The Hero in Smash Bros. Ultimate and the Skill Found in Randomness

When the Hero from Dragon Quest was first revealed as a playable character in Smash Bros. Ultimate, there were hints as to how the character would function, but few were able to predict that the character would be so volatile. Because the Hero has not one but multiple random mechanics that can make him both inconsistent and unpredictable, part of the conversation surrounding the character has revolved around whether the character’s “luck” elements hurt competitive Smash Bros. There’s even talk, however small, about the possibility of banning the character outright.

The Hero has smash attacks that can randomly trigger critical hits (effectively double damage). He has a spell menu the contents of which are random every time you open it. He even has a spell inside the spell menu that gives random results. So the fear is somewhat understandable—especially given the scene’s general dislike toward and removal of spawning items (i.e. a major random element) from tournament play.

While there are many arguments to make for why banning the Hero is a bad idea—the character is simply too new to understand his impact on high-level play, for one—I want to make a different case about his merits. Specifically, I believe that the Hero and his special mechanics provide new and interesting tests of skill that revolve around managing randomness without the major downsides and stigma of items-on play.

Skill and Luck Are Not Opposites

Before this argument can move forward, it is necessary to try and dispel an idea that has plagued competitive Smash since the earliest days: the false dichotomy between skill and luck. On a surface level, randomness interfering with skill makes sense because a coin flip, for example, can’t be modified through talent and effort.

But competitive scenes exist for games with heavy elements of chance, and in these environments, the question of how to navigate, take advantage of, and cope with random chance is ongoing.

Magic: The Gathering

People complain that their opponent topdecked their only out the turn they needed it, but do not realise that often their own poor play either gave their opponent more turns to draw the out or overcommitted turning the eventual out into one in the first place. —“There’s No Such Thing as Luck.”

Japanese mahjong (plus poker)

Poker players think a lot about how to maintain a strong table image…. [I]t’s going to be a lot easier to get lucky if the other players aren’t gunning for you because they’re afraid you’re too strong for them. When I’ve played Mahjong with him, Sarukawa maintains a fierce table image and it definitely makes me think twice about declaring reach even with a strong hand, thus increasing his chances of getting lucky and decreasing mine. —Nagare, Luck, or whatever you want to call that crap

There’s even a very good video from Game Developer’s Conference 2017 by designer Skaff Elias all about the false dichotomy between skill and luck.

Those who think that they have unfairly lost a Smash Bros. match due to a Mr. Game & Watch Judge 9 would likely fall into a coma if confronted by some of the agonizing probability-based losses that Texas Hold ’em players have to go through. But whereas Smash players have historically shunned randomness, other games use randomness as an opportunity to test two things: how well you can take advantage of good luck and how well you can mitigate bad luck. While complete randomness with no opportunity to interact doesn’t provide much room for interaction, good games of chance give players plenty of opportunities to show how they can roll with the punches.

Although it’s early on, I feel that the Hero provides enough avenues for both the user and the opponent to manage the character’s random elements. This, in turn, is what makes him different from turning on items—which, for the record, I am also not against, but I’ve learned long ago that trying to convince Smashers to play with items is a losing battle. Still, I think there’s hope for the Hero.

Random Factor 1: Critical Hits

Let’s first look at the Hero’s smash attacks. They are quite strong in terms of sheer power; forward smash can kill a Pichu at the ledge at around 50%. But there’s also a 1 in 8 chance to land a critical hit, which turns a roughly 20% damage attack into a 40%+ monster capable of KOing opponents close to 0%. There is no way to prevent or induce a critical hit artificially once an attack lands, so neither the Hero or the opponent can control when they happen.

The only way to guarantee not getting blasted by a critical hit is to avoid getting hit at all. But while that sounds ridiculous at first, there are a couple of limiting factors: the Hero has to actively choose to use a smash attack, and the actual moves have numerous flaws that make landing hits easier said than done.

