Reflecting on Character Complexity in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Things have come a long way with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, especially with the plethora of DLC characters providing some very unique play styles. However, this also makes me think back to the first couple years of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, where I used to see the game get criticized for lacking depth pretty regularly. The argument commonly went (and to some extent still goes) that the characters are too simplistically designed, thus making many of them too similar in feel and results in less interesting gameplay. While I never shared this opinion and feel that it doesn’t track with my experience, I think it gets at one of the core challenges facing any fighting game: how do you get a diverse range of players to feel like their character choice is special enough for them to keep playing? Personally, I think Ultimate succeeds in this regard, but I think those who feel otherwise are used to games that more heavily reward them and their attitudes towards improvement.

One of my favorite characters to use is Mewtwo, and it’s because I have a fondness for the character, as opposed to viewing it from a purely competitive perspective. Even so, I’ve been trying to get better at the technical aspects of Mewtwo, and I have been overwhelmed not only by how much there is to learn, but how to incorporate them all naturally into my gameplay. Whenever I’ve seen criticisms like the ones above, I’ve thought to myself, how could anyone pick up Mewtwo and claim that you can learn everything about them in a relatively short time? How could anyone claim that Mewtwo’s play style is somehow too reminiscent of other characters?

The answer is that they’re not talking about Mewtwo at all, because Mewtwo isn’t considered a great character, generally speaking. On tier lists even after all the buffs they’ve received, you’ll often see Mewtwo placed somewhere from low to mid tier, with the occasional high-tier spot with the caveat that it would only apply if Mewtwo is mastered to the fullest extent. When choosing Mewtwo from an “I want to win” perspective, the question is simply: Is it worthwhile to learn an extremely complex and difficult character if all that effort fails to net you a top-tier character? 

Adam “Keits” Heart, who worked on Killer Instinct (2013), doesn’t think so—or rather, he doesn’t believe most players who gravitate towards complex characters would be satisfied with such a deal. In the interview above, he talks about how Iron Galaxy Studios purposely strengthened or weakened characters for the overall health of the game. A character with a much higher learning curve (Aria) was made to be relatively strong to reward the players who put in the time and effort.  Another character designed to frustrate (Aganos) was made weaker in order to avoid having players quit the game after going up against him, but with the knowledge that the character would appeal to someone. According to Keits, what’s important is not balance in the traditional sense of having an equal likelihood of winning, but rather the degree to which different characters allow different personalities to shine through. In other words, diversity in competitive play happens when characters are special enough for people to want to devote themselves.

The potential problem with Ultimate, then, was that its top echelon of characters somehow wasn’t giving certain types of players the characters or gameplay they want, and this is why certain characters have sometimes been perceived as being “shallow” in design. Lucina, for example, is a fairly straightforward character, and the absolute standard for the swordsman archetype. She can do a lot, but none of it is especially fancy. She rewards good fundamentals, but players don’t necessarily want to just hone the basics; they want to win in an exciting fashion. It’s also why defensive characters like Sonic and Pac-Man who have verifiable tournament success don’t exactly attract swathes of players eager to use them. They’re complex, but not in the “proper,” i.e. “exciting” way—unless wielded by specific players (see KEN and Tea). That excitement factor is also what creates an exception of sorts to the “complex characters are only good if they’re top-tiers” rule because whether or not the complexities or quirks result in highly transformative gameplay alters how one perceives a character.

Ultimate is often compared to its prequels, and while players of Melee and Brawl consider the differences between the two to be night and day, one thing they have in common is how often veterans of both will praise the “advanced techniques” of each game. In Melee, these are mainly in the form of universal gameplay quirks like wavedashing, dash dancing, and wavelanding, which help make the gameplay fast, frenetic, and smooth. In Brawl, it’s the character-specific advanced techniques that players love. Lucas is considered to be competitively compromised because Marth can kill him from 0% off of a single chain grab due to a strange exploit. Having a weakness this severe should theoretically scare off everyone from using him, but Lucas has extremely loyal players because the character is jam-packed with unique things only he can do, like “Zap Jump.”

