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.

Sarah Kerrigan (Starcraft) for Super Smash Bros.

As E3 and the next Nintendo Direct get closer, I find that I want to see two things in Super Smash Bros.: even more villainous characters like Sephiroth and a representative of the influential real-time strategy genre. I’m attracted to the idea that Smash Bros. is a celebration of video game history, albeit one intentionally skewed towards Nintendo. The inclusion of Starcraft would not only bring in another country/demographic (older South Koreans who grew up with the game), but would implicitly call upon the game franchise as one of the biggest esports phenomenons of all time. League of Legends might have been the current big thing in Korea over the past ten years, but Starcraft is a foundational Korean esport.

Symbolizing All Three Starcraft Races

Much like Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there are three in-game playable factions in Starcraft, and it can be difficult to think of a character in Smash who can represent them all, and there really isn’t a primary “player character” like Three Houses’ Byleth. Jim Raynor is basically the protagonist of the Terran campaigns, and there are numerous Protoss characters who make significant impacts—Tassadar, Zeratul, Artanis—but I think it’s Sarah Kerrigan who would be best for Smash because she possesses elements of all three races.

Kerrigan begins Starcraft as a Terran before being captured by the Zerg and transformed with both Zerg attributes and Protoss-esque psychic abilities. It would be most plausible for her to incorporate attributes from each race into her attacks, such as non-permanent Cloaking from the Terrans, Psionic Storm from the Protoss, and Burrowing from the Zerg.

RTS Gameplay Mechanics

But if you’re going to have a Starcraft representative, it would be great if the character could incorporate aspects of the real-time strategy genre, and I could see Smash doing something really creative. Perhaps you could have the ability to summon different types of Zerg units to accompany you Luma-style depending on certain conditions met. Perhaps it could be like how Villager plants trees, except Kerrigan could spawn a single Hatchery which produces Zerglings. Maybe she could also induce it to upgrade into a Lair and then a Hive, allowing for stronger and stronger units, e.g. Mutalisks and Ultralisks. It might be overly complicated this way, but that also feels in line with the Starcraft spirit. Like Villager’s Tree, Hatcheries would be vulnerable to damage and could be eliminated. Essentially, think Jack-O’ from Guilty Gear Xrd, but with the amount of room to maneuver that a platform fighter provides.

If there was a way to give an advantage to players with high APM, that would also be true to the RTS genre, but that might be a little excessive.

While the intense demand of the original Starcraft games on players to excel can be somewhat incongruous with Smash, I think there could be a happy middle ground. Kerrigan (or any Starcraft character) would have both the gameplay potential and the notoriety to make Smash Bros. proud. 

Goro (Mortal Kombat) for Super Smash Bros.

In discussions of Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters, the question is often “what character do you want?” rather than “what kind of character do you want?” But pro Ultimate player Tweek has professed on his podcast his desire to see a genuine heavy-style character to be one of the last two DLC characters—someone who embodies, in his words,  the “heavy lifestyle.”

It is true that we haven’t seen any Bowser-esque characters among any Smash DLC since even Smash 4, and so I started to think about who would fit well while still bringing something to the table in terms of significance and/or interesting gameplay. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Goro from Mortal Kombat would be a great idea for a heavy DLC character. While 2D fighting games have their fair share of representatives now (between Ryu, Ken, and Terry Bogard), I think Goro gives us a new villain character (though arguably more of a tweener like Mewtwo) who represents another long-standing series with cultural influence.

I haven’t played any Mortal Kombat games for the past…twenty years…so I’m not terribly familiar with how Goro’s play style has changed or evolved as the games themselves have gone through multiple directions. But the image of Goro is ever-present as a big, nasty, four-armed bruiser who can grab you with two hands and pummel you with the other two. He can shoot fireballs, leap high into the air and land with a stomp (perfect for a Smash-style recovery move), and just has an imposing aura that would bring a lot of personality. I feel like I can easily picture Goro’s gameplay in my mind, and it looks cool: you think you can escape him, but his surprising speed and even his powerful projectile would make it feel like you only run for so long.

In terms of appearance, I think it’d be awesome if Goro’s original stop-motion, clay-model aesthetic could be maintained for his entry into Smash. It would make him visually pop in a way no other character does. That said, I’d understand if they went for something more current-looking, as that’s the direction Mortal Kombat has gone in general. With eight costumes per character, both could be possible, but I still wonder which would be the default. My preference would be old-school.

