Introduction: Two Climbers, One Grab
In the world of competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee, there’s an ongoing open debate as to how to keep the game thriving in the long term. What’s the best way to present the game to a larger audience? How do you maintain tournament integrity? What should competition even look like? With a reputation for being fast-paced and technically involved, Melee often attracts a certain audience of thrill seekers, whether as players or as viewers, which is why there’s been a recent movement to potentially ban or restrict certain techniques and perhaps even characters under the pretense that they harm the longevity of the scene.
Current arguments are centered around a powerful technique known as “wobbling” and whether or not it should continue to be legal in tournaments. The surrounding discourse is fascinating because of how it reveals the values that are deeply entrenched in Melee and its history, and how they can at times be at odds with each other.
What is Wobbling?
For those unfamiliar with wobbling, it’s a maneuver exclusive to the Ice Climbers that takes advantage of their unique “twin-character” properties to virtually guarantee a KO no matter how healthy the opponent is, with few exceptions. While other characters have vaguely similar throws that allow them to rack up tons of damage, nothing in isolation truly compares to the sheer power that wobbling brings to the table. In fighting game terms, it’s essentially an “infinite,” or a move that can be looped potentially forever. There are actually tournament rules already in place to prevent Ice Climbers from just beginning a wobble and running the clock.
Strength is Relative
An argument I see thrown out fairly often is that infinites and guaranteed death combos are generally patched out or removed from games if the developers can help it, which is mostly true. But it’s also not as cut and dry as proponents of this reasoning use. Infinites are only as powerful, unfair, or game-breaking as the game around them allows them to be.
Take the 2005 Hokuto no Ken fighting game, where an infinite or 100% damage combo by no means guarantees a character to be top-tier…because almost every character in the game has at least one or two of them. Instead, the game revolves around these absurd, high-damage combos and potential infinites, and become the reason the game has a scene in the first place. Crazy, elaborate combos are accepted as core to the game.
Of course, Hokuto no Ken is not Super Smash Bros. Melee, but if one were to go along with the “infinites are removed by developers” stance, this also means examining two points. First, how powerful/game-changing is wobbling in relation to everything else in the game? Second, if developers did actually patch Melee after all these years, would they only remove wobbling, or would other, more beloved aspects of competitive Melee end up on the chopping block as well? The answers to these questions are subjective and speculative, respectively, but the ambiguity of possible answers also speaks to the relationship between the competitive players and the game itself as both a passion and a proving ground.
Perception of Strength is Also Relative
Ice Climbers, even with wobbling, are not considered the best character in the game. Records prove out that the tools of the true elite—Fox, Falco, Marth, Jigglypuff, etc.—outshine theirs. Although those other characters might not have anything as singularly powerful as wobbling, they have a plethora of almost-as-good options. And while a wobble that has been successfully initiated cannot be stopped outside of an input error, top players have developed anti-Ice Climbers strategies that revolve around prevention. Fighting Ice Climbers involves removing or halting the elements that lead to getting wobbled in the first place: avoiding grabs and separating the two Ice Climbers characters from each other. If one is going by dominance as a criteria for banning Ice Climbers or wobbling, it doesn’t apply, excepting the argument that it’s a steep wall for newer players to scale—a soul-crushing experience for those less honed..
Wobbling is most likely unintentional, given that the current Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has actively removed the ability for chain grabs and grab infinites to occur in the first place. However, there are many things about Melee that would likely get removed alongside wobbling if a balance team were given the chance to redo things. For example, certain characters have what’s known as an “invincible ledge dash,” a technique that lets them get up from the ledge and move forward while retaining full invincibility. What makes an invincible ledge dash different from wobbling? The answer in the eyes of many players and fans is execution and effectiveness. Wobbling’s opponents view it as too easy to pull off for the reward it brings, and that it’s potentially antithetical to the community’s general love for difficulty and precision of execution. The same issue has come into play with the Smashbox, a stickless controller meant to be gentler on the hands, whose easier execution is a point of contention for a competitive community that values complexity of physical performance.
Therein lies the real heart of the argument for and against wobbling. A vocal dislike of defensive, non-flashy play permeates the Melee community, and you’ll find fans tying the health of the game to the high-octane excitement it can generate. This is why the argument against wobbling somehow began to drag in the topic of Jigglypuff, the chosen character of current #1 player Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma, and the very symbol of slow and careful play. It’s the same struggle that boxing has had with Floyd Mayweather’s defensive style or the way Royce Gracie would seemingly “hug” opponents into submission in early UFC bouts. It’s an argument between the two facets facing any competition with an audience: do you prioritize visual flair, or the win-at-all-costs mindset—especially when competitors’ livelihoods are tied to both audience appeal and legitimacy of competition?
But What If It Actually Harms the Game?
