Understanding the Frustration of Smash 4 Bayonetta While Still Being Anti-Ban

Since her first appearance in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Bayonetta has been a controversial character, with a style designed to frustrate opponents and combos that frequently snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A combination of factors—recent tournament success, audience backlash, and the difficulty mid to low level players have dealing with her potentially driving away new blood—have once again brought up the question of whether Bayonetta should be banned.

Personally, I think the answer is “no,” simply because none of the reasons I’ve read are solid enough or objectively quantifiable enough on their own to form a solid foundation for a ban argument. Collectively, they combine together into a murky sense of “she kills people’s desire to play the game,” as opposed to the more concrete reasoning of other banned characters in fighting games of years past. Bayonetta might be able to combo someone to death when they’re at 0% damage after a few reads, but it’s not like Super Street Fighter II: Turbo Akuma, whose could not be dizzied and had an air fireball that none could properly defend against.

Even as I disagree with those calling for a ban, however, I still find myself sympathizing with their arguments because their dissatisfaction is real. In particular, I find the idea that Bayonetta is discouraging new talent from sticking with the game to be fascinating because it’s specifically about how Bayonetta affects not the strongest players, but the ones underneath that upper echelon.

One common argument made against banning Bayonetta involves comparing her to another top character from a previous Smash Bros. game: Fox McCloud in Super Smash Bros. Melee. If you look at the amount of representation Bayonetta has among the top 50 Smash 4 players, it pales in comparison to the number of Melee Fox users. “But,” the pro-ban side will say, “Fighting Fox at mid-level is fun because you can exploit his weaknesses and combo him. You can’t do the same to Bayonetta.”

So you have a situation where, while Bayonetta is not as dominant as Fox at the highest skill tiers, this doesn’t matter to a large chunk of players for whom that might never matter. Mid-level players fight mid-level Foxes and can take advantage of their opponents’ mid-level flaws. In contrast, taking on mid-level Bayonettas requires both a combination of very solid fundamentals (in particular to not overextend and to force the Bayonetta to act first), and specialized knowledge (how to properly fall out of her combos to avoid the next hits, and the decision-making necessary to hide one’s countermeasures against those combos) In a way, if the reason you play competitively is to land satisfying combos, the study and practice needed to fight Bayonetta might feel as interesting as doing taxes or studying trigonometry.

I think all of this would be an easier pill to swallow if the reward for learning how to fight Bayonetta is a consistent plan on how to exploit her weaknesses and shut her down. Little Mac garnered complaints early on because he was difficult to fight for newer players. Lucario, like Bayonetta, is argued to go against the “rules” of fighting games by becoming more powerful as it takes more damage. Sonic the Hedgehog’s evasive style can easily wear down people’s patience. In all of these cases, better players have shown the way as to how to fight them properly and satisfyingly. With Bayonetta, even though she’s the least dominant #1 character in Smash history, she can still aggravate even the best players in the world.

Here’s an analogy that I think conveys the conflicted feeling of knowing that some of the strongest competitors in the world can still succumb to Bayonetta’s shenanigans. Imagine two people have each discovered treasure maps. They require learning an ancient language, trudging through deadly jungles, and a general toll on body and mind. For the first person, the reward is a treasure chest full of gold and riches. All that hard work yielded a mighty reward. For the second person, however, they find a contract that lands them a 9-to-5 job that pays decently well but still requires them to keep pushing ahead, and there’s not even a guarantee the job will last. It’s a “reward” in a certain sense, but that amount of effort might not seem worth it. The latter situation is how I imagine mid level Smashers feel when they look to the top for inspiration, and see many of their heroes still falter against Bayonetta. Learning all of those tricks and tips only results in relatively less stress.

Tactics and characters that can crush weaker players might not necessarily work on stronger ones. Bayonetta is in a similar situation, but the degree to which she threatens the motivation of those non-top players is still worth noting. One possible solution is to simply restrict her usage at smaller, local tournaments. However, this runs the risk of harming an important subsection of players: those who are not yet good enough to compete at the highest level, but might become strong enough. If you have a smaller scene that bans Bayonetta but have bigger settings that allow her to remain, then you’ve basically harmed those transitional players because they have to fight Bayonetta now while lacking experience against her. A blanket ban technically fixes this as well, but just as lower level players might find it unfair to have the expectations of skill and talent from the top tell them what can and can’t be done, basing a ban on how those lower level players feel can be even more stifling to the top. There’s no easy answer.

