Understanding the Frustration of Smash 4 Bayonetta While Still Being Anti-Ban

Since her first appearance in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Bayonetta has been a controversial character, with a style designed to frustrate opponents and combos that frequently snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A combination of factors—recent tournament success, audience backlash, and the difficulty mid to low level players have dealing with her potentially driving away new blood—have once again brought up the question of whether Bayonetta should be banned.

Personally, I think the answer is “no,” simply because none of the reasons I’ve read are solid enough or objectively quantifiable enough on their own to form a solid foundation for a ban argument. Collectively, they combine together into a murky sense of “she kills people’s desire to play the game,” as opposed to the more concrete reasoning of other banned characters in fighting games of years past. Bayonetta might be able to combo someone to death when they’re at 0% damage after a few reads, but it’s not like Super Street Fighter II: Turbo Akuma, whose could not be dizzied and had an air fireball that none could properly defend against.

Even as I disagree with those calling for a ban, however, I still find myself sympathizing with their arguments because their dissatisfaction is real. In particular, I find the idea that Bayonetta is discouraging new talent from sticking with the game to be fascinating because it’s specifically about how Bayonetta affects not the strongest players, but the ones underneath that upper echelon.

One common argument made against banning Bayonetta involves comparing her to another top character from a previous Smash Bros. game: Fox McCloud in Super Smash Bros. Melee. If you look at the amount of representation Bayonetta has among the top 50 Smash 4 players, it pales in comparison to the number of Melee Fox users. “But,” the pro-ban side will say, “Fighting Fox at mid-level is fun because you can exploit his weaknesses and combo him. You can’t do the same to Bayonetta.”

So you have a situation where, while Bayonetta is not as dominant as Fox at the highest skill tiers, this doesn’t matter to a large chunk of players for whom that might never matter. Mid-level players fight mid-level Foxes and can take advantage of their opponents’ mid-level flaws. In contrast, taking on mid-level Bayonettas requires both a combination of very solid fundamentals (in particular to not overextend and to force the Bayonetta to act first), and specialized knowledge (how to properly fall out of her combos to avoid the next hits, and the decision-making necessary to hide one’s countermeasures against those combos) In a way, if the reason you play competitively is to land satisfying combos, the study and practice needed to fight Bayonetta might feel as interesting as doing taxes or studying trigonometry.

I think all of this would be an easier pill to swallow if the reward for learning how to fight Bayonetta is a consistent plan on how to exploit her weaknesses and shut her down. Little Mac garnered complaints early on because he was difficult to fight for newer players. Lucario, like Bayonetta, is argued to go against the “rules” of fighting games by becoming more powerful as it takes more damage. Sonic the Hedgehog’s evasive style can easily wear down people’s patience. In all of these cases, better players have shown the way as to how to fight them properly and satisfyingly. With Bayonetta, even though she’s the least dominant #1 character in Smash history, she can still aggravate even the best players in the world.

Here’s an analogy that I think conveys the conflicted feeling of knowing that some of the strongest competitors in the world can still succumb to Bayonetta’s shenanigans. Imagine two people have each discovered treasure maps. They require learning an ancient language, trudging through deadly jungles, and a general toll on body and mind. For the first person, the reward is a treasure chest full of gold and riches. All that hard work yielded a mighty reward. For the second person, however, they find a contract that lands them a 9-to-5 job that pays decently well but still requires them to keep pushing ahead, and there’s not even a guarantee the job will last. It’s a “reward” in a certain sense, but that amount of effort might not seem worth it. The latter situation is how I imagine mid level Smashers feel when they look to the top for inspiration, and see many of their heroes still falter against Bayonetta. Learning all of those tricks and tips only results in relatively less stress.

Tactics and characters that can crush weaker players might not necessarily work on stronger ones. Bayonetta is in a similar situation, but the degree to which she threatens the motivation of those non-top players is still worth noting. One possible solution is to simply restrict her usage at smaller, local tournaments. However, this runs the risk of harming an important subsection of players: those who are not yet good enough to compete at the highest level, but might become strong enough. If you have a smaller scene that bans Bayonetta but have bigger settings that allow her to remain, then you’ve basically harmed those transitional players because they have to fight Bayonetta now while lacking experience against her. A blanket ban technically fixes this as well, but just as lower level players might find it unfair to have the expectations of skill and talent from the top tell them what can and can’t be done, basing a ban on how those lower level players feel can be even more stifling to the top. There’s no easy answer.

