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.

The Smash 4 Tier List, and the Chaos of Viability

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Smashboards recently released its second ever Smash Bros. for Wii U tier list, which comes after a string of big summer tournaments. With movements throughout the rankings both big and small, Tier List 2.0 notably features the inclusion of Corrin and Bayonetta (both of whom were previously absent), and the dramatic rise of both Mewtwo and Marth thanks to a slew of patches as well as advancement in their development by the players themselves. It’s also worth mentioning Mega Man would find himself in high tier. As a character that has been rated both well and poorly throughout the game’s life, it’s quite interesting that Mega Man has barely had any direct buffs.

For the most part, I’m not here to argue placings of characters. If pressed, I’d say the only placings I’m unsure of are Mr. Game & Watch and Charizard.

One thing that this tier list brings to mind is just how balanced Smash 4 is, especially compared to its official predecessors in Smash Bros. Melee and Smash Bros. Brawl. Now, the roster is not perfectly balanced by any means. There are some characters who are clearly better than others. However, there are just as many where their placement is up for debate, and the fact that you’ll have multiple top players disagreeing greatly with the power level of any given character means we have a long way to go in understanding the game fully.

What makes Smash 4 so balanced? While Melee is often touted as the technically more complicated and advanced game because of its strict mechanical curve and plethora of options for constantly threatening the opponent, and I will disagree with anyone who says this makes Melee an inherently better game, the fact that there is no “sky’s the limit” character like Melee Fox or Brawl Meta Knight helps to restrict the possibility of such a dominant character running so roughshod over the weakest characters that you might as well put the controller down. Bad match-ups exist, but you know that Sheik or Diddy Kong are a couple levels below ridiculous.

Moreover, even when you look at some of the characters frequently cited as being terrible, you can often find that they can go toe-to-toe with some of the characters way above them. Take Shulk, who according to the 4BR tier list is the 12th worst character not counting Mii Fighters. Though his flaws are well-known (slow startup on attacks, dependence on Monado Arts that don’t ever fully solve that lackluster frame data), a number of top players on both sides of his match-ups place him as going even with Mewtwo and Cloud, ranked 10th and 2nd respectively. This is just because of how their tools interact, and how their strengths and weaknesses—again, none of which are ever to any utter extreme (no, not even Cloud)—play against each other. If you look at the lesser characters in Melee and Brawl, the best they can hope for is maybe one matchup against a top tier where they don’t get wrecked five ways from Sunday.

Smash 4 is currently seen as having a very volatile competitive scene, as players can be on top of the world one moment and then drown in the early stages of a tournament the next. While some argue that this is a sign of the game being competitively robust while others argue it being a flaw, I think that either argument is too simple and too rooted in whatever individuals value most as “fostering competition.” Rather, I think that a 58-character roster and a balance that’s good enough combines with the fact that not everyone goes to a tournament aiming for 1st to create an interesting formula that leads to volatility.

If everyone was purely dedicated to being the best, they would be pick the characters they believed to be the strongest. As more and more people play these characters and advance their development, the pool of “best characters” would likely narrow. For tournament-goers, it would become more and more necessary to study only a handful of matches to maximize your limited time for practice and study. However, because there are people who want to use their character for reasons other than pure victory, and those characters aren’t abject failures, the top players’ attention is inevitably divided, leading to the greater potential for upsets.

Put differently, imagine a world where everyone maximizes their chances for winning in any given endeavor. Now, let’s say that, one day, a visitor comes whose goal is not to make himself win, but to create as much uncertainty as possible in others. It would end up disrupting the metagame between the original inhabitants, leading to more unpredictable results.

It’s a beautiful place to be.

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Godhood is Fleeting: Power in Video Games and Super Smash Bros.

Fire_Mario_Artwork_-_New_Super_Mario_Bros

Mario nabs a fire flower, instantly transforming into an engine of destruction. Enemies that previously gave the plumber pause are dispatched with ease as Mario rains hot death upon them. Yet Mario is in a rather fragile position, and brushing up against a single enemy will instantly revert Mario back to a lesser state. Even so, for that brief moment Mario experiences an exhilarating sense of power.

