Smash Ultimate and the Shmup Life of Jigglypuff

I like watching Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournaments, but it’s only over the past year that I’ve started watching individual streamers more—chalk it up to a pandemic. During this time, one player I’ve been enjoying is Super Smash Bros. Melee “god” Hungrybox try his hand at Ultimate as a Jigglypuff main. But while a part of the fun is in seeing a top Melee player use a heavily toned down version of his signature character to become a low-tier hero, I’d felt that there was also something inherently compelling about Jigglypuff itself. Then, realization hit me last year as I watched the Touhou game Shoot the Bullet during Summer Games Done Quick 2020: Jigglypuff in Ultimate is a lot like a ship in a shoot ‘em up boss fight.

Shmups are a genre where your character is besieged every level by an endless procession of enemy ships and projectiles, generally culminating against a boss character of some kind. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that your playable unit will typically die in one hit, so the ability to evade and barely make it out of harm’s way is key to success—especially if you’re playing for some kind of record or achievement. 

Jigglypuff in Ultimate is in a similar position. It excels in moving back and forth through the air thanks to a high air speed, multiple jumps, and a slow fall speed. Being the second lightest in the game means it can’t withstand many attacks, but its small size means being able to dodge things other characters can’t. The character also has short reach on its attacks, thus any opponent with projectiles or a long weapon like a sword presents a daunting wall that Jigglypuff must surmount through effective weaving. Like the heroine Aya in Shoot the Bullet, there is a clear edge that Jigglypuff’s foes have in the fight, in that their ability to threaten and cover space is something Jigglypuff cannot match.

This is somewhat different in Melee due to the strength of Jigglypuff’s back-air. In that environment, it’s a deceptively far-reaching attack that makes Jigglypuff the “wall” that players must deal with instead of the other way around. Jigglypuff’s ability to throw out repeated beefy back-airs while juking is even referred to as the “wall of pain.” Jigglypuff in Ultimate not only has less range, but the character automatically turns around after throwing a back-air out, preventing the ability to string multiple back-airs together. 

Instead, Jigglypuff must bob and dance, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to nickel and dime the opponent without overextending. While it has an ace in the hole in the form of Rest, it’s hard to hit and requires a lot of planning and game sense (and maybe even a bit of luck). Every mistake is a costly one, and the frail nature of the character means defeat is often snatched from the jaws of victory. 

Does this make for a particularly strong character? Probably not. But it sure makes for a tense and exciting viewing experience, and it’s why I keep watching Hungrybox, as well as other Puff mains like Bassmage. Also, when I think about it, this would also make a great template for a Touhou character…

PS: If I ever had the chance to rebalance Jigglypuff to be stronger, I’d give Jigglypuff a kill throw because being such an air-focused character means shielding is especially effective against it. Due to its floatiness, slow ground speed, and lack of range, Jigglypuff also has a harder time landing grabs—so I think it’d still be fair.

Playing Tekken and Preventing Tekken: Thoughts on Kazuya Matchups in Smash Ultimate

Kazuya Mishima has been released as Smash Ultimate DLC, and the general consensus (whether you like his inclusion or not) is that Kazuya plays like he was pulled straight from Tekken. But more than just the superficial replication of his moves and the characteristic look of Tekken combos, what I’m coming to understand is that even the fighting game series’s simultaneous rock-paper-scissors scenarios (a hallmark of 3D fighters) is approximated through the Smash engine. Along with the fact that his moveset successfully makes him a vicious defensive monster, this makes it so that in order to fight Kazuya, you have to ask the following: How good is your character “playing” and “preventing” Tekken?”

In the Kazuya gameplay introduction video by Sakurai (above), he explains that Tekken is a game of spacing involving “highs,” “mids,” and “lows.” Spacing (maai in Japanese) is about trying to move into your favorable range while avoiding your opponent’s. High attacks are generally quick but can be both blocked high and avoided entirely by crouching. Mid attacks are often powerful combo starters but are on the slower side—they can be blocked high but not low. Low attacks must be blocked low but can be avoided by jumping.