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A Strong Foundation: How the Japanese Smash 4 Tournament Format Helps the Community

Introduction: Japan, Land of Hidden Bosses

If there’s anything that the Japanese Smash 4 competitive scene is known for, it’s a high average skill level across its player base, as well as a great amount of character diversity. Many of the world’s greatest character specialists come from Japan—Ranai and his Villager, Kameme and his Megaman, Shuton and his Olimar, and a whole slew of powerful Duck Hunts. A lack of monetary prizes is frequently cited in online discussions as a reason why so many Japanese character specialists exist, but I think that’s just a starting point and not a sufficient explanation by itself.

On occasion, fans will point to the extremely volatile rankings at Japanese tournaments as proof of Japan being a haven for character specialists, while others will counter that the average format of Japanese tournaments (Best of 1 round robin pools, followed by Best of 3 double elimination often even into grand finals) is inherently inconsistent. However, while this inconsistency might be a strike against the tournaments themselves providing reliable results, I think the format Japan uses is actually a key factor in helping its player base grow and improve compared to the common formats elsewhere (double elimination throughout, starting Best of 5s much earlier in the bracket), especially when it comes to creating those intimidatingly strong character loyalists.

The Mother of Invention

One of the reasons Japanese tournament matches tend to be so much shorter than their North American and European counterparts is time constraints. Often times, these events last only one day at venues that cannot allow them to stay later. They’re working with what they have. Yet if you look at how they use that limited time, it’s clear that the format is designed to give all players the most amount of playtime possible. Best of 1 round robin means that, even if you don’t make it out of pools, you potentially get to face a far greater number of opponents than the two you would encounter in a double elimination bracket. Everyone, even the worst players, get to gain real experience against more characters and more play styles.

Fostering Young Lions

Top players in Japan seem to prefer the “Western” style more because it favors them—as the best, their skill gets better rewarded the longer the sets are. While not going in that direction works against the best of the best, it’s also clear that the Japanese tournaments are meant to be as hospitable to newbies as possible. In addition to the round robin format initially, there’s also something called the “B-class tournament,” which is a separate bracket for all of the players who didn’t make it out of pools. In other tournament formats, less skilled players are usually given a chance to improve by dedicating a section for non-tournament “friendlies.” The B-class bracket is an opportunity to continue to play in a tournament-style setting.

When Japanese Smash 4 tournaments first began, there was even a question of whether or not to restrict the stage selection to Omega stages—flat levels without any platforms—only because it was the only stage type available on Nintendo’s default online competitive format, For Glory. While the Japanese scene ultimately went away from this idea, it shows a desire to cater to newcomers. Combined with extremely reliable high-speed internet that makes Japanese online play better than other parts of the world, this means Japanese tournaments are a good environment for those who are considering transitioning from online play to offline events.

Best of 1: “Random?”

Another aspect to consider is that the Best of 1 format itself might help advance player improvement. Although Best of 1 matches are not preferred for showing who can win consistently, it does foster certain skills that longer formats do not, as once pointed out by fighting game commentators UltraChen. A player can’t wait until the second set to try and figure out their opponent; they need to do it now. Super Battle Opera, once Japan’s most prestigious fighting game tournament, used a Best of 1 format, and its players adapted to it. While a Best of 5 match shows who can adapt the best over a longer period, Best of 1 forces players to learn how to adapt extremely quickly, which in turn teaches them how to “gamble” better when the chips are down. This might be why Japan is somehow known for both more reserved play and riskier (but not necessarily aggressive) styles as well.

What’s more, the inconsistency of Best of 1 pools might actually help in giving more players experience as well. If the very best players advance every single time, this means that the lesser players do not get to feel what it’s like to move up the bracket and face increasingly tougher opponents. With the “randomness” of Japanese tournaments, many more players get to feel what it’s like to be in a Top 16 or Top 8 against the country’s best.