That still doesn’t make Lucas a top-tier. At best, he’s considered a mid-tier. In principle, this shouldn’t be all that far from Mewtwo’s situation in Ultimate, but there’s one major difference: it gives something more concrete for players to feel like they’re taking the character so far beyond the perceptions of a Day 1 Lucas that it almost feels like a different character. In a similar vein, Luigi in Melee is not considered a top-tier, but any Luigi player will tell you that one of the reasons they use him is because he has the longest wavedash in the game. He goes from having some of the worst mobility in the game to some of the best, and it fundamentally changes how the character functions.

Mewtwo can do a lot of interesting advanced things, like abruptly change directions in the middle of charging Shadow Ball (“wavebouncing”), or cancel Shadow Ball upon landing and immediately transition into other actions, but they’re still basically the same character, with the same essential stats, strengths, and weaknesses as a Day 1 Mewtwo. The advanced techniques in Ultimate, whether they’re character-specific or universal, still stay within the boundaries of the game’s perceivable possibilities. The amount of reward I get for mastering Mewtwo’s wavebounce would be maybe a 5-10% improvement to the character overall. A Luigi wavedash, in turn, is like a 50-75% boost. It’s not even close.

Ultimate is successful at capturing a huge variety of players, and what we’ve seen are mainly specific types of players who aren’t being catered to. I think what frustrates those players of Ultimate who wish they could do more is that, in contrast to Melee with its game-altering discoveries or Brawl with its character-specific techniques, playing Ultimate is at its core about working within limitations that have very clear strengths and weaknesses. Incineroar cannot magically improve his poor ground speed the way a Melee Luigi can. You can do any move out of an initial dash, but moving in that fashion leaves you vulnerable, and the only way to mitigate it is to choose not to dash. You can have a character with millions of little intricacies and lots of undiscovered potential, but it’s likely not going to instantly turn any matchups around. Players are working within the intended system as opposed to circumventing it, and Smash as a franchise is full of veteran players who came from games that allowed them to be transformative on some level, or at least rewarded them mightily should they put effort into improving. Ultimate in competitive play is still a contest of skill, cleverness, and physical dexterity, but perhaps more satisfying for those who don’t mind moving feet instead of miles.

Icons: Combat Arena and the Social Establishment of Character Archetypes

The desire to create competitive games in the vein of Smash Bros. often comes with the intent to court the existing player base for Smash Bros. Melee—the hyper-fast entry of the popular Nintendo franchise with the most storied tournament history. This is evident in the recently named Icons: Combat Arena. With its EVO 2017 gameplay trailer showing off attack animations and characters a little more than reminiscent of Smash Bros., the comparisons are more than inevitable. One of the consequences of this courtship is that, not only is the intended character roster inspired by high-level Melee play, but there is also a clear assumption from the creators of Icons that how the strongest characters have emerged from within Melee‘s environment have shaped the very foundation of the genre of the platform fighter subgenre.

The name of the studio behind Icons, Wavedash games, is by itself sufficient evidence for the team’s reverence for Smash and Melee. It’s named after the most well-known of the “hidden techniques” of Melee. The developers have even released videos over the past year detailing their design philosophy and inspirations. However, the fact that the Melee top tier is virtually replicated in the Icons roster revealed thus far is the biggest indicator of Melee‘s influence.

Take, for example, the character known as Kidd, an anthropomorphic goat character who’s also an homage to Joseph “Mang0” Marquez. One of the “five gods” of Melee, Mang0’s nicknames include “The Kid” and “The GOAT” (in reference to his numerous achievements). According to the creators themselves, Kidd is purposely patterned after the characters Fox and Falco from Star Fox, two of the top tiers. More than simply taking cues from these two, Icons considers the “space animal” to be a mainstay character archetype for platform fighters, the way that the “shoto” (a balanced character with fireball, anti-air uppercut, and horizontal movement special move) or the “grappler” are in traditional fighting games.

The positioning of the space animal as an archetype is very telling because, while there are shared qualities between Fox and Falco (the latter being a “clone” built directly from the template of the former), what really defines the significance of “spacies” to the platform fighter is their dominance in Melee and the reputation of superiority that precedes them. No character embodies competitive Melee more than Fox—his speed, incredibly good tools, difficult technical requirements, and overall role as “master of all trades” helps to define that high-pace action Melee is famous for. In other words, the reason the space animal is an archetype is because they’re so absurdly strong in that environment, a notion which extends to many of their archetypes listed by Wavedash Games in one their development vlogs:

The eight archetypes are: space animal, swordsman, speedy brawler, floaty, duo, projectile master, alternate weapon, and grappler. Of these, the first four can be found directly in Melee‘s upper echelons. The fifth, the projectile master, is arguably best seen with Solid Snake in Smash Bros. Brawl.