Mario appears in another game: Super Smash Brosfor Wii U. Here, the fireball is a permanent fixture of his arsenal. He cannot “lose” his fireball. However, what he can do is combo his opponent repeatedly, using a variety of quick moves to keep them pinned down and begging for mercy. However, when he’s ready to finish off his opponent, many of his combos are no longer as feasible, and he has to take risks to achieve the KO, changing the power dynamics of the character.

How does the feeling power influence how we play and perceive games?

When the Good Outweighs the Bad

In recent years, the Super Smash Bros. series has arisen to be a very popular competitive franchise. The most current game, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4) is generally considered superior to its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but not everyone agrees. PK Blueberry, a Brawl Lucas player, contends that Lucas in Smash 4 is less satisfying to play with because the character is less pleasing to control and fight with. Brawl Lucas had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, such as “Zap Jumping”–a technique that could double Lucas’s jump height. “But wait,” others might ask. “Wasn’t Brawl the same game where Lucas would get demolished by characters like Marth, whose grab release infinite made the matchup virtually unwinnable for Lucas? Didn’t this basically sabotage Lucas’s competitive viability in a major way?”

The rebuttal is that, while that is all true, Brawl Lucas was still more satisfying to play. Praxis, the developer of the Smash Pad app, has frequently likened Brawl to a wine with a strong, unpleasant flavor but an amazing aftertaste. The idea is that, once you got past all the nonsense, the crazy things you could do in Brawl were amazing and made it more complex and satisfying. Thus, while there are a lot of ridiculously unfair things that can cripple your character, having just small moments and situations where you can feel immensely powerful is considered by some to be more valuable than just being consistently “okay” and lacking any debilitating weaknesses. Other characters fall into this category as well: players of Ganondorf and Jigglypuff (two of the weakest characters in Brawl) who made the transition to the newest game will sometimes lament the loss of certain amazing attributes or techniques, even though their power levels are closer to the rest of the cast in Smash 4.

Will Power

Another game in the franchise, the immensely popular and competitively long-lived Super Smash Bros. Melee, is one where players, when sufficiently skilled, feel like they can do anything (provided they use the best characters). For example, Fox McCloud is so versatile and powerful that some players and commentators have started using the term “Fox Privilege” to describe the range of strong options available to the game’s best character. Recently, two members of the Smash community have made efforts to describe what Melee‘s feeling of power is like relative to other games, and their descriptions work very well together.

In the video above, ESAM, a top Smash 4 player who’s also skilled in Melee, says that Melee is a game where most matchups come down to how well you can implement your character’s tools against the opponent’s, whereas Smash 4 is more about learning how to fight against characters by avoiding their strengths. In other words, Melee is how much you can do to your opponent, and Smash 4 is how much you can prevent them from doing stuff to you.

Similarly, in an an episode of The Scar & Toph Show, Melee player and commentator Scar compares Melee to Ultra Street Fighter IV, describing Melee as a game where you can easily impose your will upon the game and the opponent unless playing at the very highest level. However, Scar mentions, trying to do the same in Street Fighter is impossible, and that learning to respect the opponent’s options and play that mental game against them is a requirement for even basic competitive play. In contrast, Melee is a game where you can do decently without having to truly “think” unless you play the best of the best.

Together, ESAM and Scar paint an interesting picture of Melee as a game where the player is almost like a force of nature that can only be stopped by colliding with an even greater force. This sense of power is visually evident whenever you watch a game of Melee, and I think this goes a long way in explaining why the game has developed such a diehard fan base. When you play Melee, you enter the realm of the five gods, so to speak, or at least you end up feeling that way.

Desiring Power

In a conversation about fighting games with Dave Cabrera, creator of Kawaiikochan Gaming no Corner, he brought up the idea that while combos are often perceived as something that “top players do,” in terms of game design they offer much more to mid-level players. He quoted an interview with a game designer, who basically asked, “What’s harder to do, successfully performing a complex and intricate combo, or sweeping Daigo ten times in a row?” The latter is about the most mechanically simple thing to do in a fighting game, “down + button,” but one can only achieve it against a player of Daigo’s caliber by being similarly strong. Difficult combos, on the other hand, can grant a feeling of power to even those who lack it, because they can give a sense of accomplishment that motivates players forward. There is a more clear-cut feeling of reward. Without being able to grant power to lower-level players, they very well might stop playing at all.