In the context of Smash Ultimate, spacing is present but the platformer style of gameplay makes it inherently different. As for the high/mid/low system, it simply doesn’t exist. A shield is a shield, and you don’t block “high” or “low.” However, when you look at Kazuya’s attacks, the corresponding mix of hitboxes, intangibility, and armor frames (on top of Kazuya’s passive armor against weak attacks) result in attacks that ostensibly can be blocked or prevented in ways that vaguely resemble Tekken. How you angle your shield, whether you can crouch or hop over certain attacks, and other factors come into consideration when you have to fight Kazuya up close.

This is why I’ve begun to think of a character’s “comfort level” when fighting Kazuya. It’s less a matter of how good or bad their matchup is against him and more about how much fighting him can feel awkward because of his particular traits. Specifically, it’s about gauging both the ability to scrap with him if necessary and  to avoid that situation as much as possible. I’m not a Kazuya or Tekken expert by any means, but here are some examples of what I think in regards to certain characters’ “Tekken” and “anti-Tekken” capacities:

Kazuya is inevitably a 10/10 when it comes to playing Tekken, but a -1/10 when it comes to preventing Tekken. The former is obvious, while the latter has to do with the fact that he has some tools to keep the fight out of Tekken range, but they’re limited in use and he doesn’t really want to stay away anyway.

Kirby can go toe-to-toe with Kazuya surprisingly well given his solid up-close frame data and his crouch, which allows him to actually duck under Electric Wind God Fist. In terms of playing Tekken, he does okay—probably a 6/10. At the same time, Kirby is fairly slow and stubby-limbed, so Kirby is kind of forced to confront Kazuya directly—which means he’s probably a 2/10 at preventing Tekken.

Mewtwo has mobility and tricky attacks (like Shadow Ball and Disable) to keep Kazuya at bay, as well as a vicious edgeguarding game, meaning its ability to prevent Tekken is quite high—like a 7/10 or 8/10. But once Kazuya is in, Mewtwo’s relatively lackluster up-close frame data, along with his huge body means Mewtwo can become a giant punching bag if it gets complacent: 5/10 at best (and probably worse).

The other FGC characters—Ryu, Ken, and Terry—do not come from 3D fighting games, but their auto-turnaround and their ability to play footsies up-close means that they have special properties that make fighting Kazuya a profoundly different experience compared to if other characters take him on. I would probably give all of them high values for playing Tekken (at least 8/10) while not playing it varies between each of those characters’ due to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

So where do you think your Smash character falls on the Kazuya scales? If you have thoughts, feel free to leave a comment.

Kazuya Mishima in Smash Ultimate: I Sensed This Coming

I’ve been going a little hog wild with the Smash Bros. DLC posts lately, devoting entries to Goro, Kerrigan, and Nightmare just in the past couple weeks. But one thing I’ve felt for a while is that Smash was lacking a representative for 3D fighting games. It’s why I tried to come up with a moveset for Akira Yuki from Virtua Fighter before he was revealed as an Assist Trophy in Ultimate. Now, we have our answer: Kazuya Mishima from Tekken.

While I never made any formal blog posts about it, I did entertain the notion in my Min Min analysis. I also made a couple of tweets last year arguing in favor of Kazuya:

Over time, what I’ve wanted to see out of Smash more than even my dream character picks (NiGHTS is the only one remaining, really) is to have it reflect a greater breadth of gaming: genres like the beat ‘em up and the RTS, and even influential consoles like the Atari 2600 and the Commodore 64. This includes 3D fighters. While 2D and 3D fighting games look similar from a distance, they’re actually two very different gameplay experiences. I’m glad for the inclusion of Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter and Terry Bogard from Fatal Fury, but I found it odd that one side of the fighting game genre was so lopsided in Smash

I know very little about Tekken other than having a general sense of how the game plays at a casual level, as well as familiarity with most of the characters through pop culture osmosis. From what I’ve seen of people’s initial reactions, Kazuya in Smash comes across as somehow having been transplanted straight from his source games into this new environment. We don’t have any detailed gameplay explanations to reference (the Kazuya showcase will air on the 28th of June), but if it was challenging enough to convert Tekken characters into 2D for Street Fighter x Tekken, I wonder how Sakurai and his team have made Kazuya work. It feels harder to translate Tekken moves to Smash compared to Street Fighter or Fatal Fury/King of Fighters.

