Byleth and the “Fire Emblem” Tactical Spirit in “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”

The new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character announcement did not exactly hit with a great bang. Byleth, the player avatar from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, is arguably even the most predictable choice possible. However, in spite of hype-addicted fans not getting their fix and my own neutral feelings towards Byleth, I find their gameplay reveal to be an interesting look into the developers’ latest attempt at capturing Fire Emblem‘s tactical gameplay in Smash.

Fire Emblem is a turn-based, fantasy-themed strategy RPG series where you control different characters with unique strengths and weaknesses. It’s a game that discourages charging in headfirst and instead emphasizes positional advantages and careful advancements. Because the games are not as action-packed as Smash, it has required a greater degree of interpretation to translate the Fire Emblem representatives. Marth (and by extension Lucina) has the highest walking speed in the series, allowing him to swiftly move in and out of enemy range. Robin is one of the slowest characters in the game, but has a mix of long-range magic and close-range sword attacks to try and trap the opponent in a bad spot. As mentioned by Sakurai in the Byleth gameplay video above, most of the Fire Emblem characters in Smash have Counter attacks in order to replicate the retaliations that happen in the original game’s combat sequences.

Byleth comes equipped with a multitude of different weapons, each of which are tied to a particular general direction. Upward attacks are done with a chain-like sword, side attacks utilize a spear with long reach, downward attacks are performed with a slow but powerful axe, and neutral attacks use a bow and arrows for fighting from far away. This plays into the multitude of weapons in Fire Emblem: Three Houses and their properties, such as accuracy, effective range, etc.

In turn, what I think Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is trying to capture by linking specific weapons to specific directions is the spirit of the positional and preparatory thinking that goes into playing Fire Emblem. Byleth is likely encouraged to fight at different distances depending on what the opponent’s priorities are. This applies to some extent with every Smash character, but with Byleth especially, it looks like there is no cure-all attack that can be used by default to cover multiple situations, such as Link’s neutral air or Mr. Game & Watch’s Fire trampoline.

Sakurai points out some of the examples of the weapons’ limitations. The spear has tremendous reach but is weak up close and has problems with vertical movement. The axe is cumbersome, but has many ways to foil evasive measures and low attacks. The bow has a point at which it must fire, forcing The long-range weapon into being a commitment if you want some serious power. He doesn’t say much about what the sword can’t do, but I imagine it will primarily function as an anti-air.

There are plenty of characters who have multiple weapons that are meant to attack at different angles, but in many of those cases, those moves are usually exclusively special moves. Because the directional theme is tied to Bayleth’s normals and specials, it highlights a different kind of tactical thinking. If you want your sword attacks to be effective, you have to be at a distance where the lance is a poor choice, for example. And you can’t make up for it like Mario could with a quick jab vs. a slower fireball because all of Bayleth’s forward-reaching attacks are lance-based. In other words, Bayleth’s vertical spacing is substantially different from their horizontal spacing, and the player has to adjust accordingly.

The more I delve into how Bayleth is designed, the more impressed I am with the thought and concept behind the character. The game could’ve given them a weapon-switching mechanic, for example, but associating a weapon with a direction means that understanding the right spacing for Bayleth also means understanding the right stage positioning as well. It hints at the same feeling as putting the right unit in the right spot in Fire Emblem and allowing the enemy to fall on your blade.

 

Creme de la Creme: Why Alcremie Should Be a Smash Bros. Character

With more Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters on the way (including but not limited to the last Fighters Pass entrant), I’m throwing my hat in the ring as to who I think would be the right Generation 8 Pokemon representative. While it’s a longshot for sure, I’m throwing my hat in the ring in favor of the Cream Pokemon, Alcremie.

There are three reasons I think Alcremie would be the ideal Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield character. First is Alcremie’s Gigantamax form. Second is that she already comes with a huge variety of colors to base costumes on. Third is the unique gameplay she would provide.

