The Hero in Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Skill Found in Randomness

When the Hero from Dragon Quest was first revealed as a playable character in Smash Bros. Ultimate, there were hints as to how the character would function, but few were able to predict that the character would be so volatile. Because the Hero has not one but multiple random mechanics that can make him both inconsistent and unpredictable, part of the conversation surrounding the character has revolved around whether the character’s “luck” elements hurt competitive Smash Bros. There’s even talk, however small, about the possibility of banning the character outright.

The Hero has smash attacks that can randomly trigger critical hits (effectively double damage). He has a spell menu the contents of which are random every time you open it. He even has a spell inside the spell menu that gives random results. So the fear is somewhat understandable—especially given the scene’s general dislike toward and removal of spawning items (i.e. a major random element) from tournament play.

While there are many arguments to make for why banning the Hero is a bad idea—the character is simply too new to understand his impact on high-level play, for one—I want to make a different case about his merits. Specifically, I believe that the Hero and his special mechanics provide new and interesting tests of skill that revolve around managing randomness without the major downsides and stigma of items-on play.

Skill and Luck Are Not Opposites

Before this argument can move forward, it is necessary to try and dispel an idea that has plagued competitive Smash since the earliest days: the false dichotomy between skill and luck. On a surface level, randomness interfering with skill makes sense because a coin flip, for example, can’t be modified through talent and effort.

But competitive scenes exist for games with heavy elements of chance, and in these environments, the question of how to navigate, take advantage of, and cope with random chance is ongoing.

Magic: The Gathering

People complain that their opponent topdecked their only out the turn they needed it, but do not realise that often their own poor play either gave their opponent more turns to draw the out or overcommitted turning the eventual out into one in the first place. —“There’s No Such Thing as Luck.”

Japanese mahjong (plus poker)

Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image…. [I]t’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine. —Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There’s even a very good video from Game Developer’s Conference 2017 by designer Skaff Elias all about the false dichotomy between skill and luck.

Those who think that they have unfairly lost a Smash Bros. match due to a Mr. Game & Watch Judge 9 would likely fall into a coma if confronted by some of the agonizing probability-based losses that Texas Hold ’em players have to go through. But whereas Smash players have historically shunned randomness, other games use randomness as an opportunity to test two things: how well you can take advantage of good luck and how well you can mitigate bad luck. While complete randomness with no opportunity to interact doesn’t provide much room for interaction, good games of chance give players plenty of opportunities to show how they can roll with the punches.

Although it’s early on, I feel that the Hero provides enough avenues for both the user and the opponent to manage the character’s random elements. This, in turn, is what makes him different from turning on items—which, for the record, I am also not against, but I’ve learned long ago that trying to convince Smashers to play with items is a losing battle. Still, I think there’s hope for the Hero.

Random Factor 1: Critical Hits

Let’s first look at the Hero’s smash attacks. They are quite strong in terms of sheer power; forward smash can kill a Pichu at the ledge at around 50%. But there’s also a 1 in 8 chance to land a critical hit, which turns a roughly 20% damage attack into a 40%+ monster capable of KOing opponents close to 0%. There is no way to prevent or induce a critical hit artificially once an attack lands, so neither the Hero or the opponent can control when they happen.

The only way to guarantee not getting blasted by a critical hit is to avoid getting hit at all. But while that sounds ridiculous at first, there are a couple of limiting factors: the Hero has to actively choose to use a smash attack, and the actual moves have numerous flaws that make landing hits easier said than done.

The Hero’s up smash is similar to Marth and Lucina’s—a vertical stab straight up into the air—but unlike theirs, the Hero cannot hit anyone standing next to him. In fact, the horizontal range of the smash attack is so narrow that the opponent has to be virtually right on top for it to connect. Down smash is fairly quick and hits both sides, but is the weakest and unlikely to KO without the power of a critical hit. Forward smash is the best one, but it’s relatively slow and doesn’t reach quite as far as one might expect. Outside of the critical hit factor, all three are lacking.

