Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a ton of Smash Bros. Ultimate, and throughout this time I’ve been mulling the multiplayer changes they’ve made. I have not played the game online, which I know has been a source of frustration and controversy for many, so I’m not going to go into that aspect of the game.
The game feels very well balanced, though that is naturally subject to change as patches come out and players get better. It’s not perfect, and I wouldn’t expect a game with 70+ characters to ever be 100% balanced, but Ultimate is in a good place for the time being. There are a number of factors that contribute to this feeling, but the overarching philosophy I sense from the game is based on three factors: 1) rounding out characters’ tool kits so no one option is too weak and no one option is too strong 2) providing universal mechanics that benefit all 3) making characters’ strengths on paper actual strengths.
Rounding Out Movesets
In Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4), many characters ended up having a few extremely effective attacks that would render entire other parts of their movesets nearly obsolete. Think about Donkey Kong’s cargo up throw into up air (aka the Ding Dong) or Meta Knight’s dash attack/dash grab into up air strings. The game often focused on each character’s few powerful options, and it made you wonder why certain attacks even existed. In Ultimate, however, it feels like the craziest and most overwhelming attacks have been shaved down a bit while the neglected moves were given some love.
Take Mewtwo, for instance. In Smash 4, Mewtwo’s down tilt was one of the best moves in the game, period. It had long range, it was very fast for how much ground it covered, and it started combos and juggles with the greatest of ease. In contrast, Mewtwo’s forward tilt didn’t see much use. Almost anything forward tilt did, down tilt did better, except for maybe hitting opponents who are jumping.
In Ultimate, down tilt is still fast and with excellent range, but you can only reliably combo off of it if you hit with the base of Mewtwo’s tail, which means having to be closer to the opponent and thus being in a riskier position. The move is good, but it’s no longer a cure-all. Forward tilt, in turn, now has utility that down tilt doesn’t—namely better knockback, more kill power, and slightly more range. So players have reasons to use both. You might want to down tilt, but if the opponent’s at max range, forward tilt could be better for knocking them farther off the stage.
You’ll see this across multiple characters’ movesets. Players will need to master their characters’ entire set of moves to do well.
Equalizing Key Universal Mechanics
One of the biggest jokes of Smash 4 was that Jigglypuff, a character who specializes in aerial combat, took a much longer time to actually get off the ground than most other characters. Actually, the biggest joke was that Jigglypuff never got a single buff across the game’s many patches, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole.
In every Smash game, characters take a bit of time to leave the ground after a player hits jump: this is called a “jump squat.” In Smash 4, the fastest jump squats were 4 frames (1/15 of a second), the slowest (Bowser) was 8 frames (2/15 of a second), and Jigglypuff was in the middle at 6 frames (1/10 of a second). If you’re confused by all the numbers, just think about it like this: because characters like Jigglypuff and Bowser took longer to actually jump, it meant that they would fail to land attacks that other characters could get away with.
In Ultimate, every character has the same jump squat: 3 frames, or 1/20 of a second. This means that big, lumbering characters can’t just get trapped on the ground and be forced to eat hits because they’re busy trying to jump. This means Jigglypuff can take to the skies much more easily. Most importantly, it proportionally buffs characters who used to have bad jump squats much more than those who already had them. Going from 4 frames to 3 frames is a 25% improvement. Going from 8 frames to 4 frames is a 50% improvement.
Creating True Strengths
Big characters have for the most part been disadvantaged in the Smash games. Bad jump squats, as mentioned above, are one factor, but the supposed weight advantage that would let such characters survive longer compared to their lighter adversaries never actually panned out in practice. Instead, these super heavyweights often ended up as huge punching bags unable to properly deal with the speedy attacks of their foes.
Another supposed advantage that failed to live up to its potential is the tether grab. Instead of using hands, tether grabs utilized ranged weapons to grab from a distance—think Link’s hookshot or Samus’s grappling beam. The trade-off, on paper, is that these tether grabs are slower to make up for their longer range, but almost without fail they were simply worse than having regular, close-range grabs. Players could learn to use tether grabs effectively, but that was more about them making up for their characters’ flaws through intelligence and cunning.
Both the super heavyweight archetype and the tether grab have new purpose in Ultimate, and it has largely to do with making sure these aspects actually matter. Big characters are heavier than ever and hit harder than ever, and it makes a significant difference in terms of how long they survive. Now, a King Dedede or a Ganondorf can reliably live long enough to become scary, especially when factoring in the “rage” mechanic that allows characters to hit opponents harder when they themselves have taken more damage. Grabs are generally worse in Ultimate compared to Smash 4, as characters have shorter range and take longer to recover from missed grabs, but the big exception is that tether grabs have been improved all around. Even if they stayed the same as they were in Smash 4, the gap between non-tethers and tethers would have been closer, but a lot of those tethers have either improved startup time, improved recovery, or both.
The biggest winner here is actually Pac-Man, whose ranged grab in Smash 4 was literally the worst grab in Smash history due to its wonky collision detection and its poor overall speed.
To a Better Game!
I thought Smash 4 was a really good game, even in the last couple of years as Cloud and Bayonetta began their rise and their stuffing of the lower tiers. History could repeat itself, but based on the changes mentioned, I think there’s a strong chance they’ve learned from their mistakes. Balancing a competitive game is a tremendously difficult endeavor, but I think the Smash Bros. Ultimate development team is up to the task.