Gigantamax

The signature feature of the Galar region in Pokemon Sword and Shield is Dynamaxing, where Pokemon grow to massive size and gain all sorts of new abilities. A select few Pokemon have the ability to do a more advanced form of Dynamaxing called Gigantamaxing, and Alcremie is among those capable of the feat. Moreover, her Gigantamax form is visually striking, as she turns into a giant multi-tiered cake. It’s perfect for a Final Smash, especially with Gigantamax Alcremie’s signature move, G-Max Finale. It attacks and heals at the same time, and would likely be somewhat similar to Princess Peach’s Final Smash.

Color Palettes Galore

As of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, each Smash character has eight costumes. For other Pokemon, there haven’t been many canon options for colors, resulting in things like purple Charizard and yellow Mewtwo. For Alcremie, however, this is anything but a problem. In Sword and Shield, Alcremie actually has dozens of possible physical variations based on the specific way it evolves from its previous form, Milcery. Rather than the developers having to work towards picking colors and trying to get approval, they can just say “let’s pick Matcha Cream and Rainbow Swirl” and call it a day, confident that the Pokemon Company won’t take issue.

Gameplay

For the most part, the Pokemon that appear in Smash Bros. are kind of similar. They have very animal-like appearances and their animations translate that aesthetic to their moves. But Alcremie is living whip cream who’s slow but with high special stats, and who specializes in support moves and fairy-type attacks. The closest we get to that is Jigglypuff, who only became a Fairy type in Pokemon X and Y. Alcremie could be a low mobility but high range character, hitting opponents with Dazzling Gleam while also using Decorate to provide support. If they wanted to take this further, developers could even make it a team specialist.

An Alternative 

In all likelihood, Alcremie could be too left-field even for Smash Bros. In that case, I think an almost equally good choice would be Grimmsnarl, who also has a cool Gigantamax form but unlike Alcremie has a more conventional body type. On top of that, Grimmsnarl is used by the ever-popular Sword/Shield character Marnie, giving it potentially a built-in fanbase.

The Cream of the Crop Always Rises to the Top

The DLC character of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate have mostly been third-party guests, but Pokemon Sword and Pokemon Shield are absolutely big deals in the video game landscape. Alcremie would be a quirky but appropriate mascot for the Galar region, and I think it would have both general appeal and the opportunity for some creative game design.

Now, if only they’d go back and give Generation 3 a proper representative as well…

 

The Charisma of Terry Bogard in Smash Bros.

Terry Bogard has arrived in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate on the heels of a 45-minute love letter from Masahiro Sakurai to SNK. I feel that it gave Terry the appropriate level of hype, but it’s his charismatic presence, both in personality and playstyle, that can turn even the sourest doubters into fans.

Without even getting into little story details, Terry’s general presentation just screams “cool guy with a fun attitude who knows how to get serious.” His look might be straight from the 1990s, but he somehow doesn’t feel dated. All of his little Engrishy quips, his cool-looking moves, and even his general standing pose all work together to make him the center of attention. As expected of an SNK character—even after the Neo Geo started being inferior hardware, the developers of The King of Fighters would put in some of their best sprite animation work. Ultimate captures that sentiment.

As for gameplay, Terry feels more fitting for Smash than Ryu and Ken. His burst-mobility specials all work in a platform fighter format, and you can practically picture Terry coolly accepting that he’s in this crazy crossover situation. In a way, he feels like a mix between Ryu and Captain Falcon: a traditional fighter who can suddenly close large distances and make opponents regret frivolous decisions, but who’s balanced out by a less than stellar air game. His ability to access Power Geyser and Buster Wolf after 100% is sure to be controversial, but Terry overall doesn’t feel overpowered.

Welcome to Smash, Terry Bogard. I hope to see you make one hell of a splash.

 

Banjo & Kazooie: The Ultimate Beginner Character

Banjo & Kazooie have been out for about a month as a playable character for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In looking at how they play and thinking about the purpose of their moves, I’ve come to the conclusion that Banjo & Kazooie are perhaps the best beginner’s character that Smash has ever seen.