There’s also the question of Mortal Kombat’s signature selling point: blood-and-guts gore. That simply would not pass muster in Smash, but I think Goro could still make it through intact. He can come across as hyper-violent and nasty, but I think that could be conveyed without needing to portray actual viscera flying and bone-breaking attacks. Fatalities would still be a must, but they’d be more exaggerated and extreme than brutal. 

I have no close attachment to Goro as a character, but I just think he would successfully capture the “heavy character” feel in a way few others could, while also fitting well into Smash Bros. gameplay. And i mean, don’t you want someone to say “EXCELLENT” every time he uppercuts his opponents?

How Incineroar in Smash Bros. Embodies Japanese Pro Wrestling

Incineroar is one of my favorite characters to play in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. He’s the first truly traditional grappler character in the franchise, and his entire moveset directly reflects the Pokémon’s pro wrestling background. However, what I think is really fascinating about Incineroar’s implementation in Smash is that the character draws most directly from an old-school Japanese professional wrestling aesthetic and history.

To start off, a major part of Incineroar’s Japan-inspired wrestling design is a part of its identity as a Pokémon. It clearly takes a lot of influence from the beloved fictional wrestling character turned actual flesh-and-blood wrestler Tiger Mask—both are cat-themed athletes who are ostensibly heels but have a soft spot for children. But if you take a look at the relative strength of Incineroar’s attacks, you’ll find that it’s based on Japan’s cultural understanding of pro wrestling.

Incineroar’s forward smash is an Enzuigiri, and it has immense damage and KO potential. To a viewer mainly familiar with American promotions, the Enzuigiri is mostly used as a transitional move to something stronger or a counter to an opponent’s offense. However, the technique has a greater legacy in Japan, where it is the finisher of Antonio Inoki, one of the three most famous Japanese wrestlers of all time. Inoki is a legend as both a champion and the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and was even used as the model for the character Fighter Hayabusa in the NES game Pro Wrestling, where the Enzuigiri is known as the “Back Brain Kick.”

If you look at what Incineroar can do off a grab, you’ll find a similar phenomenon. Of the character’s four basic throws, the deadliest one is the German Suplex. Again, you have a move that, outside of Japan, is seen as kind of generic; maybe at most, people might associate it with Kurt Angle or Brock Lesnar. But the German Suplex is also the defining hold of Karl Gotch, the man known as the “god of wrestling” in Japan. Gotch had an enormous influence on the Japanese pro wrestling style, and even today whenever a wrestler pulls off a German Suplex in Japan, it’s seen as a big deal that can potentially end a match right then and there.

Another powerful throw Incineroar uses is the Argentine Backbreaker. While this move is seen in the US as more impactful than the Enzuigiri or German Suplex thanks to wrestlers like Lex Luger and the man who originally popularized it, Antonino Rocca, its footprint is even more prevalent in Japan. Not only did Rocca wrestle in Japan later in his career and is possibly the namesake of Antonio Inoki, but the Argentine Backbreaker also gained notoriety in the pages of the manga Kinnikuman. There, the character Robin Mask (a wrestler dressed like an English knight) uses it as a finishing move, calling it the Tower Bridge. Moreover, it’s clear that at least Sakurai Masahiro (the director of the Smash Bros. franchise) knows Kinnikuman: he posted to Twitter an image of Smash characters mimicking the Muscle Docking technique from the series:

Moving on, Incineroar’s best attack is arguably its side special, the Alolan Whip. While the name itself is a parody of the Irish Whip, the more important part is the follow-up: a vicious Lariat. 

One of the most famous American wrestlers to ever entertain fans in Japan is Stan Hansen, whose Western Lariat became downright iconic everywhere he fought. On the Japanese Wikipedia page for “Lariat,” the history section literally begins with a mention of Hansen, and in current times, the Japanese wrestler Okada Kazuchika is famed for his “Rainmaker” Lariat. Incidentally, Incineroar also has another related move taken from the Pokémon games—Darkest Lariat—but that’s closer to Zangief from Street Fighter II’s Double Lariat.

Generally speaking, I find that pro wrestling has a lot more of a longstanding influence on Japanese pop culture than it does American pop culture, despite the fact that pro wrestling as we know it has its origins in the United States. Even today, manga and anime wholly unrelated to wrestling or hand-to-hand combat (like Laid-Back Camp) will throw in a few references, as if to assume a common understanding among readers. So while having a wrestling cat for a Pokémon is not altogether that unusual regardless of culture, I find the execution of such a concept in Smash Bros. Ultimate to be very reflective of that enduring legacy. The fact that Incineroar so embodies the values of Japanese pro wrestling makes it all the more fun to play, win or lose.

