What’s in a List? Thoughts on the Smash 4 Backroom Tier List v3

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Recently, the granddaddy of all competitive Super Smash Bros. sites, Smashboards, released their third Smash 4 tier list. The significance of this version is that it’s the first tier list that did not come in the middle of patches or DLC, so it provides our first big look at the status of Smash 4 in a stable environment.

Overall, I have no major qualms with the tier list, and my go-to characters—Mewtwo and Mega Man—are right where I think they should be. Some characters might be a little too high or a little too low, but I don’t have any horses in that race. However, I’d like to talk about two topics: theory vs. results, and the most controversial characters among the tier list voters.

Theory vs. Results

One of the frequent struggles when it comes to bringing together tier lists is the balance between theory and results. A character can look great on paper, but actually using them and winning with them is another matter entirely. On the flip side, even if a character is winning consistently versus everyone else, this could be simply due to a gap in knowledge.

For likely a multitude of reasons, the Smash 4 community at large seems to have a hard time marrying theory with results to the extent of other fighting games. For example, the tier list above has Bayonetta at #1, but it wasn’t long after the list was announced that people were commenting that the results don’t support the position. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily wrong, but always get the impression when looking at and joining in on discussions about character viability that people either overshoot or undersell the influence of a character’s theory with respect to what they’re capable of.

Some of the reasons I think it’s hard for Smashers to get the right balance of theory and results are as follows.

  • The game is full of Nintendo icons, so there’s often the desire to argue in favor of your beloved character
  • As a result of the above, players will often theorycraft from a biased perspective. This is difficult to avoid, and is not inherently bad because of how it can motivate people, but leads to a lot of broad leaps and assumptions.
  • People become distrustful of theorycrafting and instead lean towards results, which have defined parameters (wins, losses, championships).

This leads to people taking extreme stances about the importance of results vs. theory, where one is touted as significantly more important than the other. However, I believe that the ideal tier list is one that uses results to theorize further beyond what results currently show us. They should be less a snapshot of what the actual current metagame is like, and more an image of what we think the game will become given the information we have.

Disagreements on Character Viability

In the Smashboards post about the tier list, it’s possible to order the tier list in order to see which characters garnered the most disagreement in terms of placement. The top 5 (not counting Miis) are Samus, Bowser Jr., Pac-Man, Olimar, and Wario. According to the tier list, these characters are supposedly mid-tier at best, but it’s still worth noting that there were some who thought highly of them nevertheless.

One of the reasons for this might just be that the voters come from all over the world. Different regions are known for having strong players for characters that one might not find elsewhere. For example, Duck Hunt was considered a pretty bad character until three Japanese Duck Hunts made their way to the US and took some big names. In the case of the five characters above, Olimar is a major influence in California, Florida, New York, and especially Japan; the ranked fourth best Japanese player in their region is an Olimar named Shuton. Similarly, Wario is a major presence in Europe thanks to France’s Glutonny, with a lesser but still significant mark being made by Wario player TheReflexWonder.

Pac-Man and Bowser Jr. have been on a progressive downward slide because their most prominent players, Abadango from Japan and Tweek from New Jersey respectively, have long since put them on the backburner. I believe that there must still be those holding out hope that Pac and BowJow have what it takes to cause the occasional upset (and they still do sometimes!).

Samus is the major enigma. She has never been considered strong in Smash 4, especially compared to her armor-less counterpart, but even after a number of significant buffs she received through patches there’s still not the sense that she’s any good. And yet, enough players voted her as being at least mid-tier that there has to be some strong belief in her potential. I think what causes such disagreement as to her character is that her toolkit is actually very diverse and her physical properties all appear to be strong but dysfunctional, and how much a player can overcome that dysfunction (as they have with Shulk) remains to be seen.

The Future!

Early Smash 4 was an interesting beast because of how, for once, swordsmen weren’t dominant. This meant characters with lesser range could thrive. This has changed dramatically with the rise of Marth and the advent of Cloud (pun intended). Will there be another major shift, even without balance patches? I look forward to seeing players push their characters to their limits.

