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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The Safe Appeal of Fallen Champions

After a small drought of first place finishes, famed Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 of Cloud 9 Gaming recently took home the gold medal at Royal Flush 2017. The tournament’s viewership was fairly modest throughout the tournament, but by the time grand finals rolled around the viewer count spiked to an impressive 73,000. While Mang0 is a perennial crowd favorite for his flashy, yet intelligent play and his devil-may-care attitude, I think there was another factor at work drawing eyeballs to his Mother’s Day victory: the appeal of a dominant champion turned underdog.

People love an underdog, as the saying goes, but there’s often an emotional investment to trying to cheer on a player or team with the odds stacked against them. For every Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs breaking their decades-long curses, there are many more across various competitive fields that wither and die in the early stages without achieving anything. Is it really worth cheering on someone who loses in the first round of a tournament every time? If it is, there’s typically some other element to consider: regional loyalty, character loyalty, etc.

But when it’s a known commodity, i.e. a former champion with a record of winning but who’s fallen off more recently, then there’s a different appeal at work. Think of Michael Jordan on the Washington Wizards, an aged George Foreman, or JulyZerg in Starcraft: Brood War. In each case, they arrived to make up for a loss of physical prowess with skill, experience, and ingenuity, but in their pushes for victory one thing was certain: though they fell behind, there is historical evidence of an “it” factor: the will to win, and the potential to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat.

In a certain sense, cheering for former champions become a case of trying to have your cake and eat it too. People cheer for underdogs, yes, but they also like to cheer for winners. When you have a former great, you get the best of both worlds. They’re a comforting pick because, even if they lose, a person can simply look back in time and say, “But I know they have what it takes!”

Mang0 is not the same as the examples I gave above. He’s still a top 3 player in his game, and slumps are often exaggerated in the world of eSports because the concept is so young and people think 3 months is a long time. However, if it were a true veteran of the past who enjoys legendary status such as Liquid’Ken, the “King of Smash,”  then I believe even more spectators would have flocked to Royal Flush.

What’s in a List? Thoughts on the Smash 4 Backroom Tier List v3

smash-4-backroom-tier-list-v3-2

Recently, the granddaddy of all competitive Super Smash Bros. sites, Smashboards, released their third Smash 4 tier list. The significance of this version is that it’s the first tier list that did not come in the middle of patches or DLC, so it provides our first big look at the status of Smash 4 in a stable environment.

Overall, I have no major qualms with the tier list, and my go-to characters—Mewtwo and Mega Man—are right where I think they should be. Some characters might be a little too high or a little too low, but I don’t have any horses in that race. However, I’d like to talk about two topics: theory vs. results, and the most controversial characters among the tier list voters.

Theory vs. Results

One of the frequent struggles when it comes to bringing together tier lists is the balance between theory and results. A character can look great on paper, but actually using them and winning with them is another matter entirely. On the flip side, even if a character is winning consistently versus everyone else, this could be simply due to a gap in knowledge.

For likely a multitude of reasons, the Smash 4 community at large seems to have a hard time marrying theory with results to the extent of other fighting games. For example, the tier list above has Bayonetta at #1, but it wasn’t long after the list was announced that people were commenting that the results don’t support the position. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but always get the impression when looking at and joining in on discussions about character viability that people either overshoot or undersell the influence of a character’s theory with respect to what they’re capable of.

Some of the reasons I think it’s hard for Smashers to get the right balance of theory and results are as follows.

  • The game is full of Nintendo icons, so there’s often the desire to argue in favor of your beloved character
  • As a result of the above, players will often theorycraft from a biased perspective. This is difficult to avoid, and is not inherently bad because of how it can motivate people, but leads to a lot of broad leaps and assumptions.
  • People become distrustful of theorycrafting and instead lean towards results, which have defined parameters (wins, losses, championships).

This leads to people taking extreme stances about the importance of results vs. theory, where one is touted as significantly more important than the other. However, I believe that the ideal tier list is one that uses results to theorize further beyond what results currently show us. They should be less a snapshot of what the actual current metagame is like, and more an image of what we think the game will become given the information we have.

