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.”

Smash Bros. Patches Value Concept and Design over Strictly Balance

Though it can be said that previous games received changes among releases in different regions, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U is the first official game in the franchise to receive regular balance patches. With every patch that comes out, people, including tournament champions, aspiring game designers, and just fans of the series give their thoughts and opinions, and a lot of it revolves around whether or not a character is now “good” or whether or not a character who was seen as too powerful is now “fair.”

I’m not a game designer. I’m not even much of a competitor. So, take all of this with its own massive grain of salt. The way I see balance, and the directions of the buffs and nerfs that have happened to the characters in Smash, is that it’s not solely a matter of making a character viable or able to win tournaments, but rather…

1) Making their strategies clear, effective, and unique…
2) While maintaining the identity of the character
3) Allowing them to on some level fight the rest of the cast…
3) While also giving other characters an opportunity to fight back

When it comes to game design, based on what I’ve read and even what I’ve seen Smash creator Sakurai’s comments on game design, 1 and 2 are the most important. He chooses characters for Smash based on what they could bring to the series on a gameplay level, which is why, for example, Bowser Jr. fights in a clown cart and isn’t just a tiny Bowser. It gives him a variety of tools and an overall feel that you don’t get with Bowser, namely the feel of an aggressive trickster. While certain characters over the course of Smash have been “clones,” using other characters as a template with a few tweaks, they’re more time-savers in the development process than anything else, and should be judged differently.

The result is that, when buffing or nerfing characters, I believe that the thinking isn’t “How can we make them just as good as the top characters?” That’s probably not that difficult: just improve frame data, make a bunch of hitboxes bigger, make hits stronger and faster, etc. etc. Rather, it’s about “how can the characters be expressed more effectively?”

In his posts on Miiverse, Sakurai mentioned that the character Marth is meant to fight like a fencer. Thus, he was designed to be weak when fighting in-your-face but does massive damage when striking with the tip of his sword, which requires you to understand and master spacing as a concept. Ever since Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second game in the series, Marth has at his base been all about grace and positioning, and theoretically rewarding players for fighting with that fencing mentality.

However, in both previous games that Marth was featured, he could short hop through the air and do two quick swings with his sword (his forward air), and then recover quickly. The question is, then, does having a double forward-air which he could then recover quickly from upon landing follow along with this fencer archetype? While I think it might be argued either way, I think a lot of people who played and played against the character, as well as probably Sakurai himself, have seen how double forward air is less about grace and more about brute force, just bullying your way through lesser opponents and sometimes even greater ones too. Thus, it’s out, never to be seen again, and instead everything about Marth emphasizes not only being rewarded for good spacing, but HAVING to space well. That’s why his f-smash is shorter than previous games, but it kills earlier than ever. That’s why he has the end lag on key moves but even tilts can kill when spaced properly. It challenges you to be the fencer OR ELSE. All of his (and Lucina’s) buffs emphasize this game plan further.

So why then has Roy changed so drastically from Melee? Again, this is only my own thoughts on how this might have come about, but I think that Sakurai looked back at Melee Roy and what he intended Roy to be, and realized the result didn’t match the planning. He was, as we all know, mainly a worse Marth. So, in order to emphasize the whole idea of having the sword that does more damage up close, and also perhaps giving him a feel akin to Melee, he was given high movement specs, effective throw combos, etc, and in exchange he gets wrecked off-stage. Roy’s character identity becomes a swordsman who charges in and values offense over defense, and any buffs or nerfs that happen to him in the future will likely still reflect this concept.

In other words, Concept/Meaning > Viability from a game design perspective. Of course, it’s not bad if you have both, but balancing a character in the context of a video game isn’t just making them stronger or weaker but doing it in a way that allows the individuality of the character, and thus the person who plays that character, to shine through.