Sephiroth in Smash Is Uncharted Competitive Territory

Sephiroth has officially been released for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, though many people had already gotten their hands on him thanks to the Sephiroth Challenge: a special boss fight with the new DLC character where the reward was early access. Having tried out the One-Winged Angel for a few days myself, I’d like to give my initial impressions of the character, and how I think he’ll pan out in more competitive play.

During this preview period, I’ve seen assessments of Sephiroth go anywhere from disappointingly mediocre to potential top tier. Based on personal experience, I can see why. Sephiroth seems to have qualities that are often death sentences for viability (large body easily prone to getting hit, slow and laggy attacks) but also ones that make for powerful characters (extremely large sword, high mobility, versatility, a built-in comeback factor). In other words, while Sephiroth is nowhere near as unorthodox as Steve from Minecraft, he still possesses a combination of qualities that have never really existed in Smash Bros. before. As #1 player in the world MKLeo puts it, he’s like Byleth (a similarly range-focused character), except Sephiroth trades attack speed for better movement. And in Smash, movement is generally king. 

The sheer size of Sephiroth’s Masamune changes everything. It goes without saying, but the sword is loooong. Cases where an opponent would otherwise be safe rolling away can still get them caught by the end of a sword swipe, and not even because of a particularly impressive read. Spacing both as and against Sephiroth is just different, especially if you factor in his other special moves, which are designed to scare opponents into making bad decisions. The ability to fake out with a Flare charge cancel, to get people to panic with Shadow Flare, or even catch someone slipping with a deadly Octoslash means that it’s easy for Sephiroth to fight on his terms.

That’s not to say Sephiroth’s aforementioned weaknesses are trivial. Like Mewtwo, he’s both tall and light, meaning it’s easy for him to take damage and die early. Sephiroth has issues with being smothered by quick and agile characters who can bait out his attacks and punish their endlag. His frame data is objectively lackluster, and his closest reliable option out of shield is a dismal neutral air with a frame-9 startup (though its utility on offense is much greater). His faster attacks also require a lot more precision, as they tend to be long but thin stabbing motions that don’t cover much space to the sides of the sword. However, Sephiroth in neutral generally looks to have an answer for everything, and it’s a matter of finding what works. I was playing online and losing games to a Fox—exactly the kind of character who can get in your face and stay there—but I managed to eventually win just by using my attacks differently. Down smash’s heavy shield damage can make defensive play unreliable, Scintilla’s ability to push back aggression, and up tilt’s generous scooping hitbox made charging in less free once I realized what to do.

On top of all this is Sephiroth’s One-Winged mode, which improves his stats across the board, as well as giving him super armor on smash attacks and a third jump. Activated when Sephiroth takes a certain amount of damage, it makes him scary in a manner akin to Limit Cloud, because the enhanced mobility makes possible things that would have been out of the question otherwise. Luckily for anyone facing him, he’s still light to the point that it won’t take much to KO him and remove his enhancements temporarily, but it can be like fighting (and using) a different character.

Speaking of Cloud, in comparison to his fated rival, Sephiroth is definitely not meant to be a beginner’s character. Whereas Cloud has extremely good mobility and hitboxes that are both safe and generous, Sephiroth can’t just throw things out willy nilly and hope for the best. Cloud can be played intelligently, but Sephiroth needs brains to function well if your opponent knows what to expect. He just has so many attacks with so many particular uses, it’s going to take a long while before even the best players know how to fully utilize everything he can do.

As for where I think Sephiroth will end up in terms of viability, I’m bullish on his future performance, and can see him at least in high tier. Slow attack speed is never a good thing, but imagine if you took Ganondorf and just gave him a sword as big as Sephiroth’s. It wouldn’t necessarily make Ganondorf a top tier, but it would open up possibilities on offense and defense in a big way. Thus, while Sephiroth has his fair share of pronounced flaws, he also possesses a unique combination of laggy yet powerful ranged attacks along with tricky movement and specials such that the drawbacks of the former can be mitigated by the latter with smart spacing. The very fact that MKLeo is interested in using Sephiroth might also very well give him a huge boost in visibility early on. 

Sephiroth and Villainous Presence in Smash Bros.

Sephiroth has been announced as the latest DLC guest character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate to great fanfare. I certainly didn’t expect him because I figured they would want to spread their 3rd party characters among as many companies and franchises as possible for the widest marketing reach—let alone having a second Final Fantasy VII character, even if there is a big remake currently.  Why Sephiroth?

The answer, I surmise, is that he fulfills an ongoing theme of having villains to contrast some of the biggest heroes in Ultimate. This is the game that added Ridley and King K. Rool to the roster, and K. Rool’s trailer even emphasizes the different rival pairings that exist in Smash. There’s a special place for the One-Winged Angel in the pantheon of video game villains, and he more than deserves a place among the other all-stars in Smash. Sephiroth is the first third-party villain in the game, and the first villain DLC.

But Sephiroth’s appearance makes me realize something: much to my chagrin, it’s highly unlikely that any antagonist or boss can get into Smash as a playable character without there first being a protagonist to contrast them. I would wager that, in another universe where Cloud had not managed to debut in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii U, he would have been the one to appear now instead of Sephiroth. It’s understandable why they would go for heroes before villains, given that the bad guys are usually not the most prominent mascots of their video games, and the good guys are usually the player characters. Even a generic hero like, well, Hero, takes precedence over Zoma or Dragonlord from the Dragon Quest series. 

There is a game that has leaned more toward villainy when it comes to its guest characters, though. Tekken 7 has Geese Howard but not Terry Bogard, Akuma but not Ryu, and Neegan but not whoever the protagonist of The Walking Dead is. That’s a very different sort of environment, of course, given that Tekken is a standalone world and not inherently a crossover like Smash is. Again, I see why Smash would not want standalone bosses to take up too much of the roster, but I’ve just always thought it would be a nice way to add some diversity without taking up two slots instead of one.

Of course, nothing is ever set in stone with Smash in terms of how or why new characters are chosen, but I think “villains second” just makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t. The only possible exception I could see is if said antagonist all but defines a certain video game’s identity. Which is to say, maybe Carmen Sandiego still has a shot…?

In any case, I’m looking forward to the Sephiroth gameplay reveal.