Conclusion

It would be no understatement to say that Melee and Brawl are actually very different games to their competitive communities, and yet the two games share something in common, which is how they are often perceived relative to Smash 4. Again, while Smash 4 is praised by many as a superior game to Brawl, a frequent criticism of Smash 4 from players of previous games is that the characters lack “teeth.” Even if it is a more balanced game, in the Wii U iteration character power levels (and the range of options and techniques available to players through them), are unsatisfying to some players. Of course, there are plenty of players (including myself) who love the power dynamics of Smash 4, but as I hope is clear, a satisfying level of power in games is very much a personal thing.

Not every player who seeks power does so in the same way, or to the same extent as others. For certain players, power is at its best when constantly generated, especially when the opponent is of similar make. For others, memories of even the most dire of lows can be overcome with even the briefest of highs, such as when their character controls in such a way as to make them feel vibrant and overwhelming. Power can be self-centered, ignoring the opponent almost entirely. Power can be interactive and dynamic. Like water, power is a versatile “substance” that manifests as two immense waves crashing against each other, or the ebb and flow of the tides. How we gain satisfaction from power through games depends on a lot of factors, but when it is considered insufficient, even a mechanically solid game can be perceived as lacking “soul.”

Why is Defensive Play Maligned and Is There Anything We Can Do About It?

Defensive styles get a bad rap in many arenas of competition. Whether it’s Floyd Mayweather in boxing, Jigglypuff in Super Smash Bros. Melee, or turtle play in Starcraft, a strong focus on defense can draw the ire of both players and spectators. Whether or not the defense is the product of immense skill seems to matter little except for the most hardcore or well-informed. Defense is viewed as passive, and passive is viewed as lacking in “hype.”

It’s not surprising that many people share this belief. The impact of aggressive play carries a kind of emotionally visceral thrill that the mental excitement of defensive play can’t quite fulfill, and participants (both in the game and in the audience) are frequently looking for entertainment and gratification. There’s nothing wrong with this mindset, and it’s a bit presumptuous to decry people for liking what they like (as tempting as it is to do so), but I have to wonder if anything can ever be done about this mindset such that a significant number can enjoy or appreciate defensive play.

Esports historian, writer, and commentator Duncan “Thorin” Shields has argued that people’s uses of the terms “aggression” and “passivity” are too simplistic, and that this limits their ability to discuss play styles in games. In fighting game terms, this would be the false idea that aggression can only come in the form of rushdown, constant in-your-face attacking, when there are a whole range of possibilities. I think Thorin makes an excellent point, but that still requires people to take that extra step. They have to search out information, to think more deeply about the games they play and watch, and this is perhaps more than what can be expected of an audience (though perhaps that onus should be placed on players who are critical of defensive styles).

Not that I think people like Thorin should stop what they’re doing, or that it’s pointless. They provide a valuable piece of the puzzle towards increasing people’s appreciation of competitive play, but perhaps there should be an additional step in between, something that can reach people even when their minds are not fully geared towards learning.

One possibility comes in the form of commentators often found at these events. Perhaps there needs to be a more active push by commentators in general to emphasize the positives of defensive play, and to encourage that more mental (rather than emotional) look at games and sports. One potential problem with this is that it doesn’t apply when commentators aren’t around, and that it still might not convince people’s hearts where it arguably matters most.

Is it a hopeless cause to get people who thrive on “hype” to not sneer at “overly” defensive play? Is there a future where this can happen?

