Mario nabs a fire flower, instantly transforming into an engine of destruction. Enemies that previously gave the plumber pause are dispatched with ease as Mario rains hot death upon them. Yet Mario is in a rather fragile position, and brushing up against a single enemy will instantly revert Mario back to a lesser state. Even so, for that brief moment Mario experiences an exhilarating sense of power.
Mario appears in another game: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Here, the fireball is a permanent fixture of his arsenal. He cannot “lose” his fireball. However, what he can do is combo his opponent repeatedly, using a variety of quick moves to keep them pinned down and begging for mercy. However, when he’s ready to finish off his opponent, many of his combos are no longer as feasible, and he has to take risks to achieve the KO, changing the power dynamics of the character.
How does the feeling power influence how we play and perceive games?
When the Good Outweighs the Bad
In recent years, the Super Smash Bros. series has arisen to be a very popular competitive franchise. The most current game, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (aka Smash 4) is generally considered superior to its predecessor, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but not everyone agrees. PK Blueberry, a Brawl Lucas player, contends that Lucas in Smash 4 is less satisfying to play with because the character is less pleasing to control and fight with. Brawl Lucas had a lot of tricks up his sleeve, such as “Zap Jumping”–a technique that could double Lucas’s jump height. “But wait,” others might ask. “Wasn’t Brawl the same game where Lucas would get demolished by characters like Marth, whose grab release infinite made the matchup virtually unwinnable for Lucas? Didn’t this basically sabotage Lucas’s competitive viability in a major way?”
The rebuttal is that, while that is all true, Brawl Lucas was still more satisfying to play. Praxis, the developer of the Smash Pad app, has frequently likened Brawl to a wine with a strong, unpleasant flavor but an amazing aftertaste. The idea is that, once you got past all the nonsense, the crazy things you could do in Brawl were amazing and made it more complex and satisfying. Thus, while there are a lot of ridiculously unfair things that can cripple your character, having just small moments and situations where you can feel immensely powerful is considered by some to be more valuable than just being consistently “okay” and lacking any debilitating weaknesses. Other characters fall into this category as well: players of Ganondorf and Jigglypuff (two of the weakest characters in Brawl) who made the transition to the newest game will sometimes lament the loss of certain amazing attributes or techniques, even though their power levels are closer to the rest of the cast in Smash 4.
Another game in the franchise, the immensely popular and competitively long-lived Super Smash Bros. Melee, is one where players, when sufficiently skilled, feel like they can do anything (provided they use the best characters). For example, Fox McCloud is so versatile and powerful that some players and commentators have started using the term “Fox Privilege” to describe the range of strong options available to the game’s best character. Recently, two members of the Smash community have made efforts to describe what Melee‘s feeling of power is like relative to other games, and their descriptions work very well together.
In the video above, ESAM, a top Smash 4 player who’s also skilled in Melee, says that Melee is a game where most matchups come down to how well you can implement your character’s tools against the opponent’s, whereas Smash 4 is more about learning how to fight against characters by avoiding their strengths. In other words, Melee is how much you can do to your opponent, and Smash 4 is how much you can prevent them from doing stuff to you.
Similarly, in an an episode of The Scar & Toph Show, Melee player and commentator Scar compares Melee to Ultra Street Fighter IV, describing Melee as a game where you can easily impose your will upon the game and the opponent unless playing at the very highest level. However, Scar mentions, trying to do the same in Street Fighter is impossible, and that learning to respect the opponent’s options and play that mental game against them is a requirement for even basic competitive play. In contrast, Melee is a game where you can do decently without having to truly “think” unless you play the best of the best.
Together, ESAM and Scar paint an interesting picture of Melee as a game where the player is almost like a force of nature that can only be stopped by colliding with an even greater force. This sense of power is visually evident whenever you watch a game of Melee, and I think this goes a long way in explaining why the game has developed such a diehard fan base. When you play Melee, you enter the realm of the
five gods, so to speak, or at least you end up feeling that way.
In a conversation about fighting games with Dave Cabrera, creator of Kawaiikochan Gaming no Corner, he brought up the idea that while combos are often perceived as something that “top players do,” in terms of game design they offer much more to mid-level players. He quoted an interview with a game designer, who basically asked, “What’s harder to do, successfully performing a complex and intricate combo, or sweeping Daigo ten times in a row?” The latter is about the most mechanically simple thing to do in a fighting game, “down + button,” but one can only achieve it against a player of Daigo’s caliber by being similarly strong. Difficult combos, on the other hand, can grant a feeling of power to even those who lack it, because they can give a sense of accomplishment that motivates players forward. There is a more clear-cut feeling of reward. Without being able to grant power to lower-level players, they very well might stop playing at all.
It would be no understatement to say that Melee and Brawl are actually very different games to their competitive communities, and yet the two games share something in common, which is how they are often perceived relative to Smash 4. Again, while Smash 4 is praised by many as a superior game to Brawl, a frequent criticism of Smash 4 from players of previous games is that the characters lack “teeth.” Even if it is a more balanced game, in the Wii U iteration character power levels (and the range of options and techniques available to players through them), are unsatisfying to some players. Of course, there are plenty of players (including myself) who love the power dynamics of Smash 4, but as I hope is clear, a satisfying level of power in games is very much a personal thing.
Not every player who seeks power does so in the same way, or to the same extent as others. For certain players, power is at its best when constantly generated, especially when the opponent is of similar make. For others, memories of even the most dire of lows can be overcome with even the briefest of highs, such as when their character controls in such a way as to make them feel vibrant and overwhelming. Power can be self-centered, ignoring the opponent almost entirely. Power can be interactive and dynamic. Like water, power is a versatile “substance” that manifests as two immense waves crashing against each other, or the ebb and flow of the tides. How we gain satisfaction from power through games depends on a lot of factors, but when it is considered insufficient, even a mechanically solid game can be perceived as lacking “soul.”