Aesthetic and Gameplay Thoughts on Pyra and Mythra in Smash Ultimate

The newest DLC characters for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate are Pyra and Mythra (also known as Homura and Hikari in Japanese) from Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I’ve never played any Xenoblade games (or, for that matter, any games beginning with the prefix “Xeno”), so my impressions of these two characters are purely from an aesthetic and Smash gameplay standpoint.

Aesthetics

In terms of visual designs, Pyra and Mythra are probably the most “anime” of all characters thus far in the Smash Bros. franchise. Now, I fully understand that anime as a style is extremely diverse and that saying something is “anime” doesn’t reveal much on its own. Here, however, what I specifically mean is that their aesthetic is the kind that appeals to otaku primarily in the same vein that something like BlazBlue does—and at the possible expense of appealing to a wider and unfamiliar audience. 

Speaking personally as someone who devotes numerous hours per week to anime and manga, I don’t mind their look, but I fully understand why others would turn their noses at these two. There’s no mystery that these designs are pretty thirsty, and that they traffic heavily in anime tropes. If you listen to the Japanese in the video “Mr. Sakurai Presents Pyra/Mythra,” the Smash Bros. series director summarizes their respective demeanors as dere and tsun—what the official subtitles translate as “sweet” and “headstrong.” 

Ultimate also gives the ability to listen to the characters’ voices in Japanese and English, and the differences in performance have convinced me that there’s an aspect of many Japanese characters that gets lost between characters. Namely, when performing special attacks, I think the differences in Pyra’s and Mythra’s personalities aren’t as prominent in English as they are in Japanese. There’s a certain lack of aggressiveness I sense in Pyra even in her more passionate lines in Japanese that isn’t quite there in English.

Gameplay

Much like Zelda and Sheik prior to Super Smash Bros. for 3DS & Wii, Pyra and Mythra are two characters in one, with players being able to swap between the two of them as a special move. The basic breakdown (as explained by series director Sakurai) is that Pyra has power and Mythra has speed, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how fast Mythra is. 

Just moving around with Mythra reminds me of my earliest days playing Super Smash Bros. Melee and trying out Fox McCloud. Throughout the Smash Bros. franchise, Fox is known for being extremely nimble on the ground, and also dropping like a rock when falling. It’s not uncommon for new players unfamiliar with Fox to just fall off accidentally and die. Mythra sports a similar combination along with a somewhat limited ability to get back to the stage that makes self-destructs likely, and in a game like Ultimate where recoveries are generally strong, it’s quite a glaring weakness. 

That being said, Mythra by herself easily feels like one of the best characters in the game because that level of agility never goes out of style in Smash. She’s fast on the ground, fast in the air, and she has attacks that either start up quickly or cover a lot of space instantly. Her side special, Photon Edge, reminds me a bit of Sonic’s game plan in general. If you’re caught slacking from even half a stage away, Mythra can punish even an empty hop—the drawback being that some of her more damaging attacks like Photon Edge are easy to punish themselves.

In contrast, Pyra is markedly slower in every way and her recovery is even worse, but her reach and kill power easily outdo Mythra’s. Traditionally, Smash has favored speed over strength, and that’s still likely the case here, but Pyra’s ability to net KOs is actually kind of frightening. Many of her attacks are actually relatively fast for how early they can take stocks, and her superior reach compared to Mythra means that you can mess up an opponent’s spacing and neutral by switching between the two characters. Playing against Pyra, there were many occasions where I assumed I was at a safe distance, only to get forward smashed and lose the game. So while Pyra is likely the weaker of the two, her upsides complement Mythra quite well and actually appear to shore up each others’ flaws, unlike how Sheik is far and away a better character in Melee and Brawl to the point that Zelda only ever comes out in extremely niche situations.

Given the inherently advantageous properties of Mythra combined with having Pyra as a wild card, I feel like the chances of this character being top tier are very high. There’s just so much they have that classically works well in Smash that it’s hard to imagine them having any weaknesses that could truly limit them.

Overall

I don’t know Pyra and Mythra, but I think they’re welcome additions to Smash Bros. Their characters don’t bring any wild or unorthodox new mechanics to the table, but they ooze personality in everything they do. While I’m expecting the two of them to be very popular competitively, and I suspect that there might be a backlash against them coming,I think it’s a good idea to enjoy the ride for now, whether you’re a fan of them already or you’re just discovering them for the first time.

