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.

Aesthetic and Gameplay Thoughts on Pyra and Mythra in Smash Ultimate

The newest DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are Pyra and Mythra (also known as Homura and Hikari in Japanese) from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I’ve never played any Xenoblade games (or, for that matter, any games beginning with the prefix “Xeno”), so my impressions of these two characters are purely from an aesthetic and Smash gameplay standpoint.

Aesthetics

In terms of visual designs, Pyra and Mythra are probably the most “anime” of all characters thus far in the Smash Bros. franchise. Now, I fully understand that anime as a style is extremely diverse and that saying something is “anime” doesn’t reveal much on its own. Here, however, what I specifically mean is that their aesthetic is the kind that appeals to otaku primarily in the same vein that something like BlazBlue does—and at the possible expense of appealing to a wider and unfamiliar audience. 

Speaking personally as someone who devotes numerous hours per week to anime and manga, I don’t mind their look, but I fully understand why others would turn their noses at these two. There’s no mystery that these designs are pretty thirsty, and that they traffic heavily in anime tropes. If you listen to the Japanese in the video “Mr. Sakurai Presents Pyra/Mythra,” the Smash Bros. series director summarizes their respective demeanors as dere and tsun—what the official subtitles translate as “sweet” and “headstrong.” 

Ultimate also gives the ability to listen to the characters’ voices in Japanese and English, and the differences in performance have convinced me that there’s an aspect of many Japanese characters that gets lost between characters. Namely, when performing special attacks, I think the differences in Pyra’s and Mythra’s personalities aren’t as prominent in English as they are in Japanese. There’s a certain lack of aggressiveness I sense in Pyra even in her more passionate lines in Japanese that isn’t quite there in English.

Gameplay

Much like Zelda and Sheik prior to Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii, Pyra and Mythra are two characters in one, with players being able to swap between the two of them as a special move. The basic breakdown (as explained by series director Sakurai) is that Pyra has power and Mythra has speed, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how fast Mythra is. 

Just moving around with Mythra reminds me of my earliest days playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and trying out Fox McCloud. Throughout the Smash Bros. franchise, Fox is known for being extremely nimble on the ground, and also dropping like a rock when falling. It’s not uncommon for new players unfamiliar with Fox to just fall off accidentally and die. Mythra sports a similar combination along with a somewhat limited ability to get back to the stage that makes self-destructs likely, and in a game like Ultimate where recoveries are generally strong, it’s quite a glaring weakness. 

That being said, Mythra by herself easily feels like one of the best characters in the game because that level of agility never goes out of style in Smash. She’s fast on the ground, fast in the air, and she has attacks that either start up quickly or cover a lot of space instantly. Her side special, Photon Edge, reminds me a bit of Sonic’s game plan in general. If you’re caught slacking from even half a stage away, Mythra can punish even an empty hop—the drawback being that some of her more damaging attacks like Photon Edge are easy to punish themselves.

In contrast, Pyra is markedly slower in every way and her recovery is even worse, but her reach and kill power easily outdo Mythra’s. Traditionally, Smash has favored speed over strength, and that’s still likely the case here, but Pyra’s ability to net KOs is actually kind of frightening. Many of her attacks are actually relatively fast for how early they can take stocks, and her superior reach compared to Mythra means that you can mess up an opponent’s spacing and neutral by switching between the two characters. Playing against Pyra, there were many occasions where I assumed I was at a safe distance, only to get forward smashed and lose the game. So while Pyra is likely the weaker of the two, her upsides complement Mythra quite well and actually appear to shore up each others’ flaws, unlike how Sheik is far and away a better character in Melee and Brawl to the point that Zelda only ever comes out in extremely niche situations.

Given the inherently advantageous properties of Mythra combined with having Pyra as a wild card, I feel like the chances of this character being top tier are very high. There’s just so much they have that classically works well in Smash that it’s hard to imagine them having any weaknesses that could truly limit them.

Overall

I don’t know Pyra and Mythra, but I think they’re welcome additions to Smash Bros. Their characters don’t bring any wild or unorthodox new mechanics to the table, but they ooze personality in everything they do. While I’m expecting the two of them to be very popular competitively, and I suspect that there might be a backlash against them coming,I think it’s a good idea to enjoy the ride for now, whether you’re a fan of them already or you’re just discovering them for the first time.

Epsilon-Eagle (Alien Soldier) for Super Smash Bros.

Today’s a Nintendo Direct, so why not get excited with some Smash Bros. Ultimate character speculation?!

Treasure is a great video company that has a reputation for making games that cater to a more hardcore audience looking for difficult yet rewarding gameplay. As fond as I am of Treasure, however, I only recently got to learn about what is arguably their most difficult title ever: Alien Soldier. A largely one-man labor of love, it’s basically a gigantic boss rush, and as someone who adores boss fights, it’s in many ways the perfect game for me. It’s also mindbendingly unforgiving on a level that is all but unmatched—a combination of difficult controls and giant enemies designed to exploit the awkwardness that results from cumbersome movement. It’s fun, but cruel.

The peculiar nature of Alien Soldier’s gameplay kind of reminds me of the precision required to play Smash Bros. Melee at a high level. That thought then led to the obvious one: what if Epsilon-Eagle, the protagonist of Alien Soldier, was in a Smash Bros. game? Granted, there’s nothing that would automatically make him more deserving than even other Treasure heroes like Red and Blue from Gunstar Heroes, Marina Liteyears in Mischief Makers, or Serena in Guardian Heroes—except maybe that hardcore legend status. Still, I want to entertain the notion.

