherever he walks, enhancing his moves in different ways. If you’re looking for a complex and/or unorthodox character, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into.

On the flip-side, however, one issue I’ve encountered is that there’s really no such thing as a “simple” character in Rivals. Absa is not only Pikachu+Ness+Zelda, but also summons clouds that stay on screen capable of chaining lightning, and if you kick the clouds with your special lightning kick, they explode. Forsburn can generate smokescreen that obscures his movement, but he can also inhale the smokescreen to increase his damage or ignite the smokescreen, in addition to creating an illusory doppelganger. Guest character Shovel Knight gains gems from hitting opponents, which he can then use at an item shop he summons to buy armor modifications, but also he can go fishing offstage to bring up objects as well. Even Zetterburn bucks the general trend of main characters being beginner-friendly: his own tutorial says he’s good for players already familiar with other platform fighters, but he’s patterned after two of the most physically challenging characters in Smash Bros. Melee. On top of that, Zetterburn has a “burn” mechanic, where opponents he sets on fire take extra damage from his attacks. 

It’s not that complex characters are bad—quite the opposite, in fact. They add great variety to fighting games and appeal to those looking for characters that require a lot of work to master. Even the Smash Bros. franchise just recently released the extremely involved Minecraft Steve character. But most of the time, fighting games try to at least appeal to players who don’t want too many bells and whistles. For every Steve in Smash, Venom in Guilty Gear, or even Akira in Virtua Fighter, there’s a Mario, Sol Badguy, or Lau Chan. The fact that Rivals of Aether doesn’t even bother to make this concession speaks volumes to its tournament Melee influence. Having watched some tournaments, I understand that there is great reward for those who dedicate the time and effort to really mastering their characters, but it does feel like there’s an intentionally high “skill mezzanine”—i.e. the minimum skill required to start to play a game at a decent level.

Rivals of Aether is solid in presentation and gameplay with a decent singleplayer and a robust multiplayer, but it’s laser-focused on drawing in a certain kind of player. If you love the general pace and feel of Smash Bros. Melee but want something that offers a meaningful difference, it’s a fine title. If not, Rivals is still pretty good.

Anime Faces: VTuber vs. Horror Games

Horror games are a staple of the Youtuber. Between the sense of anticipation and the payoff of screams of terror, it’s been a classic stepping stone for many of the most popular online celebrities such as Markiplier. So, it comes as no surprise that the horror genre would find a home among Virtual Youtubers as well. Why mess with a reliable formula? But I do notice a difference when a VTuber goes this route: their inherently limited and artificially generated facial expressions transform the experience to a subtle yet noticeable degree.

When it comes to flesh-and-blood streamers, horror games are an opportunity for wild and exaggerated reactions. In some cases, they’re authentic, in others they’re choreographed, and there are surely plenty that fall somewhere in the middle. In essence, it doesn’t really matter too much whether they’re real freak-outs or not, provided they’re convincing enough to make it difficult to distinguish. Either you’re being genuine or you’re a skilled enough performer to seem genuine—or the viewers just want to see someone bouncing off the walls regardless of intent. The line blurs further when it comes to Virtual Youtubers. Which ones use their VTuber image as a disguise to protect their identity? Who embraces their character to be someone they’re not? These mysteries are rife with potential for speculation.

But whether or not the VTubers are being “real,” there is still an additional layer between them and us in the form of their CG avatars. Even if the shouts and shudders are authentic, they’re still being filtered through and limited by software that (as of 2020) does not capture the full range of human emotions that are communicated through our faces. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The relative simplicity of these avatars begins to take on an element of iconography by acting in the abstract and symbolic, which in turn makes it easy to read into VTubers’ expressions what we desire. 

Though this doesn’t count as horror (unless you have a fear of 1990s boy bands), I’m reminded of that video featuring three different Kizuna AI models “singing” “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. It’s based on a video of three real-life guys lip-syncing the song, but despite the obvious and intentional similarities, it still feels different. The fact that AI-chan’s “wide-eyed smirk” is more or less the same as her “angry screaming” in other videos is part of the amusement of the character. 

Other VTubers often have fewer facial expressions than AI-chan, and often barely any at all when it comes to VTubers who are just starting out. Still, that’s fine. While having a static image as an avatar is far from ideal, I would argue that the opposite might be even more off-putting. In other words, if a Virtual Youtubers’ facial expressions were too human, it would start to approach the uncanny valley, and I think the whole enterprise would lose some of its appeal.

Or maybe that would be perfect for Halloween and the horror game spirit…

This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.

