How Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Gameplay Decisions Support Both Casual and Competitive Players

E3 2018’s come and gone, leaving in our wake the juiciest details about the new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate for the Nintendo Switch. The goal is clear: to make this the most complete Smash game ever, most evident in the fact that every playable character across the franchise’s almost 20-year history is back, along with newcomers Daisy and Ridley. I have a million thoughts about the new game, in no small part due to the sheer amount of information coming our way. Not only were there 25 minutes devoted to Ultimate in the Nintendo Direct, and plenty of Nintendo Treehouse play sessions at E3, but there are also official introductory video clips for every characters, filled with tidbits if you look carefully.

My major takeaway from following all of this news is that Ultimate is embracing the idea that a game can truly be capable of excelling in both competitive and casual environments, instead of having one compromise the other. Many decisions made for the current build benefit players of all stripes.

New Dodge Decay Mechanic

One brand-new change in Ultimate is that rolls and dodges get less effective if you overuse them. While I personally believe that their power in Smash Bros. for Wii U is quite manageable for the most part, there is an environment where rolls are the bane of everyone’s existence: wi-fi play. Thanks to the inherent lag in online play combined with the fact that players had no control over who they connected to, rolling became much, much more powerful. For Glory mode became infamous early on for being filled with players who roll over and over, relying heavily on the inconsistency of variable online connections.

But while highly skilled players, especially the pros, have mastered punishing bad rolls, it’s not as if they fail to benefit from having dodge maneuvers being limited by decay. Playing at the higher levels means having a thorough mastery of all aspects of the game, and now rolls and dodges have an added wrinkle to them that encourages players to use their other fundamental tools, like walking and running. Moreover, these evasive techniques are now a resource to be managed. Do you use more rolls now to guarantee getting out of a sticky situation if it makes you more vulnerable later?

Tournament players now have another skill they can improve, and newer players online can avoid frustration dealing with lag. It’s win-win.

The Hybrid Air Dodge is Gentle Yet Harsh

In the history of Smash Bros., there have been two different types of air dodges. The first is the directional air dodge, originally from Super Smash Bros. Melee, which allows players to become invincible for a brief period and move a short distance more in any direction they choose. The penalty is that you become unable to do anything but plummet down afterwards, leaving you vulnerable. The second type is the unlimited air dodge from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which lets players use repeated air dodges but prevents them being able to do a quick juke like the Melee directional air dodge does.

Air dodging in Ultimate is a hybrid version between Melee and Brawl. Players can choose to shift their direction during an air dodge or fall naturally, but there’s a period during which follow-up actions are impossible. It doesn’t put you in a helpless state as it would in Melee, but only one air dodge is possible before landing.

The air dodge in Brawl was changed in the first place likely so that it would be easier to use and understand for newer players—especially Nintendo Wii owners who were playing video games for the first time. It even introduced the concept of dodging in the air and counterattacking, something that wasn’t possible in Melee. Certain characters, namely Mewtwo in Smash for Wii U, even excelled at this strategy. However, fans who love Melee competitively often dislike this air dodge because it means juggles and combos were easier to escape. In their eyes, being able to air dodge repeatedly took away from one of them franchise’s best features.

Ultimate‘s air dodges leave a player vulnerable but not overly so. Using it eats up an option and makes one more susceptible to getting juggled, but the player can still attack out of it. Reports say the stationary air dodge allows faster recovery, which means the Mewtwos of the world can still do their thing. Directional air dodging vs. stationary air dodging also provides an added layer of decision-making, and gives characters like Yoshi and Little Mac who traditionally have suffered from limited recovery options to do a bit more.

Simpler, Freer Movement Benefits All Levels

One of the other new features of Ultimate is the ability to do pretty much anything immediately out of an initial dash. Past games restricted your options, but now everything from smash attacks to tilts to specials and more can happen out of a dash.

The probable reason this was previously not possible was because it made dashing into more of a commitment, and players ideally worked around it. In practice, newer players tend to just charge headfirst into things and then complain when their predicable option gets called out.

Melee is something of an exception to the rule of restrictive dashes because of the existence of wavedashing, an advanced technique that allows characters to slide while standing still, granting greater access to their arsenals while advancing or retreating. The lack of wavedashing in other games is a huge sticking point for many Melee fans, and is part of why they prefer those other games less. However, the execution of a wavedash requires a good amount of timing and dexterity. While most Melee players will claim it’s simple and easy, for many people it’s not, and failing to learn it actually significantly impacts your ability to succeed in that game.