Disagreements on Character Viability

In the Smashboards post about the tier list, it’s possible to order the tier list in order to see which characters garnered the most disagreement in terms of placement. The top 5 (not counting Miis) are Samus, Bowser Jr., Pac-Man, Olimar, and Wario. According to the tier list, these characters are supposedly mid-tier at best, but it’s still worth noting that there were some who thought highly of them nevertheless.

One of the reasons for this might just be that the voters come from all over the world. Different regions are known for having strong players for characters that one might not find elsewhere. For example, Duck Hunt was considered a pretty bad character until three Japanese Duck Hunts made their way to the US and took some big names. In the case of the five characters above, Olimar is a major influence in California, Florida, New York, and especially Japan; the ranked fourth best Japanese player in their region is an Olimar named Shuton. Similarly, Wario is a major presence in Europe thanks to France’s Glutonny, with a lesser but still significant mark being made by Wario player TheReflexWonder.

Pac-Man and Bowser Jr. have been on a progressive downward slide because their most prominent players, Abadango from Japan and Tweek from New Jersey respectively, have long since put them on the backburner. I believe that there must still be those holding out hope that Pac and BowJow have what it takes to cause the occasional upset (and they still do sometimes!).

Samus is the major enigma. She has never been considered strong in Smash 4, especially compared to her armor-less counterpart, but even after a number of significant buffs she received through patches there’s still not the sense that she’s any good. And yet, enough players voted her as being at least mid-tier that there has to be some strong belief in her potential. I think what causes such disagreement as to her character is that her toolkit is actually very diverse and her physical properties all appear to be strong but dysfunctional, and how much a player can overcome that dysfunction (as they have with Shulk) remains to be seen.

The Future!

Early Smash 4 was an interesting beast because of how, for once, swordsmen weren’t dominant. This meant characters with lesser range could thrive. This has changed dramatically with the rise of Marth and the advent of Cloud (pun intended). Will there be another major shift, even without balance patches? I look forward to seeing players push their characters to their limits.

 

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I Have a Choco: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for February 2017

February might be Valentine’s Day Month, but how much I’ll actually discuss romance on the blog remains a mystery even to me!

Whatever the situation, I know that if I were in Japan, I’d be giving giri choco to my Patreon sponsors.

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Alex

Diogo Prado

Viga

Yoshitake Rika fans:

Elliot Page

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Given that this will be the tenth year of Ogiue Maniax, I decided last November to do a Genshiken series 1 re-read. I’ve started with Volume 1, and you should expect to see them come out every other month. (I would have said bi-monthly but that phrase can also mean “twice a month,” so…) I’ve already felt like I’m stepping back into a different world, so I’m looking forward to the next article too.

Speaking of Genshiken, I also wrote a little post comparing Kasukabe Saki to Love Live‘s Nishikino Maki. The latter’s cooldere attitude reminded me of Madarame’s fantasy version of the former.

Perhaps the most important post I’ve written this month is on the subject of butts in anime. In it, I detail increasing presence of large rears in Japanese animation, and put forth my own hypothesis on why this has occurred. The seeds of this post have been germinating in my head for a very long time, even before Ogiue Maniax ever began. If you want to see more content like this, let me know. I just hope it doesn’t take me another 10 years to write one!\

I was also sad to see the end of Soredemo Machi ga Mawatteiru aka And Yet the Town Moves. It’s a very unique series in a lot of ways, and I look forward to seeing what the artist does next.

On the video game side, I’ve written a couple of posts thinking about what how players view competitive games, and what they can potentially do to both bring in a bigger audience and keep them from running away in fear.

As for this month’s Patreon-sponsored post, I looked at the subject of babies in anime and manga. My rating of babies is based on how much they make their parents suffer, I guess. If you have a subject you really, really want me to write about, it’s just a one-time $30 pledge.

If you’re wondering why I have it at that price, it’s just because I don’t necessarily want the blog to consist primarily of requests as opposed to my own ideas. That being said, I am considering maybe offering a poll with three or four topics that can be voted on with Patreon pledges. Is this an idea readers would be on board for?

Overall, I think this was a pretty solid month. I don’t have a wholly solid idea of what’s going to come next, but it might be a bit less review-heavy compared to this one.

 

 

 

 

What People Want Out of Competitive Games (Part 1)

The purest image of the competitive gamer is the person who “plays to win.” Whereas other players might decry a particular move or strategy as “unfair” or “overpowered,” the true competitor uses every tool available. But while this is the ideal in a certain sense for how a competitive gamer should behave, I find that it’s not actually a reflection of reality. If it is, it’s a reality that has long since passed.