Sun Guts: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for March 2021

Here we are: roughly a year since coronavirus basically forced the world to change course. I seriously could not have imagined all that has happened since, and it feels like ten years have passed in the span of one. I’m losing my grip on time a bit, but this makes me wonder if doing these monthly blog updates actually helps in some way. I can see the days and weeks go by.

In happier news, the Blocker Corps IV Machine Blaster crowdfund to digitally archive the series was successful! I talked about it in a post to drum up support, and it actually didn’t make it until literally the 11th hour by crossing the finish line with only 11 minutes left in the all-or-nothing campaign. It’s not going to be on anyone’s list of best anime ever, but knowing I helped to keep an anime alive makes me feel good.

After all, I know what it’s like to have the support of others. Thank you to March’s Patreon sponsors:

General:

Ko Ransom

Diogo Prado

Alex

Sue Hopkins fans:

Serxeid

Hato Kenjirou fans:

Elizabeth

Yajima Mirei fans:

Machi-Kurada

Blog highlights from February:

God Mars and the Legacy of BL Fan Shipping

A look at the giant robot anime that is foundational to the fujoshi fandom in Japan. Gundam Wing before Gundam Wing, you might say.

That’s Ruff, Buddy—Nichijou: My Ordinary Life

My long overdue review of one of the funniest manga ever.

Otakon Needs Our Help

My favorite anime convention might not survive another year due to the Coronavirus. Consider supporting them!

Hashikko Ensemble

Chapter 37 has the most intense musical performance yet.

Closing

The 2021 New York International Children’s Film Festival starts this Friday! Unlike previous years, it’s a virtual festival this time around, and the $40 two-week all-acesss pass is an incredibly good deal. If you live in the US, it might be worth checking out.

Also, how about that Pyra and Mythra in Smash Bros. Ultimate, huh? I’m thinking about writing something in regards to fanservice in character designs, hopefully providing a nuanced perspective.

Stay safe, get vaccinated. I wish you good health.

Epsilon-Eagle (Alien Soldier) for Super Smash Bros.

Today’s a Nintendo Direct, so why not get excited with some Smash Bros. Ultimate character speculation?!

Treasure is a great video company that has a reputation for making games that cater to a more hardcore audience looking for difficult yet rewarding gameplay. As fond as I am of Treasure, however, I only recently got to learn about what is arguably their most difficult title ever: Alien Soldier. A largely one-man labor of love, it’s basically a gigantic boss rush, and as someone who adores boss fights, it’s in many ways the perfect game for me. It’s also mindbendingly unforgiving on a level that is all but unmatched—a combination of difficult controls and giant enemies designed to exploit the awkwardness that results from cumbersome movement. It’s fun, but cruel.

The peculiar nature of Alien Soldier’s gameplay kind of reminds me of the precision required to play Smash Bros. Melee at a high level. That thought then led to the obvious one: what if Epsilon-Eagle, the protagonist of Alien Soldier, was in a Smash Bros. game? Granted, there’s nothing that would automatically make him more deserving than even other Treasure heroes like Red and Blue from Gunstar Heroes, Marina Liteyears in Mischief Makers, or Serena in Guardian Heroes—except maybe that hardcore legend status. Still, I want to entertain the notion.

The key thing about translating Epison-Eagle to Smash Bros. is that the character’s game philosophy stands in philosophical opposition to the Kirby franchise. Where Kirby is all about gentle, beginner-friendly learning curves, Alien Soldier is punishing to the unfamiliar. Everything about controlling Epsilon-Eagle is supposed to feel like a chore at first. He should have awkward acceleration while running, jumps that are kind of a pain in the ass for the user, and weapons that both have limited ammo and get worse the more you use them. He should also be feared at low percents thanks to the ridiculous might of Phoenix Force.

In Alien Soldier, Phoenix Force is an extremely powerful dashing attack that does a ton of damage, is invincible, and hurts the user. In Smash, it would be like a combination of Charizard’s Flare Blitz and Banjo-Kazooie’s Wonderwing on steroids, albeit with an even more serious downside than Wonderwing’s limited ammo. Much like Link’s sword projectile, Phoenix Force would only be available when Epsilon-Eagle is under a certain amount of damage (let’s say 0-25%). The recoil from Phoenix Force would itself inflict 26% damage on the user (while dealing 50% to the opponent), meaning that unless you heal, there’s no way to use it again.