Conclusion

The Japanese format is geared towards expanding the Smash 4 tournament scene by being an inviting space for players of all stripes. Best of 1 pools and B-class side tournaments not only allow all competitors both strong and weak to experience a variety of players and characters, it allows character loyalists and champions (two groups which do have crossover!) to level up at a higher rate. Shorter matches also foster a certain type of adaptation, and the inherent volatility potentially gives many more players to get accustomed to playing at later stages of a tournament. Whatever the ultimate goal of a given player, the Japanese tournament format provides the foundation for a strong player base.

Dominatrix Gameplay: The S&M Fighting Style of Smash 4 Bayonetta

Bayonetta is generally considered the best character in Smash 4. While her strengths are many, her key trait is the ability to instantly turn the tables on her opponent’s assault and transform a disadvantageous situation into a chance for victory. As with many #1 characters in games, there have even been calls to ban her from competitive play, more than any other character in the game. But I don’t believe the outcry is simply because she’s “too good.” Rather, it’s about why she’s good. Her character strategies are akin to those of a dominatrix, and her denial of pleasure in Smash 4 is what frustrates many to the point of crying foul.

Heroic stories are often built on giving antagonists their just desserts. Whenever Stone Cold Steve Austin managed to corner Vince McMahon, fans cheered as Austin drowned his evil boss in beer. When Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star confronts Jagi, the satisfaction of having Kenshiro beat Jagi to death for all his injustice is a moment meant to scratch that revenge itch. The villain, by virtue of being a villain, must pay.

Looking at fighting games, it’s possible to label the top tier characters as the villains in the story of competition. They’re the fastest, the strongest, and the most dominant. So what happens when the “hero,” i.e. whoever’s fighting the top tier, finally catches up to this scoundrel? Well, it depends.

Take Fox, from Super Smash Bros. Melee. Widely considered the strongest character in that game by a margin wider than Bayonetta’s grip over Smash 4. But while Fox is basically a master of all trades, he’s also a glass cannon who, if hit, can be combo’d hard by many of the best and worst characters in the game. Stringing a series of attacks together and watching Fox’s damage percentage rapidly rise is satisfying. So is spiking him offstage and seeing him plummet like a rock to his doom. Making Fox pay goes a long way in providing pleasure to the player or viewer opposing him.

This results in a kind of “combo catharsis.” Even if the opponent loses to Fox, seeing a Marth or a Mewtwo chain grab him for a couple of stocks can still make it seem like the dastardly space animal was on the ropes, if only for a few moments. The villain barely got away! Even in loss, it’s possible to feel powerful—a quality that I believe is important in attracting and keeping players.

Bayonetta, in contrast, is intentionally designed to deny easy combos and follow-ups on her. Multiple jumps and ways to recover mean edgeguarding her is difficult. Afterburner Kick acts as an escape button for those trying to juggle her. Witch Twist deflects and draws in the opponent into a potentially high-damage or even fatal string of attacks. Witch Time actively punishes overly aggressive and predictable players. While it’s possible to land multiple blows on her, each hit requires about as much work as the last. Bayonetta stymies combo catharsis, making the release that comes with it incredibly difficult to achieve. Even in gameplay, she’s truly a dominatrix.

A unifying point between Bayonetta and Fox is another character notorious for denying combo catharsis: Melee Jigglypuff. A proverbial flyweight who makes up for its lack of diverse tools by stonewalling opponents through strong aerial attacks and deft aerial movement, Jigglypuff is so light that the opponent can usually only land one or two hits before it goes flying out of reach. And yet, when it comes to Fox’s reputation vs. Jigglypuff’s, the latter receives more scorn from players and spectators despite the fact that the former excels at nearly everything and boasts a much larger player base at the lowest and highest levels of competition. Catch Fox, and you can pound him for an extended period. Catch Jigglypuff or Bayonetta, and you might get just a single lick before you have to start all over again.

In spite all of the above innuendo, this is only an analogy, and I don’t think anyone actually derives sexual pleasure from playing Smash Bros.—though I could see it being just as satisfying. But at the same time, it’s clear that Bayonetta is, by design, hard to combo, and that one of the most popular and enduring elements of Smash Bros. and fighting games in general is the combos (or chains or strings). I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Bayonetta in essence works from an almost BDSM-like playbook. This doesn’t necessarily mean Smash 4 players are masochists, but those who still choose to fight Bayonetta are at least those who can manage to hold back their desire to just let loose.