And much like Mr. Game & Watch’s Judge hammer or Luigi’s Green Missile, the Hero’s smash attacks have to be deliberately chosen. They do not just happen randomly without anyone’s control, as if they were Bob-ombs spawning into a player’s attack. So the critical hits are random and they are extremely powerful, but they’re locked behind slow, somewhat unreliable moves that leave the Hero vulnerable.

Every smash attack is a roll of the dice, except those dice are cumbersome gigantic novelty ones and the table you’re rolling on is a toddler’s high chair. While they don’t have any random negative side effects like Judge, they’re inherently risky. Most importantly, the Hero player has to actively make the decision when and where to take those swings—they don’t just happen automatically.

Random Factor 2: Command Selection

Hero’s down B special is Command Selection, in which the Hero pulls up a menu of spells and special strikes, and it’s the other area of contention in regards to fairness because of how multiple layers of randomness are built into the move. First, only four spells can be displayed at a time, and it will change every time the menu is re-opened. Second, the order in which the spells show up is also inconsistent. Third, two of the spells—Whack and Thwack—have a probability of instantly KOing an opponent; the higher their damage, the more likely they’re toast. Fourth, the spell Hocus Pocus is literally a spell that randomly triggers either a move from the existing list of commands or additional modifiers both beneficial and detrimental. Although highly unlikely, it is actually possible for the Hero to hit down b, blindly pick Hocus Pocus, have Hocus Pocus trigger Thwack, and kill an opponent at 0%.

While there’s no doubt that getting destroyed by such an unusual chain of events could tilt just about anyone, I think focusing on those edge cases would be more a symptom of focusing too much on isolated results in the short term rather than consistency in the long term. Moreover, while the spell list is random, it doesn’t remove skill. Rather, it tests the players’ ability to assess what is worth using every time it opens, and to act accordingly.

Above, I mentioned games like Yu-Gi-Oh! as examples where players must randomness into account when strategizing. When it comes to Command Selection, this comparison is especially apt, because opening up the menu is not unlike drawing cards in a TCG. While there is an element of luck, it’s the responsibility of the player to be able to adjust their approach–to sometimes turn lemons into lemonade. There’s also a common mechanic in trading card games called a “mulligan,” where a hand that’s sufficiently terrible can be discarded and replaced in its entirety. The Hero essentially has the ability to mulligan his hand at any moment, but with the caveat that the opponent can see what the Hero’s options are, and that he can’t keep any of the “cards” he doesn’t use. A good Hero has to be able to build upon the tools available to him in a given moment, and just because it’s uncommon in competitive Smash doesn’t mean it’s not a skill worth testing and valuing. The ability to improvise on the fly and be effective at crisis management in the face of external forces somewhat beyond the players themselves is good.

Conclusion

Luck can bless the Hero, or it can curse him, but there are multiple caveats that make him a worthy character who should be welcomed in tournaments. First, he has to be in a position to test that luck in the first place, and most if not all of his random-outcome moves are telegraphed or announced in some way. Second, just because he gets a lucky or unlucky move doesn’t mean the match ends there—both Hero and opponent have to be able to make the best of a situation. The result is a character who works to find chances and has to adjust on the fly to external forces, and those who master this are the likeliest to find success built not on favorable fortune but the ability to seize opportunity.

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Dragon Quest’s Hero: A Unique Strength and a Unique Weakness?

By now, many sharps minds in the Smash Bros. Ultimate community have analyzed the trailer for the new “Hero from Dragon Quest” DLC character and have noticed a couple of interesting properties. First, the Hero appears to have much more than four special moves, and unlike the case with the Mii Fighters, he does not appear to have a customizable move list. Second, at one point he’s shown pulling up a menu of magic spells, and the ones displayed on the menu aren’t the only spells he uses in the trailer.