The Hero’s up smash is similar to Marth and Lucina’s—a vertical stab straight up into the air—but unlike theirs, the Hero cannot hit anyone standing next to him. In fact, the horizontal range of the smash attack is so narrow that the opponent has to be virtually right on top for it to connect. Down smash is fairly quick and hits both sides, but is the weakest and unlikely to KO without the power of a critical hit. Forward smash is the best one, but it’s relatively slow and doesn’t reach quite as far as one might expect. Outside of the critical hit factor, all three are lacking.

And much like Mr. Game & Watch’s Judge hammer or Luigi’s Green Missile, the Hero’s smash attacks have to be deliberately chosen. They do not just happen randomly without anyone’s control, as if they were Bob-ombs spawning into a player’s attack. So the critical hits are random and they are extremely powerful, but they’re locked behind slow, somewhat unreliable moves that leave the Hero vulnerable.

Every smash attack is a roll of the dice, except those dice are cumbersome gigantic novelty ones and the table you’re rolling on is a toddler’s high chair. While they don’t have any random negative side effects like Judge, they’re inherently risky. Most importantly, the Hero player has to actively make the decision when and where to take those swings—they don’t just happen automatically.

Random Factor 2: Command Selection

Hero’s down B special is Command Selection, in which the Hero pulls up a menu of spells and special strikes, and it’s the other area of contention in regards to fairness because of how multiple layers of randomness are built into the move. First, only four spells can be displayed at a time, and it will change every time the menu is re-opened. Second, the order in which the spells show up is also inconsistent. Third, two of the spells—Whack and Thwack—have a probability of instantly KOing an opponent; the higher their damage, the more likely they’re toast. Fourth, the spell Hocus Pocus is literally a spell that randomly triggers either a move from the existing list of commands or additional modifiers both beneficial and detrimental. Although highly unlikely, it is actually possible for the Hero to hit down b, blindly pick Hocus Pocus, have Hocus Pocus trigger Thwack, and kill an opponent at 0%.

While there’s no doubt that getting destroyed by such an unusual chain of events could tilt just about anyone, I think focusing on those edge cases would be more a symptom of focusing too much on isolated results in the short term rather than consistency in the long term. Moreover, while the spell list is random, it doesn’t remove skill. Rather, it tests the players’ ability to assess what is worth using every time it opens, and to act accordingly.

Above, I mentioned games like Yu-Gi-Oh! as examples where players must randomness into account when strategizing. When it comes to Command Selection, this comparison is especially apt, because opening up the menu is not unlike drawing cards in a TCG. While there is an element of luck, it’s the responsibility of the player to be able to adjust their approach–to sometimes turn lemons into lemonade. There’s also a common mechanic in trading card games called a “mulligan,” where a hand that’s sufficiently terrible can be discarded and replaced in its entirety. The Hero essentially has the ability to mulligan his hand at any moment, but with the caveat that the opponent can see what the Hero’s options are, and that he can’t keep any of the “cards” he doesn’t use. A good Hero has to be able to build upon the tools available to him in a given moment, and just because it’s uncommon in competitive Smash doesn’t mean it’s not a skill worth testing and valuing. The ability to improvise on the fly and be effective at crisis management in the face of external forces somewhat beyond the players themselves is good.

Conclusion

Luck can bless the Hero, or it can curse him, but there are multiple caveats that make him a worthy character who should be welcomed in tournaments. First, he has to be in a position to test that luck in the first place, and most if not all of his random-outcome moves are telegraphed or announced in some way. Second, just because he gets a lucky or unlucky move doesn’t mean the match ends there—both Hero and opponent have to be able to make the best of a situation. The result is a character who works to find chances and has to adjust on the fly to external forces, and those who master this are the likeliest to find success built not on favorable fortune but the ability to seize opportunity.

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Dragon Quest’s Hero: A Unique Strength and a Unique Weakness?

By now, many sharps minds in the Smash Bros. Ultimate community have analyzed the trailer for the new “Hero from Dragon Quest” DLC character and have noticed a couple of interesting properties. First, the Hero appears to have much more than four special moves, and unlike the case with the Mii Fighters, he does not appear to have a customizable move list. Second, at one point he’s shown pulling up a menu of magic spells, and the ones displayed on the menu aren’t the only spells he uses in the trailer.