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Flying Witch x Smash Bros

Time for a Change!: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for April 2016

Between showers, fools, and lambs, April is a month of change and transition. It’s only appropriate then that I try to evolve as well! As always, it’s with the help of my friends and Patreon supporters that I continue to try and improve Ogiue Maniax:

General:

Johnny Trovato

Ko Ransom

Alex

Diogo Prado

Sasahara Keiko fans:

Kristopher Hostead

Yoshitake Rika fans:

Elliot Page

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

So, the first change I’m making is a small adjustment to my schedule. Since 2010 I’ve generally structured my weekly posting schedule to be posts on Tuesday and Friday with at least the occasional lighter post on Sunday, most typically a Fujoshi File entry. However, I’ve noticed that most of my readers come in on Sunday, and to give my lowest-impact content at that point feels like a shame, because if you’re coming to Ogiue Maniax I believe it’s to read something interesting. Because of this, I’ve decided to switch Sunday to being a main posting day, with either Tuesday or Friday being less heavy. I’m still on the fence on which one to use, but most likely it’ll be Friday. I hope you enjoy the change, and of course, if you miss the post it’s always there in the archives.

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A second possible change is adding another series other than Genshiken for me to review regularly. The title is Kimi xxxru Koto Nakare (“You Can’t Do That”), the new monthly manga by Okachimachi Hato (creator of one of my favorite manga, Fujoshissu!) about a high school romance between a male idol and a female celebrity comedian. The question is, how should I cover it? To help me with this, I’m using a handy dandy poll:

Keep in mind that this is just for feedback and the winning answer won’t necessarily determine what happens. Also, I mistakenly thought it was a weekly manga, so a previous Patreon post of mine mistakenly had weekly options.

As for what’s happened on the blog over the past month, the biggest event for Ogiue Manaix and all current Genshiken readers definitely has to be the latest manga chapter, which concludes the Madarame harem story. I won’t say much more, so go check it out if you’re curious as to what goes down and my thoughts on it. Also, I need to point out that a funky translation of Chapter 122’s contents has been going around, and it provides an inaccurate image of the characters. In response to this, I’ve also translated a couple of small but vital excerpts from the chapter in the hopes of clearing up the confusion.

As mentioned last month, I went to see a whole bunch of animated films. These include The Boy and the Beast, The Case of Hana & Alice, Beyond Beyond, Kizumonogatari Part 1: Tekketsu, Psycho-Pass: The Movie, and Long Way North. This means it was a pretty danged review-heavy month, especially because I also covered Please Tell Me! Galko-chan, the mahjong manga Saki, and the ever-successful Aikatsu! I’m typically more of an analysis and deep thinking kind of writer, but it’s not bad to have months like this either, and most of the time I my reviews are more half-review/half-analysis anyway.

Speaking of reviews, I also finally updated the Reviews section of the blog. I neglected it for about…a year and a half? orz

I also talked last month about my concern over stagnating as a writer. My smart and ever-perceptive friend David Brothers gave me some advice in response to one of my Apartment 507 articles on Yandere characters, which is that I should think about putting more of myself into my writing. I think that ever since I’d gone in a more academic direction it’s improved Ogiue Maniax in a number of ways. At the same time, that sort of more casual and personal feel, while still present I believe, might not be as apparent. Sometimes I have to be more friend than teacher.

Three final comments:

  1. Shout outs to Abadango for winning Pound 2016 using 99% Mewtwo (with a dash of Meta Knight). It’s the first major tournament in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U that has been won by a Mewtwo.
  2. Some cool and mysterious fellow recently published an academic article about the science fiction manga 7 Billion Needles in the journal Japan Forum. If you’ve got access and that’s your sort of thing, maybe check it out?
  3. This past weekend was the final Love Live! concert for the original μ’s girls. Love Live! forever! Hanayo banzai! Also, sorry about the April Fool’s joke (not sorry).

Abadango, Smash 4’s First Major Mewtwo Champion

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Abadango vs. Ally Pound 2016 Grand Finals

This past weekend was the international Super Smash Bros. tournament known as Pound 2016. There, in the stacked, 500-man bracket for Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U, a Mewtwo took home the gold for the first time ever at a major event. To a Mewtwo player such as myself, this is undoubtedly the most significant result thus far in the history of the game.