Super Smash Bros. is a franchise that emphasizes an “easy to learn, hard to master” approach to fighting games. To this end, the games often have more beginner-friendly characters who are more forgiving to the unaccustomed—Kirby with his multiple jumps to help new players survive offstage is a key example. But it can be hard to balance a beginner character such that their easy-to-use tools are effective at more advanced levels of play without making them too powerful in the hands of an expert. Cloud in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is an arguable instance of being too strong in this respect. He was designed with large, generous hitboxes and a Limit Break system to power him up, all to help fans more familiar with role-playing games than fighting games, but those things ended up being absurd in mid to top competitive play.

Banjo & Kazooie have a lot of things that make them fairly simple to understand for new players. They have three jumps, which makes getting to the stage easier. They’re fairly heavy and fast, making for a durable and mobile character. But the key to their ability to help players of all levels is their special move Wonderwing.

Wonderwing is a versatile forward charge that works as a panic button, a recovery, and a kill move. Newbies don’t need to understand about hitboxes; Wonderwing beats or ties with everything in a direct confrontation. If Banjo & Kazooie are offstage, it lets them recover horizontally and defeat virtually any challenge. It also does over 27% damage, and can close out stocks reliably. While the move is extremely good, however, it comes with a couple of weaknesses that keep Wonderwing in check while giving room for players to learn, optimize their play, and for more experienced players to really use their brains.

The first flaw is that Wonderwing leaves Banjo & Kazooie vulnerable if the attack is blocked. It’s not a huge window, but it’s enough that an opponent who can predict Wonderwing’s usage from being rewarded well benefit from doing so. The move is still a Swiss army knife, and can do a lot for new players, but this flaw should theoretically teach caution.

The second and more significant flaw is that Wonderwing only has five uses per stock, and can only be recharged by losing a stock. This is extremely smart from the developers for a number of reasons. First, it prevents players from spamming the move to no end. They can do it for a short while, but then they have to deal with the consequences. Second, rather than a comeback mechanic, which can teach new players the wrong lessons, it’s a resource that comes at a cost. Every time they use the move, regardless of effectiveness or efficiency, it means they’ll have less of a chance to rely on Wonderwing when they need it most. In other words, it becomes a built-in lesson on resource management and looking at the long-term.

At higher levels of play, Banjo & Kazooie players basically have to know when to utilize Wonderwing and when to keep it in their back pocket. It’s a ridiculously good move that would be the envy of any character, but the fact that its depletion affects so much (disadvantage, neutral, recovery, kill power) means there’s an interesting back and forth that can occur between two players where good usage is immensely rewarding and good counterplay against Wonderwing similarly so.

Through Wonderwing, Banjo & Kazooie give inexperienced players a tool that can help them out in nearly any situation in a fun and rewarding manner. But at the same time, the caveats on the attack, namely the limited uses, encourages players to be smart about its use, thus fostering improvement. More than any other character, I expect Banjo & Kazooie players to grow.

Splatoon Live Concerts and the Expression of Character in Performance

Nintendo Live 2019 in Kyoto featured two nights of Splatoon concerts with holograms of the Squid Sisters and Off the Hook performing onstage. It’s not the first time both pairs have been together, but watching this event made me really appreciate the care put into expressing the individual differences between the characters in accordance with their musical styles.

 

Off the Hook and Squid Sisters (or Tentacles and Sea o’ Colors in Japanese) are very different groups. Pearl as MC and Marina as DJ have very distinct roles in Off the Hook such that their movements are heavily contrasted with each other. Pearl is fiery and aggressive while Marina is laid-back and soulful, and everything about them screams hip hop, which traditionally has liked to draw a sharp distinction between its musicians. There’s really no confusing the Pearl and Marina, and their performances put a bright spotlight on their individuality.