Speaking of adapting fighting game characters to Smash, I realized a huge distinction between them and most of the roster: A lot of characters come from singleplayer games where the goal is for them to be relatively simple to use, and Smash movesets are designed relative to that. Not so with Kazuya and pals. In fact, Kazuya and the other Mishimas are generally considered among the hardest characters to master in Tekken. I think it’s why they can be so polarizing when in this crossover context.

Incidentally, the Kazuya trailer begins with Kazuya tossing Ganondorf off a cliff. Kazuya has a move called the Demon God Fist, or Majinken. Ganondorf’s neutral special, Warlock Punch, is actually also called Majinken in Japanese, albeit with a slight kanji difference. In other words, it was a battle of Demon Fists, and Kazuya won.

Welcome to Kazuya, and remember: the most important thing to come out of this is that the Banjo & Kazuya Mishima gag is real now.

Nightmare (Soulcalibur) for Super Smash Bros.

A Truly Flagship Video Game Villain

Villain characters have been a great addition to the Super Smash Bros. franchise, starting with Bowser in Melee and more recently with the inclusion of Ridley, King K. Rool, and Sephiroth in Ultimate. In anticipation of E3 and the official Nintendo Direct scheduled for June 15, I’ve been making blog posts about possible antagonist characters I think would fit well. But as cool as Goro and Kerrigan would be, what occurred to me is that neither is necessarily the unquestioned face of the video games they represent. Mortal Kombat is Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Kerrigan can make a better case, but she’s not necessarily the first character people think of.

However, there is a particular case I think could fit my self-imposed criteria of being a bad guy while also being a game franchise’s most iconic mascot character: Nightmare from Soulcalibur. Not only does he wield Soul Edge, the demonic weapon that is the primary catalyst for the game’s story, he’s also literally in the logo of the Soulcalibur development team, Project Soul.

Another Swordsman, But…

One potential strike against Nightmare is Ultimate is a game that sometimes gets criticized for featuring too many swords. But Nightmare has so much going for him aesthetically, as well as in terms of possible gameplay mechanics and features that he could successfully fill a space that’s only partially covered by the likes of Ike and maybe Ganondorf: a true superheavy swordsman.

Nightmare’s Soul Edge is like a combination of Ike’s Ragnell and Cloud’s Buster Sword, only bigger. It’s this massive hunk of evil energy in the form of a two-handed blade, and it looks menacing in a way that even Sephiroth’s Masamune can’t quite compare. The menacing march of a character clad in armor who’s not as slow as one might expect could also add a quality of intimidation ideal for heavies. You know his dash attack would be that hilarious dropkick.

Potential Gameplay

Moveset-wise, it’s harder to establish what’s a “special move” vs. a “normal move” compared to 2D fighting game characters, but I think Nightmare could bring a lot of Soulcalibur mechanics to Smash. While the Soul Charge boost could be nice, Nightmare in Soulcalibur VI has a unique mechanic called “Terror Charge.” A mode that enhances his attacks in different ways, Terror Change can be activated either independently like a powerup on command, or it can be triggered by having the opponent hit Nightmare during specific armored moves. 

The two things Terror Charge might most closely resemble are 1) Incineroar’s Revenge (a counter that absorbs a plow to power up the next attack) and 2) Lucario in Project M, who could power up its aura during combos. Rather than being a comeback mechanic or even a snowball mechanic, Terror Charge would be a strategic tool that is fully controlled by the player and can apply to a variety of situations. Other folks more intimately familiar with how Nightmare plays can give a more in-depth moveset idea:

Who Else?

Nightmare isn’t the only villain who’s also the key figure in a game series—fellow Namco character Heihachi Mishima from Tekken could also make the case. Are there any other truly flagship villains out there?