The catch here is that Epsilon-Eagle would be the only character in Smash who can heal by parrying attacks, somewhat akin to a “Just Defend” from Garou: Mark of the Wolves. In Alien Soldier, there is a move called “Counter-Force” that effectively acts as a parry, but which also creates health drops to collect. In Smash, having parry bring down the damage percentage would be a rough replication of that. It also makes the character good at dealing with projectiles (aside from Epsilon-Eagle also being a ranged character) and overly safe and predictable gameplay, as you wouldn’t want to accidentally give him back enough health to gain access to Phoenix Force.

In terms of special moves, Phoenix Force would be the side-special. While it’s executed as “down + jump” in Alien Eagle, I think it would be okay to at least give players the luxury of more intuitive directional controls. When Phoenix Force isn’t usable, the attack would simply be Zero Teleport, a horizontally traveling no-damage invincible dash reminiscent of Fox Illusion mixed with a bit of Pichu’s Agility. While it would indeed be impossible to hit, it would also travel the exact same distance and direction every time, limiting how much it can be abused. 

Neutral special would be Shot, i.e. firing your currently selected projectile weapon (Buster Force, Flame Force, Lancer Force, etc). Up-special would be Hover, which like in Alien Soldier, freezes you in place in the air. In Smash, it would be more for temporary midair stalling to mess with the opponent’s timing, but this would also mean Epsilon-Eagle’s recovery is highly reliant on Zero Teleport. Down-special would be Weapon Select, and much like Min Min’s Arms Change would cycle through different projectiles to use for the neutral special. Special + Shield would switch him between stationary shooting and running-and-gunning modes, giving him the ability to do both a moving shot a la Mega Man/Min Min or the ability to change direction of fire while standing still, but not both at the same time. It’s another intentional execution barrier in Alien Solder, and it would be here as well.

As for normal attacks and throws, they would have to be mostly made up from whole cloth, with a few perhaps utilizing ammo, akin to how Robin’s can deplete his Wind or Fire tomes depending on what version of jab he throws out. Something cool and spacey would be nice, but the important thing would be to not have him utterly hosed by reflectors. 

A character like Epsilon-Eagle should probably be high-tier or top-tier to justify his absurdity, but having someone so finicky could likely land him in mid-tier or worse. Moreover, the sheer strength of Phoenix Force would be tricky to balance, as even the slightest tweaks to it could result in a busted and aggravating character to use or fight against (or both at the same time!). Even so, wouldn’t it be amazing to see Epsilon-Eagle be up two stocks through clever gameplay, and then devastate the opponent’s last stock with a well-timed Phoenix Force? 

Smash Bros. and the Concept of Restrictive Consequences

When two games are of the same franchise, comparisons are inevitable, as is the case with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Super Smash Bros. Melee. Between Ultimate being the hottest new thing and in many ways the peak of Smash’s video game crossover premise, and Melee being the game that has stood the test of time after 20 years, the two understandably act as points of reference to each other. But one thing that has frustrated me when seeing people bring up the differences between Melee and Ultimate in terms of high-level competitive play is that there’s often a tacit assumption about Melee’s qualities being inherently better for the platform fighters. What’s worse is that Ultimate fans rarely come to the kind of spirited defense that Melee fans are willing to bring. 

However, after listening and reading to so many reviews, posts, and other sources that compare Melee and Ultimate on some level, I’ve come to realize a big reason why this happens. Essentially, Melee is such an outlier, not just in terms of Smash Bros. but fighting games in general, that it attracts a loyal audience whose main basis for what makes a game fun is heavily rooted in that love of Melee. Specifically, what Melee players and fans cherish is a heavy sense of physical freedom at all times—provided you have the skill, knowledge, and dexterity to earn it. In turn, games that emphasize heavily restricting movement (especially when in a disadvantageous position) are seen as a less enjoyable and skill-rewarding experience. 

A Love of “Jazz” Above All Else

There’s a popular moment from the 2010 documentary The Smash Brothers, where the ex-commentator Prog likens Melee to jazz. Contained within that analogy is the idea that what the two have in common is being freeform and improvisational in ways that value expressiveness and openness. While this sentiment is a little more abstract, you can see it conveyed in more concrete, if perhaps less poetic terms elsewhere. 

One example is a Reddit post titled “Does anyone else think Ultimate has a super obnoxious, uninteractive disadvantage state?” In it, user gajuby discusses what they believe are Ultimate’s weaknesses compared to Melee. Another example comes from a Youtube video titled “Is Melee a Good Game?” by AsumSaus, who emphasizes that freedom of movement in multiple scenarios is one of the things that makes him love Melee.