The Emperor’s Abdication: ZeRo’s Retirement from Smash 4 and the Fate of the Tier List

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From the looks of things, an age of competitive Smash 4 has come to an end. With a new Smashboards Smash 4 Tier List, seen below, the reveal of the Top 50 PGR-ranked players, and the announced retirement of ZeRo—far and away the greatest Smash 4 player to date—the likely dawn of a new age is filled with questions. The ones most on my mind are “Can anyone ascend to ZeRO’s empty throne?” and “How will Diddy Kong be perceived by players in the years to come?”

ZeRo hasn’t just been the best Smash 4 player; it’s just so indisputable that no one who knows anything will disagree. In the early days of the game, he went on a tear that looks nigh-impossible to match, winning 53 tournaments in a row before finally falling to one of the other Smash 4 elites in Nairo. Since then, ZeRo has looked increasingly mortal as the other players have continually improved, but his ability to claw and scratch his way back to the top is rare. He even won the very first Nintendo invitational before the game was released!

ZeRo has an enormous influence on the meta. In fact, we saw a mini-version of this planned retirement a couple of years ago. In 2016, ZeRo ran into a medical issue that forced him into a small hiatus. During that period, many challengers rose to the occasion, such as the Japanese player Abadango. It was during this period that Abadango won his first major tournament, Shine 2016, off the back of his surprising and enchanting Mewtwo play. But then ZeRo returned, and he and his trusty Diddy Kong became a thorn in Abadango’s side. This elite Japanese player has never been able to take a set off of ZeRo, and he’s not alone. In fact, only 34 players have ever been able to accomplish that feat. Now, imagine how much this affects tournament brackets and placings.

ZeRo is a phenomenon. To take his place means not just being #1, it means holding onto that placement with an iron grip. And in a game with plenty of viable characters and a huge pool of skilled players, we might just be entering the Warring States period of Smash 4. I think it’s possible for a new king to emerge, but it certainly won’t be easy.

Now, let’s look at the newest Smash 4 Backroom Tier List:

The categories might seem excessive, but as the explanatory post mentions, the different letter rankings can also be broken down as: S-A = Top Tier, B = High Tier, C = Upper Tier, D-E = Mid Tier F-G= Low Tier. If we define mid tier as characters that can, on occasion, make it fairly far (top 16 or so) at major events, then that’s a whopping 44 characters (out of 54 listed) that can do damage at tournaments. A Japanese Link player named T got 3rd at one of the biggest tournaments of the year in 2GG Civil War. Mii Fighters were not ranked due to lack of input from judges (which is a shame, but I digress).

It’s notable to me how just much tier lists in general, as well as audience perception, can be affected by top player results, as opposed to being judging the characters by their abilities alone. This is especially the case in the Smash communities, where top player reverence can border on worship. According to this tier list, Diddy Kong is the third best character in the game. Obviously, it’s not just about results, as that would make every tier list place Diddy Kong as #1 due to ZeRo. At the same time, there’s no way ZeRo isn’t the biggest argument in favor of Diddy being a top-3 character. After all, it’s happened before with other characters. When Kameme got 2nd at EVO, Mega Man was instant high tier. Ranai is by far the greatest Villager in Smash 4, but him attending fewer tournaments and doing somewhat worse drops Ranai from high to upper tier.

The next best-ranked Diddy Kong player is Panda Global’s MVD, a very strong competitor in his own right…but nowhere near the caliber of ZeRo. Over the next six months, I see people still remembering what Diddy Kong is capable of, but memories will fade. The world of eSports often has an incredibly short memory, with even one year being perceived by fans as a lifetime and a half, and I predict that Diddy Kong’s position will slowly recede as people only read of ZeRo’s accomplishments instead of experiencing them. As the meta shifts, fans might even say, “Sure, ZeRo did all that back when people didn’t know how to play the game as well, but now players know how to deal with Diddy.” It happens to virtually every other top tier in Smash 4, and it’ll happen here.

Of course, this is all provided ZeRo has actually retired (until the next Smash game). The pull of competition can be irresistible.

The Dilemma of Casting an Esports Grand Finals

No matter the game, whenever an esports grand finals rolls around, there’s contention as to the best approach for commentary. What is the best style of casting for the later stages of a tournament, when the audience tends to be the largest and the matches themselves tend to be the most high-level?