This has led to speculation that the Hero might have more available special moves than any other character in Smash Bros. history—possibly up to 16! What this means is that the character has a diversity of options unlike any other. But characters aren’t only designed with advantages. What could balance out this strength?

The most obvious drawback of the Hero’s wide array of spells is that he has an MP gauge: if he doesn’t have enough MP, he can’t use a spell. There’s no word yet as to how the Hero might gain back MP, so that could be another mitigating factor. However, there’s another potential flaw in how the Hero plays that is largely unseen in Smash: the risk of completely telegraphing what special move he’s about to use.

The only characters who come anywhere close to having such a weakness are Shulk and Olimar. Shulk’s Monado Arts clearly display which mode he’s in, and thus roughly what the opponent should be looking out for. Olimar uses his Pikmin in the order they’re plucked, and can only change which Pikmin is used next by either attacking or using his whistle. In Olimar’s case, identifying which Pikmin he’s trying to use (and therefore what attacks to be wary of) is also easier said than done due to their small size. But even Shulk’s giant “this is the Monado I’m using” tell is not the same as having literal menus pop up that show what move the Hero wants to use next—menus the opponent can easily see as well. There’s no clear indication of any shortcuts, either.

With a character that’s not even out yet, it’s impossible to accurately say how good or bad a character is going to be. However, based on this potential prospect—the unique strength of 16 (?) spells tempered by the unique weakness of showing your cards—I’m looking forward to both the strategy and counterplay that will develop with the Hero. I can’t wait for him to be available.

Banjo-Kazooie, Dragon Quest, and the Precariousness of Nostalgia

The dual Smash Bros. Ultimate character reveals of the Hero(es) from Dragon Quest and Banjo and Kazooie have gamers abuzz with excitement. While I didn’t quite get the DQ villain I wanted, I’m no exception when it comes to riding the hype train. However, seeing some of the negative reaction among English speakers online over the Hero’s entry into Smash makes me realize something: a lot of fans care less about video game history as a whole and more about their own video game history.

This is not unexpected, nor is it inherently bad. The games we grow up on and love are going to get a stronger reaction than things we only have a more academic understanding of. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and when people engage in hype, they’re not necessarily engaging their intellectual side. Even the Japanese fans who are freaking out over Dragon Quest are doing so because of emotional attachment. DQ crosses generations and is an indelible part of Japanese pop culture on a scale that few things can compare to. If Banjo-Kazooie fever is a combination of 1990s gaming nostalgia and the return of a prodigal icon, then Dragon Quest in Smash is just plain nostalgia for a perennial favorite, transcending gaming and any specific time period. It popularized the RPG as a genre in Japan, and its simple gameplay made it accessible to audiences young and old in ways few games ever have.

Where I take umbrage with some of the reactions I’ve seen from some vocal Smash fans is a combination of entitled behavior and the seeming inability to engage that intelligent side of their brains that can allow them to appreciate things that aren’t necessarily connected directly to them. Just because there’s no deep, emotional bond doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention or fanfare. Smash Bros. is in many ways a celebration of video game history, so to see fans willfully reject that history is sad to see.

Dragon Quest has the potential to expand the reach of Smash Bros. far beyond what anyone has seen. Few characters can reach literal sixty-year-old Japanese businessmen the way DQ can. World-famous manga artists like Kishimoto Masashi (Naruto) have written about their experiences with the RPG. Toriyama Akira (Dragon Ball) has been responsible for the art since the franchise’s inception!

Banjo-Kazooie and Dragon Quest are both important new titles for Smash Bros., and I hope as many people as possible appreciate that.

PS: The Japanese trailer for Hero actually has him saying the names of his spells, so a silent protagonist he is not. I wonder if this might change the impression people have of the character if this difference sticks.

What Lies Behind the Wobbling Debate in Smash Bros. Melee?

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.