Since the proliferation of the internet in the 90s and into the 2000s, the image of what it means to be competitive in the world of games (particularly fighting games) has been defined by two different resources. One is David Sirlin’s “Playing to Win,” which discusses what it means to not be held back by concepts such as “honor” or “aesthetic.” The other is Seth Killian’s “Domination 101,” which positions opposite the true competitor the figure known as the “scrub”—the player who constantly makes excuses, refers to things they lose to as “cheap,” and chooses to complain rather than learn. Within reason (so no foul play), both are based around the idea that what matters most in competition are the words “YOU WIN.”

Both Sirlin and Killian have changed over the years. Sirlin became a game designer who has to take a greater range of players into account. Killian is now a community veteran, old and wizened and less fiery. However, at the time these series of articles were written, both were most certainly what the Magic: The Gathering developers call “Spikes.” According to the developers of Magic: The Gathering, players of their card game can be roughly divided into three different archetypes. In contrast to the “Timmy,” who loves to make big plays using the highest-damage tools, and the “Johnny,” who loves to innovate new strategies and employ unorthodox tactics, the Spike is defined by the tendency to simply do what is most effective and efficient to beat the opponent.

Because of those articles, I believe that the stereotypical image of the competitive player, in fighting games especially, became the “Spike.” However, what’s curious is that, when you look at even the highest levels of play, that undiluted competitive mentality does not seem as dominant as one might assume. The greatest fighting game player of all time is Umehara Daigo, but in his book The Will to Keep Winning, he writes:

Tournaments are a playground for people who practice for growth. It’s where they show off their achievements. Once I made that realization, I finally started making continued growth my goal, rather than winning. Games enrich my life by allowing me to grow as an individual, and that’s what motivates me to keep on going.

Going from a different angle, Super Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 has discussed how he’s had to balance changing his playing style to suit more recent developments in his scene with staying true to himself:

What’s clear is that even the best players in the world aren’t necessarily subscribe “pure Spikes.” While anyone who goes to a tournament to get as far as possible is a Spike on some level, hybrids such as “Johnny-Spikes” or “Timmy-Spikes” exist. This is even acknowledged by the Magic: The Gathering developers. However, what I believe is that, not only are “Timmy-Spikes” present among competitive gaming communities such as the FGC, but they are about as prevalent as pure Spikes, and in some communities are the greatest population.

Where once even the biggest competitive gaming communities might have been incredibly niche and might have indeed been comprised of mostly Spikes, I think that world has changed immensely, due to online play, greater publicity, streaming video such as Twitch, the concept of eSports, and so on. Going from the strongest champions in the paragraph above to the lower levels of aspiring competitors and eSports spectators, it is often the case that many people care just as much (if not more) about how victory is achieved than whether it happens at all.

While few people, be they watching or playing, can say they have no investment in wins or losses, what competitive games provide for a great number of players is a feeling of power. This might come from the look of the game itself, or from how it plays. A pure Timmy, at their most extreme, wouldn’t mind a loss, provided he managed to land a breathtaking combo that squeezes the life out of the opponent. They fight for the highlight reel, to be turned into a 30-second Twitch clip or gfycat. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily a “scrub” attitude. Timmy-Spikes, while they most certainly want to win, would prefer to win with style.

There are certain games, I believe, that even encourage Timmy-Spike mindsets more than others. These include the Guilty Gear series, the Marvel vs. Capcom series, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. What they all have in common is that the flashiest, most impressive-looking techniques tend to also be extremely effective in high-level play. Techniques that make you feel like unbridled energy is coursing through your veins, things that the common gamer might never achieve reliably, become yours to control and command, and they just so happen to carry a lot of visual oomph.

None of what I’ve mentioned in this article is fully an “eSports” or “video game”-exclusive phenomenon. People want to see and experience glory, and that image of grand triumph as a dramatic moment is etched into the human experience. It might just be that, because video games are a relatively new form of competition in an age where media and personal interaction become increasingly blurred, we’ve seen eSports grow much more rapidly and visibly than other forms of competition, even if it’s still small potatoes compared to soccer or boxing.