It’s not as if competitive fighting game communities never ban things. In Street Fighter II, or more specifically Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the character of Akuma (Gouki in Japanese) is forbidden. Designed as a hidden, unlockable boss, Akuma comes with advantages that no other character has: invincible limbs (absurd in a game built around punishing arm and leg over-extensions), an air fireball (in a game not built to handle projectiles coming from certain angles), and dizziness immunity, among other perks. Put differently, he countered all of the things that Street Fighter II was built around. He’s such a clear-cut #1 that other characters might as well not exist, and the extreme lack of diversity threatened the life of the game.
Even in Hokuto no Ken, where 100% death combos are lauded, there are also a few banned moves. For example, character Rei can perform an infinite rising uppercut to send himself and the opponent into the sky without any ability to fight back.
In relation to wobbling, the Street Fighter II example doesn’t really apply. Ice Climbers are nowhere near the being the best or killing variety among character choices, and in fact it’s the other better characters who keep the low tiers of Melee down. As for Hokuto no Ken, there’s arguably a closer parallel with wobbling. Both are infinites and both are relatively easy to execute (at least, if you ask competitive players). However, the fact that there are preventive countermeasures players can practice and implement to mitigate the threat of wobbling, and that wobbling isn’t being done by one of the Top 2 characters in the game (Rei is either the best or second-best in Hokuto no Ken) changes the dynamic. One can learn to defeat wobbling, but it’s more about planning in advance how to avoid the Ice Climbers’ deadly mittens.
If we go back to an earlier point—that wobbling is especially harmful to low- to mid-level players—then there is some weight to that statement. It’s only a matter of course that weaker players aren’t as well equipped to defend against such a powerful technique. Does it scare off newer players enough to kill off the pool of new players coming into the Melee scene? Perhaps, but I think it also speaks to the kind of player base Melee tends to attract, i.e. interested in aggressive and flashy gameplay, and the potential failure of the Melee community to encourage its base to accept and appreciate defensive play.
A Community that Fails to Accept Defensive Play is Punished for It
If you’ve been wondering where the term “wobbling” comes from, it’s actually named after an Ice Climbers player who popularized the technique: Robert “Wobbles” Wright. However, more impressive than his ability to push the character is his intelligent analyses of gaming and the competitive mindset. On a recent Twitch stream, Wobbles discussed the controversy over wobbling, bringing up a couple salient points.
First, he tells the story of a tournament that ended up with a top 3 of all Fox McClouds (the character synonymous with “exciting Melee”), only for the commentators to complain that the more defensive Fox tends to win the mirror matchup. In other words, the pursuit of an “ideal” way to play leads to attacking even that which was once viewed as “acceptable.” Second, he argues that no single character has ever threatened to kill Melee. Instead, the real culprits are stagnation and perception. When wobbling is used to dominate a scene’s perceived heroes, it is regarded with disdain. However, as soon as it’s a villain on the receiving end, fans are eager to cheer for it. Third, he posits that removing wobbling can very well remove Ice Climbers as a viable tournament pick, actually reducing diversity and increasing the risk of stagnation.
But in spite of being the technique’s namesake, Wobbles is just one of many voices out there. And while many prominent members have argued against banning wobbling—including players and tournament organizers—it’s more a begrudging acceptance than anything else. “I hate wobbling, but it’d be wrong to see it banned” is a half-spirited defense that I believe speaks to the lack of major figures in the Smash community as a whole who are ready to argue in favor of doing what’s effective, not just what looks good.
Compare with the Street Fighter competitive scene, which has had “lame” players practically baked into its essence. On a recent episode of the UltraChen Tuesday Show, Gerald “LA Akira” Abraham recounts the very earliest days of the fighting game community surrounding Street Fighter II in the 1990s, and the fact that one of the best players in the US at the time and a major mentor, Jeff “LA Akuma” Schaefer, is one of the all-time kings of lame play. In this environment, getting past that defensive, minimalist style was practically a rite of passage. Anyone who complained wasn’t strong enough to survive. Following his lead have been big names such as David Sirlin of “Playing to Win” fame and all-time great Justin Wong, who just released a video called “The Art of Lame.” In it, Wong emphasizes the idea that “playing lame” is not intrinsic to any specific character, but a philosophy that can be applied to any character. Street Fighter has had a support structure from practically day one to teach players to accept non-flashy, defensive play—something missing from Melee.
The Anti-Defense Bias Will Still Exist, Regardless of Wobbling
While there exist some guides to fighting Ice Climbers and the threat of wobbling, there are remarkably few for what is supposed to be a major problem in the Melee scene. It’s understandable that the kind of preventive counterplay required is harder to teach, and perhaps banning wobbling ends up being the cleaner and easier solution. However, it still doesn’t address the deeper problem, which is that something needs to be done about educating players instead of just feeding into their biased desires for a certain type of “ideal” game they might never reach.