The key thing about translating Epison-Eagle to Smash Bros. is that the character’s game philosophy stands in philosophical opposition to the Kirby franchise. Where Kirby is all about gentle, beginner-friendly learning curves, Alien Soldier is punishing to the unfamiliar. Everything about controlling Epsilon-Eagle is supposed to feel like a chore at first. He should have awkward acceleration while running, jumps that are kind of a pain in the ass for the user, and weapons that both have limited ammo and get worse the more you use them. He should also be feared at low percents thanks to the ridiculous might of Phoenix Force.

In Alien Soldier, Phoenix Force is an extremely powerful dashing attack that does a ton of damage, is invincible, and hurts the user. In Smash, it would be like a combination of Charizard’s Flare Blitz and Banjo-Kazooie’s Wonderwing on steroids, albeit with an even more serious downside than Wonderwing’s limited ammo. Much like Link’s sword projectile, Phoenix Force would only be available when Epsilon-Eagle is under a certain amount of damage (let’s say 0-25%). The recoil from Phoenix Force would itself inflict 26% damage on the user (while dealing 50% to the opponent), meaning that unless you heal, there’s no way to use it again.

The catch here is that Epsilon-Eagle would be the only character in Smash who can heal by parrying attacks, somewhat akin to a “Just Defend” from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. In Alien Soldier, there is a move called “Counter-Force” that effectively acts as a parry, but which also creates health drops to collect. In Smash, having parry bring down the damage percentage would be a rough replication of that. It also makes the character good at dealing with projectiles (aside from Epsilon-Eagle also being a ranged character) and overly safe and predictable gameplay, as you wouldn’t want to accidentally give him back enough health to gain access to Phoenix Force.

In terms of special moves, Phoenix Force would be the side-special. While it’s executed as “down + jump” in Alien Eagle, I think it would be okay to at least give players the luxury of more intuitive directional controls. When Phoenix Force isn’t usable, the attack would simply be Zero Teleport, a horizontally traveling no-damage invincible dash reminiscent of Fox Illusion mixed with a bit of Pichu’s Agility. While it would indeed be impossible to hit, it would also travel the exact same distance and direction every time, limiting how much it can be abused. 

Neutral special would be Shot, i.e. firing your currently selected projectile weapon (Buster Force, Flame Force, Lancer Force, etc). Up-special would be Hover, which like in Alien Soldier, freezes you in place in the air. In Smash, it would be more for temporary midair stalling to mess with the opponent’s timing, but this would also mean Epsilon-Eagle’s recovery is highly reliant on Zero Teleport. Down-special would be Weapon Select, and much like Min Min’s Arms Change would cycle through different projectiles to use for the neutral special. Special + Shield would switch him between stationary shooting and running-and-gunning modes, giving him the ability to do both a moving shot a la Mega Man/Min Min or the ability to change direction of fire while standing still, but not both at the same time. It’s another intentional execution barrier in Alien Solder, and it would be here as well.

As for normal attacks and throws, they would have to be mostly made up from whole cloth, with a few perhaps utilizing ammo, akin to how Robin’s can deplete his Wind or Fire tomes depending on what version of jab he throws out. Something cool and spacey would be nice, but the important thing would be to not have him utterly hosed by reflectors. 

A character like Epsilon-Eagle should probably be high-tier or top-tier to justify his absurdity, but having someone so finicky could likely land him in mid-tier or worse. Moreover, the sheer strength of Phoenix Force would be tricky to balance, as even the slightest tweaks to it could result in a busted and aggravating character to use or fight against (or both at the same time!). Even so, wouldn’t it be amazing to see Epsilon-Eagle be up two stocks through clever gameplay, and then devastate the opponent’s last stock with a well-timed Phoenix Force? 

Minecraft Steve Is the PC Gaming Mascot of Smash

Throughout the years on this blog, I’ve speculated who would be a proper mascot for Western PC gaming in Smash Bros. As that series has transitioned from being “Nintendo All Stars” to “Video Game All Stars,” I’ve thought about the kinds of characters who could do a field as wide as “gaming on computers” justice. Maybe it could be the Warcraft orc Thrall, who features prominently in the real-time strategy, MMORPG genres, and MOBA genres. Maybe it could be Turrican, who comes from the Commodore 64 and Amiga era. But what I failed to realize—even after I did an analysis!—is that Steve from Minecraft is that Western PC representative. 

Minecraft is currently owned by Microsoft and on nearly every platform available, but as one of only two characters to get his start on computers (the other being Solid Snake and his original MSX debut), Steve 100% counts as a PC gaming mascot. I think the reason it didn’t even occur to me until recently is the sheer degree of Minecraft’s success. It is literally the best selling video game ever, and its presence transcends gaming. Yet, it still has fairly humble origins as a side project for a programmer working at a browser-based game company, to the extent that you might even count Steve as also the first indie gaming rep in Smash Bros. even if it is technically no longer an indie game.

As with every out-of-left-field fighter added to Smash, Steve opens up a world of possibilities in my mind. I want more than ever to just every aspect of video games from its earliest days somehow included. What about edutainment? Ryu, Ken, and Terry cover 2D fighting games, but 3D fighting games are substantially different. Reimu from Touhou could cover doujin games as well as shmups. Mobile and gacha games are such a huge part of the industry now—why not Angry Birds, or Dragalia Lost if they want to keep it in the Nintendo family? Imagine if Great Giana Sisters (which began as a Mario rip-off) made it in. Hell, why not bring in Computer Tennis

I’m aware that there are only three DLC slots left in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and that I’m wishing for the moon. Even so, it feels like we keep getting one ladder rung closer to that impossible dream, and it becomes ever so tempting to keep imagining. I realistically won’t be disappointed to see something less, and I respect all that the developers have accomplished, but nothing will stop me from looking toward the next sequel.

Sephiroth in Smash Is Uncharted Competitive Territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sephiroth and Villainous Presence in Smash Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

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

500 “Easy” Steps: Rivals of Aether

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.