Here’s a quote from gajuby:

Easily my least favorite part of ultimate…is ledgetrapping. So many characters ledgetrap so effortlessly that it feels barely interactive. It never felt fun that against a lot of characters, it was a 50/50 between “jump” and “every other options”, especially against characters that could stay outside the range of ledge hopped aerials.

This is eventually followed by a comparison to Melee:

And finally, getting off of the ledge. I still often die when doing ledge dashes, but I absolutely love that they basically bypass the ledge trapping stage altogether. It takes away that whole obnoxious, tiresomely long stage of the game, the phase that honestly makes me dislike ultimate a lot of the time, despite its amazing roster and balance.

Similar to the Reddit post, AsumSaus’s review (which to be fair is more about looking at Melee as both a singleplayer and multiplayer experience), he laments the state of Ultimate’s platforms to Melee’s, with the former allowing for many more possibilities.

In Melee, platforms are mechanically versatile and extremely deep. Many players base their entire playstyles on platforms and how they use them to their advantage. It’s a reminder of how much more fun neutral and combos are when platforms are fun and easy to move around on. In Ultimate, however, the same platforms that make Smash Bros. as a series so unique represent how the developers have chosen to limit the number of options to move and interact. (23:42)

I want to highlight how indicative these statements are of the Melee mindset. For reference, a ledge dash—also known as an invincible ledge dash—is an advanced technique that allows a character to get off the ledge and move forward while invulnerable and able to execute a move. It is, as stated in the quote above, capable of completely negating the advantage of the opponent’s position, with  the only drawback being difficulty of execution. 

As for the matter of what roles platforms should serve in Smash, AsumSaus’s argument boils down to the idea that their purpose should be multifaceted and allow for enhancing offense and defense, depending on the situation. Platforms being more like “hazards” that put you in a bad position relative to an opponent standing below doesn’t sit well with him. So, what should be inherently bad positions can be easily dealt with in Melee through sheer technical skill, in essence allowing more educated fingers to reliably overcome the odds (Starcraft: Brood War gets similar praise from its players).

By comparison, being on the ledge in Smash is akin to being in the corner in other fighting games, where being above an opponent comes with a severe set of drawbacks as well. Generally speaking, in most games in the genre, there is really no such thing as an “invincible corner escape” that also grants the versatility of being able to attack simultaneously. And whereas Melee especially allows a player getting hit to “DI” an attack and influence the trajectory they fly as a way to try and escape combos, most fighting games feature combos that are mostly inescapable. What’s even more telling is that these frustrations over Ultimate don’t necessarily come from being in bad spots, but rather having one’s options severely limited by being in bad spots.

For someone like me who prefers Ultimate, the bones tossed at Ultimate players can feel almost condescending, even if that’s not the intention. Stating that “Ultimate is better balanced across the cast” typically comes with the caveat that the variety and balance at the top level of Melee is superior. “The game is easier for beginners to get into and do well in” is a backhanded compliment to Ultimate that highlights how difficult Melee can be to play. One thing that these opinions seem to fail to take into account is how the sheer versatility of movement in Melee is what imbalances the roster so heavily in the first place. A game where mobility is absolutely paramount basically invalidates slower, heavier characters who would have a much harder time in a Melee environment, unless severe changes were made. That being said, I can understand how, to someone whose primary (if not only) game is Melee, all other games can feel like having your wings clipped.

But as for what other approaches to competitive multiplayer can offer Melee players, commentator Toph relayed his own thoughts on the matter in an episode of the Scar & Toph Show Podcast. When Sajam (a commentator of more traditional fighting games) talks about a more conventional game game like Granblue Fantasy Versus having more reductive options compared to Melee, Toph responds as follows:

…That’s actually kinda what I’m liking about playing it, actually—the fact that I’ve never really played a game that’s a little more reductive in terms of the option set…. I’ve mostly been like a Melee player through my competitive life in my 20s…. With Melee, there’s always this sense that, like, you can find some new option, or you can find some new answer—the option space is so wide. I think, for me, it’s been good to play a game where the option set is a little smaller, and the game speed is a little bit toned down, because, like, now I have to be really careful…. 

In a game like Melee, I can jump, and if I realize it was a bad jump midway…I can hold back and I’m out of there, or I can waveland on the platform, or I can fuckin’ fastfall or not fastfall, or I can fastfall a little later, so that I fuck their timing up. Or I can fastfall a little later and drift back at the same time, or I can drift forward if they think I’m gonna drift back. In a game like Granblue, if I do a bad jump, I did a bad jump, and I’m gonna get fuckin’ anti-aired for 50% if I push a button…. It’s really been fun for me to experience the other side of things.

