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.

My AnimEVO Online Mahjong Soul Experience

Last weekend, I participated in my first Japanese mahjong tournament in about six years through AnimEVO Online’s Mahjong Soul competition. I had spent the weeks leading up to it practicing off and on, knowing that I had a lot to catch up on and plenty of rust to hopefully shake off. 

The format was one I was familiar with: a series of six full games (hanchan) against random opponents, where your total score is basically the determining factor in your final placing. After about eight hours of play, I finished at 74th out of 256, well below the top 32 cut-off to make it to the next stage of the tournament (which happened just yesterday), but in what I consider to be a placing I can look at with some satisfaction. I was in the top third, and what kept me from advancing was partly that I couldn’t hold onto the leads I established for myself. 

I can also take pride in the fact that I never actually got 4th place, though one of those matches I might as well have—my 3rd place was merely because someone else had gotten hosed more badly than I did. Even then, I could have easily dealt into a hand at the end out of desperation—I drew someone’s winning tile in that final hand, and had the wherewithal to not let it go. In other words, I had consigned myself to a bad game, but it’s what saved me from a worse fate. More than my good games, I think that says the most about how I performed.

I also realized a little too late into the tournament that I should have shifted my thinking away from the typical online mahjong site like Mahjong Soul or Tenhou, where ranking within a full game matters above all else. Instead, in this environment, the size of your win matters greatly. Finishing first with 70,000 points gives you a bigger edge than finishing with 35,000, as it helps buffer you against the games where things don’t work out in your favor.

One thing that was very clear at AnimEVO Online was that the skill gap between the top and bottom was massive, and that changed the dynamics of the game tremendously. In many games I watched after my own was done, there were often two clearly better players obliterating the less experienced opponents, and the fact that players could go into negative scores and keep playing only made the drubbings worse. The curious thing about Japanese mahjong is there’s a major difference when it’s two good players and two bad players vs. one good player and three bad players. In the latter scenario, the worse players can actually overwhelm the better one by making incredibly bad-on-paper decisions that allow them to win off of each other and circumvent the stronger opponent.

One thing that you have to learn when you get into Japanese mahjong is that blindly chasing points can backfire on you easily. I literally saw a player deal a very visibly dangerous tile into an All Green yakuman, which essentially killed their chances of getting anything higher than last place—all because they wanted to hold onto a tenpai by the end of the round. In an attempt to make 1,000 points, this player ended up losing 32,000 instantly.

If I had one complaint about the tournament, it’s that it was too long. There were no time limits on each full game, and while typical games of Japanese mahjong online end if first place manages to get above a certain point threshold, that was not the case here. Rather, if it’s South 4, and the dealer is in first place, they can actually just keep winning and winning, bringing up their final score. I suspect that this is done out of a sense of fairness (“Why should the other three players be allowed to get dealers’ runs going unimpeded, but the other one can’t?”), but it did drag the games on. Also, the twenty-minute halftime break was maybe not enough time to take a breather and relax, as real-life tournaments I’d attended had allowed for a proper full hour. I understand, however, that it would have been a Catch-22—do you extended the break and thus make the tournament end even later?

Overall, I’m on the fence as to whether I’ll play in another tournament at some point, but it did scratch a competitive itch I was feeling. I may slip back into the shadows when it comes to mahjong, but I know full well that I’ll always be fond of the game.

Yesterday was the Top 32, and Top 8 Finals starts tonight at 2pm PST/5pm EST. May the flow be with them.

AnimEVO Online and My Return to Mahjong

It’s been about a year since I last written anything related to mahjong, and much longer since I last played on a regular basis. However, now that AnimEVO Online is planning to include Mahjong Soul, a free-to-play internet-based riichi mahjong game featuring anime-style characters. I’ve decided to enter the Mahjong Soul tournament on August 8th.

This means dusting off the old metaphorical mahjong gloves and diving straight into the game I loved (and loved to hate)—only on a relatively unfamiliar platform in Mahjong Soul. Fortunately, there is no “pay to win” here, but mahjong is arguably already enough of an inherent gacha-esque gamble, that I’m not sure anyone would benefit from that. Also, it’s available to play on browsers and on its own app, so there’s a nice convenience factor.

Because I’m just starting out in Mahjong Soul, I’m in the lowest-level rooms, and it’s a stark reminder that riichi mahjong becomes a very different game as you go up against better and better players. Against absolute beginners, as well as those coming in from other forms of mahjong (I’m looking at you, MCR players), the tendency to go for extremely aggressive hands with little regard for defense makes for big crazy swings that are difficult to account for. Against more internet-oriented players who specialize in calculating the odds and knowing the mathematics of mahjong, you can go a bit slower, but this puts you at a disadvantage against the “occult” players who rely on sense, intuition, and deception.

Playing against newbies is somewhat similar to playing Smash Bros. Ultimate online, where the inconsistent environment throws in an element of randomness and chaos that changes how you play the game. There are certain things that you know should work, but lag makes a mess of that notion. In riichi mahjong, three opponents blindly aiming for toitoi (all triplets) simply changes what’s considered optimal play. And one must not forget that mahjong has a heavy luck element, so even the best-laid plans can go awry.