 

Squid Sisters, however, are more akin to a Japanese idol group, and so their performances are more synchronized and feel more choreographed. At the same time, every so often, you’d see a subtle difference in movement—an extra bit of flourish from Callie or a more composed and precise gesture from Marie. It’s especially noticeable at times when both are cheering the audience on, and Callie is bouncing up and down as Marie’s feet stay firmly planted, such as in the video above. The differences between the two are relatively subtle as a result, and idol fans eat this sort of thing up.

Adding these small quirks to Callie and Marie is all the more impressive because a lot of fictional idol media don’t really bother to do the same. When watching an episode of Love Live! or Aikatsu!, there’s often pretty much no difference in performance if two or more characters are doing the same routine in the same song. We’re sometimes told that there’s a difference, but it’s not really shown.

From idols to hip hop and beyond, the musical acts of Splatoon are given presence and personality. This is taken into consideration even in the live concerts. It makes me wonder where a Splatoon 3 will go genre-wise, and I anticipate what Nintendo has in store.

Day 2 Full Concert

River City Girls and the San Fransokyo Aesthetic

River City Girls is a new game in the aged genre of the side-scrolling beat-em-up, and a role reversal of the classic damsel-in-distress story. As friends Kyoko and Misako, the player sets out to rescue their boyfriends by clobbering everyone in their way. As suggested by its title, it’s a sequel of sorts to the classic NES game River City Ransom, which is itself a heavily localized version of the Japanese Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari from the Kunio-kun franchise. Because River City Girls aims to be a successor to both River City Ransom and Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari, it takes cues from both the former’s American-esque “dudes with attitudes” style and the latter’s Japanese “yankee delinquents” presentation, resulting in a fascinating mashup of both aesthetics.

Rather than lean in one direction or the other, River City Girls mixes things up. The game takes place in “Cross Town” (from River City Ransom) but the boyfriends’ names are “Riki” and “Kunio” instead of “Ryan” and “Alex.” Japanese street gang figures (banchou) roam the street at the same time as cheerleaders. Kyoko wears a letterman jacket on top of a school uniform while Misako’s takes cues from Japanese fashion, and they both kind of resemble Powerpuff Girls in a way that calls to mind the anime adaptation Powerpuff Girls Z. A story cinematic shows the girls in an American-style school cafeteria.

Some Double Dragon characters even make cameos (Double Dragon was originally developed from the original Kunio-kun engine but with more international appeal). While those games always took place in the US, River City girls specifically uses the Double Dragon Neon versions of the characters, a game that was much more American-facing than Japanese.

The result is that Cross Town comes across in the same vein as Big Hero 6’s “San Fransokyo” and Hurricane Polymar’s “Washinkyo”—a place that’s both Japanese and American at the same time. I can only guess at the reason behind this decision, but I imagine it has to do with the fact that both River City Ransom and Kunio-kun are beloved in their respective regions. There’s a certain generation of Nintendo fan that holds the game River City Ransom in high regard. One part beat-em-up, one part adventure RPG, there really wasn’t much like it back in 1990. Kunio-kun, in turn, has starred in many, many games over the years, and he was a company mascot for Technos Japan. River City Girls aims to please both audiences, and maybe even poke fun at those bygone days of extreme localization.

Because River City Girls is this deliberate combination of Japanese and American, it also begs comparison with another piece of media heavily inspired by manga and retro gaming: Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley. In fact, Scott Pilgrim is itself heavily influenced by River City Ransom, as indicated by one of the comics’ characters crying “BARF!” as they’re hit, and the Scott Pilgrim video game being a beat-em-up. The senses of humor found in River City Girls and Scott Pilgrim, while not wholly identical, are similar in their irreverence and fourth-wall breaking one-liners. There’s even a boss fight in River City Girls against a musician just as there’s one in Scott Pilgrim. At the same time, enough time has passed that Scott Pilgrim (itself a love letter of sorts to the NES era of gaming) is old enough to be a nostalgia trip for fans of comics, video games, and other media. That, in turn, makes River City Ransom an even more distant memory in the collective video game and pop culture fandom.