Mind Craft: Steve in Smash Bros. Ultimate Impressions

The impossible has happened once again as Steve (and Alex) from Minecraft joins an increasingly unthinkable roster in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. While I’ve never touched Minecraft, I appreciate its creativity and the joy it has provided so many people young, old, and virtual. Having now played (and played against) him for the past few days, I would say that in both visual style and gameplay, Steve from Minecraft is likely the most bizarre character in franchise history. 

Where most characters end up having their appearances updated or at least rendered in finer detail, Steve joins Mr. Game & Watch in having a look deliberately hyper-faithful to his source material to the point of incongruity with the rest of Smash. In terms of his skill set, Steve moves differently, attacks differently, and his block-formation + resource-mining mechanics only have the loosest similarities to other fighters. He’s a little bit Olimar (gathering resources), a little bit Robin (resource management), and some degree of Mega Man (movement while attacking), but also far beyond being a simple chimera of those three. His blocks also kind of resemble what Kragg in Rivals of Aether and Olaf Tyson in Brawlout are capable of, but Steve’s version exists as more than just an unusual recovery move. 

I have quickly come to the conclusion that I’m not a good Steve player (and likely never will be), so I can’t offer any tips or hints as to how to best play the character. I can, however, talk about how it feels to struggle with and against Steve.

With Steve, moving around feels counterintuitive to what I’m accustomed to in Smash. For example, in Ultimate, one common way to avoid attacks is to jump. Unlike in previous games, all characters take the same amount of time to leap, so you can go above a lot of things, especially grabs. Steve, however, has one of the worst first jumps in the roster, and so he can actually get grabbed in situations where others wouldn’t. Steve needs to burn his second jump instead, which would be a bad idea for most other characters—except unlike everyone else, he can create a block underneath and restore his jumps instantly. You have to literally approach concepts like being grounded and being airborne in a new way compared to everyone else, and for me, it is taking a lot of time to get used to. 

In addition to not having any ups, Steve has some of the worst mobility stats in the game—roughly bottom 10 in nearly everything. He feels sluggish when I’m in control of him, but when I play against him, he somehow feels incredibly squirrely. I believe this is because of a combination of qualities Steve possesses. 

First, he can attack while walking in a fashion akin to Mega Man and Min Min, so he can retreat and advance with ease, even if he’s slow.

Second, he has a deceptively thin hurtbox that makes spacing moves against him difficult. “Hitting” his arms doesn’t do any damage, and often attacks that seem like they hit will whiff easily when combined with his ability to move back and forth easily.

Third, it’s very hard to tell what he’s doing based on his animations because so many of them overlap or look extremely similar. His walk, dash, run, roll, jump, and even his getting-hit animations all have the same ramrod-straight stance with arms and legs flailing, and his other actions aren’t far off. The fact that he remains “standing” while getting hit in the air also means he sometimes lands on platforms where others wouldn’t.

Fourth, his actual attacks are surprisingly fast, and the ability to rapidly throw out simple moves means it’s hard to tell when he’s vulnerable and when he isn’t.

When Steve is at full strength—plenty of resources to burn and diamond tools for early kills—he seems very strong. He lets a player be as creative as they want, and already, people are discovering unique combos, techniques, and glitches (that will likely get patched out). What he lacks in movement, he makes up for in fast, strong, and useful attacks, somewhat like Luigi. The Minecart looks like one of the best moves in the game at the moment, as it protects Steve from attacks, and the ability to stay in the cart (for an attack) or jump out (turning the cart into a grab) is a scary mixup. It’s basically Diddy Kong’s Monkey Flip on steroids, and I’m unsure of whether it’s the online setting that makes the move frustratingly difficult to react to, or if it’ll be just as potent online. I do feel that the character benefits a lot from lag, but it’s very possible that his quicker properties would be of greater benefit offline.

I’ve still yet to fully decide which characters I think do especially bad against Steve, but Little Mac’s reliance on ground movement means that blocks mess him up pretty easily, and his recovery is rife for exploitation by Steve’s crafting blocks and down-tilt (a descending fire attack). Big-body characters get comboed to hell and back by him, but I can see certain ones doing better or worse. I can’t quite figure out if Mewtwo does well against Steve or not, but I think the online environment plus the strength of Minecart is skewing my perceptions. 

As for which characters seem to demolish Steve, it’s likely characters who can either outcamp him, or who can quickly get close and overcome his attacks with better range. Zelda’s Din’s Fire can be a pain for Steve because its properties let it circumvent block placement. Marth and Lucina have the speed, strength, and long pointy swords to make life difficult. Shulk’s Monados may be hard to contend with as well. Also, the rigid hurtbox of Steve comes with a potential drawback: it looks strangely easy to hit him with sweetspot attacks, like Zelda’s lightning kicks and Marth’s tipper sword attacks. 