This has led to speculation that the Hero might have more available special moves than any other character in Smash Bros. history—possibly up to 16! What this means is that the character has a diversity of options unlike any other. But characters aren’t only designed with advantages. What could balance out this strength?

The most obvious drawback of the Hero’s wide array of spells is that he has an MP gauge: if he doesn’t have enough MP, he can’t use a spell. There’s no word yet as to how the Hero might gain back MP, so that could be another mitigating factor. However, there’s another potential flaw in how the Hero plays that is largely unseen in Smash: the risk of completely telegraphing what special move he’s about to use.

The only characters who come anywhere close to having such a weakness are Shulk and Olimar. Shulk’s Monado Arts clearly display which mode he’s in, and thus roughly what the opponent should be looking out for. Olimar uses his Pikmin in the order they’re plucked, and can only change which Pikmin is used next by either attacking or using his whistle. In Olimar’s case, identifying which Pikmin he’s trying to use (and therefore what attacks to be wary of) is also easier said than done due to their small size. But even Shulk’s giant “this is the Monado I’m using” tell is not the same as having literal menus pop up that show what move the Hero wants to use next—menus the opponent can easily see as well. There’s no clear indication of any shortcuts, either.

With a character that’s not even out yet, it’s impossible to accurately say how good or bad a character is going to be. However, based on this potential prospect—the unique strength of 16 (?) spells tempered by the unique weakness of showing your cards—I’m looking forward to both the strategy and counterplay that will develop with the Hero. I can’t wait for him to be available.

Banjo-Kazooie, Dragon Quest, and the Precariousness of Nostalgia

The dual Smash Bros. Ultimate character reveals of the Hero(es) from Dragon Quest and Banjo and Kazooie have gamers abuzz with excitement. While I didn’t quite get the DQ villain I wanted, I’m no exception when it comes to riding the hype train. However, seeing some of the negative reaction among English speakers online over the Hero’s entry into Smash makes me realize something: a lot of fans care less about video game history as a whole and more about their own video game history.

This is not unexpected, nor is it inherently bad. The games we grow up on and love are going to get a stronger reaction than things we only have a more academic understanding of. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and when people engage in hype, they’re not necessarily engaging their intellectual side. Even the Japanese fans who are freaking out over Dragon Quest are doing so because of emotional attachment. DQ crosses generations and is an indelible part of Japanese pop culture on a scale that few things can compare to. If Banjo-Kazooie fever is a combination of 1990s gaming nostalgia and the return of a prodigal icon, then Dragon Quest in Smash is just plain nostalgia for a perennial favorite, transcending gaming and any specific time period. It popularized the RPG as a genre in Japan, and its simple gameplay made it accessible to audiences young and old in ways few games ever have.

Where I take umbrage with some of the reactions I’ve seen from some vocal Smash fans is a combination of entitled behavior and the seeming inability to engage that intelligent side of their brains that can allow them to appreciate things that aren’t necessarily connected directly to them. Just because there’s no deep, emotional bond doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention or fanfare. Smash Bros. is in many ways a celebration of video game history, so to see fans willfully reject that history is sad to see.

Dragon Quest has the potential to expand the reach of Smash Bros. far beyond what anyone has seen. Few characters can reach literal sixty-year-old Japanese businessmen the way DQ can. World-famous manga artists like Kishimoto Masashi (Naruto) have written about their experiences with the RPG. Toriyama Akira (Dragon Ball) has been responsible for the art since the franchise’s inception!

Banjo-Kazooie and Dragon Quest are both important new titles for Smash Bros., and I hope as many people as possible appreciate that.

PS: The Japanese trailer for Hero actually has him saying the names of his spells, so a silent protagonist he is not. I wonder if this might change the impression people have of the character if this difference sticks.

My Favorite RPGs

Compared to many of my friends over the years, I’ve barely grazed the surface of RPGs. I remember in high school listening to my friends debate Kefka vs. Sephiroth, then going online and seeing my internet acquaintances gush over Lunar: Silver Star Story. My experience with RPGs is but a fraction of others, but in my limited exposure I do have my favorites.