River City Girls is an entry into a genre whose heyday has long since passed that uses 2D sprite graphics and playful animations. In taking from the late 1980s of both Japan and America, and filtering them through a contemporary lens in an age where “anime-influenced” works are more common than ever before, RIver City Girls ends up feeling somehow both extremely current and incredibly nostalgic, instantly dated yet also timeless. It’s an aesthetic I can get behind.

Player Avatars No More: Pokémon Masters and the Granting of Personalities to Heroes Past

It’s a testament to the longevity and popularity of Pokémon and its characters that a game could come out where you collect not so much the Pokémon themselves, but their trainers. Whether it’s Sinnoh champion Cynthia or Pewter City Gym Leader Brock, the humans of the Pokemon world have garnered their own fanbases, and the mobile game Pokémon Masters takes advantage of this by bringing them all into one convenient place.

While I find the game itself fun, though not without its problems and quirks, I want to focus one one particular aspect of Pokémon Masters I find interesting. Specifically, it’s the ability to summon player characters from multiple generations of Pokémon as non-player characters that catches my attention because it means Pokémon Masters has to create personalities for them when they were previously empty shells.

Within the main games, only Red (the hero of the first generation) has made multiple appearances as a computer-controlled character, and his personality can be charitably described as “strong and silent.” The only thing he ever says in any game is “…” as a reference to that being the only thing you could say in link battles on the original Game Boy. After that, while certain characters may have had personalities established in adapted material like anime or manga, many liberties end up being taken that causes those narratives to differ significantly from the games. For example, in the anime, May (a character based on the female player character in the third generation games) is the daughter of the Gym Leader Norman. But in Pokémon Masters, it’s Brendan (the male player character) who is Norman’s child. While there’s nothing necessarily “canon” about Pokémon Masters, it still means the developers had to decide how these player avatars behave without a player.

As a result, fans of Pokémon may potentially view these old characters in a new light. Rosa, the heroine from the Gen-5 Pokémon Black 2/White 2, is expressive and quirky, garnering many fans in the process. Brendan appears eager and energetic. Kris, from Gen 2’s Pokémon Crystal, is kind yet feels she needs to improve. Without any real meat to go on, I have to wonder how the developers decided to give which traits to these old player characters. Will these become their established personalities moving forward in the games, or is it a one-off thing only for Pokémon Masters? Personally, my hope is that they end up sticking. The only question left is what’ll happen to the actual player characters of Pokémon Masters in the future—what qualities will the two of them have if/when they show up elsewhere?

C’mon, Get SERIOUS About Terry Bogard in Smash Bros Ultimate

The fourth Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC character has been announced, and it’s SNK posterboy and fighting game icon Terry Bogard from the Fatal Fury franchise. The overall response was mixed, from die-hard SNK fans cheering at his arrival to comments to the effect of “I’ve never even heard of Terry Bogard.”

While I understand that not everyone has had exposure to Terry’s games or even the three Fatal Fury anime that came out in the 1990s, a part of me still feels perplexed at the latter reaction. It’s as if I unconsciously consider awareness of Terry Bogard to be the most common and natural thing, like hearing the name “Frank Sinatra” and at least knowing vaguely that he was a famous singer. The logical side of me gets that Terry isn’t a household name, especially for the younger generations of gamers, but the emotional side of me asks, “But why not?”

In terms of what Terry Bogard brings to Super Smash Bros., he’s clearly not the most iconic fighting game character ever. That would be Street Fighter’s Ryu, who’s already been in the game since Smash 4. Still, Terry matters a lot. He represents SNK, the company behind the Neo-Geo. He represents both the Fatal Fury games and the King of Fighters games, and unlike Street Fighter’s relationship with its offshoot franchises, FF and KoF are both majorly important, with the latter reaching heights of popularity in Latin America and Asia in ways few series ever did. Terry Bogard is a symbol of a company, a console, and two connected video game franchises. He’s like Sonic and Ryu rolled into one.