Of course, that’s all speculation on my part. Steve is such a decidedly non-cookie-cutter character that it’s going to be months or even years before he’s even halfway understood. If Smash Bros. is about bringing together all these different video game legends and showing off their unique qualities, then Steve feels like they imported an entirely new game engine into that universe. He’s both fun and annoying at the same time, and I suspect we’re going to be seeing a whole lot of him for a long while.

Hungry Hungry Hime: Princess Connect! Re:Dive

Anime based on gacha games generally have one overarching goal: get you to play the original mobile game. It’s unclear whether this approach is lucrative, and if anything, it comes across more as a serious flex to say, “Look at how much money we can put into making these gorgeous-looking anime adaptations. In this arena, Cygames is one of the kings. Between strong anime versions of Granblue Fantasy and Rage of Bahamut, among others, it’s exceedingly clear just how much money they have to throw around, given the gorgeous animation, strong writing, and excellent direction seen. 

In this respect, Princess Connect! Re:Dive is another success story. Despite the fact that it’s clearly meant to lure viewers into spending their paychecks, there’s no denying the ridiculously high production values and effort, as it ends up being one of the best-looking and most enjoyable anime of 2020. 

Princess Connect! Re:Dive takes place in a fantasy world and centers around an eclectic group of adventures who end up forming the Gourmet Guild, which is dedicated to trying out delicious foods all across the land (and not afraid to slay a monster or ten to get some grub). Leading the charge is Pecorine, an ultra-strong princess knight with a bottomless appetite, and joining her are white mage Kokkoro, the cat-eared black mage Karyl, and the strangely amnesiatic human boy Yuuki—the last of whom is clearly the “player character” from the game. 

I went into the Princess Connect! Re:Dive without any foreknowledge of the original game, and only with a faint awareness that it was getting high praise from animation buffs. I don’t know how much is based on the source material and how much comes from the anime staff putting in their own spin on things, but there were two main impressions I came away with:

First, the general world and premise are standard fantasy-mobile-game fare—a setting that ostensibly has an overarching ongoing story, but is more a vehicle for you to fall in love with the characters (and want to roll for them once you play the game). Second, the character work is so strong and consistent that it makes the first point more palatable. Major and minor characters alike are ridiculously charismatic, and well-traveled tropes like the moeblob, the tsundere, the yandere, and even bland male lead are portrayed in fun and refreshing ways. Yuuki’s characterization in particular is impressive, as the anime leans so hard into the concept of him being a potato that it falls through the ground and ends up on the other side of the world.

It might just be because I’m an adventurous eater and that I love food-themed anime and manga, but the very idea of the Gourmet Guild holds a lot of appeal to me. It gives plenty of opportunity to animate some amazing-looking dishes, and there’s a certain heartwarming vibe that comes with basing an adventuring team on “eat tasty things.” That innocence also becomes a narrative point, as the day-to-day pursuit of something so simple and pure connects with the motivations and inner conflicts of different characters. Sure, the big-picture story is pretty convoluted, but I still want to see Pecorine and the others succeed within that ridiculous world.

After I finished the anime, I looked up the original game, which is actually the second iteration of the Princess Connect! mobile game franchise—hence the Re:Dive appellation. Apparently, the two versions are tied together in some way, and the anime itself hints at this heavily. It’s not particularly clear what the connection is, and feels more like an attempt to simultaneously introduce Princess Connect! newbies like myself and inform veteran players alike of what’s going on. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters too much.

There’s a lot that’s pretty typical of the Princess Connect! Re:Dive anime, and by the time the final few episodes hit, you’ll know which of the countless numbers of cameos are probably the fan favorites. Still, even as the show is driving its sales pitch at you at full throttle, it’s still a superbly well done anime that fires on all cylinders. In a sense, efforts like these not only shatter the age-old stereotype that anime based on video games are terrible, but it’s even possible that anime like Princess Connect! Re:Dive are better than the games.

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.

Where in the World is the Next Smash Bros. Character?

I woke up one morning with an amazing idea: What if Carmen Sandiego became a Smash Bros. character?

Sure, there are a lot of things working against her. The Carmen Sandiego franchise is traditionally more about teaching kids geography than anything else, and there’s not much “gameplay” to speak of. There’s already a thief as a guest character in the form of Joker from Persona 5. She’s not even all that recognizable in this day and age, though people who grew up in the 1990s might know her through the various shows based on her that populated public and network television in the US. 

However, she would directly represent a genre of gaming that is only barely touched upon by other characters: edutainment. Sure, it’s not as exciting as RPG, FPS, or fighting games, but Carmen herself has enough style to give her a striking impression.

Also, I think I have a great moveset for her, and I really want to share it. 