By having these “dash cancels” (or whatever they’ll be called) come out of a more natural tendency to run ahead, it potentially makes less experienced players feel like they have more control. At the same time, it also fulfills at least some of the functions of wavedashing while being a more simplified command. Just dash, pause briefly, and attack.

Buffs Across the Board

Balance for a test version is of course not finalized, but from all reports so far it’s clear thay they’ve aimed for competitive improvements to nearly every character. Zelda suffered from being unable to act out of her Din’s Fire and Farore’s Wind special moves in past games, but now they no longer hold her back. Ryu always faces his opponents 1v1 (just like in Street Fighter) and can now back dash to improve his footsies. Little Mac can use both of his recovery moves, allowing him a little more leeway getting back on stage. Ganondorf’s attacks are surprisingly quick. The only exceptions seem to be Fox, Cloud, and Bayonetta, who are more limited in what they can do. Notably, Bayonetta’s infamous combo game and Witch Time ability have been made less effective, and Cloud’s Limit, which granted him improved specs as well as access to souped up specials, now only lasts 15 seconds instead of being potentially infinite.

Characters are getting quality-of-life changes and things specifically targeting their crippling flaws in previous games while also making them easier to use. There’s a clear desire to bring everyone up. However, what’s also important is that it shows on some level an acknowledgement of the skill found among stronger Smash players. Likely the reason Zelda’s Din’s Fire caused a helpless state when performed in the air was a fear that using it offstage, especially against weaker players, would be too powerful. No more—now, the game acknowledges that it might be really strong in those scenarios, but so what? “You can handle it,” says Ultimate.

A Game Already Loved

Despite being a mere test build, praise for the gameplay has thus far been near-universal—something that didn’t happen with Smash Bros. for Wii U when it was revealed in 2014. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate appears to be on track to giving almost all players what they want, and it’s thanks to mechanics that seem to reward skill without making the learning process daunting for less strong players. Unless something goes terribly wrong between now and the December 7 release date, it might become the most successful Smash game ever, both financially and competitively.

For more details, as well as some of the sources I used to get info for this post, check out the following.

Abadango’s thoughts on the new Smash (Japanese)

Full Breakdown of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Gameplay Mechanics

VGBootcamp VODs

Thoughts on Casual Gaming

I once had a conversation with friends where they expressed bewilderment that people could enjoy casual games. To them, games are about challenges, puzzles, something to figure out in order to overcome or outwit an opponent be they computer-generated or another human being. As a gamer myself it’s something I understand, but I also know how daunting or even draining the “gamer” mindset can be, and I feel the ups and downs of “true gaming” in my experience with online mahjong.

I’ve been playing Japanese-style mahjong for a few years now, and it’s a game I find fascinating for a variety of reasons. In mahjong you have this mixture of skill and luck which creates a dynamic interaction between its players. The game is such that it’s possible to create complex plans and intricate webs of deception to upset your opponents, but the random component means the best-laid plans can go to waste, and adapting to the “unfairness” of the luck elements by knowing when to call it quits becomes part of the strategy. In other words, when playing mahjong your mind has to be sharp and focused, but what happens when you’re not at your best?

This is the problem I run into with mahjong sometimes, and why I feel able to understand the casual game mindset. I love mahjong at this point, but there are times when the day was long and I’m all worn out mentally, and I’m looking for just a way to relieve stress. At times like this, I’ve made the mistake of trying to use online mahjong as a way to relax and I’ve been punished nearly every time. In those instances, I want to treat mahjong like a punching bag, except that in this case the bag punches back. Mahjong is the type of game where trying to win a hand at all costs just makes you vulnerable. In these situations when one’s mental condition isn’t the best, decent opponents can exploit it without even trying because it’s basically the equivalent of running straight at them in the hopes they won’t fire first. Naturally, watching my rank drop as I make this simple mistake over and over again causes more stress instead of less.

It’s not mahjong’s fault, though, that it fails to do what I want it to in those instances, and that’s where casual games come in. They can be your reward for a hard-fought day, as just a way to escape from pressure. The games might be even more random than mahjong, but clicking a lot can basically be the mental equivalent of punching a pillow over and over. This is not to say that casual games can’t have any skill or challenge component (Angry Birds being perhaps the most prominent example, and you can pretty much auto-pilot Tetris), but that it can be tough to feel like life is beating you down and then a video game is too. Sometimes, people might just want to have the comfort of knowing they’ll always win (or at least win eventually), and they might even be willing to put down $5 just for that luxury.