In summary, Super Smash Bros. Melee brings out an extremely loyal fan base who can find it hard to play other games with as much enthusiasm because of how unique Melee and its extreme emphasis on freedom of mobility are in the grand scheme of competitive offerings. However, this can result in Melee fans seeing things primarily in Melee terms, unable to see the merits of other Smash titles and other fighting games in general—particularly those where powerful limitations are a fundamental basis for both the fun and the competitive core of a title. It can benefit players to see these titles not as inferior but as providing a different interactive environment whose focused and pared down concepts of decision-making and reward/punishment offer another kind of fun.

Where in the World is the Next Smash Bros. Character?

I woke up one morning with an amazing idea: What if Carmen Sandiego became a Smash Bros. character?

Sure, there are a lot of things working against her. The Carmen Sandiego franchise is traditionally more about teaching kids geography than anything else, and there’s not much “gameplay” to speak of. There’s already a thief as a guest character in the form of Joker from Persona 5. She’s not even all that recognizable in this day and age, though people who grew up in the 1990s might know her through the various shows based on her that populated public and network television in the US. 

However, she would directly represent a genre of gaming that is only barely touched upon by other characters: edutainment. Sure, it’s not as exciting as RPG, FPS, or fighting games, but Carmen herself has enough style to give her a striking impression.

Also, I think I have a great moveset for her, and I really want to share it. 

As a virtually unparalleled thief and criminal mastermind, Carmen Sandiego would be a nimble and slippery character, light yet speedy in most respects. She would probably be similar to Joker in that respect, but unlike her fellow sticky-fingered compatriot, she would place less emphasis on building towards a powerful, combo-oriented office.

Carmen Sandiego is not just good at stealing—she makes off with the most absurd and improbable items possible. Among them are “the Trans-Siberian Railroad,” and “all the goulash,” and “the steps to the tango.” In other words, she can steal things of enormous scale, infinite quantity, and even concepts! That’s why her neutral-special move would be a command grab called Master Theft, and it would allow her to rob an opponent of their own neutral-special. 

Essentially, it would be akin to Kirby’s Inhale mixed with a bit of Villager Pocket, except it would actually deny the target the use of their move! However, she wouldn’t be able to use the attack herself. Instead, she would store it in a briefcase that she uses for some of her attacks, and having a stolen special move would increase the damage and knockback, turning it into a potent KO move.

This special move would clearly be more potent against some characters. While Ganondorf losing Warlock Punch wouldn’t be the biggest deal, Shulk should be scared to not have Monado Arts.

From there, Carmen’s special moves would be as follows.

Jetpack would be her up-special, and would make for nimble recoveries, but limited offensive potential. 

Side-special would be Phantom Step, and would have her create an illusory clone that can stay still or move forward. The closest thing in Smash would be Greninja’s Shadow Sneak, but this is closer to the Adept’s Shade technique in Starcraft II.

And down-special would be V.I.L.E. Henchman, which would summon a random subordinate of Carmen’s, each with different properties. It would resemble Duck Hunt’s Wild Gunmen attack to a certain extent, but the effects would be much more varied than “different guys shooting.” 

Her Final Smash would be V.I.L.E. Assault, and would entail a full-on attack by all the Henchmen and Carmen at the same time As for which henchmen would be picked, I really am not sure. The game-show ones like Robocrook would be most recognizable, but that might stray too far off from Smash Bros. as a celebration of games.

That being said, it would still have to include the Rockapella theme. 

There are other edutainment games that could serve the role of representative, such as Oregon Trail or Math Blaster. But I think Carmen Sandiego has the cultural penetration and character charisma to make her a great addition to Smash Bros. I know the chances are slim, but it would be such a fantastic surprise for a future Nintendo Direct.

PS: I never get tired of this:

Refreshing Noodles: Min Min in Smash Bros. Ultimate

A lot has happened in the Smash Bros. community over the past two weeks, with multiple instances of sexual abuse and assault among its competitive scene coming to light. This is a serious problem, and its exposure is ultimately for the better, especially for the victims and those who would have been potential victims.

This has also overshadowed some of the happier Smash news—namely the reveal of Min Min as the new DLC character—so I want to focus on that. Hopefully, we can embrace the good without looking away in willful ignorance as to what needs to change.