Dominatrix Gameplay: The S&M Fighting Style of Smash 4 Bayonetta

Bayonetta is generally considered the best character in Smash 4. While her strengths are many, her key trait is the ability to instantly turn the tables on her opponent’s assault and transform a disadvantageous situation into a chance for victory. As with many #1 characters in games, there have even been calls to ban her from competitive play, more than any other character in the game. But I don’t believe the outcry is simply because she’s “too good.” Rather, it’s about why she’s good. Her character strategies are akin to those of a dominatrix, and her denial of pleasure in Smash 4 is what frustrates many to the point of crying foul.

Heroic stories are often built on giving antagonists their just desserts. Whenever Stone Cold Steve Austin managed to corner Vince McMahon, fans cheered as Austin drowned his evil boss in beer. When Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star confronts Jagi, the satisfaction of having Kenshiro beat Jagi to death for all his injustice is a moment meant to scratch that revenge itch. The villain, by virtue of being a villain, must pay.

Looking at fighting games, it’s possible to label the top tier characters as the villains in the story of competition. They’re the fastest, the strongest, and the most dominant. So what happens when the “hero,” i.e. whoever’s fighting the top tier, finally catches up to this scoundrel? Well, it depends.

Take Fox, from Super Smash Bros. Melee. Widely considered the strongest character in that game by a margin wider than Bayonetta’s grip over Smash 4. But while Fox is basically a master of all trades, he’s also a glass cannon who, if hit, can be combo’d hard by many of the best and worst characters in the game. Stringing a series of attacks together and watching Fox’s damage percentage rapidly rise is satisfying. So is spiking him offstage and seeing him plummet like a rock to his doom. Making Fox pay goes a long way in providing pleasure to the player or viewer opposing him.

This results in a kind of “combo catharsis.” Even if the opponent loses to Fox, seeing a Marth or a Mewtwo chain grab him for a couple of stocks can still make it seem like the dastardly space animal was on the ropes, if only for a few moments. The villain barely got away! Even in loss, it’s possible to feel powerful—a quality that I believe is important in attracting and keeping players.

Bayonetta, in contrast, is intentionally designed to deny easy combos and follow-ups on her. Multiple jumps and ways to recover mean edgeguarding her is difficult. Afterburner Kick acts as an escape button for those trying to juggle her. Witch Twist deflects and draws in the opponent into a potentially high-damage or even fatal string of attacks. Witch Time actively punishes overly aggressive and predictable players. While it’s possible to land multiple blows on her, each hit requires about as much work as the last. Bayonetta stymies combo catharsis, making the release that comes with it incredibly difficult to achieve. Even in gameplay, she’s truly a dominatrix.

A unifying point between Bayonetta and Fox is another character notorious for denying combo catharsis: Melee Jigglypuff. A proverbial flyweight who makes up for its lack of diverse tools by stonewalling opponents through strong aerial attacks and deft aerial movement, Jigglypuff is so light that the opponent can usually only land one or two hits before it goes flying out of reach. And yet, when it comes to Fox’s reputation vs. Jigglypuff’s, the latter receives more scorn from players and spectators despite the fact that the former excels at nearly everything and boasts a much larger player base at the lowest and highest levels of competition. Catch Fox, and you can pound him for an extended period. Catch Jigglypuff or Bayonetta, and you might get just a single lick before you have to start all over again.

In spite all of the above innuendo, this is only an analogy, and I don’t think anyone actually derives sexual pleasure from playing Smash Bros.—though I could see it being just as satisfying. But at the same time, it’s clear that Bayonetta is, by design, hard to combo, and that one of the most popular and enduring elements of Smash Bros. and fighting games in general is the combos (or chains or strings). I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Bayonetta in essence works from an almost BDSM-like playbook. This doesn’t necessarily mean Smash 4 players are masochists, but those who still choose to fight Bayonetta are at least those who can manage to hold back their desire to just let loose.