Three-Card Monte: A Melee vs. Smash 4 Analogy

When reading comments from devoted fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, certain aspects touted as strengths are things I can appreciate as well. Just like theme, I can enjoy the dexterity, devotion, game sense, and speed required to compete in high-level Melee. However, what I find complicates matters is that elements of the game that would be normally be considered a matter of taste are argued as “objective strengths” by its most ardent supporters.

As a result, I’ve wondered why Melee fans love their game to this extent, and why it might appear to them be strictly better to the extent that such a view would be presumed to be “unbiased.” Why do some argue that a game like Smash 4, with a slower-paced neutral but a higher emphasis on more traditional “footsies,” is a disappointment? Why is the idea that a game that emphasizes reads above all else, especially physical skill, is argued to be a simpler and thus less competitive endeavor?

There are two key points that I see come up repeatedly. First is the idea that, because Melee has fewer neutral interactions per game than its sequels, Smash Bros. Brawl and Smash Bros. for Wii U, this means each neutral interaction matters more. When it’s pointed out that having more resets to neutral means having to predict the opponent more often, this is considered a knock against other games because their neutrals are “less complex.” This then extends to everything else. The punish game is deeper because it has some sort of goldilocks level of just enough control on the part of the opponent being combo’d, but not so much that they can reset to neutral easily. In short, arguments in favor of Melee often come down to the idea the game has more to do at any given moment and is faster, and is therefore better.

After some thinking, an analogy occurred to me. Imagine that you’re playing two different games of “guess the right card.” The first one is Three-Card Monte. The dealer shows you the three cards in advance, tells you that you get to play five times, and your goal is to find the ace of spades. Then the dealer starts to move the cards around, shuffling them and employing various forms of sleight of hand to trick you into picking the wrong one.

In the second version of the game, the dealer simply presents you with three cards face down, and again, you have to find the ace of spades. No shuffling, no movement, just “you have a one in three chance of guessing the right card.” However, instead of playing only five times, you get to play 20 times.

In the case of the first example, Three-Card Monte, the fact that there is a process by which the player is allowed to observe the dealer rearrange his card implies that, if a player is observant enough, they can completely circumvent the need to guess. If their eyes can correctly follow the movement of the ace of spades, even through all the tricks, then they will win 100% of the time. Though trying to figure out the dealer’s decision-making quirks can help, and if you’re not fast enough then the game pretty much becomes somewhat “random,” there is a kind of physical/technical ideal that a player can potentially reach that guarantees a path to a right answer. This, I think, is the appeal of Smash Bros. Melee to many of its diehard fans. That is not to say that it requires no thinking or prediction, but the possibility that one can always pick the right choice if one is fast enough and sharp enough, makes it feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to competition.

This is where I think many Melee fans start to lose sight as to how “simpler” games can go about still prioritizing certain factors that a game that “has everything” might not necessarily be able to achieve. Going back to the second example, the “face-down, guess the card” version, it can appear as if the game just has less to do. After all, the “only” thing you’re doing is making 1-in-3 guesses, and there are no extra layers of interaction such as trying to see through the dealer’s chicanery. But the fact that there is no upper ideal of being able to see “through the game” means something. Even if there are fewer avenues for improvement, the very fact that your ability to dissect the dealer’s decision-making based on past turns changes the dynamic of what skills and abilities are prioritized by the game, especially when one is given more chances to win. With 20 tries instead of five, the player must rely on their ability to pick up on any tendencies the dealer might possess. They also must understand that, no matter how far they’ve read into the dealer’s mind, there’s also a chance they might be wrong. In other words, your main tools are the ability to make reads, and your ability to make decisions even knowing that in some cases you will inevitably be wrong.

This isn’t to say that the Three-Card Monte approach is bad, or that it isn’t something games should strive for (if they choose to go in that direction). Neither Melee nor Smash 4 actually fall into the two extremes listed above. Both games require some degree of physical skill, and both require at least a certain amount of getting into the opponent’s head. Because Melee has that Three-Card Monte appeal, where a sense of uncertainty in one’s decisions can be washed away with enough technical prowess (at least up to a certain point), it encourages the active building of physical skill that can make training feel more directly rewarding. In the end, it’s not a matter of which game has “more”, but rather how the values of gameplay and competition emphasized in each game attract players differently.