Sarah Kerrigan (Starcraft) for Super Smash Bros.

As E3 and the next Nintendo Direct get closer, I find that I want to see two things in Super Smash Bros.: even more villainous characters like Sephiroth and a representative of the influential real-time strategy genre. I’m attracted to the idea that Smash Bros. is a celebration of video game history, albeit one intentionally skewed towards Nintendo. The inclusion of Starcraft would not only bring in another country/demographic (older South Koreans who grew up with the game), but would implicitly call upon the game franchise as one of the biggest esports phenomenons of all time. League of Legends might have been the current big thing in Korea over the past ten years, but Starcraft is a foundational Korean esport.

Symbolizing All Three Starcraft Races

Much like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there are three in-game playable factions in Starcraft, and it can be difficult to think of a character in Smash who can represent them all, and there really isn’t a primary “player character” like Three Houses’ Byleth. Jim Raynor is basically the protagonist of the Terran campaigns, and there are numerous Protoss characters who make significant impacts—Tassadar, Zeratul, Artanis—but I think it’s Sarah Kerrigan who would be best for Smash because she possesses elements of all three races.

Kerrigan begins Starcraft as a Terran before being captured by the Zerg and transformed with both Zerg attributes and Protoss-esque psychic abilities. It would be most plausible for her to incorporate attributes from each race into her attacks, such as non-permanent Cloaking from the Terrans, Psionic Storm from the Protoss, and Burrowing from the Zerg.

RTS Gameplay Mechanics

But if you’re going to have a Starcraft representative, it would be great if the character could incorporate aspects of the real-time strategy genre, and I could see Smash doing something really creative. Perhaps you could have the ability to summon different types of Zerg units to accompany you Luma-style depending on certain conditions met. Perhaps it could be like how Villager plants trees, except Kerrigan could spawn a single Hatchery which produces Zerglings. Maybe she could also induce it to upgrade into a Lair and then a Hive, allowing for stronger and stronger units, e.g. Mutalisks and Ultralisks. It might be overly complicated this way, but that also feels in line with the Starcraft spirit. Like Villager’s Tree, Hatcheries would be vulnerable to damage and could be eliminated. Essentially, think Jack-O’ from Guilty Gear Xrd, but with the amount of room to maneuver that a platform fighter provides.

If there was a way to give an advantage to players with high APM, that would also be true to the RTS genre, but that might be a little excessive.

While the intense demand of the original Starcraft games on players to excel can be somewhat incongruous with Smash, I think there could be a happy middle ground. Kerrigan (or any Starcraft character) would have both the gameplay potential and the notoriety to make Smash Bros. proud. 

Goro (Mortal Kombat) for Super Smash Bros.

In discussions of Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters, the question is often “what character do you want?” rather than “what kind of character do you want?” But pro Ultimate player Tweek has professed on his podcast his desire to see a genuine heavy-style character to be one of the last two DLC characters—someone who embodies, in his words,  the “heavy lifestyle.”

It is true that we haven’t seen any Bowser-esque characters among any Smash DLC since even Smash 4, and so I started to think about who would fit well while still bringing something to the table in terms of significance and/or interesting gameplay. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Goro from Mortal Kombat would be a great idea for a heavy DLC character. While 2D fighting games have their fair share of representatives now (between Ryu, Ken, and Terry Bogard), I think Goro gives us a new villain character (though arguably more of a tweener like Mewtwo) who represents another long-standing series with cultural influence.

I haven’t played any Mortal Kombat games for the past…twenty years…so I’m not terribly familiar with how Goro’s play style has changed or evolved as the games themselves have gone through multiple directions. But the image of Goro is ever-present as a big, nasty, four-armed bruiser who can grab you with two hands and pummel you with the other two. He can shoot fireballs, leap high into the air and land with a stomp (perfect for a Smash-style recovery move), and just has an imposing aura that would bring a lot of personality. I feel like I can easily picture Goro’s gameplay in my mind, and it looks cool: you think you can escape him, but his surprising speed and even his powerful projectile would make it feel like you only run for so long.