My Top Handheld Video Games of All Time

When I think about my favorite video games, they’re often less about some remotely objective measure of greatness and more about personal impact. It wasn’t easy to narrow down a list, but I think this runs the gamut of my experiences. I’ve never owned any non-Nintendo portable systems (not counting smartphones), so it’ll be skewed heavily in that direction.

Note that I am not including Nintendo Switch games because that’s a big ol’ can of worms.

In no particular order:

1. Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow

I love the Pokémon games in general, and each one has its own strengths. But for all its flaws, nothing is closer to my heart than the original. That sense of exploration, the thrill of meeting random people on the street and linking up (via cable!) for a battle, going online and discovering communities dedicated to both competition and general fandom—the only games that ever gave this sense of camaraderie were NiGHTS into dreams… (i.e. my favorite game ever) and the Super Smash Bros. franchise. Many of my faves from this generation are ones I love today: Chansey, Vileplume, and Mewtwo.

2. Super Mario Land

So much about this game is memorable. From using boulders as stepping stones to narrow the distance with an Easter Island-headed boss to frantically running from Chinese hopping ghosts to taking down Tatanga in a shoot ’em up finale, there’s so much I can look back on with fondness. But what sticks out most in my recollection is the fact that I actually beat this game for the first time while sitting on the toilet. That sort of experience doesn’t leave you.

3. Super Robot Wars R

This was my first Super Robot Wars game, and it was more than just some fun turn-based strategy. While I was a big mecha head long before I ever got this game, the easy access it gave me to discovering a plethora of big anime series, and the nitty gritty of their robots—Gear Fighter Dendoh, Daitarn 3, Voltes V, and more—only deepened my desire to explore the genre further. And while it’s considered a fairly easy SRW game, that made it all the better as I fumbled through the game with only the barest hint of Japanese literacy. I literally took 70% of the game to learn how to select “dodge!”

4. Metroid: Zero Mission

This is about as good as Metroid games get, and it’s a pretty flawless work in general. However, it means even more to me because when I studied abroad in Japan, it was pretty much the only game I had with me. So what’s a guy to do except play it over and over and over again? And given that I love boss fights (especially final bosses!), I had one save slot for Mother Brain and one for Mecha Ridley.

5. Ghost Trick

This is a certified masterpiece. The gameplay is ingenious and addictive, like a series of Rube Goldberg devices with an occult twist, and the story is charming and heartwarming. It also gave me plenty of reasons to cheer on my girl Lynne in WVGCW!

“Ha ha! I died again!”

6. Super Smash Bros. for 3DS

While inferior to its Wii U counterpart in almost every way, the fact that it made a portable, 60 fps Smash game possible with only a few compromises (no Ice Climbers) on an increasingly dated system is nothing short of incredible. Letting me play Mega Man in Smash Bros. for the first time ever is reason enough to get on this list.

7. Greenhouse (Game & Watch)

The first time I unlocked Mr. Game & Watch in Super Smash Bros. Melee, I was floored. My family had owned a few Game & Watch games over the years, and my favorite among them was Greenhouse. The first time I got over 999 points and caused the score to flip over back to 0 was an achievement for my young self, and the simple yet frantic fun of its dual-screen format made it an entertaining option even though the Game Boy was already a thing by the time I played it. In a way, it’s a timeless game.

8. Tetris (Game Boy)

C’mon, it’s Tetris. There’s no need to explain the appeal of this absolute classic, but the Game Boy’s A-theme is the definitive Tetris song, and that alone will keep it in my memories forever.

9. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The Ace Attorney games are so clever and full of personality, both in terms of characters and gameplay. It’s just a memorable series through and through, and the deduction-based system is both gripping and easy to get into without devoting much time. Of the iterations I’ve played, I still feel like I enjoy the first game most of all. Extra bonus points go to the DS version’s extra story, which introduces Ema and Lana Skye, my two favorite characters in the entire franchise.