 

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Three-Card Monte: A Melee vs. Smash 4 Analogy

When reading comments from devoted fans of Super Smash Bros. Melee, certain aspects touted as strengths are things I can appreciate as well. Just like theme, I can enjoy the dexterity, devotion, game sense, and speed required to compete in high-level Melee. However, what I find complicates matters is that elements of the game that would be normally be considered a matter of taste are argued as “objective strengths” by its most ardent supporters.

As a result, I’ve wondered why Melee fans love their game to this extent, and why it might appear to them be strictly better to the extent that such a view would be presumed to be “unbiased.” Why do some argue that a game like Smash 4, with a slower-paced neutral but a higher emphasis on more traditional “footsies,” is a disappointment? Why is the idea that a game that emphasizes reads above all else, especially physical skill, is argued to be a simpler and thus less competitive endeavor?

There are two key points that I see come up repeatedly. First is the idea that, because Melee has fewer neutral interactions per game than its sequels, Smash Bros. Brawl and Smash Bros. for Wii U, this means each neutral interaction matters more. When it’s pointed out that having more resets to neutral means having to predict the opponent more often, this is considered a knock against other games because their neutrals are “less complex.” This then extends to everything else. The punish game is deeper because it has some sort of goldilocks level of just enough control on the part of the opponent being combo’d, but not so much that they can reset to neutral easily. In short, arguments in favor of Melee often come down to the idea the game has more to do at any given moment and is faster, and is therefore better.

After some thinking, an analogy occurred to me. Imagine that you’re playing two different games of “guess the right card.” The first one is Three-Card Monte. The dealer shows you the three cards in advance, tells you that you get to play five times, and your goal is to find the ace of spades. Then the dealer starts to move the cards around, shuffling them and employing various forms of sleight of hand to trick you into picking the wrong one.

In the second version of the game, the dealer simply presents you with three cards face down, and again, you have to find the ace of spades. No shuffling, no movement, just “you have a one in three chance of guessing the right card.” However, instead of playing only five times, you get to play 20 times.

In the case of the first example, Three-Card Monte, the fact that there is a process by which the player is allowed to observe the dealer rearrange his card implies that, if a player is observant enough, they can completely circumvent the need to guess. If their eyes can correctly follow the movement of the ace of spades, even through all the tricks, then they will win 100% of the time. Though trying to figure out the dealer’s decision-making quirks can help, and if you’re not fast enough then the game pretty much becomes somewhat “random,” there is a kind of physical/technical ideal that a player can potentially reach that guarantees a path to a right answer. This, I think, is the appeal of Smash Bros. Melee to many of its diehard fans. That is not to say that it requires no thinking or prediction, but the possibility that one can always pick the right choice if one is fast enough and sharp enough, makes it feel like the sky’s the limit when it comes to competition.

This is where I think many Melee fans start to lose sight as to how “simpler” games can go about still prioritizing certain factors that a game that “has everything” might not necessarily be able to achieve. Going back to the second example, the “face-down, guess the card” version, it can appear as if the game just has less to do. After all, the “only” thing you’re doing is making 1-in-3 guesses, and there are no extra layers of interaction such as trying to see through the dealer’s chicanery. But the fact that there is no upper ideal of being able to see “through the game” means something. Even if there are fewer avenues for improvement, the very fact that your ability to dissect the dealer’s decision-making based on past turns changes the dynamic of what skills and abilities are prioritized by the game, especially when one is given more chances to win. With 20 tries instead of five, the player must rely on their ability to pick up on any tendencies the dealer might possess. They also must understand that, no matter how far they’ve read into the dealer’s mind, there’s also a chance they might be wrong. In other words, your main tools are the ability to make reads, and your ability to make decisions even knowing that in some cases you will inevitably be wrong.

This isn’t to say that the Three-Card Monte approach is bad, or that it isn’t something games should strive for (if they choose to go in that direction). Neither Melee nor Smash 4 actually fall into the two extremes listed above. Both games require some degree of physical skill, and both require at least a certain amount of getting into the opponent’s head. Because Melee has that Three-Card Monte appeal, where a sense of uncertainty in one’s decisions can be washed away with enough technical prowess (at least up to a certain point), it encourages the active building of physical skill that can make training feel more directly rewarding. In the end, it’s not a matter of which game has “more”, but rather how the values of gameplay and competition emphasized in each game attract players differently.

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

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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.”