As a virtually unparalleled thief and criminal mastermind, Carmen Sandiego would be a nimble and slippery character, light yet speedy in most respects. She would probably be similar to Joker in that respect, but unlike her fellow sticky-fingered compatriot, she would place less emphasis on building towards a powerful, combo-oriented office.

Carmen Sandiego is not just good at stealing—she makes off with the most absurd and improbable items possible. Among them are “the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and “all the goulash,” and “the steps to the tango.” In other words, she can steal things of enormous scale, infinite quantity, and even concepts! That’s why her neutral-special move would be a command grab called Master Theft, and it would allow her to rob an opponent of their own neutral-special. 

Essentially, it would be akin to Kirby’s Inhale mixed with a bit of Villager Pocket, except it would actually deny the target the use of their move! However, she wouldn’t be able to use the attack herself. Instead, she would store it in a briefcase that she uses for some of her attacks, and having a stolen special move would increase the damage and knockback, turning it into a potent KO move.

This special move would clearly be more potent against some characters. While Ganondorf losing Warlock Punch wouldn’t be the biggest deal, Shulk should be scared to not have Monado Arts.

From there, Carmen’s special moves would be as follows.

Jetpack would be her up-special, and would make for nimble recoveries, but limited offensive potential. 

Side-special would be Phantom Step, and would have her create an illusory clone that can stay still or move forward. The closest thing in Smash would be Greninja’s Shadow Sneak, but this is closer to the Adept’s Shade technique in Starcraft II.

And down-special would be V.I.L.E. Henchman, which would summon a random subordinate of Carmen’s, each with different properties. It would resemble Duck Hunt’s Wild Gunmen attack to a certain extent, but the effects would be much more varied than “different guys shooting.” 

Her Final Smash would be V.I.L.E. Assault, and would entail a full-on attack by all the Henchmen and Carmen at the same time As for which henchmen would be picked, I really am not sure. The game-show ones like Robocrook would be most recognizable, but that might stray too far off from Smash Bros. as a celebration of games.

That being said, it would still have to include the Rockapella theme. 

There are other edutainment games that could serve the role of representative, such as Oregon Trail or Math Blaster. But I think Carmen Sandiego has the cultural penetration and character charisma to make her a great addition to Smash Bros. I know the chances are slim, but it would be such a fantastic surprise for a future Nintendo Direct.

PS: I never get tired of this:

I Love Villains with Secret Weaknesses

One of the big mysteries of One Piece is just how Blackbeard is able to use multiple Devil Fruit powers when that should theoretically kill any being. I don’t have any strong theories as to what the truth is, but I do know one thing: when we do discover the secret, I think it’ll be one of the most satisfying moments in the entire series.

I love that trope, I really do. Whether it’s Sauron realizing that the One Ring is steps away from Mount Doom, and is filled with terror, or Voldemort coming to the horrifying realization that his Hocruxes are being eliminated, one of my favorite moments in fiction is when a villain realizes that their special hidden achilles heel, and thus they themselves  have been exposed.

If I were to say why I’m so fond of this idea, I’d say that it comes partially from how it resembles “boss fight” sensibility. Of course, this sort of storytelling element predates video games by a significant margin, but it is arguably most straightforward in the context of games. Only the worst weapon can harm Dr. Wily. Lavos Core attempts to fool enemies by hiding its true self in a seemingly unimportant floating “pod.” This idea can even extend to something like Gradius, where the final boss is a weaponless and disembodied brain. Here, the idea is that your final adversary is defenseless precisely to imply that you were never “supposed” to reach it—the soft, squishy point behind layers and layers of minions and firepower was meant to be unassailable.

But that puzzle aspect is only one component, and what really makes it satisfying is that the moment of unwanted revelation about their weakness being exposed is predicated on a contradiction. Villains like Voldemort and Sauron want to be invincible, but by pursuing that goal, they inadvertently create the cracks in their own armor. Voldemort fears death above all else, so he tries to achieve immortality by placing pieces of his soul into other objects and hiding them away, which in turn makes those very items a source of obsession for Voldemort. Sauron is already immortal, but his desire to control and dominate everything results in his transferring most of his power into the One Ring. Even when he first loses the One Ring in combat, the fact that it’s near-impervious gives Sauron a certain reassurance. He will eventually reunite with the ring because nothing is strong enough to get into Mordor if it’s not on Sauron’s terms. They use both smoke and mirrors and sheer martial strength to try and hide these flaws, so to see their best-laid plans begin to crumble gives me joy.

It’s precisely because Blackbeard goes to such great lengths to hide the workings of his multiple-Devil-Fruit usage that makes me confident that the reveal (and the ultimate use of it against Blackbeard) will be one of the best plot threads to come out of One Piece. His obsession with power, and the weak-minded truth of his being provide a perfect formula for this trope to play out in the best way possible.