I don’t think there’s one true answer, because it really depends on the objective of a given tournament. Rather, I want to highlight to the esports-viewing audience what makes this such a difficult balancing act, and why commentary that does not cater to their own tastes is not necessarily bad or inferior.

The Top 8 and above matches of tournaments tend to get the highest amount of viewers. This means there are more non-experts watching. They might still be fans, but there’s a good chance that they’re not going to know the nitty gritty of the game. Things that a more experienced player and ardent viewer might recognize with little effort might fly completely over their heads. In this case, one sensible solution would be to cater to a relatively more casual audience. You might have to explain some of the more complex aspects of the game, or perhaps ignore or simplify them so that these viewers aren’t overwhelmed with information they can’t understand.

However, those final matches are also typically where the highest amount of skill is displayed between competitors. While earlier rounds might be filled with one-sided victories or lesser players making mistakes, by the time it hits grand finals there is a strong chance that the play will be on another level. If the accompanying commentary aims more for the larger, more casual part of the audience, it potentially alienates the more hardcore fans who want to know the small details. If a tournament wants to show the full depth of their game, it might be necessary for commentary to be more complex and high-level.

If going by a pure numbers game, the “obvious” solution is to aim for the larger, more casual audience, but there are a few monkey wrenches that need to be taken into account. The casual-hardcore dichotomy can be rather nebulous. Some fans who are casual might want to feel like they’re part of the hardcore audience, and the best way to give them that impression is through commentary. A “true expert” at a game probably does not need a commentator to tell them what’s going on, so they might find technical explanations tedious for the opposite reason that the casual viewer might dislike them. In that case, the dry delivery of top-level knowledge of a player like Mew2King can be more appealing, especially to fans of those players.

Depending on the game, there might be no such thing as a “casual fan.” After all, esports has a general issue with not being as obvious in terms of goals and objectives as traditional sports—compare looking at the score in basketball vs. trying to interpret who’s ahead in League of Legends without having any prior knowledge of either.

Professionalism is another factor. As esports scenes grow, a lack of professionalism might drive away new viewers, but at the same time a slick, polished product might come across as too sterile to maintain interest. Suffice it to say, different people want different things from commentary. There are so many conflicting values that some tournaments have even tried having alternative streams to cater to casual audiences, but that potentially leads to an inconsistent presentation for a tournament.

Any tournament, big or small, wants to put its best foot forward. The problem with reconciling all of these different factors is that no one commentary can possibly cover them all, not even a team where each commentator specializes in something different. Some consider play-by-play to be the most important. Others believe that emphasizing the human drama between the players is key. Others want deep analysis of every situation. Ultimately, it requires some sort of compromise, and I think it’s important to see it not as a concession or a loss of quality. Criticism of commentary is justified and should even be encouraged, but it should come with the awareness that one’s own perspective exists among many.

Icons: Combat Arena and the Social Establishment of Character Archetypes

The desire to create competitive games in the vein of Smash Bros. often comes with the intent to court the existing player base for Smash Bros. Melee—the hyper-fast entry of the popular Nintendo franchise with the most storied tournament history. This is evident in the recently named Icons: Combat Arena. With its EVO 2017 gameplay trailer showing off attack animations and characters a little more than reminiscent of Smash Bros., the comparisons are more than inevitable. One of the consequences of this courtship is that, not only is the intended character roster inspired by high-level Melee play, but there is also a clear assumption from the creators of Icons that how the strongest characters have emerged from within Melee‘s environment have shaped the very foundation of the genre of the platform fighter subgenre.

The name of the studio behind Icons, Wavedash games, is by itself sufficient evidence for the team’s reverence for Smash and Melee. It’s named after the most well-known of the “hidden techniques” of Melee. The developers have even released videos over the past year detailing their design philosophy and inspirations. However, the fact that the Melee top tier is virtually replicated in the Icons roster revealed thus far is the biggest indicator of Melee‘s influence.