In terms of appearance, I think it’d be awesome if Goro’s original stop-motion, clay-model aesthetic could be maintained for his entry into Smash. It would make him visually pop in a way no other character does. That said, I’d understand if they went for something more current-looking, as that’s the direction Mortal Kombat has gone in general. With eight costumes per character, both could be possible, but I still wonder which would be the default. My preference would be old-school.

There’s also the question of Mortal Kombat’s signature selling point: blood-and-guts gore. That simply would not pass muster in Smash, but I think Goro could still make it through intact. He can come across as hyper-violent and nasty, but I think that could be conveyed without needing to portray actual viscera flying and bone-breaking attacks. Fatalities would still be a must, but they’d be more exaggerated and extreme than brutal. 

I have no close attachment to Goro as a character, but I just think he would successfully capture the “heavy character” feel in a way few others could, while also fitting well into Smash Bros. gameplay. And i mean, don’t you want someone to say “EXCELLENT” every time he uppercuts his opponents?

The “Essence vs. Fill” Priorities Tier List in Smash Bros. Ultimate and Beyond

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.

How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

The Perfect Storm of Virtual Youtubers

As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.

The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there. 

The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.

The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.

The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.

A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.

Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles. 

I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.

Splatsville Spirit: What If Splatoon 3 Features Cantonese Pop?

Splatoon 3 was recently announced for 2022, and one question I have about the new sequel is: who will be the new musical mascots, and what will their style of music be? I have a hope/prediction: I believe that Splatoon 3 should have a sound that incorporates Cantonese pop.

One of the big changes compared to the previous games is the shift away from sleek urban environments and towards what seems to be a more post-apocalyptic one. This can even be seen in the central hubs of all three games. Splatoon’s Inkopolis Plaza is based on the trendy Shibuya area in Tokyo, Splatoon 2’s Inkopolis Square is Times Square in New York City, and now Splatoon 3’s Inksville greatly resembles Hong Kong, particularly the Mong Kok area of Kowloon—the busiest urban center in the world. Given the current controversies going on in the area, I’m actually kind of surprised they went this angle, but the densely packed and awkwardly placed buildings have evoked dystopia in the imaginations of many. It acted as the basis for Ghost in the Shell’s setting, plays a central role in G Gundam, and in terms of the cultural legacy, the lawless nature of the Kowloon Walled City is rather infamous.

A model of Kowloon Walled City located at its former site

The musical mascots of the first two games reflect their urban spaces. The Squid Sisters are patterned after Japanese idols. Off the Hook is a rapper-DJ combo, and NYC is the birthplace of hip hop. Therefore, if Splatoon 3 were to have characters to represent that Kowloon-like setting, few things would fit better than a squid-and-octopus-garbled take on Cantopop. While its star has waned in recent years, Cantopop was once the premier form of Chinese popular music throughout Asia, and Hong Kong was the center of it. And if they wanted to capture both the retro and futuristic aspects of Hong Kong through Splatsville, perhaps they could even take from different eras of the genre.

One potential problem with this approach is that a lot of classic and modern Cantopop songs don’t exactly “feel” like Splatoon, as the genre is primarily known for its love ballads that wouldn’t quite fit the high-pace gameplay. Still, I think there are examples of high-tempo songs that could be inspiration for a soundtrack that captures the spirit of Cantopop and the Kowloon setting without necessarily feeling dated.

“Ji Guang Zhong” by Roman Tam

“Journey to the West” by Dicky Cheung

“Miss Similar” by G.E.M.

Is it a bit of a long-shot to expect Cantonese pop in Splatoon 3? Maybe. I also wouldn’t expect the composers to wholly abandon the sound it’s known for, as the music is one of the best parts of the series. Even so, I think it’d be more than possible to draw influence from one of Asia’s most popular genres of the last 50 years and make something that comes across as unmistakably Splatoon-esque. Most importantly, it would perfectly complement the Mong Kok, Kowloon visual aesthetic that Splatoon 3 is going for.