The player behind Mewtwo was Abadango, who at this point is a well-known name in the Smash 4 competitive community. He’s used a great number of characters throughout the life of Smash 4, and whether it’s been his creative Pac-Man, his dangerous Wario, his punishing Meta Knight, or now his Mewtwo, Abadango’s play turns heads. As someone who values deadly powerful combos and setups, the recent litany of improvements to Mewtwo have made the character an enticing choice for Abadango, though he has also expressed concern on his stream over its unforgiving nature. Nevertheless, Mewtwo’s worked out for him. Cutting through a sea of difficult opponents including VoiD’s Sheik and Ally’s Mario, Abadango made Mewtwo look deceptively simple, but anyone who knows the character is well aware that Mewtwo is anything but.

Mewtwo’s history in Smash 4 is a wild one. Designed from Day 1 to be a “glass cannon,” a character that is strong offensively but light and easy to KO, Mewtwo has benefited both from dedicated players pushing the character forward (such as LoF Blue, Mew^2, Killer Jawz, Rich Brown, and The Reflex Wonder) and from the “hand of God,” as the Genetic Pokemon might be the most buffed character in Smash 4. Mewtwo is now faster, hits more reliably, combos better, and more. The number of improvements that have been bestowed upon Mewtwo are nothing small, though it’s worth pointing out that among many fans of Smash for the past three months (since the buffs started happening) that people still doubted Mewtwo’s prowess. How could Mewtwo possibly be truly good, when the character is still very large, extremely light, and easy to juggle? The answer is, with an amazing versatile kit that allows Mewtwo to exert pressure at almost every point during the game.

Don't underestimate Mewtwo's Down Tilt

Don’t underestimate Mewtwo’s Down Tilt

Even in its darkest days, I never believed Mewtwo was truly a terrible character. Due to the unforgiving nature of its design (second lightest character in the game), Mewtwo makes you feel terrible for your mistakes. One wrong move and you can end up questioning your own existence. A Mewtwo played to perfection would still have been a force to be reckoned with even before the patches, but reaching that point and maintaining it was easier said than done. Now, I believe that a sub-optimal Mewtwo is still going to feel the sting of their mistakes (only Mewtwo now has more tools to avoid those mistakes in the first place), while a refined Mewtwo is easily high or even top tier. The fact that the top Mewtwo players present such a range of play styles—aggressive, defensive, technical, slippery, mind game-oriented—shows just how much potential the current Mewtwo holds.

That said, I think that the biggest change to Mewtwo that has come with the improvements both in the players and in the character is that Mewtwo now has access to a powerful ingredient that it lacked previously: fear. At first, Mewtwo could not instill fear in opponents, and that meant Mewtwo was always on the back foot because of how easy the character is to KO. Now, things are different.

It’s not just any fear, however, but more of a fear that’s mixed with the sweet scent of opportunity. When you fight Mewtwo, and you’re on your last stock while Mewtwo has a 60% lead, you’re aware of how good Mewtwo is at dealing damage and sealing stocks.

Then you remember, Mewtwo’s light and easy to kill. Opportunity knocks. “All you need to do is capitalize on one or two mistakes and the game isn’t just even, it’s arguably in your favor due to the weight disparity!”

The temptation is there, but so is the terror. Case in point, in an interview after winning the weekly tournament Wii Bear B-airs, LoF Blue mentioned that he switched from Sonic the Hedgehog to Mewtwo because the threat of Mewtwo’s myriad kill options forces the opponent to play differently at key moments.

A similar pressure is also placed onto the Mewtwo players, who are aware of how fragile their character is. If you’re down as Mewtwo it’s possible to make it back, and all you need to do is to not get hit, ever. A good Mewtwo draws strength from this tension, from teasing that glimmer of hope while still emanating a threatening aura.

If you’ve decided to pick up Mewtwo after Abadango’s win, I have one piece of advice for you: Be prepared to cry into your oatmeal as you die at 65% off of one critical mistake. Half the battle is a mental one. You have to maintain your composure as you’re getting bodied, or else the psychological damage you take just gets worse and worse. If you still stick with the character even after all that abuse (or maybe you’re kind of a masochist), then you’ll find a strong ally.

Also, if you’re interested in learning more, check out Dabuz (the best Rosalina in the world) and his analysis of Abadango’s Mewtwo:

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