Take, for example, the character known as Kidd, an anthropomorphic goat character who’s also an homage to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez. One of the “five gods” of Melee, Mang0’s nicknames include “The Kid” and “The GOAT” (in reference to his numerous achievements). According to the creators themselves, Kidd is purposely patterned after the characters Fox and Falco from Star Fox, two of the top tiers. More than simply taking cues from these two, Icons considers the “space animal” to be a mainstay character archetype for platform fighters, the way that the “shoto” (a balanced character with fireball, anti-air uppercut, and horizontal movement special move) or the “grappler” are in traditional fighting games.

The positioning of the space animal as an archetype is very telling because, while there are shared qualities between Fox and Falco (the latter being a “clone” built directly from the template of the former), what really defines the significance of “spacies” to the platform fighter is their dominance in Melee and the reputation of superiority that precedes them. No character embodies competitive Melee more than Fox—his speed, incredibly good tools, difficult technical requirements, and overall role as “master of all trades” helps to define that high-pace action Melee is famous for. In other words, the reason the space animal is an archetype is because they’re so absurdly strong in that environment, a notion which extends to many of their archetypes listed by Wavedash Games in one their development vlogs:

The eight archetypes are: space animal, swordsman, speedy brawler, floaty, duo, projectile master, alternate weapon, and grappler. Of these, the first four can be found directly in Melee‘s upper echelons. The fifth, the projectile master, is arguably best seen with Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl.

From 1 through 8: Space Animal, Space Animal, Swordsman, Speedy Brawler, Floaty, Floaty, Duo, Speedy Brawler

To be clear, this is not accusing Wavedash Games of lacking creativity. While certain attacks shown so far are quite obviously taking cues from Smash Bros. and especially Melee, there’s also a clear intent to innovate. Ashani the speedy brawler is supposed to be “30% familiar, 70% new.” Even so, Ashani is clearly assembled from the building blocks of Captain Falcon in Melee. This makes sense, given that Captain Falcon is arguably the most beloved Melee character due to his flashy, up-close combos, and the fact that he’s good, but not so overwhelming as to be stigmatized for it. Another Icons character, Zhurong, is a sword wielder clearly modeled after Marth (another Melee top tier).

If not for how competitive Melee turned out, it’s highly likely any of these categories wouldn’t even be thought of as archetypes in the first place.

That might seem like an obvious point. After all, why wouldn’t a genre grow based on the successes of past releases? However, I still think there’s a vital difference between how Icons defines its archetypes and how other games, including other competitive ones, have gone about it.

Look at Street Fighter, for instance. In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the Spanish ninja known as Vega/Balrog/Claw is one of the best characters while also possessing a unique fighting style. Yet later fighting games inspired by Street Fighter didn’t consider “Claw” to be a foundational character style. They were more likely to go with archetypes that, while based on Street Fighter‘s success, aren’t necessarily based on tier lists—the Zangief-esque grappler, for example, fluctuates up and down the tier lists from one game to the next, and wasn’t especially strong in Street Fighter II. At this point in Icons, there seems to be no indication of a “Mewtwo”-esque character, possibly because Mewtwo is a low tier in Melee.

The archetypes established for Icons: Combat Arena do not come from the success of Smash Bros. and especially Melee as competitively viable games alone. They also derive from the collective Melee community’s perception of what is assumed or expected of a game that is trying to exist within not just the same world, but practically on the same city block. If Melee didn’t have the space animal or the swordsman, its history would’ve been far different, but the lopsidedness of its tier list also means that many of the characters who could’ve been archetypes are perceived as otherwise due to their ineffectiveness. For a competitive scene so firmly built on the top being home to only a handful of characters, it is arguably the best way for Icons to say, “I am familiar territory, don’t be afraid to try me.”

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Pre-Evo Thoughts: Video Games vs. Chess Analogies

Introduction: “It’s like Chess, but…”

One of the most common ways to try and explain the appeal of competitive video games is to make a comparison to chess. Starcraft is “real-time chess.” Smash Bros. Brawl players used to explain the importance of decision-making by saying the game was more “chess-like” compared to Melee. While I haven’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone called Dota 2 “chess where each piece is controlled by a different player.” Making the connection is essentially shorthand for highlighting a game a “thinking man’s endeavor.”