10. Fire Emblem (aka Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade)

The first Fire Emblem game to hit the US is still my favorite of that franchise. The characters are amazing, and not even just the obvious ones—I’m currently playing Fire Emblem Heroes with Serra set as my favorite while I’m trying in vain to get a Ninian of any kind. The animations are so vibrant and seared into my brain. Who can forget seeing Lyn, Hector, and Eliwood using their sacred weapons for the first time? Even the gameplay is my favorite. Basically, what I’m saying is, bring back the ability for mounted units to carry other units!

Do you have any handheld games that are in your emotional pantheon? Let me know!

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This blog post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’d like to request a topic on Ogiue Maniax, check out the Patreon.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Potential Positives of Project Wendy

One of the strangest trends in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate hit YouTube recently, as countless creators began putting out videos centered around Wendy O. Koopa—a character who, in a sense, isn’t one. She’s an alternate costume for the playable Bowser Jr., so the fact that this one skin was singled out above all others reeked of conspiracy. Indeed, it looks like this was all a combined effort by all of these YouTubers to highlight one of the least popular characters in Smash Bros.

In a sense, this is the very definition of a forced meme, though fans seem to be rolling with it. However, there’s another potential consequence outside of fun, stupid jokes involving a fast food restaurant or a Samoan pro wrestler (see above): giving a spotlight to an otherwise neglected character. Bowser Jr. (and his seven Koopaling skins) is one of the least talked-up and least talked-about characters in Smash Bros. Ultimate. In tier list after tier list, Bowser Jr. is placed firmly in low tier. It’s certainly possible that he’s one of the worse characters in the game, but the Ultimate meta is still young (barely a month old), and opinions can changes. What can turn opinions around, then, is research and exposure.

There’s a “million monkeys on a million typewriters” effect to a certain extent. If Project Wendy inspires scores of players, even mostly lower-level ones, to pick up Wendy, Bowser Jr., or any of their alts, then the sheer increase in quantity can push that character further along than any sort of on-paper theory-crafting. That’s the funny thing about competitive gaming: often times, how deep and complex your game is ends up being less important to competition than the player population and their eagerness to push ahead. Regardless of motivation, whether someone truly adores Wendy, or whether they’re just jumping on the latest bandwagon, this is a chance for Wendy and her fellow Koopa Clown Car warriors to get some attention. Characters die when their communities get stagnant, and pushing a meme is one…unique…way to try and avoid that.

I might be a bit idealistic in terms of the long-term effects of Project Wendy, but who knows? The next great Wendy/Bowser Jr. player might emerge out of this crazy effort. Imagine…

Early Thoughts on Competitive Changes for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a ton of Smash Bros. Ultimate, and throughout this time I’ve been mulling the multiplayer changes they’ve made. I have not played the game online, which I know has been a source of frustration and controversy for many, so I’m not going to go into that aspect of the game.

The game feels very well balanced, though that is naturally subject to change as patches come out and players get better. It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t expect a game with 70+ characters to ever be 100% balanced, but Ultimate is in a good place for the time being. There are a number of factors that contribute to this feeling, but the overarching philosophy I sense from the game is based on three factors: 1) rounding out characters’ tool kits so no one option is too weak and no one option is too strong 2) providing universal mechanics that benefit all 3) making characters’ strengths on paper actual strengths.

Rounding Out Movesets

In Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), many characters ended up having a few extremely effective attacks that would render entire other parts of their movesets nearly obsolete. Think about Donkey Kong’s cargo up throw into up air (aka the Ding Dong) or Meta Knight’s dash attack/dash grab into up air strings. The game often focused on each character’s few powerful options, and it made you wonder why certain attacks even existed. In Ultimate, however, it feels like the craziest and most overwhelming attacks have been shaved down a bit while the neglected moves were given some love.

Take Mewtwo, for instance. In Smash 4, Mewtwo’s down tilt was one of the best moves in the game, period. It had long range, it was very fast for how much ground it covered, and it started combos and juggles with the greatest of ease. In contrast, Mewtwo’s forward tilt didn’t see much use. Almost anything forward tilt did, down tilt did better, except for maybe hitting opponents who are jumping.