Honorable Mention 1:  Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior (aka Dragon Quest), one of the granddaddies of Japanese RPGs, does not hold up particularly well. It’s a pretty long and tedious game where most of your time is spent walking around leveling up. However, the first time that you see the Dragonlord reveal his true self, and the entire fight with his dragon form, is such a memorable experience for me. What stands out, and is kind of hard to convey in videos, is that whenever the Dragonlord attacked the screen would freeze temporarily (instead of shake as it normally would), making it feel as if his attacks were different and more powerful compared to his minions. You might notice that most of my subsequent entries have something to do with how much I like boss fights.

Honorable Mention 2: Pokemon

In actuality, Pokemon as a whole is one of my favorite game franchises ever. From the thrill of discovery to the depth of competitive battling, it’s been a part of me for a long time. However, in a way I think it overshadows other RPGs because of its prominence, so I’m leaving it off this list.

Final Fantasy IV (Final Fantasy II)

In terms of SNES RPGs, I find that Final Fantasy VI gets much more praise, but I find that my heart lies closer to Final Fantasy IV. The two moments that I think really define the game for me are when Cecil becomes a Paladin, and the final battle against Zeromus. The thing I love about Cecil as Paladin is the way that his transformation is reflected in the gameplay. When Cecil is a Dark Knight, his special technique is to shoot a destructive wave of energy, but when he’s a Paladin he runs to cover his allies and take the damage instead. As for Zeromus, while his appearance in the plot is kind of dumb as a last-minute final boss, the actual battle is wonderfully intense. You have to constantly keep pace with Zeromus’s devastating attacks while music very much befitting a final battle plays. I could actually just fight Zeromus over and over and be happy.

Fire Emblem GBA (aka Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword)

My early experience with Fire Emblem is something I assume to be fairly common. I first learned about the series through Super Smash Bros. Melee, and then got to play a game for the first time with the Game Boy Advance release—the first Fire Emblem game released in the US. I’d heard stories about how unforgiving the series and its infamous permanent deaths were, and while the game was noticeably difficult, it was the satisfaction of seeing my characters successfully take down army after army, and seeing their stories as they interact with each other, which makes it one of my favorites. By the time you reach the end and Lyn, Eliwood, and Hector are in command of their legendary weapons, it makes you feel as if you’ve earned all of this power through your hard work.

Lufia and the Fortress Doom/Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals

Known as the Estopolis series in Japan, Lufia and Lufia II are pretty by-the-numbers RPGs, but I find them to be so incredibly charming and impactful. In The Fortress of Doom, your very first battle takes place in the distant past, when you and your fully decked out team have to fight the biggest baddies in the world, the Sinistrals. After your victory, you move to the present and control the descendant of the hero Maxim (whom you had just been controlling in that climactic battle moments ago), as well as a mysterious girl named Lufia. Seeing the story come full circle as you learn about what happened in the decades between then and now is immensely satisfying. Lufia II is a more refined game and a prequel which goes more in depth about the life and times of Maxim, but it’s the combined package that make them forever memorable.

Dragon Quest VIII

In terms of just standard RPGs that don’t really mess with the formula, Dragon Quest VIII is one of the most refined games I’ve ever played. It never feels like a slog, and the narrative twists are small but powerful. What stands out to me above all else (aside from Jessica Albert <3) is a way a major plot point is hidden throughout your playthrough in a simple and subtle mechanic. When you fight the first boss, it shoots a wave of cursed energy at your party. While one character gets hit by it pretty regularly, it appears to keep missing the hero. It’s an easy detail to forget as you play through the game, but when you learn that he’s literally immune to curses because *SPOILERS*, it really speaks to how clever the game is.

Super Robot Wars R

Does this count? In any case, it’s my first Super Robot Wars game, and the one that introduced me to so many cool and interesting giant robot anime. Getting to see in detail the various attacks and quirks of classics such as Zambot 3, Voltes V, and Gear Fighter Dendoh was such a big step in my further appreciation of the giant robot genre. Fun fact: my Japanese was still really rudimentary at the time, so it took me 65% of my entire play-through to figure out how to dodge. Ha ha ha.