According to my old riichi mahjong panel co-host, Dave, it takes a long time to get out of the lower-level bronze and silver rooms in Mahjong Soul—you simply have to grind it out, no matter your skill level. A part of me worries that I might end up being too accustomed to dealing with low-level play, and thus ill-prepared for the real monsters inevitably entering the tournament. However, as stated above, different degrees of players can drastically alter how a game of mahjong looks, and remembering what it’s like to fight in the Pon Palace can be valuable. Perhaps, in this environment, being able to quickly assess your opponents’ skill levels will be of paramount importance.

For all of you readers who still get hit by that mahjong bug, I hope to see you online. You can register for free at smash.gg.

Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.

Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Lineage

Open-world RPGs have never really been my thing, though it’s less about genre preference and more about circumstances. I was never much of a PC gamer when RPGs like Baldur’s Gate were around, and by the time similar games (such as The Elder Scrolls series) emerged on more powerful console hardware, I didn’t have any of those systems. But from a distance, I find the branching paths of Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs to be such a wonderful story of diverging Dungeons & Dragons lineages—namely how the former has taken more from the customization and self-insertion aspects of tabletop roleplaying in contrast to the latter and how the latter has went on to emphasize the narrative and storytelling components by way of old Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry.

It might be my ignorance and unfamiliarity at work, but I see expansive open-world RPGs as putting less emphasis on defining strong characters through which a story unfolds. More often than not, my impression is that they are about putting the player in the driver’s seat and trying to convey a virtual environment where they can do “whatever they want” within the boundaries of a game’s programming. Even if they have set things to do and accomplish, these games are meant to feel like your story.

That being said, plenty of JRPGs have user insert characters, including Dragon Quest and Pokemon have audience insert protagonists, and the latter even allows for heavier aesthetic customization now. However, I do feel that there is a more defined sense of a default look and feel to these generic JRPG player characters, and the result is that they also end up feeling like someone you’re observing from a distance—like you’re in a dream seeing yourself from a third-person perspective.  For me, personally, I’ve traditionally preferred that direction.

Of course, I’m making certain assumptions and generalizations when I define Western RPGs as more expansive and open-world, as even those words can change meaning and significance depending on what players are used to and how they perceive the importance of those qualities. For example, it’s interesting to me that the prevailing online opinion on Pokemon Black & White has changed so drastically in the ten years since its debut. 

Back when it first launched, the games were criticized as being too easy and hand-holdy—you always knew exactly where to go next. This was a far cry from the original Pokemon Red & Blue generation-1 games, which gave far fewer explanations and kind of left a lot of things ambiguous. But now, Black & White are touted as being one of the gold standards of Pokemon, and its descendants inferior for their perceived lack of strong and focused storytelling. Red & Blue, in turn, are seen as cumbersome relics that don’t do enough to guide players. It comes down to a generational divide, but even within the specific realm of Pokemon—hardly what you’d call a premiere example of open-world gameplay—this debate about the two Dungeons & Dragons lineages takes place.

I feel that the success of expansive open-world RPGs on an individual level comes down to whether or not the inevitably less defined bits of narrative that are a consequence of heavy personal customization and gameplay systems that encourage defining “your” story as opposed to following someone else’s. Both it and the JRPG style are capable of capturing people’s imaginations, but it’s what we want to do with our captive imaginations that highlights our differences.

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

Animal Crossing: New Horizons as Rorschach Test

Animal Crossing: New Horizons arrived just in time to explode in popularity. With so many people staying home due to COVID-19 and in need of some respite, the series’s laid-back atmosphere might just be what the doctor ordered. I know because more than a few of my friends and loved ones have been playing it, some long-time veterans of the franchise and others absolute newbies. After a while, seeing the people I know derive such enjoyment out of it, I had to see firsthand what the fuss was all about.

I wouldn’t quite call Animal Crossing: New Horizons a personality test, but I find that it does reflect something of what’s going on in each of us. There are goals you can progress towards, and there are achievements that can net you bonuses, but the game is largely without any demands. You could do everything or you could just do the bare minimum. You gradually shape your space according to however you feel, with some harmless elements of luck and the mellow atmosphere preventing it from being something like a SimCity. Seeing my island slowly come together and comparing it with others’, I can see how we express ourselves through the game’s quirks.

Animal Crossing is clearly not for everyone, and I can think of two categories of players who might regret getting the game. The first is anyone who needs there to be a distinction between winners and losers. While there are areas in which you can potentially compete—fishing events, the size of your collection, how much money you have, etc;—they’re largely arbitrary and there’s no judge keeping score. You really have to go out of your way to make it about competition, because there’s nothing that inherently says one person’s stuff is better than another’s.

The second category is anyone who would feel anxiety over accomplishing all the million little tasks and activities the game offers. It’s possible that, rather than being a calming, almost meditative experience, Animal Crossing: New Horizons becomes a source of stress. If you feel bad about ignoring things you could be doing, and you feel like you avoided guilt rather than achieved satisfaction by accomplishing them, then playing this might be a bad idea.

As for me, I’m trying to make my island into an incongruous mix of relaxing good times and abstract horrors. Either way, my villagers look like they’re having a good time.