The accuracy of the comparison is often limited to the most basic similarities, and tends to fall apart under greater scrutiny. Despite that being the case, however, I find that there is another kind of chess comparison that can open up greater understanding of how we view competition through games. Namely, if we think about not just the western version of chess, but also the many variations of chess and chess-like games that exist in the world, then it can help us understand and appreciate the unique qualities of video games that are from the same series but have differing gameplay.

As a note, I am not an expert on chess or any chess-like game. There will not be any high level examples, and most of the comparisons will be based on descriptions I’ve found from others. I’m also knowledgeable but not amazing at any competitive games I mention, so keep that in mind as well.

Chess vs. Shogi: Similar Games, Different Dynamics

Chess and shogi (“Japanese chess”) have a lot in common. Both are turn-based games played on large, tile-based boards where the goal is trap the enemy king in an inescapable situation. Both have different types of pieces, each of which have different rules for moving, with the most common pieces (the pawns) having the fewest choices and the strongest pieces being much rarer. However, there are differences of opinion as to which game is better, and they hinge on a few key elements.

The queen: chess’s mightiest warrior

Chess pieces have more freedom of movement compared to ones in shogi. Chess has two rooks and two bishops on each side, who can move as far as the board (and any interfering pieces) can take them. It has two knights who can jump in that characteristic “L” shape. And it has the queen, which can move across the board in eight directions. In contrast, shogi pieces can cover much less ground. Not only is shogi board bigger (10 x 10 as opposed to chess’s 8 x 8), but players get only one rook and one bishop, and there’s no such thing as a queen. Shogi has pieces that chess doesn’t, but all of them are much more restricted in terms of their mobility.

The gold general in shogi is extremely powerful, but no chess queen

The result of this difference is that chess emphasizes the center of the board as a major point of contention because the pieces simply have more movement options. Shogi pieces take more turns to get from one place to another, but this also means skirmishes can happen all over the board. Also, whereas the king in chess is seen as a relatively weak piece because it can “only” move one space at a time, in shogi the king is a fearsome fighter because of its relative versatility.

Example in Esports

In spite of their similarities, chess is a game where greater range and possibility of movement produces one range of play, while shogi’s shorter range per piece produces another. They’re actually different enough that a person can love one but hate the other. One can find a similar relationships in other games in the same “families,” of which I’ll be listing a couple below.

Take the Street Fighter series and the Marvel vs. series, for example. Movement in Street Fighter games are traditionally very restricted. One walks back and forth and maybe has the ability to do a small dash, but jumping is a risky commitment and the game stays very grounded. In Marvel Vs. games, however, characters can make massive leaps, fire large beams that cover most of the screen, and dismantle each other quickly. Even though they’re both fighting games, tweaking certain elements means one could be great in the former type but awful at the latter.

Even games within the same series can be as dissimilar as chess and shogi. When discussing what makes Smash Bros. Melee such a beloved game among its fans, one common reason given is “movement options.” Not only do platforms allow for vertical movement, but a plethora of advanced inputs exist for players to practice—wavedashing, dash dancing, ledge dashing, etc. Other games in the Smash Bros. franchise, such as the more recent Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U (aka Smash 4) have nowhere near as much range of movement, but small steps matter more. Melee top player Mang0 has mentioned in the past that walking (as opposed to dashing or wavedashing) is under-utilized in Melee. When looking at Smash 4, walking is incredibly common.

Is larger range of movement and prerequisite to a better game? The answer is that it’s largely a matter of personal preference, as opposed to any sort of objective standard. Take this 2007 post from the chess blog The Only Winning Move:

I do think [shogi] is probably more complex than chess …

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun” …. I much prefer Chess…. My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling … Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work….

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood….

Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better.

And Still More

If the chess vs. shogi comparison seems too simplistic in terms of how games of a similar genre can differ, keep in mind that there are many variations of chess-type games out there as well. Xiangqi (“Chinese chess”), for example, is famous for having a very explosive mid-game, as well as obstacles to get around in the form of rivers. Perhaps your preferred game resembles xiangqi more than chess or shogi.
Let’s Appreciate the Differences

Games can be “chess-like,” but it’s potentially better to bring that up relative to other forms of chess so that discussion can be more fruitful. The examples I’ve given do not map perfectly to chess and shogi, but the point is less to find a perfect analogy and more to show how games that can look the same on the surface can produce very different games that can carry different appeals to their respective player bases.

 

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