In Ultimate, down tilt is still fast and with excellent range, but you can only reliably combo off of it if you hit with the base of Mewtwo’s tail, which means having to be closer to the opponent and thus being in a riskier position. The move is good, but it’s no longer a cure-all. Forward tilt, in turn, now has utility that down tilt doesn’t—namely better knockback, more kill power, and slightly more range. So players have reasons to use both. You might want to down tilt, but if the opponent’s at max range, forward tilt could be better for knocking them farther off the stage.

You’ll see this across multiple characters’ movesets. Players will need to master their characters’ entire set of moves to do well.

Equalizing Key Universal Mechanics

One of the biggest jokes of Smash 4 was that Jigglypuff, a character who specializes in aerial combat, took a much longer time to actually get off the ground than most other characters. Actually, the biggest joke was that Jigglypuff never got a single buff across the game’s many patches, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole.

In every Smash game, characters take a bit of time to leave the ground after a player hits jump: this is called a “jump squat.” In Smash 4, the fastest jump squats were 4 frames (1/15 of a second), the slowest (Bowser) was 8 frames (2/15 of a second), and Jigglypuff was in the middle at 6 frames (1/10 of a second). If you’re confused by all the numbers, just think about it like this: because characters like Jigglypuff and Bowser took longer to actually jump, it meant that they would fail to land attacks that other characters could get away with.

In Ultimate, every character has the same jump squat: 3 frames, or 1/20 of a second. This means that big, lumbering characters can’t just get trapped on the ground and be forced to eat hits because they’re busy trying to jump. This means Jigglypuff can take to the skies much more easily. Most importantly, it proportionally buffs characters who used to have bad jump squats much more than those who already had them. Going from 4 frames to 3 frames is a 25% improvement. Going from 8 frames to 4 frames is a 50% improvement.

Creating True Strengths

Big characters have for the most part been disadvantaged in the Smash games. Bad jump squats, as mentioned above, are one factor, but the supposed weight advantage that would let such characters survive longer compared to their lighter adversaries never actually panned out in practice. Instead, these super heavyweights often ended up as huge punching bags unable to properly deal with the speedy attacks of their foes.

Another supposed advantage that failed to live up to its potential is the tether grab. Instead of using hands, tether grabs utilized ranged weapons to grab from a distance—think Link’s hookshot or Samus’s grappling beam. The trade-off, on paper, is that these tether grabs are slower to make up for their longer range, but almost without fail they were simply worse than having regular, close-range grabs. Players could learn to use tether grabs effectively, but that was more about them making up for their characters’ flaws through intelligence and cunning.

Both the super heavyweight archetype and the tether grab have new purpose in Ultimate, and it has largely to do with making sure these aspects actually matter. Big characters are heavier than ever and hit harder than ever, and it makes a significant difference in terms of how long they survive. Now, a King Dedede or a Ganondorf can reliably live long enough to become scary, especially when factoring in the “rage” mechanic that allows characters to hit opponents harder when they themselves have taken more damage. Grabs are generally worse in Ultimate compared to Smash 4, as characters have shorter range and take longer to recover from missed grabs, but the big exception is that tether grabs have been improved all around. Even if they stayed the same as they were in Smash 4, the gap between non-tethers and tethers would have been closer, but a lot of those tethers have either improved startup time, improved recovery, or both.

The biggest winner here is actually Pac-Man, whose ranged grab in Smash 4 was literally the worst grab in Smash history due to its wonky collision detection and its poor overall speed.

To a Better Game!

I thought Smash 4 was a really good game, even in the last couple of years as Cloud and Bayonetta began their rise and their stuffing of the lower tiers. History could repeat itself, but based on the changes mentioned, I think there’s a strong chance they’ve learned from their mistakes. Balancing a competitive game is a tremendously difficult endeavor, but I think the Smash Bros. Ultimate development team is up to the task.