Min Min

When an ARMS character was announced as DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate two months ago, the online reaction felt less than enthusiastic. Although ARMS is a fairly successful Switch game, the previous DLC pack had hardcore fans craving for more outlandish choices in the vein of Hero and Banjo-Kazooie. Amazingly, I think the developers and Nintendo have managed to turn opinion around with their reveal of Min Min as the winner, and it’s thanks to a combination of factors. 

First, ARMS just has fantastic character designs that ooze personality, and Min Min is one of its best. Second, she brings a unique fighting style that gives players something new and different to try out. Third, she happens to be associated with the Etika, the gaming Youtuber who tragically died by suicide almost one year ago. All three worked together to make a perfect storm.

Character Design

Min Min looks cool when she probably should look ridiculous. She is a ramen shop owner with noodles for hair, a ramen bowl hat, a dragon for an arm, a somewhat stereotypical Chinese outfit, and she does kung fu. Yet, somehow, it all works together. She comes across as fun and lighthearted, yet serious and strong. Her martial arts animations are impressive, and they lend her a lot of flavor.

The trailer itself also did a great job of conveying her personality. As the other ARMS fighters battle to obtain a coveted Smash Bros. invitational letter, Min Min is at her shop watching Captain Falcon and Kirby eat ramen. It’s only after Captain Falcon has completely finished his bowl with utter satisfaction that Min Min leaves to fight for the Smash spot. This shows how important her restaurant and customers are to her, that she would on some level prioritize them over what is arguably the ultimate prize. Min Min just comes across as charming and powerful in the best ways, even to those who have zero familiarity with ARMS.

Min Min is also the first playable Chinese character in Smash Bros. history, giving her a unique factor. Because she speaks Mandarin Chinese in the trailer, I was curious as to who her actor is. It turns out the voice behind Min Min is Takutsu Haruna, a Japanese performer who studies Chinese as a hobby. I appreciate the fact that they chose someone who has put in that much effort, even if all she’s saying is, “I love ramen!”

Fighting Style

Min Min might very well become the bane of online play with her long reach and dual-arm game mechanic. Zoners and projectile specialists are the bane of many Smash players, and it seems like Min Min is only adding fuel to the fire. But Sakurai’s video demonstration makes her look more exciting than one might have expected, notably because she controls differently from pretty much every Smash character before her. Whereas most characters have a clear delineation between their normal “A-button” moves and their special “B-button moves,” for Min Min, they control her left and right ARMS respectively. Moreover, she can move while her attacks are coming out. Thus, she’s able to deliver long-range one-two combinations at a player’s chosen timing or send them in different directions to cover a wider area. 

The closest comparable character is Mega Man, who’s able to move and attack in a similar way thanks to his pellets, but even that doesn’t fully prepare players for the Min Min experience. Just from using her for a few days, it feels like you’re playing a completely different game—my fingers stop knowing what to do with other characters when I try to switch back. She’s someone who will take time and dedication to use at even a functional level, which also means she’s offering something you won’t find in other characters. It’s unclear as to how strong she actually is, but it will take time to figure out regardless.

As an aside, while not related to ARMS, this left-right setup could also be the perfect way to add a Tekken character to the roster. Heihachi is probably out given the Mii costume they just announced, but who knows? Maybe we’ll get Kazuya MIshima or Jin Kazama instead.

Etika’s Legacy

The late Etika was one of the most visible figures in online Smash fandom, and was probably the very face of “Smash reaction videos” thanks to his genuine passion towards character reveals. While he would invite controversy constantly, it became sadly clear in the end that he suffered from mental illness, and every one of his fans wishes that things turned out differently.

Etika also happened to be a big fan of Min Min, though not always for the purest of reasons, as his LEGS t-shirt above makes clear. Regardless, when Min Min was first shown in that trailer, those who followed and knew Etika probably all had the same thought: the man would have loved this. It’s even possible to imagine how he would have reacted—with an expressiveness few can ever match.

In the End, Nothing’s Wrong with First-Party Characters

Min Min’s announcement had it all: a strong character aesthetic that can make new fans instantly, a showcase of interesting gameplay brought by her, and an online presence that goes beyond the familiar borders of Nintendo in the form of Etika. What’s just as important is that it showed how you don’t need an off-the-wall unpredictable pick to create excitement and hype. “An ARMS character” is something probably anyone could have predicted, but what they perhaps couldn’t account for is having the whole package executed so well. My hope, however futile it might be, is that fans can appreciate the characters that are coming, even if it’s not necessarily the ones they want. They might be able to win us over, just like Min Min.