So those are my favorite RPGs. I think it’s kind of an eclectic yet somehow boring list, but it’s straight from the heart.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

Zoma for Super Smash Bros.

smashbros-zomamoves-small

Previous Characters:

King K. Rool (Donkey Kong Country)

Princess Daisy (Super Mario Land)

Geno (Super Mario RPG)

Great Puma (NES Pro Wrestling)

Pitfall Harry (Pitfall)

In celebration of Cloud Strife’s reveal as a new Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U character, I have once again been drawing movesets and concept art for how famous icons of video games might work in Smash Bros. This time around, it’s Zoma, the final boss of Dragon Quest III, aka Dragon Warrior III.

Square Enix began as two rival companies, Square (later Squaresoft) and Enix. If Square’s flagship title was Final Fantasy, and its greatest success story Final Fantasy VII, then Enix’s was Dragon Quest, and its crown jewel Dragon Quest III. Having sold over 1 million copies on its first day of release in Japan in 1988, which included many students deciding to cut class just to buy it, it is one of Japan’s most beloved RPGs. Amazingly, once you beat it, you find out that it was in fact a prequel to the very first Dragon Quest, and your player character becomes the legendary hero whose equipment must be collected in the first game.

However, instead of just going with Loto (or Erdrick) as a counterpart to Cloud, I believe it would be more interesting if Enix could be represented by arguably its greatest villain. Zoma, like all Dragon Quest monsters, is drawn by Toriyama Akira of Dragon Ball fame, and strikes an imposing figure. A demon lord who rules over the land of Alefgard, according to Dragon Quest IX he actually went there because he’s extremely popular with other monsters and is trying to get away from his fans. Zoma is shown to be much larger than the heroes, but like Bowser there does not seem to be much consistency with his scale, so I figured he’d best be a large, heavy target similar to other super heavyweights. However, where Zoma differentiates himself from the rest is that his attacks are not only powerful, they’re very quick to recover.

If you’ve fought a character like Mario in Smash 4, you find that he can move very quickly out of key attacks (Up Smash, down air, back air), and that it makes him difficult to punish. Zoma would be similar. While some of his attacks would have long wind-ups, such as his Side-B Kacrackle (the strongest ice spell in Dragon Quest), it is difficult to take advantage of him if he misses, as he can quickly transition into something like a jab or a forward smash. This is meant to reference the fact Zoma is actually able to attack twice in one turn in his source material.

To balance this out, Zoma would have by far the worst mobility in the game, like if you weighed Ganondorf down with bricks. He would have decent jumps in terms of sheer distance, but would be extremely slow in terms of acceleration and max speed. His walk speed would be awful, and he wouldn’t even have a true dash. Instead, he would get a mini-teleport that still has all the restrictions of a dash. Think of him as being somewhat like Slayer in Guilty Gear.

All of Zoma’s attacks come straight from his battles across various games (he’s been a guest boss in a number of titles), and many of them are capable of freezing. C-C-Cold Breath is a super-charged version of the Ice Climbers’ Down B, and Disruptive Wave can remove status changes (both positive and negative) and even stun opponents very briefly. In one-on-one situations you won’t be able to capitalize on it, but it does travel far and is good for shifting momentum back into your favor, especially given once again how difficult Zoma’s moves are to punish. Bounce is a reflector and stage recovery move combined, making it useful for getting past projectile-based edgeguarding attempts, but is otherwise below average for a recovery, traveling far but very slowly. It is also impractical as an on-stage reflector. Kacrackle is both a powerful damage dealer and a way to seal stocks early, but can be difficult to land. At the same time, it can be thrown out similar to Meta Knight’s forward smash as a read in neutral.

Zoma’s Final Smash is a reference to the fact that Zoma originally covers himself with a protective ice barrier in Dragon Quest III that greatly augments his abilities. The only way to remove it is to use the Orb of Light, and seeing as no one has it in Smash Bros., I figured it would be better as a temporary measure.

Perhaps most important of all, Zoma would have all of the signature attack sound effects from Dragon Quest.

So that’s Zoma, one of the most infamous of JRPG villains. If anyone wants to design a Loto as well, by all means be my guest. As for the next character, it’ll be “the one I’m waiting for.”

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