Terry is one of the coolest, most charismatic fighting game–and video game–characters ever. Even if you don’t know his backstory, he just exudes a kind of charm and attitude that make him hard to forget once you’ve seen him in action. Even his signature victory pose, where he turns his back to the screen and tosses his cap in the air while exclaiming, “OK!” screams personality, whether it’s 1990 or 2019. When you learn about his quest to avenge his dead father by defeating evil corporate tycoon/martial arts master Geese Howard, who’s equally amazing as a character, it just makes everything better.

My image of Terry is also no doubt shaped by the Fatal Fury anime I watched as a kid. In a time when the golden rule was “all video game anime are terrible,” the Fatal Fury 2 OVA was a stark exception. Watching it on fansub repeatedly back in the 1990s (shout-outs to S.Baldric), Terry’s story of hitting rock bottom after losing to the mysterious German warrior Wolfgang Krauser only to crawl his way back up by rediscovering his love of fighting is simple yet memorable.

Even in terms of meme culture, Terry Engrishy quotes are a staple of old fighting game forums. “Pawaa Wave!” “Pawaa Geezer!” [Geyser] “Are you OK? BUSTAA WOLF!” “Hey, c’mon, c’mon!”

As for how Terry will play in Smash, I assume he’s going to be like Ryu and use command inputs, but he’s also perfect for Smash in that his special attacks map perfectly to B moves. Neutral B has to be Power Wave, Side B Burn Knuckle, Up B Rising Tackle, and Down B Crack Shoot. He’s already a very mobile character, and that fits in well with a platform-fighting game in ways that Ryu and Ken never could.

November isn’t that far away, but it still seems like forever. I’m looking forward to Terry Bogard balance debates and all they entail. Also, I saw someone on Twitter suggest an Obari Masami-style costume for Terry based on his look from the anime, which I’m all for. Between that and Mark of the Wolves bomber jacket Terry, and we have a heck of a presentation.

My Favorite Switch Games

Whether it’s me getting older or my priorities shifting, I don’t play quite as many video games as I used to. So when I’m asked by Johnny, a Patreon sponsor, about what my favorite Nintendo Switch games are, I actually don’t have a lot to choose from. The other side of this is that I’ve played the few games I do own fairly extensively, speaking to their longevity.

The first game I have to mention is Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The single-player story mode, World of Light, drags a little at the start, but by the time I reached the endgame, I fell in love with it. The multiplayer successfully finds a balance between the pace of Melee and the desire to make even more complex areas of the game accessible. With all of the new characters announced and the clear love and care that goes into them, Smash in a way transcends the act of gaming itself and enters a realm of shared memory, interacting with nostalgia and the thrill of discovery (learning about new characters you never knew about) to become a phenomenon.

Splatoon 2 is pretty much what I expected—a refinement of the first Splatoon—and it makes for a fun and diverse game where I’m eager to try out whatever the game tosses at me. The simple idea of weapons that both attack and claim territory makes Splatoon as a whole always refreshing, and the weakening of the special moves to put more emphasis on the basics is smart. I recently beat the single-player mode as well as the Octo Expansion DLC, and it provided some of the most engaging (but also frustrating) boss battles ever.

The last game I want to mention is Super Robot Wars T, the first SRW game for the Switch. It’s not especially different from previous entries that I’ve played, but the thrill of seeing my favorite characters from anime working together, as well as the challenge provided as the story grows on a cosmic scale, makes it hard to get tired of. Having Magic Knight Rayearth in an SRW game is like a dream come true, and I’m hyped that they’re actually bringing SRW V and SRW X to the Switch as well. Who knows? I might end up liking this more.

I’ve been thinking that it’s time for me to play more Switch games, and this might be the impetus for me to do so. I wonder if this list would change in any major way in a year’s time.

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.