From 1 through 8: Space Animal, Space Animal, Swordsman, Speedy Brawler, Floaty, Floaty, Duo, Speedy Brawler

To be clear, this is not accusing Wavedash Games of lacking creativity. While certain attacks shown so far are quite obviously taking cues from Smash Bros. and especially Melee, there’s also a clear intent to innovate. Ashani the speedy brawler is supposed to be “30% familiar, 70% new.” Even so, Ashani is clearly assembled from the building blocks of Captain Falcon in Melee. This makes sense, given that Captain Falcon is arguably the most beloved Melee character due to his flashy, up-close combos, and the fact that he’s good, but not so overwhelming as to be stigmatized for it. Another Icons character, Zhurong, is a sword wielder clearly modeled after Marth (another Melee top tier).

If not for how competitive Melee turned out, it’s highly likely any of these categories wouldn’t even be thought of as archetypes in the first place.

That might seem like an obvious point. After all, why wouldn’t a genre grow based on the successes of past releases? However, I still think there’s a vital difference between how Icons defines its archetypes and how other games, including other competitive ones, have gone about it.

Look at Street Fighter, for instance. In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, the Spanish ninja known as Vega/Balrog/Claw is one of the best characters while also possessing a unique fighting style. Yet later fighting games inspired by Street Fighter didn’t consider “Claw” to be a foundational character style. They were more likely to go with archetypes that, while based on Street Fighter‘s success, aren’t necessarily based on tier lists—the Zangief-esque grappler, for example, fluctuates up and down the tier lists from one game to the next, and wasn’t especially strong in Street Fighter II. At this point in Icons, there seems to be no indication of a “Mewtwo”-esque character, possibly because Mewtwo is a low tier in Melee.

The archetypes established for Icons: Combat Arena do not come from the success of Smash Bros. and especially Melee as competitively viable games alone. They also derive from the collective Melee community’s perception of what is assumed or expected of a game that is trying to exist within not just the same world, but practically on the same city block. If Melee didn’t have the space animal or the swordsman, its history would’ve been far different, but the lopsidedness of its tier list also means that many of the characters who could’ve been archetypes are perceived as otherwise due to their ineffectiveness. For a competitive scene so firmly built on the top being home to only a handful of characters, it is arguably the best way for Icons to say, “I am familiar territory, don’t be afraid to try me.”

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Godhood is Fleeting: Power in Video Games and Super Smash Bros.

Fire_Mario_Artwork_-_New_Super_Mario_Bros

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 Brosfor 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.

Will Power

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.

Desiring Power

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.

Conclusion

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.”

Smash Bros. and Games as Physical vs. Mental Competitions

Note: As is evidenced by some of my recent posts, I’ve been quite into the new Super Smash Bros. as of late, and have been participating in online discussions more because of it. Rather than keeping those posts in forums or on other sites, however, I’ve decided to also include them here as “supplemental” blog posts.

Taken from Smashboards:

I’m not competitive on the level of anyone in this discussion thread, but I wanted to post in here just because the direction of this conversation is one that I’ve seen fought a million times over in multiple competitive gaming communities. I’m not a game designer so I can’t say firsthand what works and what doesn’t, but what I mainly want to say is that it’s very easy to take a firm position on how competitive games “should be” but it risks inadvertently accusing others of making or even playing games “incorrectly.”

Sirlin usually comes up in these arguments because of his emphasis on yomi and how polarizing it can be. To simplify Sirlin for a bit, he believes that execution barriers are the devil and if we could all play with purely our thoughts and intentions games would be much better. Essentially, Sirlin wants games to answer the question, who is the superior thinker? It makes sense, but mainly if you see games as “brains over brawn.”A number of years back Sirlin took a class on Starcraft Brood War that was being given at a university, and from his perspective one of the issues with Brood War is how tedious the game is in terms of things you have to click to even play the game at a remotely decent level. I can’t remember the exact words, but he basically suggested something like a maximum cap to APM so that who presses buttons faster wouldn’t be a measure of skill. Instead, it would be about using your actions wisely instead of simply some people getting more opportunities than others. Naturally, the Brood War community disagreed. It loved the idea of APM as an execution barrier, or more specifically the combination of speed and precision needed to use it effectively. It separated chumps from champs, and when a great player is able to build his army so perfectly because he never misses a beat in his production cycles, it’s viewed as a thing of beauty.

We’ve heard it over and over again that fun is subjective. It’s the rebuttal that competitive Smash players use against the argument that they’re playing the game wrong because they don’t embrace the free for all chaos that Smash advertises itself as. It applies here too: different people get satisfaction out of games differently, and this includes competitive gaming as well. In other words, while Sirlin views games as a domain of the mind, some people like the idea of being able to defeat brains with brawn even in games. They like the idea that they can train up their “muscles”, and that, by being bigger, faster, and stronger too, even the most brilliant tactical mind in the world wouldn’t be able to keep up.

For some, mastering a frame-perfect 50-hit combo in an anime fighter sounds like the most tedious thing ever. You sit around, committing things to muscle memory, hardly a showing of your mental skill. However, for others, improving your ability to read the player and to think more critically in a match is too abstract a reward. Others still might believe that the true test of skill comes from managing luck and taking advantage of uncertainty, as in games like mahjong or Texas Hold ’em. Depending on where you fall between those two extremes, different games appeal to different people because of what they believe “competition” means. Bobby Fischer famously promoted a version of chess where starting positions were randomized because he believed that chess was becoming too reliant on memorizing openings, but it didn’t stick because, most likely, people on some level liked being able to improve by having superior memorization compared to their opponents (inertia from years and years of tradition was probably a factor as well).

I think the implicit disagreement as to how games should be competitive is what creates such tension within Smash Bros. itself. You have this massive clash of philosophies within a single franchise, and even within a single game. Putting aside the fact that Melee is more mechanically difficult than Smash 4 (as far as we know), and that this has created some dissatisfaction for players who believe the Melee way is the best, even Smash 4 itself has different philosophies behind its characters which can cater to different people’s idea of “competitive fun.” We’ve seen the argument that Sonic’s gameplay is degenerative because it forces the opponent to have to guess where he’s going to be and throw out moves in the hopes of catching Sonic, but there are people who love the idea of games as gambles, of having to shoot into the darkness because there’s a thrill in being able to more effectively navigate uncertainty. This isn’t to deny the frustration fighting Sonic can create, nor is it an argument that Sonic or any other character is balanced or imbalanced. Rather, it’s about the fact that different characters in Smash end up embodying different concepts of competitive play, and when they clash there’s always the chance that arguments of a character being bad for gameplay for being too simple or complex or whatever. It’s important to think beyond our own conception of competitive fun and to be able to see from the perspective of others.

Approaching Smash Bros. Games on Their Own Terms

Over on the Smash Bros. subreddit a poster by the name of Revven made a post advising people not to go into the upcoming Smash Bros. games hoping to find the key aspect that makes it more like Melee (the competitive gold standard of the franchise) but to approach it on its own terms.

In order to help people understanding this point, I wrote up an analogy that’s turned out to be pretty effective, so I’m posting it here for posterity.

Imagine that Melee is pizza. People love it, it’s got all of this flavor and depth.

Then Brawl comes out and it’s chicken soup.

Obviously, a lot of people would prefer pizza over chicken soup, but then you hear some of the complaints: “What the hell is this? This tastes all wrong!” people declare. “I’m trying to pick up a slice but my hands just get all wet, and I try to eat it with a fork but I barely get anything!”

But there are people who are eager to “prove” that chicken soup is fine, and all it takes is finding and adding the right key ingredients. “Hey, it might be chicken soup now, but if we add some mozzarella and some tomato sauce, you’ll see that it’s great!” No matter what they do, though, it just doesn’t taste like pizza, it doesn’t feel like pizza, and people are disappointed in it even more.

In the end, it’s not wrong to like pizza more than chicken soup, and it might even be possible argue that pizza is a superior food in general. Hell, maybe Brawl wasn’t even a particularly good chicken soup and was just soup in a can. However, because people were unable to see or accept the fact that chicken soup isn’t pizza, they also failed to approach it on its own terms. Instead of trying to add the right seasoning that would match the flavor profile of chicken soup or using a spoon, all they had were hands dripping with broth, and a look of dissatisfaction.